The Christian Witness in the Public Sphere

Fr. Ralph D’Elia, STL

In the opening of their teaching document on faithful citizenship, the Bishops of the United States say: “In this statement, we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election,” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 7).

The Bishops affirm two fundamental truths which guide Catholic political engagement: First, the decision for whom to vote is to be made by the individual taking into consideration the whole body of Catholic Social Teaching. Second, voting, while important, does not constitute the whole of our political engagement. In light of the tremendous political and social challenges facing our nation and recognizing the unfortunate division that has come to characterize our civic lives, it may be helpful to better explain these two pillars of faithful citizenship according to their nature: one as a decision to be made and the other as a life to be lived.


The Church is very clear about the values she espouses, values which inform the body of her social doctrine. From these values the Church has identified four principles central to her teaching on the Christian witness in the public sphere: the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, solidarity, and concern for the common good. From these principles the Church derives her position on key issues such as abortion, euthanasia, racism, sexism, protection of the environment, and care for the poor.

The Church does not outline an ideological or partisan position in advancing these principles. Rather, these principles flow from the values contained in the Gospel, values which took flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. To this point, St. John Paul II states: “The Church’s social doctrine is not … an ideology, but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and of the Church’s tradition,” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 41).

No one ideology, political party, or candidate for public office embodies totally the values that the Church espouses. While this complicates the choice we face, it is not a reason to retreat from political engagement. The Church seeks to form our consciences so that we can make educated decisions based on the principles of her social teaching. In each and every election we are called to take an inventory of the candidates and their positions, and then to evaluate the weight these issues hold given the particular political climate. Sometimes, and increasingly more often given the growing political divide, both candidates may hold positions contrary to Church teaching.

We are encouraged to take into consideration issues such as abortion and euthanasia, which pose a unique threat to human life, but also the threat of “environmental degradation … racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, pornography, redefining civil marriage, compromising religious liberty, or an unjust immigration policy…” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 29).

As the US Bishops note, echoing the judgement of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons,” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 35). There is no perfect social order that entirely reflects the values we affirm, so our decisions are always approximate. Therefore, the decision of how to vote should prayerfully take into consideration the whole body of Catholic Social Teaching, seeking to do the greatest good possible.


We should not fall prey to the temptation to criticize those who prayerfully decide to vote in a way that differs from our own. Our vote constitutes only a part of the life we are called to live as Christians. We are not saved by the particular decisions that we make, even if those decisions are good and well thought out. We are saved by Christ and the decision to follow the One who has made Himself a presence in our lives.

The integrity of the values we uphold are not dependent on the advancement of a particular political structure no matter how favorable or unfavorable it may be. To rely purely on the efficacy of our vote would be to put our hopes in an approach that disregards the personal nature of conversion. Our witness as Christians is one which calls the world to conversion, not through the insistence on certain values in a theoretical way, but by living these values out in the flesh.

In this sense, the life of faith necessarily throws us into the public sphere. Faith generates culture, as St. John Paul II so decisively stated: “A faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived,” (Address to the Italian National Congress of the Ecclesial Movement for Cultural Commitment, January 16, 1982). This is not a top down approach but rather one that begins with the individual. Faith generates culture, not based on our own efforts, but based on a unity which is made tangible by the presence of Christ. And from this new culture structures change, not simply by our vote, but organically by our witness. The challenge before us, then, is to live our faith—our adherence to Christ—as a life and not merely as a set of doctrines to be affirmed or a moral structure to be adhered to.

To live the faith as a life implies living intensely the reality that unfolds before us and taking seriously the circumstances through which we have been called to pass. Such a life avoids falling prey to the tyranny of ideas and ideological positions which leaves us vulnerable to the harsh blows of circumstance. Instead we are called to live the challenges we encounter in reality attentive to Christ’s presence in our midst. When we live our lives clinging to our own ideas rather than to the way in which Christ is present, we inevitably lose our footing. As Pope Francis has reminded us, realities are greater than ideas. “This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice … The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization,” (Evangelii Gaudium, 233).

The values we desire to communicate to the world are not manifested through our own efforts, but through Christ and our adherence to Him. In this way our participation “goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election” and instead is reflected in the whole of our lives. Our witness as followers of Christ is the only way in which the Social Teaching of the Church maintains its integrity. It is not though political calculation or the determination that one candidate checks more of the right boxes than the other.

The faith, and so the Social Teaching of the Church, is lived out through the witness of those who seek Christ even in the most challenging circumstances. This could be in the witness of a woman who defends the life of an unborn child by caring for a young girl who feels hopeless by the prospect of bringing a child into the world, of a student who stands in solidarity with a classmate experiencing discrimination, of a couple who agree to provide foster care for a child separated from their parents at the border, or of a family that devotes themselves to serving food to the poor once a week at their local soup kitchen.

Through these particular circumstances Christ takes on flesh before our eyes, and so the values which flow from Him are made incarnate. This is the way in the Kingdom of God is built up in our midst. Not through our own efforts, but  by adhering to Him in such a way that His life is made visible to the world: “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me,” (Galatians 2:20). Only the witness of one who lives life in such a way will be compelling in a world which increasingly seems to point in the opposite direction of the values we hold so dear. As St. Paul VI held, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses,” (Address to the Members of the Consilium de Laicis, October 2, 1974).

This living witness to Christ is the only thing capable of calling people to conversion. For this reason, the words of Fr. Jose Medina, the head of the Catholic ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation in the United States, bear repeating, “Telling people what values to espouse is neither loveable, nor effective. Instead, we are called to live and share a fullness of life openly with everyone, within any circumstance—whether they are welcoming or not … While some would deem the public witnesses of our brothers and sisters ineffective or naïve, this is the function of the Church in human history: to continuously testify that the fullness of life can only be achieved in total dependence on the Mystery. After all, as Christians we are not called to defend the Truth as a set of values, but to incarnate it,” (A Call to Conversion, July 7, 2015).

We are not more or less Catholic because of how we decide to vote, what makes us Catholic and what renders our witness compelling is Christ who gathers us together into a community of believers and makes us into His Body. The values we desire to communicate flow from Christ who is our true source of unity in a divided world. Through the incarnation of these values, the principles we hold as Catholics no longer hang over us as an abstraction or a lofty idea, but truly invade our lives and these lives of those we encounter.

Let us pray for one another and for our country so that our witness to Christ in the public sphere may facilitate a culture of encounter with the One in whom these values take on flesh. And let us pray that not only the decisions we make, but more importantly the life that we live may ever more reflect His glory in the world and contribute to the building of His Kingdom.

Additional resources supporting Faithful Citizenship can be accessed HERE