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Power or Credibility
Last week I shared a talk I recently went to, by Dr. Joseph Stuart, about the different ways that the Church interacted with the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I’ve been thinking about that talk over the past week. He spoke about how the Church responded to the Enlightenment in three ways: conflict, engagement, and retreat. He discussed how all of these approaches could be positive or negative (depending on how they were done), all three of them are necessary (though not everyone has to do all of them).
It got me thinking about we, the Church, ought to be engaging with the world and culture now. Specifically, it’s gotten me thinking about the very real consequences of Christians engaging the culture with power and coercion rather than with credibility and faithfulness.
Shortly after the January 6th insurrection, I read a comment on Facebook from a professor at a major Catholic university. He was defending the former president and his administration, acting insulted at the idea that Christians ought to repent for their role to play in that event. He said, “to be welcomed in the halls of power and protected by the people in them is something I will forever be grateful for, not repent of.”
That comment was like a sledge hammer of clarity for me. There are many Christians who are perfectly okay with using power and coercion, even if that means sacrificing integrity, to change the secular culture…and they don’t see the consequences of their actions.
Two years ago I wrote an article about this, titled, The Church’s Mission and the Allure of Neo-Christendom. I thought it would be a good time to share that again.
The Church’s Mission and the Allure of Neo-Christendom
In a 1969 German radio broadcast, Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, predicted where he believed the Church was headed. Ratzinger envisioned that the Church of the future generations would lose political power and social acceptance. He said:
“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges.”
In an interview on our Peter’s Field Hospital podcast, Austen Ivereigh said that this shift, from a world where the Church occupied the halls of power to a world where she doesn’t, is a key to understanding Vatican II and Pope Francis. Both the Council and the Holy Father believe “that the primary focus of the Church should no longer be on … the defense of neo-Christendom…” Making that the priority, Ivereigh said, is “all about power.”
The mission of Christendom and the mission of the Church (as laid out by the Council) are very different. The former seeks to occupy spaces of power and influence over others. It is grasping at social privileges while living with a tremendous fear of losing power. Having this mindset means viewing every loss of space in the public square as “persecution.” But the Second Vatican Council taught that the Church’s mission is to proclaim the “Gospel to every creature” and “bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church” (Lumen Gentium 1). If the goal is power, then the mission ultimately rests on coercion. But if the goal is proclamation of the Gospel, then the mission rests on the credibility of the Church’s witness.
If the mission of the Church is something different from Christendom, then staying in the halls of power isn’t as important as many seem to believe. This is why ressourcement, the Second Vatican Council’s desire to look to the early Church as a model for today, is crucial. In the first centuries of Christianity the Church existed in a pagan world where the halls of power and the prevalent social mores were often hostile to the faith. Yet Christianity spread throughout the world at that time. Why? Because Christians were credible. The pagans saw when Christians chose torture and death over having a respectable place in society. The pagans saw that the Christians took care of the poor and marginalized, believers or not. It was the credibility of their witness that won over non-believers. By authentically living out the Gospel, the early Church earned the attention and trust of others.
This is God’s method throughout all of Scripture. God gathered together a people and formed a special relationship with them. Then he commanded them to live out their faith and be a witness to the nations. Then when others saw them, they would be captivated and ask what it was that God’s people had that they didn’t. God assembled a people to become a shining city on a hill, so that through them the entire world would be saved. This witness rested on faithfulness to God, not on earthly power.
Pope Francis’s expression, “time is greater than space,” articulates the tension in the Church around the desire for Christendom. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis explicitly criticizes a mentality that’s “obsessed with immediate results” and madly attempts “to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion.” Instead, the pope says the Church must give “priority to time,” that is, “being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (EG 223).
This is part of the reason there’s so much animosity against Pope Francis within the Church; he isn’t interested in fighting for Christendom. The Catholics who are pining for privilege and influence, who want to win back spaces of power, correctly see that the pope doesn’t support their efforts.
Further, as much as the first centuries of Christianity serve as a model for the Church today, the present age isn’t pagan, it’s post-Christian. This means the Christian witness is undermined by all the baggage of Christendom’s failures, all the times Catholics abused the halls of power when they occupied them. But instead of fighting for the trust of those with whom we inhabit this world, many Catholics are fighting to keep the spaces of power they’ve carved out for themselves and are squandering their credibility in the process. This mentality is present when Christian leaders care more about protecting institutions than children; when they hitch their wagon to political parties and compromise with evil for a space in the halls of power; or when, during a pandemic, they resist reasonable public health guidelines and policies instead of respecting the dignity of the human person and the common good. These actions profoundly damage the Church’s witness and undermine her mission.
The Church cannot afford to squander her credibility by desperately grasping at spaces of power. Instead, Christians are called to root themselves deeply in a living relationship with the Holy Spirit, to be made holy. Father Ratzinger went on to say that the post-Christendom Church “will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right.” Losing these spaces of power, “will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.” But it’s precisely in her lowliness, not her strength, that the Church will be a witness. Ratzinger says:
“Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”
This doesn’t mean Christians should abandon all engagement with the world. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis is clear that the Church “‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines’ in the building of a better world, or fail to ‘reawaken the spiritual energy’ that can contribute to the betterment of society’” (FT 276). This involvement isn’t in competition with earthly powers, but works alongside them. Francis says, “we want to be a Church that serves, that leaves home and goes forth from its places of worship, goes forth from its sacristies, in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be the sign of unity… to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation” (FT 276). In other words, the Church must become the moral heart of politics and society by tirelessly and consistently advocating for the transcendent dignity of every human person.
The most visible and prominent witness of Catholicism in the secular world is Pope Francis. His authentic living out of Gospel simplicity, his concern for the environment, and his emphasis on caring for the vulnerable is attractive and compelling. He is a model of what it means to become lowly for the lowly, to be “a Church which is poor and for the poor” (EG 198). And using that credibility, the Holy Father calls all people to respect human dignity and work tirelessly for justice and peace. Pope Francis is a living example of the Council’s vision of the Church in the secular world. As Father Ratzinger said:
“The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves. To put this more positively: The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints.”
The Christian mission is one of repentance and holiness, not power and privilege. The Church, from the laity to the pope, must have heroic integrity. Jesus’ command still rings today, “Your light must shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). May the Holy Spirit grace the Church with trust that God will never abandon his people, and courage to risk institutions, privileges, and power for the sake of the Gospel.