Politics and Church Unity
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.