Catholics must play an important part in the renewal of public life. And they should do so as Catholics, not just as citizens who happen to be Catholic.
One of the objections to Catholic participation in the public square is that we are trying to impose our beliefs on others. This is a mistaken perception. Catholics, and the Church generally, are not trying to coerce the public to embrace specific religious practices or matters of revelation, such as eating fish on Friday, going to Mass weekly, making a good confession regularly, or professing the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.
Catholic political engagement instead focuses on helping officials and the public better see the objective reality of our human nature, a reality that is accessible to non-Catholics and provides our society with the principles needed to foster human flourishing. To live “faith in the public arena” means bringing a perspective rooted in reason (but illuminated by the light of faith) to bear on important public questions. We propose, we do not impose.
Facts, not values
Consider some of the principles that guide the Catholic Church’s social advocacy: the dignity of the human person at all stages of life; helping the poor and vulnerable as a matter of justice; the value of civil law as a pillar of social order; the challenge of racism; the importance of work for sustenance and dignity; the right to migrate; the evils of war and torture ; the peril of environmental degradation; the humanity of the unborn; the importance of marriage between a man and a woman as the foundational building block of society.
These are not just “values,” but truths and facts of our existence that are accessible to all persons, because each person is endowed by the Creator God with the faculty of reason—whether he or she believes in Him or not! Indeed, many non-Catholics recognize the important realities listed above and work to advance these principles.
We know, however, that the human mind is darkened by sin, and that we are plagued in our fallen state by concupiscence. As a result, it is difficult for persons or even whole societies to recognize the truth, see plainly the reality of our condition, or propose the proper solutions to problems. And sometimes, people, Catholics included, may acknowledge some truths and facts of our existence, but fail to see the whole. We see through a glass darkly.
Light of faith
This is where the light of faith comes in. Faith, both as a body of revealed truths (“the Faith”) and as a supernatural virtue infused by grace, is indispensable in the pursuit of a more perfect society. Faith in the public arena is not a grab bag of religious practices, subjective viewpoints, or sectarian values unique to Catholics that we try to make non-Catholics embrace.
Instead, it is a way of seeing the whole—the full truth about how God created the world, the reality of who we are and how we fall short of the demands of justice, and the tools needed to fix a broken social order—to “restore all things in Christ,” that is, to the intention of the Creator God who providentially ordered this world for our stewardship.
As our witness is about helping the public see properly the facts in front of them and the truths and principles that should guide the discourse about a specific question, we need not preface our remarks with “the Church teaches” or “the Gospel demands.” The light of faith helps us see reality, but in our public witness as a Church, we talk about the facts of reality. These facts are binding on everyone who dwells in this world, whether they acknowledge them or not.
Catholics, therefore, gifted with the light of faith, abdicate their responsibilities to their fellow brothers and sisters and their duties as citizens of a community when they fail to participate in public life. It is a sin against both charity and justice to not propose to the world those truths that foster human flourishing and the common good. It is hiding our light under a bushel.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.