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Discipleship and Democracy   

Archbishop Charles Chaput

If I had a single, basic observation about the way we’ve lived as American Catholics for the last 40 years, it’s this: We’ve been too polite and too timid. We haven’t been the leaven Jesus commanded us to be, and now we’re paying the price for it with a culture that grows more estranged from the Gospel with every passing year.

Obviously, dialogue with the world is a good thing. Courtesy and respect for the human person are always essential things. But they never excuse us from the main work of our vocation: to bring Jesus Christ to the world, and the world to Jesus Christ.

Think about the upcoming election. It’s a big one. A lot of judicial appointments ride on the outcome. So how are we going to bring our Catholic identity and our Catholic convictions into the voting booth? It’s a vital question, because if our faith doesn’t guide us in critical places like the voting booth, then we’re already on our way to losing that faith.

Here’s a simple example. Exactly 40 years ago this fall, candidate John Kennedy promised a group of Protestant ministers in Houston that, if elected, he wouldn’t let his Catholic faith interfere with his service as president. As we all know, he was elected — and he kept his word to those ministers. Kennedy’s Catholic faith, as far as anyone can tell, rarely had any effect on any of his policymaking or decisions.

Looking back, I believe this is one of the watersheds of modem public life in our country. 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 consciences and their public service. Of course the cost is high. Pragmatism in public life always has a louder voice than conscience, and pretty soon private conscience is not much more than private opinion. And opinions are a dime a dozen.


So what’s the result? Four decades after John Kennedy, too many American Catholics — maybe most — no longer connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent, authentic way. The “Catholic vote,” as a meaningful bloc, just doesn’t exist anymore. And a pro-life Democrat like the late [Pennsylvania] Gov. 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 reviled by his party’s leadership until his death.

That’s the legacy of “assimilation,” the legacy of too easily accommodating our Catholic faith to politics — instead of forming and informing our politics with our faith. Forty years after John Kennedy, it’s impossible for a person who is loyal to the Catholic faith on sanctity-of-human-life issues to hold any major leadership position in John Kennedy’s own party.

My point is not that Democrats are bad and Republicans are good, or vice versa. The Republicans have plenty of their own contradictions. My point is that St. Paul’s words, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16), 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. Religious 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. That argument is almost always advanced by people who have every intention of imposing their own views on society.

And, frankly, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. In a sense, that’s what all laws and all public policies involve: the “imposition” of one set of moral convictions on the culture at large. The trouble is that some laws, and the convictions which undergird them, are good; some are bad; some are inhuman. The purpose of the democratic process is to winnow out the good ideas from the bad ones — in other words, to allow people of strong moral convictions to disagree with one another vigorously. And to encourage them to pursue their convictions into law by every peaceful, ethical means at their disposal. When Catholic 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 elected officials, but in individual voters as well — undermines real democracy and very quickly becomes a kind of opportunism or even cowardice.


For all of us who are baptized, witnessing for Jesus Christ was hardwired into our gene code when we received the sacrament. There’s no “Plan B” for living the Catholic life, no lazy-boy version, no “Catholic Lite.” We’re all meant to be missionaries, 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.”

So either we preach Jesus Christ in our words and actions, or we lose him. That’s why so much of today’s mainline Christian landscape is so lifeless. Too many Christians lack mission. They lack confidence in the Gospel message. And they lack zeal. That’s why one of the few good things to come from the Kennedy legacy is that, 40 years later, in a country far more secularized than it was in 1960, serious Catholics often have more common ground with serious Protestants than they do with lukewarm members of their own Church.

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul 11 reminds us that all Christians are involved in “a struggle for the soul of the contemporary world.” In every dimension of our lives — from our families to our jobs to the solitude of the voting booth — God asks us to be his witnesses, his missionaries. So we need to begin to actively live those words from Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” And I mean not just agree with them, but live them.

As a bishop, I never get tired of strangers knocking on the door of my home to talk about Jesus. Over the years, I’ve had Mormons, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, evangelicals — but very few Catholic missionaries. That’s sad and odd, and it needs to change.

Catholics need to witness to each other. We need to learn again how to be missionaries. Even bishops need to hear the word of God. Even bishops need revival. Some of us need a really big jolt of it. When Catholics hear God’s word, and then do God’s word by bringing Jesus Christ to others, then the world will begin to change — one life, one family, one parish at a time. And that will be a real revolution — a revolution of love, which creates a “civilization of love.”


Chaput, Archbishop Charles. “Discipleship and Democracy.” National Catholic Register. (November 5-11, 2000).

Excerpted from an October 17 speech to the Missionaries of Youth for the Third Millennium.

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


His Grace Charles Chaput is Archbishop of Denver, Colorado.

Copyright © 2000 National Catholic Register



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved