"[Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners.... They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws.... So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it."
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2240
Living as a Christian in a democratic society can be a source of both opportunity and confusion. We have the ability, as citizens equal before the law and equal in government participation, to bring about peace, justice and the promotion of human dignity and well-being without having to appeal to the arbitrary whim of a ruling despot. And we share the ideals of equality and liberty that form the philosophical basis of democracy itself. However, at the same time, it is quite possible for a country’s laws and politics to become definitively anti-Christian without using any unfair political processes. Simply by having a majority vote, people in a democracy can change their nation from one that promotes Christian values to one that openly denies any Christian influence in their history and even considers many Christian teachings, such as our views on homosexuality, to be a human rights violation.
When this occurs, as it has in modern Europe and in America to a lesser extent, Christians feel perplexed and even shocked. How can a society, we think, that has been Christian for so long so abruptly become anti-Christian? Moreover, it was not the edict of some conquering force, as was often the case with fascist and communist empires in the 20th century. No - the secularization and immorality of modern Western nations is entirely due to the popular majority consensus of the people, precisely because those nations are democratic. We Christians cannot seem to understand this.
In response to our feeling of shock, we actively campaign to change the laws of our countries in the hope of returning them to a state guided by Christian teachings. We seem to be under the impression that the Christian influence on Western law and public policy before the 1960s was due to a fundamentally different quality in the government itself. We cannot see that Western democratic governments have always been secular; that has been a defining quality of their democratic status since their inception, particularly as inspired by the American and French Revolutions and their political philosophies. Western government was more Christian at that time not because of the government, but because the people themselves were more Christian and thus they voted according to Christian teachings. The truly alarming condition of the modern West, and indeed any other democracies throughout the world, is that their people are voting in politicians who authorize and legalize various immoral practices, including abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, drug abuse, etc. - and then the people go out and use these so-called "public services". If absolutely no one in the country ever chose to have an abortion, would its legality really be an issue? Truly, would it even be legal if such were the case?
Even a cursory glance at worldwide abortion statistics today should show every true Christian that it is not the legality of abortion but its widespread practice that is truly tragic - its legality simply reflects its public acceptance and proliferation. As we live in democratic countries, Christians feel as though the only efforts we can make to combat such rampant immorality are political and legal actions, trying to make it illegal. We must come to see that our true concern as Christians should be the hearts and souls of those who practice abortion, whether doctors, nurses, mothers, indifferent or even complicit fathers, and anyone else who uses or advocates abortion. This applies to any other immoral practice, including abortion, contraception, pornography, premarital sex, or anything else. Whether something should be legal or illegal is a completely different and, I believe, inferior topic, precisely because it is the result, not the cause, of the moral state of a society.
In all nations, the power that governments have is given by God, but with that power comes the responsibility to use it to promote and defend the life and dignity of all people in that nation. This truth takes a slightly different form in democracy than in other political systems. In medieval monarchies, for example, the royalty were definitively and officially Christian. The people and the Church expected them to be good Christians and held them up to that standard. If they failed to follow it, the only ones who deserved blame were the royalty themselves, and the people could blame all signs of corruption in their society on its non-elected government. But in a democracy, we are a nation "of the people". In democracy, the power and responsibility given to governments in effectively distributed to all the people. We are all responsible for the present and future of our society. Even the actions of elected officials ultimately depends and can be blamed on the people who voted them in, since those officials would have no power unless we voted to give it to them.
Because of this attribute of democracy, Christians should indeed work to secure justice and peace through direct governmental action, especially through voting. However, even this can be confusing for Christians. When we look at the legal systems of Islamic theocracies in the world today, their religious law is completely inseparable from their national law. Thus, Islamic moral law and Islamic criminal law are synonymous.
Is this really what Christians want? Should everything we consider sinful be also criminal, such as blasphemy, lust, hate, greed, lack of religious observance, etc.? Indeed, is that even possible? If a Christian accepts the fundamental principles of democracy, namely, equality, pluralism and freedom, we cannot possibly believe that criminal law should mirror Christian moral teaching in its entirety. So, to add yet another layer of confusion to Christian participation in a democracy, we must also decide which of our moral teachings should be reflected in secular law and which should not. This can be very difficult, primarily because the judge of Christian law is God, not man. Even Catholic priests do not administer punishment, only penance - justice is God's. While the state is given the power to administer God's justice on Earth, this cannot be complete. Only God can judge man's interior life and only God is Divine; thus, human justice will always be incomplete and imperfect.
For too long, Christians living in modern democratic societies have let politics misdirect our attention onto it rather than people, law rather than morality, and the government rather than the Church. We vehemently judge and criticize non-Christians and their secular societies while at the same time permitting our fellow Christians to teach false and even malicious doctrines, to lead immoral lives without repentance, and to abandon the Church and God Himself, still calling themselves and accepted as Christians all the way. We allow adoption to be expensive and risky while zealously pushing for abortion to be criminalized. We say pornography is immoral while using contraception and giving it to our children as a "safe and responsible" means of avoiding the "inconvenience" of "unwanted" pregnancies. Priests molest children, teach false doctrines, and hold heretical beliefs about the Church, the Eucharist and God Himself, as all the while Christians are judging atheists for their beliefs and immorality. It is as though we hold a higher standard for nonbelievers than we do our fellow Christians, as though merely saying "I'm Christian" is enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is ludicrous and completely contrary to the teachings of both Christ and the apostles, as well as all the saints throughout history.
Does this mean we should completely sever ties with all Christians who do not follow everything that Christ taught? No - their dissociation from the Church is sufficient distance between us. Ecumenism is an honorable and necessary practice, but when a true Christian sacrifices truth or goodness for the sake of ecumenical agreement, for compromise, we are truly squandering and betraying the Faith that Christ gave us, allowing His one true Church to be fractured into a thousand pieces and corrupted into something other than the Body of Christ.
I firmly believe that the primary causes of the extreme rise in irreligion in modern times is not atheism. Truly, most Western people are still spiritual in some form, and many of them even believe in Christ. It is the complete abandonment of religion that characterizes the modern world, not atheism or even materialism per se. I believe the greatest cause of this abandonment of religion is religion itself, particularly in the case of Christianity. By compromising our truths, fracturing our Church into thousands of brittle, distorted pieces, and violating the very moral virtues we profess, we become stumbling blocks to those outside the Faith, as well as those who are contemplating it.
When they see our weak faith, our embarrassment at our own beliefs and teachings, and our acceptance of impurity in the Church Herself, how can we expect nonbelievers to share our faith and moral values? Out of fear and a desire for political correctness, modern Christians have almost completely lost the strength, the passion, the devotion and the genuine religious faith that was so prominent in the Middle Ages and even through to the 1970s. Many used the Second Vatican Council as an excuse to indulge their weaknesses, but the Council itself was the Church's attempt to reaffirm the Faith. They tried to inspire the same depth of devotion and piety that we had been gradually losing since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when people throughout the West began to think we truly no longer need God.
If Christians today truly want to turn the tide of modern secular humanism and irreligion, and to reunite the various denominations of Christianity back into communion with the one true Church, we cannot focus so singularly on politics or even on apologetics, especially towards nonbelievers. No, we must focus on a much more difficult task - making ourselves and the Church as a whole more holy. As long as we remain hypocrites, willfully abandoning the pursuit of holiness while simultaneously criticizing nonbelievers as though they should be holy without any reason to be, our efforts will crumble. Nothing can guarantee conversions in those we evangelize, but our primary focus must be the holiness of the Church. The greatest form of evangelization is not criticism or works of apologetics, but a living example of holiness expressed in religious devotion and piety, charity, faith and purity. As long as we continue using politics and apologetics as scapegoats to avoid fixing the Church Herself and making ourselves more holy, nonbelievers will continue ignoring our teachings, ignoring our Church, and ignoring our God. I pray that all Christians, especially Catholics, may rediscover the sense of mystery, compassion, humility and contrition that are the true foundations of holiness and thus become Christs to the world. Amen.