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Christians have a responsibility to participate in public life

Christopher Wolfe, professor of political science, …..

January 8, 2002

Tags: Politics, Responsibility, Society
Married and father of ten children, Christopher Wolfe is totally convinced of Christians’ responsibility to participate in public affairs. He has proclaimed it in his 25-year career as a professor of political science in different American colleges, and he went to Rome in January 2002 ready to repeat it. Since 1992, Wolfe has been full Professor at Marquette University, where he served as chair of the department for three years. Founder and president of the American Public Philosophy Institute (1989), Dr. Wolfe has also published several books and participated in many conferences and panels.

When talking about citizen participation, the tragic events of September 11, 2001 are a reference-point for Dr. Wolfe. “We are all deeply affected by the course of world events,” and “the consequences of evil actions can be incalculable.” In this sense, he pointed out, “recent events have reminded us that there is a much larger world of which we are a part, and in which we need to participate.” For that reason, it would be a mistake if people in “modern affluent societies” become “bourgeois,” that is to say, “absorbed in their narrow concerns, and above all in the pursuit of material well-being.”

But what is the solution to the current situation? Wolfe considers that any crisis of human affairs “call for men and women who are deeply committed to the common good (that of their own country and that of the world community), sensitive to the moral principles that provide the necessary framework for their activities, and well-equipped by their education and experience to make prudent decisions in their chosen fields of activity.” At the same time, adds Wolfe, “natural and supernatural virtues such as prudence and fortitude and justice, as well as the ultimate touchstone of charity, are indispensable qualities in handling such complex social questions.”

Recalling the message of St Josemaria, Dr. Wolfe explains that all the citizens have an “opportunity” and an “obligation” to contribute to the common good, by their work, their family life, and by their participation in public affairs. In public life, says Wolfe, “citizens should participate according to the possibilities available in their societies, with a sense of responsibility to God and to their fellow citizens, working in cooperation with other men and women to pursue the common good, while always respecting other citizens’ freedom to hold different opinions.” Since public affairs shape the conditions of people’s lives to such a degree, and either contribute to or undermine their well-being, that responsibility is even greater in the case of lay Christians, who “must” participate “in accordance with their abilities and opportunities, bringing their faith and human talents to bear on social life.”

Together for a just society
Working for a better society is not only a Christian’s duty, thinks Wolfe: “People of all the great religions of the world can work together to advance a just society. Vatican II and John Paul II have reminded us of the many spiritual principles we share with other faiths, and, moreover, the general moral principles of the natural law are universal.” In other words, “Christians are called to work with all people of good will to bring a greater measure of peace and justice into our world. Current events have, I think, helped to reinforce and deepen recognition of this ideal.”

At the same time, Christopher Wolfe recognizes that the actions of one individual person oftentimes do not bring about substantial change in society. Nevertheless, “we do know that if many of us cultivate noble ideals in our lives, and act on them, and encourage others to live by them, then the world really can change for the better.” And he states: “Whatever the effects of our actions, we are called to bring the faith of Christ to bear on our own lives, and the lives of those around us, in whatever circumstances God has placed us.” In this regard, Wolfe recalls that history has seen “the wonderful consequences of many individuals, acting on their own and in conjunction with others, in bringing about beneficial social change” in cases such as the elimination of slavery, the improvement of conditions of workers, or the end of bloody tyrannies. In like manner, “Christian laypeople today have to imitate them, confronting the problems of our own age.” Each individual, says Wolfe, can do it from his or her own position in society, whether as a politician or as a truck driver. The American professor feels strongly about the “objective reality” of the common good for which every man and woman can work. Despite the fact that “there will always be debates about the content of the common good,” he says, “a clear commitment to it by all those involved in public life would contribute greatly to social well-being.”

The challenge of full recognition of woman’s role
Wolfe also made reference to the role of women in our societies, and recalled how Msgr. Escriva stressed that women make important contributions in the social sphere and in family life. At the same time, he considered it “unfortunate” that “some people today denigrate the importance of a woman’s work in the home, for it is a very noble task which fulfills a great human and Christian role.” In Wolfe’s view, “determining how we can give full recognition to the irreplaceable value of work in the family and the home, while ensuring that women have the full range of opportunities they deserve as a matter of justice, is one of the great challenges of our age.”

Lay people and Church mission
Finally, Dr. Wolfe refers to the role and participation of lay people in the evangelical mission of the Church. “The most important way that lay people contribute to the Church’s mission is by fulfilling their ordinary everyday duties, with human excellence and Christian charity. We are fortunate to live at a time of wonderful development in the Church’s teaching on the distinctive contribution of the laity; a teaching to which Msgr. Escriva made an important contribution. While some lay people can and should respond to the invitation of the hierarchy to cooperate in ecclesiastical functions and apostolic activities, for the vast majority of the faithful the call to live their faith more deeply will mean performing their professional work better and with a supernatural intention, being dedicated spouses and parents, and carrying on a very natural apostolate through their friendships and social activities.” However, to accomplish this, lay people need “to take advantage of opportunities to obtain formation and especially to deepen their own interior life.”