Catholicism is even more local than politics
It has been said that “all politics is local”, and this is a valuable axiom for winning public office. Unfortunately, after such victories, politics mostly proceeds from the top down. This creates a huge temptation to seek change by leaping over what is local in an effort to control high-level socio-political policies. In the Church, this temptation tends to take its most virulent form in the role played by national episcopal conferences. I began an assessment of such conferences last week in On funding (or dissolving) episcopal conferences. Today I take up their tendency to substitute a thirst for political influence for each soul’s thirst for God.
Last week I mentioned the tendency of episcopal conferences to focus on desired policies and goals, including influencing other institutions and governments in their response to major public issues. At the same time, this tendency tends to gloss over each bishop’s direct personal responsibility for his own local flock. Attention is often focused more on the positions the conference is taking on public issues, and less on creating a vibrant local Catholic culture beginning with each parish and diocese.
A vibrant local Catholic culture will naturally give rise to various groups and institutions which advance specific Catholic goals at higher levels. But the essence of what the Church has been called into being to do does not consist in adopting influential socio-economic and political positions in the hope of transforming the surrounding secular culture. Rather, it has to do with forming Catholics to create radically different communities, communities which live and breathe the Gospel in all the concrete interactions which constitute our daily lives.
One wonders where the idea came from that we can make the world better, as a Church, by advocating social, political, and economic programs at the governmental level? I do not mean that Catholics have no responsibility as citizens of a particular political entity. The laity do have a responsibility to vote wisely and for the common good, and to serve in a Christ-like manner should they be elected to public office. But the Church’s job is not to change the world through political advocacy at the macro level. The Church’s job is to make her members holy, so that in all their interactions they live and act as Christ has called them to do. It is in this way that her members will form, in many places, local Catholic cultures—vibrant cultures tangibly different from the surrounding wasteland.
Obstacles in the way
Historians have said that one reason for the rapid spread of Christianity in the earliest years is that the Christians took care of those in their communities better than did the the mighty Roman Empire. Of course there are many obstacles to such an achievement today. Local cultures have dwindled with the rise of commuting, the increase in electronic forms of entertainment, and the breakdown of the values common to the natural law. The lack of cohesive communities of Catholics within parish boundaries has been further exacerbated not only by easy transportation but by what we call upward mobility.
Various experiments have been tried in the establishment of alternative Catholic communities, but since parishes have fallen into such ill health, these have affected very few people. Again, in some places vibrant Catholic communities have grown up spontaneously around outstanding Catholic schools, communities which have often strengthened parish life as well. But very often the local churches seem to have lost the vision of becoming the hub of vibrant Catholic communities capable of transforming everything that is drawn into their local orbits.
Despite obstacles, then, it remains our responsibility to recognize that the Church’s mission is not to map a political landscape but to foster vibrant Catholic cultures locally, on the ground, so to speak—communities which can achieve a certain critical mass. In the negative sense, speaking of what is wrong, St. Paul captured this thought very well in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world…. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber…. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the Church you are to judge? God judges those outside. [1 Cor 5:9-13]
When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?...If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the Church? I say this to your shame. [1 Cor 6:1-6]
But there are plenty of positive instances as well, such as this exhortation to form a genuinely Christian community in the Letter to the Romans:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality…. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. [Rom 12:9-16]
All Catholicism is local
What I am trying to highlight here is the relative fruitlessness of activities at the level of the episcopal conference to influence public opinion, control political outcomes, distribute funds on the national level, establish policies and programs to address the issues proposed to us by the larger secular world, and advocate behavioral change through national politics. I do not say that any of these things are evil; what I say is that they provide an ever-increasing multitude of ways to evade the primary responsibility of the Church to sanctify those in the parishes, transforming local Catholic individuals into mutually-supportive local communities steeped in the Christian sense of what it means to be and do good constantly, within the community of which we are blessed to be a part.
The Church’s fundamental purpose is not to transform society at the macro level but to ignite the love of Christ in real people living real daily lives in each of her dioceses and parishes. The Church’s fundamental mission is to build the Kingdom of God soul by soul, person by person, in local communities which are shaped gradually through the Church’s own ministry. This mission is properly ordered to the formation of particular communities as they are drawn more deeply into the body of Christ through the Eucharist. The Church must do everything she can to help local people, like you and me, to change our daily habits and personal and familial aspirations through our sharing in the gifts of Word and Sacrament. As we are thus grafted into the Body of Christ, even our extended local communities can become gateways to new life.
Effectiveness here may not always result in major transformations of the larger society. The mysteries of Providence call at some times for apparent honor and success in the larger world, and at other times for apparent rejection and failure. Therefore, the Church is not to place the emphasis on what is local because she is sure to change the whole world, but through simple fidelity to her own mission, which is to act directly in particular persons through the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. It is not that this mission will always succeed. It is simply that no other mission can ever succeed.
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