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Political Responsibility

Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap.

Archbishop of Denver

Column, October 18, 2000


Exactly 40 years ago this fall, candidate John Kennedy promised a group of Protestant ministers that he wouldn’t let his Catholic faith interfere with his service as president, if he got elected. And he was elected . . . and he kept his word.

Looking back, this was one of the watersheds of public life in our country. Without ever intending it, Kennedy created a model of accommodation which then helped to shape a whole generation of Catholic officeholders . . . all of whom found a way to live comfortably with the canyon that opened up between their private religious convictions and their public service. Of course the cost is high. Pragmatism in public life usually has a louder voice than conscience -- and private conscience can very easily can become not much more than private opinion.

Four decades after John Kennedy, too many American Catholics no longer connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent way. The "Catholic vote," as a meaningful bloc, probably doesn’t exist anymore. And a prolife Democrat like the late Governor Bob Casey – who was Irish and Catholic, just like John Kennedy – finds himself barred from speaking at his own party’s convention in 1992, and ignored by his party’s leadership until his death.

That’s the legacy of accommodating our Catholic faith to politics, instead of forming and informing our politics through our faith. Forty years later -- despite the excitement and pride so many of us felt after John Kennedy’s election -- it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a person who is publicly loyal to the Catholic faith on "sanctity-of-life" issues to hold any major national leadership position in John Kennedy’s own party.

My point is not that one political party is "bad," and another is "good." From a Catholic point of view, both major parties have strengths and weaknesses. My point is that St. Paul’s words, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel," apply to all of us, every single day, in all our choices. St. Paul wasn’t afraid of an angry God who would punish him for not preaching Jesus Christ. That’s not the kind of "woe" he was worried about. Paul was afraid of losing the treasure he had. Paul understood that if we don’t act on our faith and share it, we lose it. We have to give it to others to nourish it in our own hearts. The joy of Jesus Christ is in living Him and sharing Him.

That’s why the Christian faith is always personal but never private. It always has social consequences – and that means cultural and political consequences. Democracy thrives on those consequences. God is good for democracy. Catholic faith creates and sustains good citizenship. So whenever you hear that tired old argument that Catholics shouldn’t "impose their views" on society, it’s time to hit the bamboozle alarm -- because that argument is almost always advanced by people who have every intention of imposing their own views on society.

Of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. In a sense, all laws and all public policies involve the "imposition" of one set of moral convictions on the culture at large. The purpose of the democratic process is to winnow out the good ideas from the bad ones; in other words, to allow -- in fact, to encourage -- people of strong moral convictions to disagree with one another vigorously . . . and to pursue their convictions into law by every peaceful, ethical means at their disposal.

Therefore, when Catholic candidates and officials use "pluralism" as an excuse for their inaction on abortion, for example, they misread what real pluralism is. In fact, that sort of Catholic self-censorship, especially in public leaders but in individual voters as well, undermines real democracy and very easily becomes a kind of opportunism or even cowardice.

All of us who are baptized are meant to be missionaries -- in ways appropriate to our vocations, but with no exceptions. Vatican II reminded us that the Church "is the universal sacrament of salvation;" that we each share "the obligation of spreading the faith;" and that "the whole Church is missionary and the work of evangelization [is] the fundamental task of the people of God."

We either preach Jesus Christ in our words and actions, or we lose Him. Throughout the weeks ahead, all of us need to remember that we’re living in a Jubilee Year – a time to re-anchor our hearts in God and to renew our vocation as apostles.

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II reminds us that all Christians are involved in "a struggle for the soul of the contemporary world." In every compartment of our lives -- from our families, to our jobs, and even to the solitude of the voting booth -- God asks us to be His witnesses, His apostles.

Let’s remember that as we consider our political choices.

The archbishop will continue his reflections on the Catholic faith, responsible citizenship and Election 2000 next week. He will also lead a public discussion of "voting Catholic in the Jubilee Year" on Monday evening, October 23, at 7:15 p.m. in Bonfils Hall at the John Paul II Center. Admission is free. All are welcome. Refreshments will be served.

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