Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Bishops helping Congress: The one thing needful?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 26, 2023

I was glad to see that the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops included the need to reduce “unsustainable deficits” in his offer to help congressional leaders avert a government shutdown. Phil Lawler had emphasized this very problem last Thursday in The debt limit as a moral test, though he also noticed that limiting governmental debt has seldom been an episcopal priority.

Nonetheless, one wonders why the Conference should have a specific political agenda at all, or why it should offer its own political brilliance to avert a government shutdown. Far better to do a good job at evangelization, instruction in the Faith, and moral formation—in short, conversion—and let politics take care of itself. Or, as Our Lord put it: “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Christ was quite capable of speaking harshly, and he offered this startling advice to a man who wished to begin following Him only after he had completed the funeral arrangements for his father. Our Lord’s whole statement was “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Mt 8:22). One wonders if this disciple, after the Resurrection, went on to become an ambivalent bishop—or at least a player in the world—for whom governmental lobbying points are frequently more important than preaching the Gospel. When did Our Lord take time out to “help” the government? When did he ever lobby the authorities? When did He preach that the shortest distance between two Providential points runs through political action?

Politics: The bane of all cultures

A significant problem with nearly every human culture—and certainly every secular human culture—is its tendency to regard political influence as the key to happiness, or at least the key to solving problems. In other words, the bane of nearly every human culture is that it does not take these words of Christ seriously: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33). Note that Our Lord was answering the same questions we keep asking on behalf of both ourselves and others today: What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? And now we Catholics apparently believe He should have instructed his followers to lobby for their needs and the needs of the poor, and to vote for whomever promises to fulfill them.

Christians should take as axiomatic that the most important things are not material but spiritual, and therefore (in the sociological sense) not political but cultural. Catholics (and indeed all Christians) can do far more to transform society by uniting in worship and taking care of each other than by seeking government help. That is, they can do far more by forming close-knit mutually-supportive Eucharist-centered communities than by turning out the vote. Why do we not take Christ at his word? And why, so often, do our bishops not take Him at His word either: Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.

It seems the Church cannot forget her heady “Christendom days”, when she was the dominant institution in the world. But the peculiar misunderstanding is that Christendom did not become Christendom (including all its own spiritual temptations and traps) without widespread conversion to Christ among people throughout the culture of every station and class. Christendom was in some ways a socio-political implementation of the Gospel; but it was also a human social order, replete with human faults. It did carry within it a dominant vision of reality with at least a very strong measure of Catholic insight, but it is a vision which has since been entirely lost. Nothing like that can make its appearance in history again—even with its own combination of strengths and weaknesses—without widespread conversion, without at least some imperfect human sense that Christ alone is our true King.

The bane of our own cultural situation, then, may well be that both bishops and Catholics interested in politics are still wedded to the colossally mistaken assumption that Christian political action can precede Christian evangelization—that Christian politics can precede Christianity itself. When the cart is before the horse, the cart is doomed to either crash or go backwards.

The limits of human fraternity

Another factor worth noticing is that it will never work to sneak Christianity in through the servant’s entrance, not because Christians are not servants but because Christian service cannot be defined and shaped by anyone but Christ. For example, despite occasionally overlapping priorities, it is useless to attempt to found a coherent, positive culture on mere human fraternity. Such an effort must inescapably depend not on Christ but on a small and ever-changing list of things on which the powers of this world momentarily and accidentally agree with Christ.

There will always be a few items on this list arising from the tendency of the natural law to reassert itself in human affairs in unexpected ways under adverse circumstances. But such shifting sands admit of no firm foundation. Reality requires the grounding of our human nature on Him in whose image and likeness we have been created. But this essential grounding is the very thing that is always prohibited under the reign of secularism, just as it has always been prohibited under other false gods. Disparate groups may occasionally converge, but without Christ that convergence is essentially accidental, doomed to wither like branches merely stapled to the vine.

Indeed, no genuine human enlightenment can persist without grace, which is precisely why what was once Western Christian civilization is now crumbling, and not only crumbling but subject to a vicious and systematic destruction. It is good, and may also be useful at times, to speak of human commonalities among the various religions and philosophical outlooks in an effort to promote peace. But this will be good only as long as it remains motivated primarily by love as understood in the light of Christ. The main danger is to mistake diplomacy for the Gospel, that is, to believe that the radical message of the Gospel can be approximated in categories of human reason separated from the life of Christ Himself—which is flatly impossible.

In all such endeavors, the light of Christ must be visible; Catholics must take the lead in selfless love and service to both their natural communities and their interlocutors, complete with generous testimonies to the teachings and example of both the Savior and the Savior’s saints. Diplomacy without tangible witness is devoid of grace, and this brings us back again to human politics. For unless the Christian involvement in politics transcends the culturally-permitted political categories in its witness to the truth generally and to Christ and the Church specifically, then that political involvement is just another policy maneuver.

To put this more succinctly: There is really no such thing as an abstract “Catholic politics”. There is only witness and service and obedience to Christ in political action, arising from the supernatural virtues that have been given to and strengthened in us through the life of the Church.

Indifference to political forms

It is also useless to insist on particular political forms, as if one form of government is less prone to abuse over time than others, or that the common good is necessarily better served by one form or another. The evidence of history shrieks against such facile nonsense. The best form of government in any given time and place is the one that can currently be used to maximize the common good; moreover, it is evident historically that neither the raw percentage of voters nor the number or origin of the governors has any consistent bearing on the common good. The reason is that if a wide variety of intermediary institutions are not valued as influential and vital to the common good, then the social order is reduced to the atomized individual voter on the one hand and the monopolistic power of the State on the other.

We might well describe this situation as mere politics. Any such society is already in its death throes. (An excellent sign of this today is the year-round barrage of desperately long text messages from political organizations insisting that their current gambit is the key to victory, however loosely defined.) To the contrary, a wholesome political order demands a wholesome social order characterized by firmly-rooted and vibrant intermediary institutions serving the common good without being primarily political in nature. This is how political influence takes on a genuinely human face.

But as Americans have increasingly allowed political mythology instead of Christianity to shape their civic spirit, whatever values remain have become politically correct—which is to say, politically monopolistic. This is so true that we no longer even realize that freedom is the uniquely Divine, angelic, and human ability to choose the Good.

It is true that any area of human endeavor can be corrupted, but it is also true that those with great influence of any kind in society are all the more seriously tempted to assume that their own human lights are sufficient to ensure the integrity of their goals, their ways, and their means. This is the work of pride and vainglory and, once again, the only antidote is grace and conversion. Whatever this may mean for would-be political organizations, it certainly means that the highest Catholic priority is evangelization, which ought also to be the heart of the mission of the institutional Church herself.

I have not heard that Christ commanded his apostles and disciples to be active politically, or even that he counseled His bishops to offer their services to governmental officials as political experts. I feel certain that, with the passage of time, Our Lord has only grown in His preference for the proclamation of “all that I have commanded you” over legislative agendas and political talking points. Is this not the only thing we can be certain of? Is this not the one thing needful and the better part?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Sep. 26, 2023 4:36 PM ET USA

    Shout it from the rooftops. Even one cleric who decides to dabble in any way, shape, or form in the political process has done a mis-service to the faith and all Catholics. One Robert Drinan was enough. I live in an abortion-for-everyone-at-all-times state with a large Catholic population, and I have yet to hear Sunday prayers of the faithful for the voters, only the politicians whom they have elected. We had better mind our own business; Christendom days indeed!