The Importance of Public Participation for Catholics

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At times many of us can become disillusioned with the state of social affairs and feel the temptation to throw up our hands and disengage. But while there is a degree of healthy spiritual detachment from temporal affairs, which is essential to the Christian life (Matt 6:34), we must work out our salvation in this world, while not being ‘of the world’ (John 17:14-21; Phil 2:12-15).

The Gospel’s message is clear: how we do in this world will depend a lot on how we treat least of our brothers and sisters (Matt 25:40). As humans, we are social creatures by nature.  We must – by our nature – participate in public life to attain the common good of society and give glory to God (1 Peter 2:13-17).

So, exactly, how does our Catholic faith fit into our participation in public life?

All good political and civic action seeks to create the conditions under which justice may reign and human life flourishes for all.  This is known as the common good. To achieve this, one must have a sound understanding of the moral truths at stake.

Our faith provides for us the fullest picture of the true state of things, having not only reason at our disposal, aided by grace and centuries of developed philosophical tradition, but also having the fuller theological picture of humanity’s earthly and heavenly vocations in mind – these two vocations being bound up with one another (CV, 11).

The Church, as an institution, does “not take upon herself the political battle” in a way that supplants the competencies of the political community (DCE, 28).  In fact, the lay faithful retain “the direct duty to work for a just ordering of society” (DCE, 29 said Pope Benedict XVI). This is part of our lay state of life and special vocation.

As Christians, we are impelled to do so in fidelity to the truth that we know through faith and reason (Matt 10:32-33, Acts 5:29).  All good actions, to be good, must be based on truth. The lay faithful are responsible to fulfill this charge, as Pope St. John Paul II teaches in Cristifidelis Laici:

“In order to achieve their task directed to the Christian animation of the temporal order, in the sense of serving persons and society, the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in ‘public life’, that is, in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.” (CL, 42)

Political action finds proper energy or “force” which sustains its “obligation to foster the rights and duties of each and everyone” in the Christian doctrine of human dignity (CL, 42). This doctrine sees each individual as an irreplaceable and inherently valuable person made in the image and likeness of God. If we lose this vision of the human person, then the nature and value of human life becomes vulnerable to shifting, degrading, unjust, and faulty definitions that have grim ramifications for individuals and societies.

As Catholics we have a mission given us by God which we must fulfill if we are to transform the culture into one of justice, compassion, brotherhood, and charity, as Pope Benedict XVI states in Deus Caritas Est:

“The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility.” (DCE, 29)

Now more than ever our participation is needed in public life. There are many movements in society that, if left unchallenged, could make living free as a Catholic in good conscience a right which could vanish before us, pushed aside by incomplete and dangerous social ideologies. Basic tenants of faith and morals are either seen as suspect or outrightly opposed in many current social and philosophical movements. The right to conscience and religious liberty is being sidelined by ideological action. As a result, the voice of Christians on behalf of the poor and vulnerable will be shuttered, and what will take its place?

What is needed here are Catholics and other people of faith willing to defend their justly conceived rights and the rights of others, including the right to act according to an informed conscience. Beyond this, the common good becomes more and more remote while a counterfeit and ideologically intolerant view of humanity and political life takes the place of the reasonable, temperate, authentically tolerant, and Christian worldview.

As lay Catholics, we must steep ourselves in our Catholic moral and social teaching, and for the good of our fellow men and women and the glory of God, take up our mission as actors in the public sphere, in charity and fortitude.

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