The Church’s Mission: Apostolic or Political?

In a recent column at CatholicCulture.org, Phil Lawler criticized the bishops of the United States for issuing statements on “too many debatable political issues” rather than sticking to matters that fall more properly within the scope of their teaching authority.

As an example, he pointed to a newly released USCCB statement that “appeared to give the bishops’ perspectives on the federal budget, taxation, deficits, welfare, defense spending, housing assistance, foreign aid, job training, tax credits, Pell grants, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.”

Lawler wonders (as do many others) “why the bishops feel obliged to speak on all those subjects.”  

Well, with no intention of making excuses for this propensity for things political, it seems to me that at least some of the blame rests with the Council Fathers, who in their zeal to ensure that the power of the State would be limited with respect to the activities of the Church, managed to produce a document (Dignitatis Humanae – The Declaration on Religious Liberty) that often compels churchmen to behave more like statesmen. 

At the urging of American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, the Council abandoned the dictates of the traditional doctrine on religious freedom (that for centuries had greatly influenced the way in which the Church interacted with the world) for a version of the civil right to religious liberty enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – a charter specifically intended to guide, not the activities of a religious institution, but the legal and political culture of a nation.

It can hardly come as a surprise, therefore, that this departure from tradition led to a corresponding shift in behavior wherein Apostolic works all-too-frequently take a backseat to political endeavors. 

Based on the experience of the last forty-plus years, one can reasonably argue that Dignitatis Humanae has contributed a great deal to what looks like an ecclesial metamorphosis; a reordering of episcopal priorities so profound that the Church in our day is substantially distracted from Her divinely instituted mission.

That regrettable downhill slide looks something like this:

– The Church adopted a guiding principle derived from a charter that is concerned with ordering a State’s political affairs.

– Taking its cue therefrom, the Church’s hierarchy began preaching less like Apostles while speaking more like politicians.  

– Politicians are under tremendous pressure to play by the modern culture’s number one rule of engagement; political correctness.  

– Political correctness places a very high premium on avoiding such non-inclusive concepts as “absolute truth” lest someone get offended, or worse, feel disenfranchised.    

To secular ears, this may sound harmless enough, but for Catholics who realize that absolute truth is none other than the person of Jesus Christ, the problem is obvious. The current church-state controversy in the United States – where Catholic bishops speak often about the First Amendment but preach very little (if at all) on Humanae Vitae – reveals just how serious the problem is.

The mission that Christ gave to the Apostles and their successors cannot be properly engaged by pussyfooting around in the face of Evil as though all religions – with their conflicting doctrines and manifest errors – are of equal dignity before the Lord. They clearly are not, but in calling on governments to grant a civil right to religious freedom to all, regardless of confession, Dignitatis Humanae implies just such an equality, and this untenable suggestion has radically influenced the way in which the pastors of the Church interact with the world.

How radically?

For context, let’s begin by reacquainting ourselves with the nature of the mission as Jesus presented it:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mt. 28:18-20).

With this directive firmly in mind, consider the following statement offered by Bishop William E. Lori, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Religious Liberty:

“When we speak about religious freedom as the first of the freedoms, it’s not to aggrandize the Church, but to uphold the first line of defense for the dignity of the human person.”

I think most readers realize that the mission that Christ gave us (which is ordered toward the salvation of souls – the ultimate defense for the dignity of the human person) actually requires that we “aggrandize” the Roman Catholic Church; i.e., to call man’s attention, loudly and clearly, to the universal sacrament of salvation that the Lord has given us.

That said, let me be clear: This example isn’t offered to criticize Bishop Lori personally at all, but rather just to illustrate how effective the “gravitational pull” of Dignitatis Humanae is at compelling prelates to speak in ways that conflict with the mission of the Church as Jesus presented it.   

This certainly isn’t the case in the United States alone; it’s a reality throughout the Catholic world. In fact, even the Bishop of Rome isn’t immune. Consider, for example, the first general audience of 2011

After the Angelus that day, the Holy Father announced his intention to “go as a pilgrim to the town of St. Francis” to host the “World Day of Prayer for Peace” – the third such ecumenical gathering of its kind now commonly referred to as “Assisi III.”

The “aim” of the event, according to the Holy Father, was to invite peoples of many different faiths (including pagans and atheists) to gather with him “to solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service to the cause of peace.”

For most of the last two millennia (save for the most recent four decades or so), it would have been absolutely unthinkable for a Roman Pontiff to suggest that non-Catholics will do well persisting in “their own religious faith” for any reason, much less with the implication being that doing so could possibly render “a service to the cause of peace.”

Even so, this particular papal pronouncement undoubtedly struck most Catholics as entirely ordinary, not because the Church now views false religions as pathways to peace (it does not, and they are not); rather, it only seems unremarkable thanks to Dignitatis Humanae and the undeniably strong influence it has had on the Church’s evangelical tone.

In summary, Phil Lawler’s concerns about the American episcopate are well founded; unfortunately, however, they’re really just a symptom of a much larger problem:

Like a computer virus disguised as a necessary update to an important program, the “Americanized” version of religious liberty espoused at Vatican II is increasingly revealing itself as a particularly insidious strain of indifferentism; one that threatens to claim nearly as many victims as the post-conciliar liturgical crisis.

The biggest difference between the two, of course, is that many laity and churchmen (including the Holy Father) plainly recognize the need for a “reform of the reform” of the liturgy; whereas one can only hope to see the day when the same can be said about the Council’s treatment of religious liberty.

Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio has been a columnist for Catholic News Agency since April 2009. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com.

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