If public life is that part of the world outside our family and private life each of us plays some role in public life: in community, work, school, college and university, in politics, in recreation and leisure pursuits. Some of us our lives are more public than others. For some decision making will be a private business. For others decision making is subject to constant analysis and comment, some of it offensive, much of it robust. It can take courage to articulate the truth when it is not a commonly held or easily accepted view. We are blessed by the integrity of columnists like Breda O’Brien who writes so informatively and so compellingly in defence of the right to life of the unborn. In a world which proclaims the defence of freedom of speech, and human rights, it can seem as if the right of freedom of religion, conscience and thought is not accorded the same respect as the other rights. We have to reclaim that territory and speak with courage about what we believe.
Robert Barron wrote in his book, The Strangest Way, of Christianity:
“Christianity…is a form of life, a path that one walks. It is a way of seeing, a frame of mind, an attitude, but more than this, it is a manner of moving and acting, standing and relating. It is not simply a matter of the mind but of the body as well…. one could say that Christianity is not real until it has insinuated itself into the blood and the bones, until it becomes an instinct, as much physical as spiritual. …Christianity, the way of Jesus Christ, is a culture, a style of life supported by a unique set of convictions, assumptions, hopes, and practices.”
For those of us who are Catholic there cannot be and should not be any disconnect between our daily lives in the public place and our religious faith. So a life lived as part of the Body of Christ which is the Church, must be led in a way which reflects its divine maker and which acknowledges the responsibilities and great joys inherent in our greatest gift – our faith. Once we accept the chain of connectedness from baptism to membership of that community, and, through the Eucharist to the fact that Christ lives in each of us, that he lives also in the lives of friends and stranger, that he is constantly to be encountered in the lives of all His people, even in the paedophile and the murderer, (utterly challenging as that may be), we live in a very different public place. We cannot behave as if we matter more than anyone else. We don’t have the option of ignoring the common good. To do so would be to ignore that Christ whom we profess to love as we walk along the way.
John XXIII wrote of this in 1963 in the encyclical Pacem in Terris. Talking of human society, he said: “Through it, in the bright light of truth, men should share their knowledge, be able to exercise their rights and fulfill their obligations, be inspired to seek spiritual values; mutually derive genuine pleasure from the beautiful, of whatever order it be; always be readily disposed to pass on to others the best of their own cultural heritage; and eagerly strive to make their own the spiritual achievements of others. These benefits not only influence, but at the same time give aim and scope to all that has bearing on cultural expressions, economic, and social institutions, political movements and forms, laws, and all other structures by which society is outwardly established and constantly developed.”
The Catholic Church can be proud of its contribution to the development of society across the world. In country after country its missionaries, lay and religious have established schools, hospitals, health centres, social centres, programmes for the relief of poverty and development of agriculture, and in so doing have contributed to the growth of society
Those called to public life in the world today will face many challenges. The dilemmas are not new. Speaking of this in Westminster Hall in 2010, Pope Benedict recalled “the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first”.
He went on to say: “I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.”
The call could not be clearer. People do seek to put pressure, as they always have done, on Christians to act against their conscience. We can see it in Ireland today in the context of the Heads of Bill on abortion. There is no duty on the State under Human Rights law to provide abortion on demand. Under the current proposals Ireland faces the prospect of terminating the pregnancy of a mother whose baby has been in her womb for up to nine months, because she is threatening to commit suicide. Women in this situation require every assistance and support, they need compassion and pragmatic solutions to the problems they face. But to suggest abortion as a solution to the problem of threatened suicide not only fails to acknowledge and protect the little child in the womb, but actually involves an increased risk of suicidal behavior.
A relevant Vatican document states that Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard. John Paul II reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life… It is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them”.
It continues, If “it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality”. (Evangelium Vitae)
For elected politicians there is a great temptation to vote and behave in a way which they think will secure their seats at the next election. That is very human. But the reality is that those who speak loudest are not necessarily the majority. They are simply the people who speak loudest. The legislator must look at the exact words of any proposed text and work out what they mean and what the consequences will be. He or she must then make decisions about how to act. For elected politicians there is always the risk that doing the right thing will lead to loss of an election, status, income and their whole life style. Politicians, like influences and decision makers everywhere need your prayers and your support as they struggle to make the right decision.
In a matter as profound and complex as this they should all be given the freedom to vote and should not be coerced into voting for abortion.
This is an edited version of Nuala O’Loan’s presentation to The Irish Catholic’s Horizon of Hope Conference in Dublin on June 8.