Catholics in the Public Square
Most Reverend Thomas J. Olmsted
• How would you define a lay person?
A lay person is any member of the faithful who has not received Holy Orders and
does not belong to a religious state approved by the Church. Through Baptism, a
lay person is incorporated into Christ and becomes integrated into the People of
God. A lay person has an important role in the life and mission of the Church. (
Lumen Gentium , 31)
When Pope John Paul II wrote his major work on the life and mission of the laity
he titled it Christifideles Laici , Christ's faithful laity. With this title he
made it clear that faithful love of Christ is the key to bearing fruit in the
Kingdom of God. This is true for everyone in the Church, not only the laity.
Jesus says (Jn 15:5), “ I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in
me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”
• What is the difference between the laity and the clergy in the Catholic
The clergy receive a special charism of the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of
Holy Orders. As such, deacons, priests and bishops “ realize a participation in
the priesthood of Jesus Christ that is different, not simply in degree but in
essence, from the participation given to the lay faithful through Baptism and
Confirmation. ” ( Christifideles Laici , 22)
Lay persons, meanwhile, are primarily concerned with temporal matters and as
such have a sort of “secular character.” The laity may also be involved in
matters connected with pastoral ministry, but only in matters that do not
require the grace of Holy Orders.
• What is the role of the laity in the Catholic Church?
The role of the laity is in a special way to “ seek the Kingdom of God by
engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God .” (
Lumen Gentium , 31) As such, lay men and women are in a unique position to bring
their faith into all areas of society.
It should be remembered that as the laity engage in temporal affairs, in their
own way, they participate in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission of the
Church by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation.
• How do Catholic lay persons fulfill their call to holiness?
Every Catholic receives from God a call to holiness that is rooted in Baptism.
In order to fulfill this call, lay men and women are required to “ follow and
imitate Jesus Christ in embracing the Beatitudes; in listening and meditating on
the Word of God; in conscious and active participation in the liturgical and
sacramental life of the Church; in personal prayer; in family or in community;
in the hunger and thirst for justice; in the practice of the commandment of love
in all circumstances of life and service to the brethren, especially in the
least, the poor and the suffering .” ( Christifideles Laici , 16)
• What are the main responsibilities of Catholics to themselves?
Catholics have the responsibility of accepting Christ's invitation, “ Come,
follow me.” They need to surrender in love as He leads them along the paths of
conversion, communion and solidarity (Cf. Ecclesia in America). They also need
to properly form themselves in the Church's teaching, to participate actively in
her sacramental life, and to live their faith in God accordingly. This
responsibility exists for Catholics in all states of life.
Accordingly, Catholics are to be “ ever mindful of what it means to be members
of the Church of Jesus Christ, participants in her mystery of communion and in
her dynamism in mission and the apostolate .” ( Christifideles Laici , 64)
• What are the main responsibilities of Catholics to their families?
Marriage is the foundation of the family. The family, in turn, is the basic cell
of society. Marriage and family responsibilities are, therefore, of tremendous
importance, not only to the Church but also to all of society.
The responsibilities of Catholic men and women to their families cannot be
overstated. “ It is above all the lay faithful's duty in the apostolate to make
the family aware of its identity as the primary social nucleus, and its basic
role in society, so that it might itself become always a more active and
responsible place for proper growth and proper participation in social life.” (
Christifideles Laici , 40)
• What are the responsibilities of the Catholic laity in the public square?
Through their Baptism, the laity is called to holiness of life (i.e. to live
their faith in God day in and day out). Their responsibilities are not meant to
be merely a matter of personal piety or devotion, but also directed toward
evangelization in all aspects of life.
A lay person in the public square has a particular responsibility to live his or
her vocation in view of its unique impact on society. Those involved with the
noble art of politics, for example, often are in a position to influence
societal norms on matters of real significance by passing or defeating various
Similarly, there are others in the public square that while not serving as
elected officials, nonetheless, are in a position to shape the society and
culture. For these individuals, especially those involved with all forms of the
mass media, a significant part of their responsibilities is to live their faith
by promoting the common good in society.
• How do Catholics show their own identity in public life?
Catholics should always be respectful of the human dignity of others, including
people of different faiths, or no faith at all. Having said that, however,
Catholics should not be afraid to embrace their identity or to put their faith
into practice in public life. In fact, each of the faithful has a call to
evangelization and to share the good news of Christ with the rest of the world.
• What difference should Catholics make in public life?
There are multitudes of different ways in which Catholics may serve the Church
through their contributions in public life. In each circumstance, however,
Catholics are especially called to contribute to the common good, to defend the
dignity of every human person, and to live as faithful citizens.
In this sense, the final result that takes place is ultimately in God's hands.
This fact is important to remember when a Catholic is in a distinctly minority
position and unable to accomplish a desired result. It is in these seemingly
hopeless circumstances that Catholics who provide a faithful witness in public
life can often be used by God to touch hearts and minds in ways that may not
always be visible to the naked eye.
It is good to remember Pope Benedict's words ( Deus Caritas Est, 35), “ There
are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to
become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in
the end, we are only instruments in the Lord's hands; and this knowledge frees
us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for
building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all
humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord.”
• How should Catholics understand the separation between Church and state?
The separation of Church and state all too often is used as an excuse to silence
people of faith and to discourage them from legitimately participating in the
public square. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, of course,
does not advocate for a separation of Church and state at all, but rather the
protection of religious freedom from the state.
Our founding fathers intended all persons to have the equal right to voice their
opinions, including those based on religious convictions. Even more, they
understood that it was imperative that the state not infringe upon the religious
beliefs of its citizens. The Constitution is aimed at allowing all people to
have a voice in government, including those whose voice is distinctively
In other words, there is nothing in the Constitution excluding people from
bringing their faith into the public square.
• Should Catholics bring the Church's doctrine into the public square?
There are times when the Church's intervention in social questions is needed. As
the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (510) teaches, “ The
Church intervenes by making a moral judgment about economic and social matters
when the fundamental rights of the person, the common good, or the salvation of
souls requires it.”
While Catholics are called to bring their faith and religious views into the
public square, they are also called to respect the religious freedom and civil
liberties of all people. In fact, the Church has genuine respect for secular
governments that afford these protections to people of all faiths, as well as
those without faith.
In reality, the Church does not impose its doctrine on others in the public
square. For example, there is no effort by the Church to compel the public to
attend Mass on Sundays or receive various sacraments. Nonetheless, the Church is
legitimately concerned about many matters of societal importance and brings its
views to bear in proposing meaningful solutions for promoting the common good.
• How do you respond to statements that Catholics should not impose their
religious views upon others?
Some Catholics and other believers have been frightened into silence and even
confused by charges that they are imposing their morality on others. It is
contended that a person's faith should have no impact on his or her public life.
This leads the infamous “I am a Catholic but….” syndrome! Of course, if one's
faith does not impact on one's whole life, including one's political and social
responsibilities, then it is not authentic faith; it is a sham, a counterfeit.
A democratic society needs the active participation of all its citizens, people
of faith included. People of faith engage issues on the basis of what they
believe, just as atheists engage issues on the basis of what they hold dear;
they fight for what they think is right and oppose what they consider wrong.
This is not an imposition on other's morality. It is acting with integrity.
Moreover, people of genuine faith strengthen the whole moral fabric of a
country. The active engagement of Catholics in democratic processes is good for
society and it is responsible citizenship.
• Should Catholics take into account their own faith at the moment of voting?
It only makes sense that if Catholics are supposed to live their faith in all of
their daily activities that they should also take their faith into account while
voting. As noted in the Second Vatican Council's teaching, " every citizen ought
to be mindful of his right and his duty to promote the common good by using his
vote ." ( Gaudium et Spes , 75)
In preparing to vote, Catholics need to understand their faith so that their
consciences are properly formed. Subsequent to this formation, it is important
to research all of the important issues and candidates that will appear on the
ballot. Only after sufficient preparation and prayer, is a Catholic fully ready
to discharge his or her responsibilities as a faithful citizen and cast a
• Can Catholics honestly disagree in matters of politics, social or cultural
In 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document
entitled Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding Participation of Catholics
in Political Life , that addresses the existence of political matters in which
Catholics may disagree. There are, indeed, many issues upon which Catholics may
legitimately differ such as the best methods to achieve welfare reform or to
address illegal immigration.
Conversely, however, there are other issues that are intrinsically evil and can
never legitimately be supported. For example, Catholics may never legitimately
promote or vote for any law that attacks innocent human life.
• What does it mean that Catholics should follow their conscience when making
a moral decision?
Before following our conscience, we must form it in accord with the voice of
God. Our conscience is not the origin of truth. Truth lies outside us; it exists
independent of us and must be discovered through constant effort of mind and
heart. This is no easy task for us who suffer the effects of original sin and
must contend with the constant temptations of the devil. Conscience receives the
truth revealed by God and discerns how to apply that truth to concrete
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1783) teaches, “ Conscience must be
informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-informed conscience is upright
and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity
with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of
conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative
influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject
authoritative teachings .”
As we see, to form one's own conscience well and to follow it with integrity is
no small task. For a person's conscience cannot invent what is true and good. It
must search it out beyond itself. When acting correctly, we discover the truth
through the grace of the Holy Spirit and the help of God's word handed down to
us in the Church. Then, when we submit our conscience to this objective truth,
we act uprightly and grow to maturity in Christ.
• Is it mandatory for Catholics to follow what the Pope or bishops say on
Because they are the leaders of the Church, it is always important to respect
statements from the Church's hierarchy. It is the role of the Pope and the
bishops to teach clearly on matters of faith and morals, including those
touching on political issues.
There are some matters, however, on which Catholics may disagree with the
Church's hierarchy. In some cases, for example, a Catholic may agree with the
teaching of the Church, but come to a different prudential judgment about its
Examples of these issues might include an instance where someone agrees with the
Church's teaching on “just war” or “capital punishment,” but reaches a different
conclusion as to whether the facts of the situation constitute a “just war” or
the “rare” circumstances where capital punishment may be used under Church
It should be emphasized, however, that despite these examples, there are other
issues, such as abortion or euthanasia, that are always wrong and do not allow
for the correct use of prudential judgment to justify them. It would never be
proper for Catholics to be on the opposite side of these issues.
• Are all political and social issues equal when it comes to choosing a
Absolutely not! The Catholic Church is actively engaged in a wide variety of
important public policy issues including immigration, education, affordable
housing, health and welfare, to name just a few. On each of these issues we
should do our best to be informed and to support those proposed solutions that
seem most likely to be effective. However, when it comes to direct attacks on
innocent human life, being right on all the other issues can never justify a
wrong choice on this most serious matter.
As Pope John Paul II has written, " Above all, the common outcry, which is
justly made on behalf of human rights - for example, the right to health, to
home, to work, to family, to culture - is false and illusory if the right to
life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other
personal rights, is not defended with the maximum determination ."
(Christifideles Laici , 38)
• Are there any “non-negotiable” issues for Catholics involved in politics?
There are several issues that are “not negotiable” for Catholics in political
life, because they involve matters that are intrinsically evil. In an address to
European politicians on March 30, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI stated: “ As far as
the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in
the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person,
and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which
are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:
• Protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception
until natural death;
• Recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union
between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defense from attempts to
make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in
reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular
character and its irreplaceable social role;
• The protection of the rights of parents to educate their children.”
The issues mentioned by Pope Benedict are all “non-negotiable” and are some of
the most contemporary issues in the political arena. I should note, however,
that other issues, while not intrinsically evil, deserve prayerful
consideration, such as questions of war and capital punishment, poverty issues
and matters relating to illegal immigration.
• What are the causes that can ban Catholics from Holy Communion?
No one who is conscious of having committed a serious sin should receive Holy
Communion. For the Eucharist is the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, our
most precious gift in the Church. And St. Paul warns us (I Cor 11:27-29): "
Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to
answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and
so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without
discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself ."
All Catholics should examine their consciences, and refrain from receiving Holy
Communion if they are not living in a proper state of grace. Should some
Catholic politicians who are presently pro-abortion obstinately persist in this
contradiction to our faith, this becomes a source of scandal. In these and
similar cases, measures beyond those of moral persuasion may need to be taken by
those in leadership in the Church . As God tells us in the Book of Leviticus
(19:16), " You shall not stand by idly when your neighbor's life is at stake."
If a politician is actively supporting and furthering the culture of death, he
is not only causing scandal; he is sinning. Similarly, when a politician
performs actions (like voting) that allow for abortions and even promote
abortions, or that mandate the distribution of contraceptives by pharmacists and
others, that politician is materially cooperating in grave sin. When this
occurs, then the politician cannot receive Holy Communion without previously
making a good confession. A good confession would require sincere sorrow for
such sin and a firm purpose of making amendment. Since the harm done would be
public in nature, the amendment should also be public.
• Why does the Church set such high standards for Catholics?
The high standards to which Catholics (and all Christians) are called come from
Christ. We find them in the Sacred Scriptures. For example, Jesus said (Jn
14:15), “ If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” He also said (Mk
8:34-36), “ Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his
cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but
whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it. What
profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
We also find in the Sacred Scriptures admonitions such as those of St. Paul to
Timothy where he writes (I Tim 4:2-5), “ Proclaim the word; be persistent
whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through
all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate
sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will
accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to
myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship;
perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.”
There are cases where Catholics in public life serve with great courage and
distinction. They measure up to the high standards set by Christ. There are
others, sadly, who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin where the risk of
scandal is great. In the matter of abortion, for example, abortion is the
killing of a completely innocent life and thus bad news for both unborn children
and their mothers. It is a horrible wrong. It is intrinsically evil.
We have a serious obligation to protect human life, and especially the lives of
the most innocent and vulnerable among us. Whoever fails to do this, when
otherwise able to do so, commits serious sins of omission. They jeopardize their
own spiritual wellbeing and they are a source of scandal for others. Should they
be Catholics, they should not receive Holy Communion.
• Can Catholics belong to or express support for different political parties?
The Church is never partisan and does not endorse political candidates. She
does, however, encourage her laity to be involved in political parties in order
to devote themselves to promoting the common good.
In this regard, political and civic education is deemed necessary so that all
citizens will be able to play a part in political affairs. ( Gaudium et Spes,
• Do bishops and priests have the right to intervene in political, social, or
Bishops and priests are not to participate in the public administration of the
government. Nonetheless, they do have the right, and sometimes an obligation, to
speak out on political, social, or cultural matters impacting the Church or the
In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (28), Pope Benedict XVI states: “ It is not
the Church's responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life.
Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to
stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as
greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with
situations of personal interest.”
The Holy Father goes on to write (ibid): “ The Church cannot and must not take
upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.
She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and
must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her
part through rational argument and she has to awaken the spiritual energy
without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and
• If bishops and priests can intervene in public issues, what is the
difference then between the clergy and the laity in public policy issues?
While bishops and priests can appropriately speak out on important issues, the
laity can be involved to a much larger degree. Unlike members of the clergy, the
laity, in fact, is called to play a role in all areas of political involvement,
including partisan politics and the administration of government.
Members of the laity generally have no restrictions in holding elective office
or running the affairs of the state, while members of the clergy are generally
prohibited from holding such positions.
• What can Catholics do to foster justice in society?
There is much that Catholics can do to foster justice in society. A significant
part of fostering justice is concern for the human dignity of all people –
especially the poor, marginalized or vulnerable. A concern for justice must
always be mindful of Christ's forgiveness and mercy.
The promotion of justice can be found in many Church agencies, including those
serving the homeless, immigrants, prisoners, disabled people, and the elderly to
name just a few. Catholics must always have a concern for justice and are
encouraged to promote it not only in the public square, but also in volunteer
efforts as well as their everyday lives.
• How can Catholics contribute to a culture of life?
Catholics can contribute to a “culture of life” in much the same way that they
can promote justice, peace, and human dignity. There are a plethora of volunteer
opportunities to assist in crisis pregnancy centers, hospices, nursing homes,
and many other facilities.
Additionally, Catholics are called to advocate and to work for a “culture of
life” by making it an issue of constant importance in political debate and in
the public square.
Finally, prayer is a primary means of promoting and fostering a “culture of
life.” While personal daily prayer is always important, public prayer gatherings
can provide a striking witness to the rest of society.
• What means should Catholics employ to manifest their convictions about
issues in the public square?
There are various means that Catholics may legitimately employ to manifest their
convictions about issues in the public square. Catholic elected officials, for
example, are in a privileged position to make known their opposition to public
policy issues that are intrinsically evil.
Because of the democracy in which we live, even those who are not in political
life have an opportunity and responsibility to express their opinions on various
issues and to vote in elections.
Although voting is an important way of expressing convictions about issues,
Catholics need not wait for elections to express their views. Letters to the
editor, organized public events, and communicating with elected officials are
also good examples of expressing views and bringing about change in the public
• How does one fight best against secularization in our society and the
misrepresentation of faith in the public square?
Unfortunately, discrimination against people of faith, and especially Catholics,
is a real problem. A faithful Catholic in public life is almost certain to
encounter forms of unjust discrimination and prejudice. There are many examples
of unfavorable public misrepresentation of the Catholic faith and even outright
hostility to people of any faith. While much progress has been made in
protecting civil rights in our country, there remains a strong bias against
people of faith in significant sectors of the media and certain segments of our
Nonetheless, it is our duty to engage the culture, not run from it. We must
place our trust in the Lord and know that by doing His will and speaking the
truth in love, God will make all things work for the good. It is also the duty
of the Catholic faithful to support courageous people who do this through both
our actions and prayers.
• How would you define a “candidate who is a faithful Catholic?”
There are a large number of candidates or politicians in our country that label
themselves as Catholic. Regrettably, however, some of these are an embarrassment
to the Church and a scandal to others by virtue of their support of issues that
are intrinsically evil.
A candidate who is authentically Catholic is one who always defends the dignity
of every human person and who puts the welfare of the common good over various
partisan or self interests. His personal and public life is shaped by faith in
Christ and His teachings. Such a candidate can be from any political party, but
will never support matters that are intrinsically evil such as abortion,
euthanasia, or “same-sex marriage.”
• What line should an elected official draw between his faith and his
Elected officials should bring their faith to bear on all of their activities,
including public affairs. In living out their faith, they should have a proper
respect for the civil liberties of all people, including those of other faiths,
or with no faith at all.
It should be pointed out, however, that sometimes Catholic politicians
mistakenly claim that they need to abandon their faith out of an obligation to
respect those of differing opinions or to honor a political commitment inherent
with their office. These claims are perhaps most frequently made when Catholic
politicians claim to be personally opposed to the killing of innocent unborn
Incredibly, it is somehow claimed by such people that it would be inappropriate
to support legislation protecting human life because doing so would impose their
faith on others or somehow violate their oath of office. These claims are
ludicrous. Protecting human life is not only a religious imperative, it is a
human imperative, and it is an imperative for all people.
People of faith have every right to bring their beliefs into the public square
just like anyone else. In fact, Catholic elected officials should always live
out their faith while promoting the welfare of all, including the protection of
innocent human life.
Interview with Bishop Olmsted about this
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