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Politics and Church Unity

January 24, 2013

This week is about as full as a week can get here at my parish in DC. We celebrate Martin Luther King, as well as the presidential inauguration; the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity takes place; and we will host Cardinal Sean O’Malley in our Mass for Life before the March for Life on Friday. I have found the intersection of these particular events is striking. This week, we pray for Christian unity. We pray that the Holy Spirit would lead Christians into full communion with each other, that they may be one, during a week when Christian disunity will be on full display.

Does doctrine divide Christians? I tend to doubt it. At least, it’s not the main cause of division today.  Sure, Christians can point to aspects of other traditions with which they disagree, but much of that has more to do with cultural differences and misunderstandings. Here in the U.S., at least today, the churches are too weak to form people who could have a serious quibble with, say, Catholic teaching on the real presence. What has tended to divide Christians has not been doctrine but culture and politics, or, to be more specific, loyalty to powers other than the Church. And so I was struck when it occurred to me that we Christians are to pray for unity during a week when key constituencies of both major political parties will be gathering en masse on the Mall here in Washington.

I love my pastor. After Fr. Moises baptized my boy, Elijah, he made jokes about Mount Tabor . At a fundraising gala, he was the first on the dance floor, Capuchin habit and all. But what I really love is that he is, like the other Capuchins that serve our parish, truly catholic. To him, MLK, the inauguration of this nation’s first black president, and the March for Life were all causes for celebration. That’s not to say that we just celebrate everything, as if we’re soft on truth. I’ve heard denunciations of consumerism, encroachments on religious liberty, militarism, and abortion all from the same pulpit. In other words, this pastor shows that it is possible to be a Christian in “the time called America” without playing court theologian to one of the powers in contemporary U.S. political life.

A couple of months ago, I posted on Vox Nova about the idea of the Church losing her life to save it. This issue of unity and politics provides a good example of gaining by letting go. It’s rare for me to pick up a Christian publication without finding at least one article whose author has given up a little Christian integrity for the sake of influence. But at what cost? Surely, such a move communicates that maintaining an influential position is more important than learning to think with the whole Christian community, across time and space. Karl Barth, like many others who have sought Christian unity, rightly recognized that conversion to Christ the Lord would be necessary for any successful ecumenical efforts. Christians will be one to the extent that they recognize one Lord. But acknowledging one Lord may cost us. Fr. Moises is not going to convince a Republican that the free market cannot solve every social problem, nor will he convince a Democrat that the HHS contraception mandate has no place in a pluralistic society. But he serves as the pastor for an exceptionally diverse congregation, and so I would think that folks looking to see what Christian unity looks like would want to know what he does. What does he do? It seems to me that he puts Christ ahead of temporal powers. When it comes to politics, most of us are willing to downplay some aspect of our social teaching in order to curry favor with a party. We look to lesser lights for guidance. I don’t think that we should expect to bear witness to the unity of the Body of Christ if we are not willing to come under the headship of Christ. Letting go of our false attachments to the powers of the secular city may serve as a step toward conversion and hence toward Christian unity.

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29 Comments
  1. January 25, 2013 8:03 am

    What is needed, first and foremost, is an open Communion in every church. Without that, there is no hope for Christian unity.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      January 25, 2013 9:40 pm

      Some of us who have been involved in serious ecumenical efforts might say it the other way: without Christian unity, there is no hope for a shared Eucharistic fellowship.

  2. Joseph permalink
    January 25, 2013 8:10 am

    Good observation. All divisions in PXanity are based in culture/politics beginning with the Donatist. Now what do we do about it? A viable solution has yet to be found.

  3. Doc Fox permalink
    January 25, 2013 11:51 am

    There are many ways in the Church is the prisoner of its past, rather than the student of its past. It is wise to learn from the past, but it is not wise to slavishly follow the past. Thus the SSPX is 180 degrees off course. When we begin with acknowledging that there is a Judeo-Christian-Islamic unity on the identity of the Deity as being the Deity of Torah. We conceive of that Deity in different ways, and our enmities are those of close relatives with family differences of generations past. Brothers, one of whom fought for the Confederacy, the other for the Union, except religious wars are even more brutal. Now the common ancestry of our Faiths does not mean all doctrines are equal, but it does mean we need to be reaching out with open arms, not weapons.

  4. Patrick F permalink
    January 25, 2013 12:09 pm

    Rodak, do you really think open Communion would help achieve Christian unity, or would it just further the mindset that places cultural and political accommodation ahead of Christ, as Aaron discusses in this article? After all, Communion is unifying because it expresses a unity of belief (in Christ’s permanent real presence in time and history, etc.).

    • January 25, 2013 2:08 pm

      @ Patrick F — Yes, I really do think that. Your comment suggests that Protestant Communion has no unifying power within Protestant communities, which is probably taught to you (there’s some politico-cultural evidence for you), but which is far from being descriptive of reality. I firmly believe that most Catholics who bother to think about it at all, do not consider non-Catholics to be “real Christians.” And, of course, many Protestants feel that way about Catholics, and some other Protestant sects.
      Most of us have occasion to go to weddings, christenings, etc. at the churches of “those others.” When that happens, Communion is sometimes denied to, or sometimes abstained from, the outsider at the ceremony. I think that it would go a long way towards establishing Christian unity if all felt invited on the one hand, and free on the other hand, to receive Communion with those family and friends whose church they are visiting on a joyous occasion. I also think that the denial, or refusal, of Communion has a detrimental effect that is contrary to the fundamental message of Jesus Christ.

      • Patrick F permalink
        January 25, 2013 8:20 pm

        Rodak, thanks for your response. I am sympathetic to your points, in part because my in-laws are Mennonite and my extended family is variously Lutheran, Evangelical, Catholic and none-of-the-above. Nonetheless, it seems to me that simply opening the doors of Communion to anyone, regardless of belief, does nothing to bring about unity, but simply glosses over differences in belief that do exist. I would say that ecumenism requires at least two steps, (1) focus first on common ground and then (2) speak candidly about differences. Both steps are essential: in fact, to understand the sources of difference can itself be a first step toward healing. Above all, by putting Christ ahead of political and cultural powers, as Aaron discusses in the article, the common ground expands considerably.

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          January 26, 2013 12:01 am

          Patrick, I agree. In the Mennonite/Catholic group Bridgefolk, we have been practicing both of these steps (perhaps better described as long-term practices) long enough to know better than to expect a quick fix. It is precisely because we long for true, visible, Eucharistic unity that we can’t afford to settle for something less by being dishonest about where we are, even as we continue to seek ways of moving further toward that ultimate goal.

        • Patrick F permalink
          January 27, 2013 5:04 pm

          Bridgefolk is a very good organization. Thanks for bringing them to my attention!

        • Rodak permalink
          January 26, 2013 6:31 am

          @ Patrick F. — The common ground is: I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior; and, I am baptized; you are baptized. That represents both the necessary and the sufficient conditions for you and I to share Communion without additional questions being raised. That this is not the case in practice merely represents the efforts of various economic interest groups to corner the market on souls for their own aggrandizement. It couldn’t be more political or less spiritual.

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          January 26, 2013 3:28 pm

          Rodak, it seems to me the remaining question is this: is there common ground on what it means to share communion?

  5. Kurt permalink
    January 25, 2013 12:50 pm

    Amen, Aaron.

  6. January 25, 2013 4:24 pm

    Your point about the biggest obstacle to unity of minds and hearts being “loyalty to powers other than the Church” is well taken, but it might be more accurate to speak instead of “loyalty to powers other than Jesus Christ.” It is fascinating to see that controversies which once led Christians to excommunications and anathemas, to physical altercations, and even to wars are now left to theological commissions to adjudicate as they will. Nobody much cares. But when it comes to partisan causes, we are at one another’s throats. That is certainly true within American Catholicism, and it leads some of us to bond easily with the Episcopalians while others vastly prefer the evangelicals.

    It sounds as if your parish is getting the leadership the whole Church needs right now. I wish I could say the same for mine. Parts of the consistent ethic are just too un-PC for us, and the words and deeds of the current adminisration are beyond criticism. Yet I prefer it to local parishes where allegiance to other “powers in contemporary U.S. political life” guides everything from the Prayers of the Faithful to the potluck suppers. I know many of the priests here, but I don’t think I know a Fr. Moises.

  7. Julia Smucker permalink*
    January 25, 2013 9:58 pm

    Very well said, Aaron. I think you’re onto something important in the connections you’re drawing between intra-church (as well as inter-church) divisions and capitulation to temporal powers. I second Ron Chandonia’s remark about your priest being “the leadership the whole Church needs right now.”

    Bishop Denis Madden has shared some very fitting thoughts that relate to this same connection: http://usccbmedia.blogspot.com/2013/01/prayers-for-christian-unity-apply-to.html

  8. Ronald King permalink
    January 26, 2013 8:51 am

    Aaron, Thank you for this post. On the subject of open Communion I agree with Rodak, which is a change for me from my past belief. Who are we to deny food which gives life to someone because they do not believe as we do. That is not an act of Love it is an act of exclusion and fear, in my opinion. Julia referred to Bishop Madden’s blog in which he made several suggestions to help promote Christian/Catholic unity. What dissappointed me was his last point which should have been in my opinion his first point, “When all else fails love…” To Love is the greatest act and to ask what will Love do in any particular situation is the first thing we should do. It is our inability to delve into the mystery of God’s Love which separates us through the formulation of traditions and canon law created through the influence of fear rather than Love.

  9. Rodak permalink
    January 26, 2013 6:06 pm

    “Rodak, it seems to me the remaining question is this: is there common ground on what it means to share communion?”

    Yes. I stated it in my last response to Patrick F. Everything beyond what I stated is just sectarian power games. Which is to say (with apologies to The Lovin’ Spoonful), I don’t believe in magic. Jesus said when ever two or three people come together in His name, He is there. That’s the Real Presence: the priest is totally superfluous. There is no reason that you and I can’t serve each other Communion–perfectly valid and “real” Communion–on a picnic lunch, so long as we do it with love and in remembrance of Him. He will be there, as He promised.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      January 27, 2013 2:02 pm

      Well, if you believe that consecration by a priest is mere magicalism and Christ’s presence is only in the gathering of believers, and I believe that something unique happens in the Eucharist which is no mere “picnic lunch” fare, then I’m afraid we are divided on what communion means. And if that’s the case, how can we share communion with real honesty? This is not to say that we don’t share the goal of being in communion, but there is a lot that must be worked through first. We must begin by honestly acknowledging where we are if we are to get to where we want to be.

      • Rodak permalink
        January 28, 2013 5:43 am

        @Julia — Have I not honestly acknowledged where I am? I don’t see why–magicalism apart–we can’t begin by sharing the ceremony, even if we have different beliefs about what is “going on” when we do so. I don’t believe the contention that I would be injured spiritually by accepting Communion in a Catholic ceremony without first being rubber-stamped by a priest. And I’m quite sure that you wouldn’t be injured by sharing bread and wine in Christ’s name on a picnic lunch. Anything that would bring us together would be better than what we have now–which is suspicion, scorn, and even hatred.

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          January 28, 2013 3:24 pm

          “Have I not honestly acknowledged where I am?”
          Indeed you have. And from that point as you have spelled it out, participation in a Catholic Eucharist would not be honest. As Aaron has explained below, you would be saying “Amen” to something you do not believe.

          I don’t buy the dichotomy that says the only alternative to suspicion, scorn and hatred is indifferentism. Both of these injure the Body of Christ. Ignoring our divisions is not the same as overcoming them. We should not simply settle for disunity, but if we want true unity, a deeper and more patient ecumenical process is needed. It’s a long-term commitment, not a quick fix.

  10. Kurt permalink
    January 27, 2013 10:00 am

    Let me add, while affirming everything Aaron wrote about Fr, Moises, for me the most profound spiritual witness in the parish are the long serving members of the parish, mostly widowed women and all African-American. They persevered in their strong faith going back to the days when they were required to sit in the back of the church because of their race and receive communion after the white members of the parish did. Yet they exhibit a joy and depth in their faith that is amazing.

    • January 28, 2013 3:38 pm

      @ Julia — I have suggested a possible way around the “dishonesty” problem to Aaron below.

  11. Aaron Matthew Weldon permalink*
    January 27, 2013 9:11 pm

    A proper response to the questions about open communion would require its own post. I will only try to make two points.

    1. Julia is absolutely right regarding the issue of honesty, or, we might say truthfulness. In my life, I have received communion in baptist, charismatic, Mennonite, and Catholic liturgies. In all of those celebrations, I said “Amen” prior to receiving the elements. What did I mean when I said that? If Rodak were to come to my parish and say “Amen,” R. would be implying consent to the prayer that the Lord accept the sacrifice at the priest’s hands. R. would also be claiming to be in communion with Pope Benedict and Cardinal Wuerl. And R. would be stating publicly that the elements being presented for communion were the body and blood of Christ. But R. believes that all of that is “magical” thinking. So, Rodak would be lying. We could say something similar about me were I to partake of communion at one of R.’s picnics. I don’t think we do a service to ecumenism by so easily eliding the truth.

    2. Communion requires conversion. Disunity between Christians points to the need for conversion, for reconciliation. I don’t partake of communion at a Catholic Mass if I have not first been reconciled to the Church through the sacrament of penance. I believe that the Lutheran pastor, theologian, and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, agrees with me, saying that communion without confession is cheap grace. We can’t simply bypass conversion and penance on the way to Eucharistic sharing. That would seem to me to be a failure to discern the body.

    Now, we can still enjoy meals, tell stories, and pray together. We can certainly share life, but when we go to our separate liturgies, we’d do better to mourn our disunity than to pretend that it’s not real.

    • Rodak permalink
      January 28, 2013 5:53 am

      “…we’d do better to mourn our disunity than to pretend that it’s not real.”

      @ Aaron — Fine. So what are we wasting our time talking about unity for? Btw, Lutherans don’t have formal, individual “confession.” So, whatever Bonhoeffer meant by “confession” while speaking of it in the Lutheran context (assuming your paraphrase to be accurate) is fine with me. And, if there were universal, open Communion, all that would be necessary is that the presiding pastor not ask those questions of communicants who can’t answer them honestly in the affirmative. All Jesus required was that his followers “do this in remembrance of me.”

      • Aaron Matthew Weldon permalink*
        January 28, 2013 7:46 am

        We’re not wasting our time. We’re seeking the truth through our conversation, and by doing so, we open ourselves to the Spirit of Truth, to the possibility of conversion. Ecumenism and ecclesial renewal go hand-in-hand. We must be reconciled to one another before offering our gifts.

        Yes, I don’t believe that any Protestant communities practice confession the way that Catholics do. Perhaps he refers to a public confession at the beginning of the liturgy. Or, perhaps in some parish communities, there are local reconciliation practices. The point is that repentance precedes communion, but I don’t know how that gets fleshed out in different communities.

        • January 28, 2013 8:05 am

          @ Aaron — Good. I don’t want to settle for “mourn[ing] our disunity” either. Let us assume that a good Lutheran has made his “confession” according to Bonhoeffer’s conception of confession and is attending a family wedding with people whom he loves very much at a Catholic church. He wants to take part in the Communion with his loved ones. But since the presiding priest is his wife’s uncle, and therefore knows that he’s not Catholic, he cannot receive. Why can there not be a modification to the service, so that the priest first asks the communicant if he’s Catholic, and if the answer if “no” then asks him to affirm his faith by answering an alternative set of questions to which the communicant can answer in the affirmative? This would seem to be a workable solution. What is the objection?

        • Thales permalink
          January 30, 2013 6:32 pm

          Why can there not be a modification to the service, so that the priest first asks the communicant if he’s Catholic, and if the answer if “no” then asks him to affirm his faith by answering an alternative set of questions to which the communicant can answer in the affirmative?

          Because there *aren’t* a sufficient set of questions that the person could answer in the affirmative. The first question would have to be “Is this, essentially and substantially, the body of Christ?”, to which the person wouldn’t affirm.

  12. January 29, 2013 5:07 pm

    I think this thread has been hijacked. The new topic is certainly worth discussing, but so was the topic at the outset of it.

    • February 2, 2013 2:54 pm

      @ Thales — Then there is no basis for ecumenicism possible. What Catholics really demand is universal conversion to Catholicism, which is not ecumenicism. The whole conversation here is meaningless, and frankly, dishonest.

  13. February 1, 2013 7:54 am

    Silence falls, eh? And then the “hijack” card is played. There’s a your “hope” of Church Unity in microscale.

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