Public Witness and Catholic Citizenship

Public witness on issues of public concern is natural for Catholics because we have a commitment to the common good and to the dignity of each human person. Those two pillars—the common good and the dignity of every human person—come right out of Scripture. They underpin all of Catholic social thought.

That includes politics. Politics is where the competing moral visions of a society meet and struggle. And since a large majority of American citizens are religious believers, it makes sense for people and communities of faith to bring their faith into the public square.

As a result, if we believe that a particular issue is gravely evil and damaging to society, then we have a duty, not just a religious duty but also a democratic duty, to hold accountable the candidates who want to allow that evil. Failing to do so is an abuse of responsibility on our part, because that’s where we exercise our power as citizens most directly—in the voting booth.

The “separation of Church and state” can never mean that religious believers should be silent about legislative issues, the appointment of judges or public policy. It’s not the job of the Church to sponsor political candidates. But it’s very much the job of the Church to guide Catholics to think and act in accord with their faith.

So since this is an election year, here are a few simple points to remember as we move toward November.

1. “Catholic” is a word that has real meaning. We don’t control or invent that meaning as individuals. We inherit it from the Gospel and the experience of the Church over the centuries. If we choose to call ourselves Catholic, then that word has consequences for what we believe and how we act.  We can’t truthfully call ourselves “Catholic” and then behave as if we’re not.

2. Being a Catholic is a bit like being married. We have a relationship with the Church and with Jesus Christ that’s similar to being a spouse. If a man says he loves his wife, his wife will want to see the evidence in his fidelity. The same applies to our relationship with God. If we say we’re Catholic, we need to show that by our love for the Church and our fidelity to what she teaches and believes. Otherwise we’re just fooling ourselves. God certainly won’t be fooled.

3. The Church is not a political organism. She has no interest in partisanship because getting power or running governments is not what she’s about, and the more closely she identifies herself with any single party, the fewer people she can effectively reach.

4. Scripture and Catholic teaching, however, do have public consequences because they guide us in how we should act in relation to one another. Again, Catholic social action, including political action, is a natural byproduct of the Church’s moral message. We can’t call ourselves Catholic, and then simply stand by while immigrants get mistreated, or the poor get robbed, or—even more fundamentally—unborn children get killed. If our faith is real, then it will bear fruit in our public decisions and behaviors, including our political choices.

5. Each of us needs to follow his or her own conscience. But conscience doesn’t emerge miraculously from a vacuum. The way we get a healthy conscience is by submitting it to God’s will; and the way we find God’s will is by listening to the counsel of the Church and trying honestly to live in accord with her guidance. If we find ourselves frequently disagreeing, as Catholics, with the teaching of our own Church on serious matters, then it’s probably not the Church that’s wrong. The problem is much more likely with us.

In the end, the heart of truly faithful citizenship is this: We’re better citizens when we’re more faithful Catholics. The more authentically Catholic we are in our lives, choices, actions and convictions, the more truly we will contribute to the moral and political life of our nation.

This column by Archbishop Chaput first appeared October 18, 2012 on, the website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.


Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Philadelphia. Before his appointment to Philadelphia by Pope Benedict in 2011, he served as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota and archbishop of Denver. He is the author of three books: Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (2001); Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (2008) and Strangers in a Strange Land (2017)

  • Pingback: Public Witness and Catholic Citizenship | Catholic Canada()

  • Tout

    I, a Catholic, always receive the H.Host on tongue. God wants to come in me, not in my hand. Therefor I want to have communion-rails in every church, that I can kneel to receive. Allow God to come directly in you, not in your hand. I may be the only one in our church, but many Catholics receive on tongue. I want to kneel for God. To give the good example to others.

  • Dave

    The separation of Church and state isn’t even in the Constitution! What IS in the Constitution is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the government shall not have an official state Church (as the English did.) Even in the context that the phrase “separation of Church and state” was originally used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to some Baptists, it was meaning that the government should not interfere with religion, NOT that believers should not let their religious beliefs influence their political positions.

    Just a short, but very important American history lesson….

  • Barbara

    What I have always loved about Archbishop Chaput’s messages, spoken or written, is that they are CLEAR, no innuendo, no subtlety, just clarity. Thank you, Archbishop, for your clarity! May the Holy Spirit grant to all of our spiritual leaders the same gift with which you share Christ’s teachings through His Church!

  • Alecto

    It’s time to take on the enemies of the Church publicly and fearlessly. Unfortunately some of them are in the clergy. It’s quite clear they don’t fear you or respect Church teaching on anything as long as there’s no consequence. You have a solemn duty to all Catholics to correct them. That goes to the hear of Christian charity – correcting our brothers and sisters who have gone astray.

    The bishops traded their souls to Obama in 2008, and don’t think the laity has forgotten what you did to us. We’ve not forgotten the backroom deals with that devil, behind our backs and controverting rights and our liberty on universal healthcare. Although I see you would be happy to have us sweep that incident under the table. Twenty-six million dollars to lobby for universal healthcare and illegal alien amnesty. A little advice: cut the bull and admit you were wrong to interfere with us. We can be trusted, you cannot. We have a conscience and morality. You? Not yet apparent. Don’t even try to deny it. In the words of Patsy Cline, “Who’s sorry now?”

    I also take grave exception to being lectured by people who know nothing about free enterprise and equate that economic system with some kind of immoral thievery. On the contrary, the free enterprise system has lifted more people out of poverty than any charity. Until the bishops can inform themselves about that issue, Archbishop, you and I will always be on opposite sides of the aisle.

    • Adam_Baum

      I tend to agree with this post, save for one thing. It’s not that the Clergy (whether it be Catholic or otherwise) know “nothing” of free enterprise, its that they are hideously misinformed and it’s easy to be so. Economics used to be called the political economy, for good reason. There’s a couple of sayings about macroeconomics: If you laid all the economists in the world end-to-end you still wouldn’t reach a conclusion. The second thing is that economists have accurate predicted 27 of the last 9 recessions.

      Hayek, no particular friend of religion, nonetheless showed the technical underpinnings of subsidiarity-that knowledge tends to be diffuse and localized, and it can’t be effectively concentrated. Any scheme involving centralized command and control will be more cumbersome, less adaptable and resilient.

      I recently had a confessor who told me he received an undergraduate degree in finance, when I discussed my frustrations of Episcopal gullibility with regard to economic matters, he told me he felt my pain. It seems to me that when a Priest has technical knowledge in a relevant field, the Bishop might want to “pick his brain”. It might avoid the grievous errors such as that dreadful 1980’s era pronouncement on the economy, that was part of a decades long “identification with a single party” that is going to cause us so much grief in the coming years.

  • Rev. Vincent Fitzpatrick

    Dittos to Alecto.