Do the recent calls to separate religion from civil society contradict the social teachings for Catholics to participate actively in improving society?

For several weeks recently, Singapore was abuzz with what came to be referred to as the AWARE saga. A new team had taken over the 25-year-old Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) at its annual general meeting on March 28. It turned out that six of the new executive committee members were from the Anglican Church of Our Saviour, which had a strong stand on homosexuality. Aware’s old guard fought for and won back the leadership at an extraordinary general meeting on May 2. 

In the midst of the heated leadership tussle, many people and groups weighed in. The role of religion in the secular realm was raised.

There was a push back by many on the involvement of the Christian group in the affairs of a secular organisation. They seem to have the support of many religious leaders, including Archbishop Nicholas Chia who said “Secular organisations like Aware should remain secular. These organisations are secular and are not within our ambit.”

At the same time, Catholic Social Teachings tell us that all of us should take action in the matters that impact us in the community (the Principle of Participation).

How can we reconcile this principle with what the Archbishop had said?  What does the Aware episode tell Catholics about how we should live out our social mission, which after all, takes place in the secular realm?

The Church

First, we need to differentiate between our role as individual Catholics, and the role of the Church as an institution in a secular state.

Our Archbishop was laying out the limits of the Church’s involvement in the secular realm.

He made it clear that the Catholic Church does not condone the use of the pulpit to canvass for a secular organisation like Aware. He noted that he had asked priests not to comment on Aware. Our Archbishop was backing the stand of Anglican Archbishop John Chew, who had expressed similar sentiments after the pastor of the Anglican Church of Our Saviour used the pulpit to rally support for the six exco members. The pastor has since expressed regret for doing so.

The Church teaches that the religious realm and the secular realm are autonomous, that is, they each have the power of self-government. The secular authorities have no right to tell the Church what to do. The Church, on its part, has no right to impose its will on the Government or other secular groups.

However, the Church can certainly give its view on the social and political issues of the day. In his statement, Archbishop Chia said, “Religious organisations can give their points of view, but we don’t go into (the secular organisation’s) affairs.” 

Indeed, in matters of public interest such as the casinos and euthanasia, the Archbishop had made the Church’s stance clear in the past. The Church proposes its understanding of such moral issues for the benefit of men and women of all faiths, but it does not impose its will on anyone. It respects each person’s freedom to decide for himself, and that includes his right to be mistaken.

The Church as an institution does not engage in politics. Its role is not to canvass the support of Catholics for a particular political party or civil society faction. Its role is to teach Catholics what is true and morally right, and inform their consciences so they are able to make good political choices.

Individual Catholics, as citizens in their own right, can and should participate fully in the political and public life of their country. Our Catholic values should inform our choices of which causes to take up, which activities to participate in and support. We should not be party to activities that contradict these values.


As Catholics, we live in a secular world. Our participation in this world is guided by, among others, the Principle of Participation. This principle states that we each have a pro-active role in shaping our present and future life as well as society as a whole.  It states further that it is the duty of every human person to participate in all realms of community life, that is, in the economic, social, spiritual, recreational, cultural and political arenas.

So, as individuals, whether Catholic or not, it is both our right and our duty to have participated in the AWARE saga, in accordance with our convictions.

But what if these convictions are shaped by our religious values? There is a dangerous and mistaken belief among some that citizens taking part in secular affairs should leave their religiously-informed views behind.

During the casino debate of 2005, for example, one letter writer to the newspapers said those who opposed casinos on religious grounds should stay out of the discussion. By any measure, that is an unreasonable view to hold, especially when, according to the 2000 population census, 85 per cent of Singaporeans say they have a religion.

In its 1989 White Paper setting out the rationale for the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the Government itself acknowledged that Singaporeans cannot be expected to set aside their religious beliefs when they exercise their political rights as citizens. “It is neither possible nor desirable to compartmentalise completely the minds of voters into secular and religious halves, and to ensure that only the secular mind influences voting behavior,” the White Paper said.

As citizens, Catholics and those of other religions have every right to take part in civil society. They can form associations or join existing ones with the aim of putting across their point of view, but how they choose to do so matters a great deal. They must not employ unethical means to achieve their ends, no matter how noble.

The Aware saga was an example of Christians trying to bring about change through means that many found questionable and unacceptable. They may have gone in with the best intentions in the world. They may have had an admirable goal – to end what they saw as Aware’s promotion of a gay and lesbian lifestyle. But in the end, they appeared to have lost both moral authority and credibility because of the means they are perceived to have used to capture control of Aware.  Their actions ultimately provoked a backlash which led to their ouster within two months of being elected the group’s leaders.

In a pluralistic society, citizens need to learn respect for one another’s views, and how to disagree in a civil manner. Catholics should aim to help others appreciate the truth and goodness of Catholic teachings and values. We should communicate our views in terms that others in a secular society can understand. We should not scheme to defeat those who hold contrary views, or use coercion of any kind to sway others, for surely, we too would object strenuously if those of other faiths were to try to impose their religious beliefs on us.

Within these bounds of ethical and proper conduct, it remains our right and our duty to help make our society better, in accordance with our Catholic values and teachings.

Source: Caritas Singapore Community Council

AWARE and the Principle of Participation
Rules of engagement between secular and religious ideas
Skills of engagement in the secular space