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Catholics called to bring faith to bear on public issues 


Archbishop Joseph Naumann, Archbishop of Kansas City in Kansas


Published in The Leaven
Official Newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas

September 15, 2006

The important and specific mission of the Catholic laity is to transform human society into a civilization of love and a culture of life. For the church to be truly leaven and light in the world, there must be committed Catholics in every profession and occupation. In a democratic society such as ours, there is a special need for committed Christians to serve in public life. 

With the external threats to our nation and Western civilization and with even more dangerous internal threats to marriage and family and human life, the United States needs very capable and honest leaders. There are powerful motivations for people to seek elective office for the wrong reasons. Personal ambition, a craving for fame, as well as the possibility of unethical and illegal financial gain have motivated some individuals to seek public office from the very beginning of our nation.

Thus, it is even more imperative that individuals with talent and integrity be willing to make the personal sacrifice required by a life of public service. In light of the personal scrutiny to which those seeking public office and their families are subjected, the probability of earning less than one could in the private sector, and the negative ads that have become such a common practice in election campaigns, good candidates for office and their families are asked to make heroic sacrifices.

In the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, (“Dignitatis Humanae”), the Fathers of the Council upheld clearly the right for freedom of religious expression based on the dignity of the human person. Catholics, who serve in public life, must never participate in a confessionalism that seeks to impose religious doctrine upon others. It would be wrong for a Catholic to promote public policies seeking to compel their fellow citizens to believe in the Eucharist, the Trinity or in Jesus as the redeemer.

Moreover, as Pope Benedict XVI stated when he served as the cardinal prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Catholics are free to choose from “among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good. ”1  On most public policy issues, there are a variety of possible strategies and solutions that a Catholic could choose to support or oppose in good conscience: “It is not the Church’s task to set forth specific political solutions — and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one — to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person. ”2  It is not the church’s role or competency to develop specific proposals for foreign policy, economic development, immigration, taxation, environmental policies, etc.

The church does enunciate moral principles that have a significant bearing on public policy issues. The Catholic must choose, from a variety of possible paths, how best to implement these principles. However, there are some public policy issues that directly pertain to a correct understanding of the dignity of the human person. Regarding these fundamental human rights issues, it is not possible for a diversity of opinion.

Thus, a Catholic in public life cannot in good conscience support or advocate for a policy that gives legal protection to the destruction of innocent human life. Pope John Paul II stated clearly:  “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can legitimize.”3  Our late Holy Father, referring to the 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion, reemphasized:  “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.’”4   

The American bishops in their 1998 statement, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” articulated the bottom line for Catholics serving in government: “No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.”

While one can be a faithful Catholic and support a wide diversity of strategies on the vast majority of issues, it is not possible to compromise on the sanctity of human life. 5

For the Catholic in public life, the unequivocal defense of such a fundamental human right is not imposing one ’s Catholic faith upon others. The fact that the church addresses the morality of such a basic right does not make this an exclusively religious issue. Just as supporting public policies that prohibit stealing, racism, or murder — moral issues also very clearly addressed by the church — is not an imposition of Catholic doctrine, neither is advocating for policies that protect human life in its earliest stages.

It is not possible morally, on such a fundamental human rights issue, to claim that one is personally opposed to abortion but supports the rights of others to choose to kill an unborn child.    

On a similarly grave moral issue 150 years ago, Stephen Douglas, in his famous debates with the future President Abraham Lincoln, attempted to craft his position as not favoring slavery but of the right of people in new states and territories, such as Kansas, to choose to sanction slavery. Being pro-choice on a fundamental matter of human rights was not a morally coherent argument then, nor is it today. No one has the right to choose to enslave another human being, just as no one has the right to kill another human being. No law or public policy has the authority to give legal protection to such an injustice.

We need Catholics in public life today who bring the principles and values of their Catholic faith to bear on many of the important issues facing our nation. Faithful Catholics will bring a rich diversity of approaches to many issues, while always being united in their efforts to protect the most fundamental and basic of all human rights — the right to life.  

1. Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; March 2004; no. 3)

 2 ibid.

 3 “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”); Pope John Paul II;  March 25, 1995; no. 73

 4 ibid.

 5 Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (U.S. Catholic Conference; November, 1998; no. 31)


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