Many times we hear people -especially politicians- using an argument that is presented as a way of respecting the consciences of others in public life. That argument, expressed synthetically, would be: “I am Catholic, but I don’t want to impose my thinking or my beliefs on those who belong to another religion or think differently.” So in the name of tolerance, I allow others to do what they want while keeping my “beliefs” in my private life. For example: “I am against abortion, but who am I to impose my opinion on others? I do not abort, but I cannot forbid others to do so. ”
This issue is deeply discussed in a document prepared by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (eventually Pope Benedict XVI) and approved by St. John Paul II titled Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life. As stated in the document, this mentality is typical of a relativistic society in which the truth does not want to be dealt with. That relativism seems to be the condition of modern democracy: everyone has “their” truth and therefore, I cannot try to “impose” mine on anyone.
But that is not how things are. The argument quoted above, “I am a Catholic, but I do not want to impose my faith on anybody”, doesn’t hold water. It is a false argument because you do not “impose” anything: in a democracy the people choose, in other words, vote freely, for the candidate who best represents their interests. If, therefore, the Catholic politician is elected democratically, he has the legitimacy to act in accordance with the ideas and principles for which he has been elected. No one is talking about “imposing” the Faith on someone else. There isn’t, for example, an effort to force people to attend Sunday Mass or to receive the sacraments. But there are principles that bind all human beings equally, regardless of beliefs, cultures and historical periods. Respect for dignity and human life is one of them.
It is presumed that Catholic politicians are Catholic because they believe their faith is good and true, and is not just about principles, but concrete actions. When trying to make decisions in the public sphere according to these beliefs, they share with others the good that they have discovered in their own faith. To say it in another way, refusing to support or implement a policy that is in conformity with your principles means not really believing in those principles.
Those who do not want to “impose” their faith on others end up falling into contradiction. They always end up “imposing” other aspects of their faith, which, oddly enough, have greater social approval. The Catholic politician, who doesn’t want to “impose” personal principles on issues such as abortion, doesn’t have any problem “imposing” those same principles later on when it comes to social justice, patriotism, or care for the needy. If they were consistent with their own argument, shouldn’t they refuse to “impose” other values such as justice, love for country, or charity for the poor, in the same way they don’t want to “impose” respect for human life from conception?
Catholic politicians – and citizens – who think this way should remember the words of St. John Paul II: “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. The branch, engrafted to the vine, which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity. In fact, every area of the lay faithful’s lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God, who desires that these very areas be the ‘places in time’ where the love of Christ is revealed and realized for both the glory of the Father and service of others. Every activity, every situation, every precise responsibility – as, for example, skill and solidarity in work, love and dedication in the family and the education of children, service to society and public life and the promotion of truth in the area of culture – are the occasions ordained by providence for a ‘continuous exercise of faith, hope and charity’.”
I honestly believe that the reasons behind the “I am a Catholic but I cannot impose my beliefs on others” argument are actually based on less noble motives: cowardice, reluctance to stand up for Christ, a commitment to economic power, personal recognition and adulation from the world, the desire to further a political career, the need to “win votes”, and all at the expense of marginalizing their own faith.
I want to conclude with Bishop Olmsted’s words: “Some Catholics and other believers have been frightened into silence and even confused by charges that they are imposing their morality on others. It is contended that a person’s faith should have no impact on his or her public life. This leads to the infamous “I am a Catholic but….” syndrome! Of course, if one’s faith does not impact on one’s whole life, including one’s political and social responsibilities, then it is not authentic faith; it is a sham, a counterfeit.
A democratic society needs the active participation of all its citizens, people of faith included. People of faith engage issues on the basis of what they believe, just as atheists engage issues on the basis of what they hold dear; they fight for what they think is right and oppose what they consider wrong. This is not an imposition on other’s morality. It is acting with integrity. Moreover, people of genuine faith strengthen the whole moral fabric of a country. The active engagement of Catholics in democratic processes is good for society and it is responsible citizenship.”
Let us ask God to save us from the “Catholics yes, but …”. Let us pray that He gives politicians the courage to defend their principles in public life and voters the wisdom to vote according to the faith of the Church.