Interview With Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix
PHOENIX, Arizona, 15 OCT. 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
The publication, written by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, challenges
Catholics to take a more active part in influencing the nation and the
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 ZENIT, 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."