A Catholic Bishop Teaches . . .

Catholics in the Public Square

Revised 4th Edition

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted
Bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix

Foreword by
Jose H. Gomez
Archbishop of Los Angeles

Copyright, Publisher Information

Católicos y Vida Pública

Table of Contents

  1. How would you define a lay person?

  2. What is the difference between the laity and the clergy in the Catholic Church?

  3. What is the role of the laity in the Catholic Church?

  4. How do Catholic lay persons fulfill their call to holiness?

  5. What are the main responsibilities of Catholics to themselves?

  6. What are the main responsibilities of Catholics to their families?

  7. What are the responsibilities of the Catholic laity in the public square?

  8. How do Catholics show their own identity in public life?

  9. What difference should Catholics make in public life?

  10. How should Catholics understand the separation between Church and state?

  11. Should Catholics bring the Church’s doctrine into the public square?

  12. How do you respond to statements that Catholics should not impose their religious views upon others?

  13. Should Catholics take into account their own faith at the moment of voting?

  14. Can Catholics honestly disagree in matters of politics, social or cultural issues?

  15. What does it mean that Catholics should follow their conscience when making a moral decision?

  16. Is it mandatory for Catholics to follow what the Pope or bishops say on political issues?

  17. Are all political and social issues equal when it comes to choosing a political candidate?

  18. Are there any “non-negotiable” issues for Catholics involved in politics?

  19. What are the causes that can ban Catholics from Holy Communion?

  20. Why does the Church set such high standards for Catholics?

  21. Can Catholics belong to or express support for different political parties?

  22. Do bishops and priests have the right to intervene in political, social, or cultural matters?

  23. If bishops and priests can intervene in public issues, what is the difference then between the clergy and the laity in public policy issues?

  24. What can Catholics do to foster justice in society?

  25. What are the responsibilities of Catholics who own or operate businesses toward their employees and the society at large?

  26. How can Catholics contribute to a culture of life?

  27. What means should Catholics employ to manifest their convictions about issues in the public square?

  28. Should Catholics put aside their faith to work with people of other religions in social issues?

  29. What are the responsibilities of Catholic institutions in the public square?

  30. How does one fight best against secularization in our society and the misrepresentation of faith in the public square?

  31. How would you define a “candidate who is a faithful Catholic”?

  32. What is the Church’s position on immigration?

  33. What line should an elected official draw between his faith and his political commitments?

  34. How serious are the current threats to religious freedom in the United States?

  35. Do Catholic employers violate the religious freedom of their non-Catholic employees when they do not provide abortifacients or contraceptives in their health plans?

  36. How can Catholics live in a manner that shows proper respect for God’s creation?


Catholic social teaching gives us a vision of the world as it could be and as it should be. The world as God created it to be.

The Most Reverend José H. Gomez is Archbishop of Los Angeles.

The Most Reverend José H. Gomez is Archbishop of Los Angeles.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most radical doctrine in the history of ideas. If the world believed what Jesus proclaimed — that God is our Father and we are all brothers and sisters created in His image with God-given dignity and a transcendent destiny — every society could be transformed overnight.

Of course, human sin and weakness always stand in the way of God’s beautiful plan for creation. Every structure of social injustice starts in the hearts of individuals. Societies do not sin, people do. So for Catholics, social reform means more than raising consciousness, expanding opportunities, and building new programs. Those things are necessary. But true justice and lasting peace require the conversion of hearts and the renewal of minds.

The Catholic vision is spiritual not political. Catholics belong first of all the “city of God.” But we have a duty to build up the “city of man,” to correct injustices and seek a world that reflects God’s desires for His children — what Jesus called the kingdom of God and the Apostles called the new heaven and new earth.

The Church articulates universal principles that are rooted in the laws of nature and that reflect the wisdom the universal Church has gained in more than two thousand years of serving people under many different nations, cultural realities, government systems, and economic orders.

The motive and measure in everything we do is our concern to promote the flourishing of the human person. Our principles drive us to work for justice and the common good, to protect the vulnerable and lift up the weak, to promote freedom and human dignity, and to prefer remedies that are personal, local, and small-scale.

In twenty-first century America, the Church confronts a highly secularized and ethnically diversified society shaped by the economic forces of globalization, a technocratic mentality, and a consumerist lifestyle. Our society is centered on the individual self — with an often exaggerated preoccupation for individuals’ unlimited rights and their freedoms for self-definition and self-invention. Happiness and meaning in American life are defined increasingly according to individualistic concerns for material pleasure and comfort. And we see many signs that, as a people, we are becoming more withdrawn from our communities and from the duties of our common life. More and more we seem less able to have empathy for those we don’t know.

Pope Francis speaks of the “globalization of indifference” to suffering and cruelty in the world. And he is on to something.

In America and abroad, the people of our globalized society seem to tolerate a growing list of injustices and indignities. To name just a few: widespread abortion; the “quiet” euthanasia of the old and sick; birth control policies targeting the poor and “unfit”; racial discrimination; a widening gap between poor and rich; pollution of the environment, especially in poor and minority communities; pornography and drug addiction; the death penalty and scandalous conditions in our prisons; the erosion of religious liberty; and a broken immigration system that breaks up families and leaves a permanent underclass living in the shadows of our prosperity.

The Church’s social teaching “speaks” to all of these issues. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, an essential resource, is nearly five hundred pages long. But in the face of so many daily injustices that cry out to heaven, we can feel tempted to compartmentalize our compassion, to draw up lines of division about who and what we will care about.

For decades now, we have accepted a basic “fault-line” in the Church’s social witness — between self-described “pro-life” Catholics and those who consider themselves “peace and justice” Catholics. This is a false divide and one that is a scandal to Christ and the Church’s faithful witness in society.

God does not see the world through the limitations of our political categories of “left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative.” He is our Father and He sees only His children. When one of God’s children is suffering injustice, He calls the rest of us to love and compassion and to “make things right.” Our concern for human dignity and life can never be partial or a half-measure. How can we justify defending the dignity of some and not others or protecting God’s creation while neglecting some of His most vulnerable creatures?

In some Church circles today we are seeing a return to the vision of a “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life.”

Advocates have noble intentions — they want to bring the Church’s moral wisdom and passion for justice to bear on a broad range of urgent issues. They recognize that the Church’s social witness must be founded on our common responsibility to defend the gift of human life at every stage and in every condition.

In practice, however, this line of thinking can lead to a kind of moral relativism that renders serious social issues as more or less equivalent. Setting priorities and frameworks for decision-making becomes an arbitrary, sometimes partisan exercise in political calculation.

A broad desire to promote the integral development of the human person leads to obvious and crucial agenda items: abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, global poverty and the related issues of migrants and refugees, and climate change. Each of these realities of our world represents an affront to human dignity and threatens the sustainability of social order.

But the hard truth is that not all injustices in the world are “equal.” Perhaps we can understand this better about issues in the past than we can with issues in the present. For instance, we would never want to describe slavery as just one of several

problems in eighteenth and nineteenth-century American life. There are indeed “lesser” evils. But that means there are also “greater” evils — evils that are more serious than others and even some evils that are so grave that Christians are called to address them as a primary duty.

Among the evils and injustices in American life in 2016, abortion and euthanasia are different and stand apart. Each is a direct, personal attack on innocent and vulnerable human life. Abortion and euthanasia function in our society as what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “structures of sin” or “social sins.”

Both practices are sanctioned by the law of the land and supported, promoted, and even paid for as part of government policy. Abortion has become a part of mainstream health care and one of the “freedoms” that Americans presume. Euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide is fast gaining that same status. Both practices are zealously defended by our society’s elites — those who shape public opinion and civic morality through government, the popular media, and education.

Our society’s elites tell us that abortion and euthanasia are private, deeply personal matters that ultimately should concern only the individuals involved. If that were really true, these issues would not be matters for public policy and subjects of constant advocacy and litigation.

Evils and injustices committed behind closed doors are still evil and unjust and are never only personal but have consequences and implications for our life together. And the Church is called to speak the truth and to confront the idols of the human heart and the idols of society. As Pope Francis has said: “It is not licit to eliminate a human life to solve a problem. … [It is] a sin against God the Creator: think hard about this.”

This is the great challenge for the Church’s social witness in our society, which seeks to address many of its problems through the elimination of human life — not only through abortion and assisted suicide, but also in the areas of the death penalty, human embryo research, and mandated contraception.

It is this broader mentality — what Francis and previous popes have called a “culture of death”— that the Church must confront. That is why abortion and euthanasia are not just two issues among many or only questions of individual conscience. Abortion and euthanasia raise basic questions of human rights and social justice, questions of what kind of society and what kind of people we want to be. Do we really want to become a people that responds to human suffering by helping to kill the one who suffers? Do we really want to be a society where the lives of the weak are sacrificed for the comfort and benefit of those who are stronger? That is why any approach that essentially tolerates abortion and euthanasia or puts these issues on par with others, not only betrays the beautiful vision of the Church’s social teaching, but also weakens the credibility of the Church’s witness in our society.

The Church must continue to insist that the fundamental injustice and violence in our society is the direct killing of those who are not yet born through abortion and those who are sick and at the end of their lives through euthanasia and assisted suicide. In this culture, the Church must insist that abortion and euthanasia are grave and intrinsic evils — evils that are corrosive and corrupting, evils that are at the heart of other social injustices.

Abortion and euthanasia are “fundamental” social issues because if the child in the womb has no right to be born, if the sick and the old have no right to be taken care of, then there is no solid foundation to defend anyone’s human rights, and no foundation for peace and justice in society. How can we claim to speak for the marginalized and disenfranchised, if we are allowing millions of innocent children to be killed each year in the womb? If we cannot justify caring for the weakest and most innocent of God’s creatures, how can we call our society to resist the excesses of nationalism and militarism or confront global poverty or protect our common home in creation?

In broader terms, the Church faces an unprecedented challenge in the America that is emerging in the twenty-first century. This is perhaps the most disturbing sign for our nation’s future: the increasing hostility and discrimination against Christian institutions and the vilifying of Christian beliefs by the government, the courts, the media, and popular culture. More and more in our country we see religious faith marginalized as something that is “personal” and “private.” Catholics and other believers face strong pressures to keep their faith to themselves and to live as if their beliefs should not have any influence on how they live in society or carry out their duties as citizens.

The Church’s social witness today — all our works of mercy and charity, all our advocacy for moral principles and human rights — now operates in an atmosphere of widespread confusion about the meaning of human life and the purpose of social institutions at every level.

To evangelize in this culture, the Church must articulate a new Christian humanism, a new vision of human flourishing that is rooted in God’s beautiful plan of love for creation and for every human life. Our new evangelization must be a new proclamation of the Kingdom — as a city of love and truth where every life is welcomed, cherished, and defended, especially those lives that need more care and attention, those lives that can be a burden to others. Our new evangelization must seek a society worthy of the sanctity and dignity of the human person, where no one is a stranger and no one is left behind or thrown away.

Our humanism must be more than words. It must be expressed in actions, in works of mercy. Wherever dignity is denied and wherever there is injustice, we are called to defend life. Our society must know that, as long as there are Christians, there should never be a reason for anyone to suffer without hope and help.

The Church needs clear and courageous teaching and witness to confront the idols of a secularized, post-Christian America. For many years now, my friend Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix has been one of the Church’s clearest and most courageous teachers and leaders. In his ministry we see all the essentials of the new Christian humanism that is called for in our times.

I welcome this fourth edition of Bishop Olmsted’s widely read and influential Catholics in the Public Square. This book is a kind of “question and answer catechism” on some of the deepest issues of faith and public life. Bishop Olmsted is a wise and prudent guide, and over the years, I find I am still learning from him.

As he writes in this new edition: “It is our duty to engage the culture, not run from it. We must place our trust in the Lord and know that by doing His will and speaking the truth in love, God will make all things work for the good. It is also the duty of the Catholic faithful to support courageous people who do this through both our actions and prayers.”

Catholics in the Public Square is a must-read for all of us who are trying to engage the culture and to proclaim the Church’s beautiful vision for human life and human society. I pray that this book will be widely read and widely lived.

+ Most Reverend José H. Gomez
Archbishop of Los Angeles
March 2016

1) How would you define a lay person?

A lay person is any member of the faithful who has not received Holy Orders and does not belong to a religious state approved by the Church. Through Baptism, a lay person is incorporated into Christ and becomes integrated into the People of God. A lay person has an important role in the life and mission of the Church. (Lumen Gentium, 31)

When Pope John Paul II wrote his major work on the life and mission of the laity he titled it Christifideles Laici, Christ’s faithful laity. With this title he made it clear that faithful love of Christ is the key to bearing fruit in the kingdom of God. This is true for everyone in the Church, not only the laity. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

2) What is the difference between the laity and the clergy in the Catholic Church?

The clergy receive a special charism of the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. As such, deacons, priests, and bishops “realize a participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ that is different, not simply in degree but in essence, from the participation given to the lay faithful through Baptism and Confirmation” (Christifideles Laici, 22).

Laypersons, meanwhile, are primarily concerned with temporal matters and as such have a sort of “secular character.”The laity may also be involved in matters connected with pastoral ministry but only in matters that do not require the grace of Holy Orders.

3) What is the role of the laity in the Catholic Church?

The role of the laity is in a special way to “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God” (Lumen Gentium, 31). As such, lay men and women are in a unique position to bring their faith into all areas of society.

It should be remembered that as the laity engage in temporal affairs, in their own way, they participate in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission of the Church by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation.

4) How do Catholic lay persons fulfill their call to holiness?

Every Catholic receives from God a call to holiness that is rooted in Baptism. In order to fulfill this call, lay men and women are required to “follow and imitate Jesus Christ in embracing the Beatitudes; in listening and meditating on the Word of God; in conscious and active participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church; in personal prayer; in family or in community; in the hunger and thirst for justice; in the practice of the commandment of love in all circumstances of life and service to the brethren, especially in the least, the poor and the suffering” (Christifideles Laici, 16).

5) What are the main responsibilities of Catholics to themselves?

Catholics have the responsibility of accepting Christ’s invitation, “Come, follow me.”They need to surrender in love as He leads them along the paths of conversion, communion, and solidarity (cf. Ecclesia in America). They also need to properly form themselves in the Church’s teaching, participate actively in her sacramental life, and live their faith in God accordingly. This responsibility exists for Catholics in all states of life.

Accordingly, Catholics are to be “ever mindful of what it means to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ, participants in her mystery of communion and in her dynamism in mission and the apostolate” (Christifideles Laici, 64).

6) What are the main responsibilities of Catholics to their families?

Marriage is the foundation of the family. The family, in turn, is the basic cell of society. Marriage and family responsibilities are, therefore, of tremendous importance, not only to the Church, but also to all of society.

The responsibilities of Catholic men and women to their families cannot be overstated. “It is above all the lay faithful’s duty in the apostolate to make the family aware of its identity as the primary social nucleus, and its basic role in society, so that it might itself become always a more active and responsible place for proper growth and proper participation in social life” (Christifideles Laici, 40).

7) What are the responsibilities of the Catholic laity in the public square?

Through their baptism, the laity is called to holiness of life (i.e. to live their faith in God day in and day out). Their responsibilities are not meant to be merely a matter of personal piety or devotion, but also directed toward evangelization in all aspects of life.

A lay person in the public square has a particular responsibility to live his or her vocation in view of its unique impact on society. For example, those involved with the noble art of politics, or the legal profession, often are in a position to influence societal norms on matters of real significance by working on legislative proposals or judicial proceedings aimed at preserving the inalienable rights of all persons, rights that are grounded in the natural law upon which our country was founded.

Similarly, there are others in the public square that while not serving as elected officials or officers of the court, nonetheless, are in a position to shape the society and culture. For these individuals, especially those involved with all forms of the mass media, a significant part of their responsibilities is to live their faith by promoting the common good in society.

8) How do Catholics show their own identity in public life?

Catholics should always be respectful of the human dignity of others, including people of different faiths, or no faith at all. Having said that, however, Catholics should not be afraid to embrace their identity or to put their faith into practice in public life. In fact, each of the faithful has a call to evangelization and to share the good news of Christ with the rest of the world.

9) What difference should Catholics make in public life?

There are multitudes of different ways in which Catholics may serve the Church through their contributions in public life. In each circumstance, however, Catholics are especially called to contribute to the common good, to defend the dignity of every human person, and to live as faithful citizens.

In this sense, the final result that takes place is ultimately in God’s hands. This fact is important to remember when a Catholic is in a distinctly minority position and unable to accomplish a desired result. It is in these seemingly hopeless circumstances that Catholics who provide a faithful witness in public life can often be used by God to touch hearts and minds in ways that may not always be visible to the naked eye.

It is good to remember Pope Benedict’s words: “There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord” (Deus Caritas Est, 35).

10) How should Catholics understand the separation between Church and state?

The separation of Church and state all too often is used as an excuse to silence people of faith and to discourage them from legitimately participating in the public square. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, of course, does not advocate for a separation of Church and state at all, but rather the protection of religious freedom from the state.

Our founding fathers intended all persons to have the equal right to voice their opinions, including those based on religious convictions. Even more, they understood that it was imperative that the state not infringe upon the religious beliefs of its citizens. The Constitution is aimed at allowing all people to have a voice in government, including those whose voice is distinctively religious.

In other words, there is nothing in the Constitution excluding people from bringing their faith into the public square.

As Pope Francis said in an address in Philadelphia on September 26, 2015, “Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.”

11) Should Catholics bring the Church’s doctrine into the public square?

There are times when the Church’s intervention in social questions is needed. As the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “the Church intervenes by making a moral judgment about economic and social matters when the fundamental rights of the person, the common good, or the salvation of souls requires it” (510).

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in April 2008, he told the American Bishops, “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”

Pope Francis continued on this theme during his visit to the United States in September 2015 when he said, “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pre-text for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance, and respect for the dignity of others.”

While Catholics are called to bring their faith and religious views into the public square, they are also called to respect the religious freedom and civil liberties of all people. In fact, the Church has genuine respect for secular governments that afford these protections to people of all faiths, as well as those without faith.

In reality, the Church does not impose its doctrine on others in the public square. For example, there is no effort by the Church to compel the public to attend Mass on Sundays or receive various sacraments. Nonetheless, the Church is legitimately concerned about many matters of societal importance and brings its views to bear in proposing meaningful solutions for promoting the common good.

12) How do you respond to statements that Catholics should not impose their religious views upon others?

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.

13) Should Catholics take int