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Giving Politics a Faith Lift

Interview With Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix

PHOENIX, Arizona, OCT. 16, 2006 (Zenit) - All Catholics have a duty to bring faith to the forefront of political debates, says the bishop-author of a new booklet entitled "Catholics in the Public Square."

The publication, written by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, challenges Catholics to take a more active part in influencing the nation and the political process.

Published online by Basilica Press, the booklet is the first of The Shepherd's Voice Series, designed to feature the current teaching of cardinals and bishops on key topics facing the Church.

In this interview with us, Bishop Olmsted, 59, who worked for nine years in the Vatican Secretariat of State, comments on why Catholics should be more active in the public square, and some of the most important issues for Catholic voters.

Q: Is this booklet intended for just politicians, or are there others who are also responsible for bringing a Catholic voice to the forefront of public debates?

Bishop Olmsted: This booklet is intended for all Catholics because we all have a mission in the public square, even if it differs according to our state in life. Christ told us: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden." These words are intended for all the baptized.

At baptism, Christ calls each of us to engage in the Church's mission in the world. Our responsibility as followers of Christ is to let the gift of faith influence every part of our daily life, not just what we do on Sunday.

A willingness to engage the culture is important for the Church's mission in the world. It is also a service to society.

Q: Why is the Catholic voice struggling to make itself heard in the public square?

Bishop Olmsted: With the influence of modernity and Enlightenment philosophies, many voices in secular society today contend that religion is pure subjectivism and has a role only in people's private lives.

If we let our faith impact on the way we practice a profession, engage the culture, or become involved in political struggles, then we are accused of imposing our faith on others. These voices have become increasingly strident in the United States over the past 50 years; and they can intimidate believers, making them afraid or uneasy to let their faith influence their involvement in the public square.

False notions about the separation of Church and state have also been put forth, contending that the Church must remain silent in the public square. These contentions are often based on false understandings of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which in fact protects the practice of religion from coercion by the state, rather than limiting the religious voice.

Q: How has this secularization of public life affected public policy, and society in general?

Bishop Olmsted: Secularization can be understood in more than one way, as is evident in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially in the foundational document of the council, "Lumen Gentium."

The council fathers, wishing to show the difference between the role of clergy and the role of the laity, taught in No. 31 of "Lumen Gentium": "Their secular character is proper and peculiar to the laity ... by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. ... It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are so closely associated that these may be effected and grow according to Christ."

We see, then, that secularization can be understood in a positive sense, when we understand it to mean that there is necessary distinction between the Church and the state, and between the roles of the clergy and the laity.

Thus, Christians do not believe in establishing a theocracy, but rather see distinct yet complementary roles for both the Church and society. Benedict XVI speaks eloquently about this in his encyclical letter, "Deus Caritas Est." The Church also insists on the vital role of the laity in the family and society.

At the same time, some secularizing trends in society are seriously problematic. In fact, these have arrived at such extremes that they deny the spiritual and religious dimensions of the human person. In addition, the right of the Church to engage in public discourse is denied or at least serious attempts are made to marginalize it.

Under these extremist influences, a kind of secularism that is anti-sacred and anti-religious has arisen. Not only does this hinder the work of the Church, it has opened the door for grave evils to develop in our society.

No longer are all persons seen as made in the image of God. Some persons, then, begin to be seen as less worthy of life. Soon, the weak and most vulnerable are described as a burden and not worthy of protection.

Sadly, we do not have to look far to find examples in society today where the lives of the most vulnerable, like the unborn and the elderly, are marginalized and threatened by legalized abortion and euthanasia.

Q: If Catholics are afraid to express their beliefs in public, what effects does this have on their faith also on the personal level?

Bishop Olmsted: St. James writes in his New Testament epistle, in Chapter 2, Verse 26, "Faith without works is dead." When Catholics are afraid to express their beliefs in public, they begin to travel down the path that divides faith from life. Faith begins to be purely spiritual, with no impact on other dimension of their lives.

Then, it becomes impossible to live a life of integrity. For faith needs to express itself, as Jesus makes clear, in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, defending the most vulnerable, and so forth. Pope Paul VI, and his successors have called this split between faith and life, and between faith and culture, as one of the great tragic dramas of our time.

Notice how often Jesus tells his followers: "Be not afraid." It takes both courage and wisdom to engage our culture and be involved in the public square. We are called to exercise both faith and reason, being careful to inform our conscience on the basis of objective truth.

The work of evangelization is built on a commitment to the truth and a commitment to love God and neighbor. It cannot happen without a lively faith and daily discipline of prayer.

Q: In the booklet you say Catholic politicians have a duty to let their beliefs influence their politics. All politicians have a duty to be coherent, but why single out Catholic politicians in this regard?

Bishop Olmsted: My booklet is intended for a Catholic audience. Others are certainly welcome to read it, and many of the principles within it would be appropriate to people of other faiths. By emphasizing that Catholics have a duty to be active in the public square, I am not excluding others from also having an active role.

On the contrary, I hope this little booklet will give encouragement to people of other faiths to be active as well in social and political life. That makes for a healthy democracy.

Q: Catholic doctrine on social and moral issues covers many topics. What are the most important ones to keep in mind when deciding whom to vote for?

Bishop Olmsted: The Church engages in a wide variety of public policy issues including immigration, education, poverty and racism. We hope that all the faithful will be well informed about these issues and do their part to address them effectively.

As for the most important issues to keep in mind, I find no better words that those of Benedict XVI, given in an address to European politicians on March 30, 2006: "As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable.

"Among these the following emerge clearly today: protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family -- as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage; ... the protection of the rights of parents to educate their children."


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