At their biannual general assembly last week, the US bishops were given an update by a group of bishops who are exploring the way the Church communicates with the average person in the pew. Since my job is in service of just those people – the average person in the pew – I listened to the report with interest. When the report wasn’t easily found online, I listened to it again and took notes.
They surveyed a number of different groups of people in the Church, including Hispanics and young parents and singles. They interviewed both “engaged Catholics” (those who go to Mass at least 3x a month) and “fervent Catholics” (those who go to Mass 4x or more a month and who indentify themselves as having a personal relationship with Jesus), but also those consider themselves Catholic but are not active.
None of the data shocked me, but it was good to have it verified. A few common themes ran through all of the responses from all of the groups- things like “we want to know the why behind the Church teaching” — which helped validate my position in my own mind.
One of the most common recommendations- from almost every single group- was “stay away from politics.” The “engaged” Catholics said they had concerns over the Church getting into “politics,” which really translated into any divisive social issue – abortion, redefinition of marriage, etc.
I think the two are related: the response that they don’t know the why behind Church teaching, and the concern with the Church being involed in politics. Let me explain.
Should the Church, strictly speaking, “get into politics?” No. Canon law prohibits clergy running for office. The role of the Church is not to run governments. But does that mean the Church has nothing to say in the sphere of politics? Of course not. If this interests you, I highly recommend the writings of Pope Benedict, particularly his work with Marcello Pera, an atheist Italian senator who writes beautifully about the role of Christianity in the West.
“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”
(Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 28)
It is not the role of the Church’s hierarchy to run the government. It is the role of the Church- the Body of Christ, the people in the pew – to run the government. That’s precisely our role as laity: to be the leaven in society to work for the common good and the kingdom of God.
What does this require? That our intellects, wills, and consciences be shaped by the Church – the Magisterium – so that we can go into the world, into Parliaments and Congress and the public square – and promote true human flourishing.
I think when the people in the pew say they want their priests to “stay out of politics,” it is because they actually don’t know the why behind Church teaching. They see the Church’s concern over social issues – particulary divisive ones – as meddling in politics because they have never been shown that these issues have roots (and effects) far deeper than at the political level.
If a priest rants about a prochoice politican and I like that politican, my brain is going to shut off and I’m going to label him judgmental. But if we begin the conversation back at the beginning — what is the role of politics, what is a just society, what are the actual effects of the disregard of the sancity of life in a society — I can then begin to understand why I should vote a certain way. If someone rants about homosexual unions, it might be tempting to tune them out and wonder why they hate my homosexual cousin. But if we start at the beginning, about how we were created and why we were created and the purpose of sexuality, maybe I can come a little farther in undersatnding why the Church teaches marriage is between and man and a woman.
(Interestingly enough, when parish priests were surveyed, they admitted that they feared involvement in politics would contaminate the mission, yet recommended they be encouraged to teach the moral principles that parishioners need to hear.)
Every day, we are called to work for the reign of Christ the King. Will we see that reign on this earth in our lifetime? No. But does that mean its naive or romantic to work for it? No — it’s our vocation as Christians. Whether we are priest or religious, married or single, we have a role to play in making this society more just, more holy, more fitting for Christ our King.
So for any bishops reading this blog (ha), when the people in the pew say “stay at out of politics,” see that as a challenge… a challenge to help them understand everyone’s proper role in politics, to help them understand the whys behind Church teaching, and to examine your own actions. As the Church hierarchy, you should be worried more about the laity knowing the teaching of Christ, and then please… step back and let the laity work in the government to figure out how that teaching is best brought to public policy. (because things like this and this do nothing but further divide and anger those people in the pews.)
Viva Christo Rey. And keep voting.