Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Ninth Challenge: The Church and Political Life

by Don Conroy

Continuing with our special Countdown to Synod 2010 series . . .

What is the role of the church in political life? In Church: Living Communion, Paul Lakeland begins addressing this question by reminding the reader of the mission of the Church: namely, to preach "the good news." The Church's political activity must follow that mission. He is writing as a Catholic theologian and points out that structures are a necessity in human endeavor, and since we are sinful, without structures in our political life we would have ". . . well-meaning chaos at best, a dog-eat-dog power struggle at worst." (p.112)

Also, without structures our human limitations would relegate love to sentimentality. Cardinal Sin, the former Archbishop of the Phillipines puts it this way:

Strength without compassion is violence.
Compassion without justice is mere sentiment.
Justice without love is Marxism.
And love without justice is baloney.

The separation of Church and state in the United States means that the institution of the Church cannot impose its teaching on the American people as a whole. The church leaders find it difficult to engage in debate and compromise, which is the stuff of political life. Lakeland reminds us that "ethics is about principles, politics is the art of the possible, and there are going to be conflicts." (p.114) The role of influencing public policy in the U.S. falls on the the Catholic citizens and Catholic politicians. The responsibility of the Church leaders is to teach the people Catholic Social Doctrine and that the people are the Church and have responsibility as Catholics. On the whole, he writes, the institution has done a poor job.

Charles Curran, in his recent address to 600 moral theologians from the world meeting at Trent, Italy (cf. National Catholic Reporter, 9/3/10), points out that the hierarchy's insistence on moral themes that are based on "normative solutions" (classical, neo-scholastic, abstract) makes little sense to the consciousness of contemporary men and women. As a consequence, the second largest religious group in the U.S. is former Catholics, and that adds up to one tenth of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. This data is a political concern for Catholics and calls for change for those who love the church.

The failure of the Church leaders to educate the Catholic people in Catholic Social Teaching is addressed in Gary Orfield's article, "Segregation, Inequality, Discrimination and Catholic Social Thought: Moving from Doctrine to Action" (Journal of Catholic Thought, March 2006, 143-177). Orfield emphasizes the power of Catholic Social Teaching against racism and discrimination in the U.S., but also points out the consequences of the Church's overemphasis of procreation policies and ". . . the tacit alliances with political forces that consistently oppose civil rights and minority interests." (Orfield was a professor of Education and Social Policy at Harvard University in 2006.)

Lakeland is not alone in his criticism of Catholic Church leaders and their responsibility to educate the Catholic people in its Social Teaching.

Tomorrow we look at Challenge 10: Building on the Strength of the Church.

See also the previous PCV posts
The First Challenge: Identity and Commitment
The Second Challenge: Ministry - Ordained and Lay
The Third Challenge: The Roles of Women in the Church
The Fourth Challenge: Church Teaching and Individual Conscience
The Fifth Challenge: The Religious Formation of the Young
The Sixth Challenge: The Scandal of Sexual Abuse
The Seventh Challenge: Ecumenism
The Eighth Challenge: Religious Pluralism

Theologian and author Paul Lakeland will be the keynote speaker at the Catholic Coalition for Church reform's September 18 Synod of the Baptized: "Claiming Our Place at the Table." For more information about this event and to register, click here.


  1. 9-15-10 Progressive Catholic Voice people I wish you well with your Synod of the Baptized but how about adding this agenda at the end?
    May 2010 (CNN) -- The world's eco-systems are at risk of "rapid degradation and collapse" according to a new United Nations report.
    The third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) published by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) warns that unless "swift, radical and creative action" is taken "massive further loss is increasingly likely." Reading the entire online report is vital.

  2. Hi, Marie. Thanks for your encouragement. Our goal in the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform is to activate ourselves and all our Catholic brothers and sisters to take responsibility for the world's well-being. So thanks also for directing our attention to the world's endangered eco-systems. Wouldn't it be useful if the Catholic Church as a whole got behind this issue?