Thursday, April 28, 2016

Is The Catholic Church A Political Animal?

   Right now we are in the midst of an unusually rambunctious presidential election here in the United States. It seems a good time to revisit this Throwback to April 15th 2015 (first published on the blog Nisi Dominus), which looks at the difference between secular politics and "politics" within the Church.

   You’re going to find politics wherever people gather, or so someone once told me when I had objected to using the secular political terms “liberal” and “conservative” to describe different factions within the Catholic Church.  And he was right, if by “politics” we mean the small-p wrangling that unavoidably accompanies any human enterprise requiring two or more people.  But that is a very different thing from Politics, of the partisan variety.  The Church is not a political party, and does not work like a political party.  Nor should it.

Synod on the Family October 2015 (photo: Vatican Radio News)

     That may seem an obvious point to you and to me, but it’s not at all obvious to everybody.  It’s a distinction lost on a large number of people outside of the Church for instance, for many of whom politics has taken the place of religion, and so has become the lens through which they interpret everything. Many such people have come to dominate the secular media in the developed world, with the result that the mass media projects the secular political model onto the Church, with bad guys called conservatives working to thwart the good guys, the liberals (sometimes referred to as progressives), who are fighting to bring about a kinder, better Catholic Church more in step with The Times.  This is the only model of the inner-workings of the Church most people see, including most ordinary Catholics, unless they intentionally seek out Catholic publications which reject this distorted view (sadly, many self-identified Catholic outlets do not).
     That is not to say that there isn’t a wide range of legitimate differences of opinion within the Church; there most certainly is.  Unlike a political party, however, where major policy planks can change overnight with a vote of the membership (and why not? They’re only opinions), there are many things in the Church which are grounded in Divine Revelation, and are therefore not up for negotiation.  This vital distinction was expressed very clearly by then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in 2004.  Senator John Kerry, the nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States, was widely criticized for receiving communion and touting his Catholic bona fides despite his open advocacy for legal abortion and other positions contrary to Catholic moral teaching.  Accordingly, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a letter (later published by the Holy See under the title “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles”) to Kerry’s ordinary, then Archbishop of Washington, D.C. Theodore McCarrick,  which gives an excellent example of how the Church is different from a political party.  For instance, Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.  There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)
     This crucial difference can be obscured by applying secular political terms to church “politics”.  Political parties often change even basic positions, and this is sometimes a good thing: consider that, when I was a child, many prominent leaders in the Democratic Party in the United States were unapologetic White Supremacists and segregationists. Such a position would be unthinkable today, and yet nobody doubts that the Democratic Party is still the Democratic Party.  Using the political analogy can create the impression that proposed changes in the Church are benign or even desirable changes of the same sort.The difference between abortion and euthanasia on the one hand and war and capital punishment on the other is that the Church has always taught that the first two are intrinsically evil, and so never permissible; this teaching is part of the deposit of faith and cannot change, and to publicly oppose it is to separate oneself from the Church (hence the unworthiness to receive communion).  In the case of war and capital punishment, the Church has taught that, in some instances, they may be morally licit, a teaching that likewise cannot change.  While there are certain moral principles that bind a Catholic here (e.g., the Just War Doctrine), the actual application of these principles belongs to the prudential judgment of individual Catholic decision makers.  It is in matters of prudential judgment that legitimate differences of opinion may arise.

     Many so-called liberals in the Church today, however, are not advocating simply the more “liberal” application of unchanging principles in prudential situations, but are pushing for changing more foundational things like the teaching on marriage, the meaning of priesthood, sexual morality, etc.  The Catholic Church, however, can’t change its teachings and still remain the Catholic Church. One can usually make a case for being either a conservative or a liberal in political matters, but when it comes to Church Doctrine, we can only be Catholic . . . or Not. 

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