32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (go to readings)
Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
1st Thessalonians 4:13-18
So I’m not going to talk about politics. Yay.
But I do want to talk about… talking about politics. I recently re-listened to a recording of an interview I remembered pieces of, that I remembered being very good, and on listening to it again, it was still very good. So, this time I typed it out and posted it, so that I could search the text of it in the future. The interview was between Matthew Leonard, who runs his blog called the Art of Catholic, and a Church history professor named Dr. Andrew Jones, and the topic was about the relationship, or the modern errors of the relationship, between Church and State. And so, the combination of having this rolling around in my brain, and our present political situation, and some recent conversations, and today’s readings, suggested that this might be a good little reflection for today. [link to interview]
I want to just take a dip into the beginning of modern history, at least as we’ve been taught about it, about the time of the so-called Enlightenment (which it wasn’t, really). And what we’ve been taught is that as the European kingdoms started emerging, and the Catholic Church, which was already fifteen centuries old and the dominant power in Europe, there was this violent tension of political power between the ecclesiastical power of the Church and the national power of the kingdoms. And at the same time there was the religious splintering of the so-called Protestant Reformation (which it wasn’t, really), and now different kingdoms had different state religions. And this came to a head in the so-called religious wars, where kings went to war against other kings, and the religion of the kings, and of the kingdoms, got embroiled in the conflicts, so you also had Catholics fighting Protestants, and condemning each other to hell, by death, or at least by excommunication, and it was a bloody mess, literally.
And what came out of this was the emergence of these conceptual categories of religion and belief on the one side, and politics and economics on the other side. And the category of religion and belief was the private thing, and the category of politics and economics was the public thing. And this was also being fed by new Enlightenment philosophy, which happened, maybe not by chance, to fit very nicely with Protestant theology, which undermined the public dimension of Christianity, and morphed it (or distorted it), heavily emphasizing the more private, personal, me-and-Jesus aspect of Christianity.
And of course, this is the dichotomy that runs the show today. The religion box can have anything you want, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Satanism, or it can be empty, because that box doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that it’s personal opinion, it stays in its box, and it helps you live in the other category, of politics and economics, as a basically good, mostly harmless, productive person. And that’s how you can have Catholic politicians who might be Catholic on Sunday mornings, which is a private thing, but not so far as that means anything to the way that they do their public political thing.
Now I want to jump to an idea that’s developing alongside this. And this is (interestingly) dependent on the Protestant theology of original sin, that humanity after the Fall is completely depraved, corrupt, and utterly incapable of good unless acted on by an outside authority. As the 18th century Protestant preacher Jonathan Edwards, said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” And so, in the secular philosophy that accompanied this time, you have the emergence of the concept of “The Sovereign,” or (in the writing of Thomas Hobbes) “The Leviathan.” And the concept of the Leviathan is that humanity is in a natural state of war of all against all. And so to escape this, all people implicitly enter into a social contract in which they surrender their capacity to do violence to a single authority, the Leviathan, who had the all-encompassing power to do violence in the name of society. If anyone gets out of line, society can compel that person, with whatever violence is seen fit, to get back in line. There is no area of life in society where the Leviathan, the State, does not have authority. So we can have constitutions and rules for restraining this all-encompassing power, sure. However, the State can also declare a condition in which the constitution and the restraints no longer apply. And as long as it has the power to do that, it has the power to do anything it wants.
But the upshot of that is that it means that the political and economic category has absolute authority over the category of the private and religious. Even the idea of “religious freedom” only extends as far as the political category allows it, and religion has to ask permission for its rights, and has to articulate its arguments and propositions in the terms of the political state, to be considered valid. Otherwise, it is religion venturing out of its box, and the political box will vengefully and forcefully hammer it back into its assigned place.
Take someone like the 17th century John Locke, for example. John Locke basically defined religion as that category of a person’s life that is a matter of opinion, a matter of personal beliefs (if I had a nickel for every time a religious teaching was called “your opinion”). And what defines it as that, is that it doesn’t have social consequences. So, for example John Locke is all about religious liberty… but not for Catholics. Why? Because he’ll argue that Catholicism isn’t really a religion. Catholicism is political. Because Catholicism makes demands outside the private box of religion and extends into the realm of politics and society. And so that makes it political, by definition, not religious.
And there’s truth to that, a lot of truth to that. Catholicism doesn’t play by the rules imposed by modernist society. Because Catholicism predates those rules and comes from a time when those categories of church and state didn’t exist, and therefore they didn’t exist in conflict. The world was seen as sacramental: the visible realm of Creation sings of the glory of God. The visible reality of the kingdom of man was a sign of the invisible reality of the kingdom of God. And the role of the kingdom of man was to participate in the kingdom of God, in enacting truth and wisdom, in preserving peace and justice, and correcting the wrong doer with the hope of repentance and reconciliation. The Catholic worldview does not match up with the modernist worldview. And that’s because we don’t share the foundational assumptions on which modernism is built. We don’t believe that humanity is completely corrupted and depraved, and absolutely requiring external force for us to play nicely. And we don’t believe that the natural state of humanity is absolute conflict. We believe that humanity is wounded by sin, and in need of grace and guidance. And we believe that the social structure of humanity is naturally more closely related to a family with difficulties, rather than an all-out war of all against all. And so the solution, in the Catholic worldview, is the flourishing of the intrinsic virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and all the natural virtues. Lead humans to rule themselves with internal virtue, and the need for an imposing, external political power, like a race for control of the government, recedes. In this view, the political solution is a failure of the real solution of charity, because politics is by definition resorting to external force (up to the use of violence), rather than the fruit of internal virtuous choice for charity. There’s no violence in the kingdom of God, and so the (need for the) use of violence in the kingdom of man is always when man has failed to manifest the kingdom of God. The goal is for the need for politics, the compulsion of external law, to recede, as the internal law of charity prevails, as it should in a family.
So that’s where we connect back to our readings. Our gospel reading about always being vigilant for the unknown hour of judgment, with the lamp of faith, fueled by the oil of the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, which fuels the life of faith, and allows its light to shine and shed its light on the world. At first glance we might question why the wise virgins didn’t share their oil. But if indeed the oil, as many ancient commentators on the gospels agree, represents the righteous deeds of the faithful, then these can’t be shared. Each person is responsible and required to bring to judgment their own witness of the life of faith and good works. And if their light isn’t shining when the Bridegroom comes unexpectedly, the door will be closed and locked against them. Not because of the unkindness of the wise, but because of the failure of the foolish. If your parents or grandparents were righteous and faithful, their good deeds can’t add fuel to your lamp. All they can do is give you their example of the wisdom to tend to your own lamp and its oil. Our faith is not restricted to the box of going to church on Sunday mornings, this private dimension that has no social/political relevance. It’s putting our faith into works, private and public, into worship, but also generously working for the common good and speaking out and working against evil in the public world. We who call ourselves and identify as Catholics are called and obligated to work in the kingdom of man in economics, politics, business, education, whatever vocation God gives you, as a Catholic fruitfully faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. This is not a controversial statement, and neither is it negotiable.
This being watchful and vigilant is also the theme of our first reading: vigilant for divine wisdom to guide the way, to shine in the darkness of confusion. And not only being vigilant for wisdom, but actively seeking wisdom: “Resplendent and unfading is wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her; and found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire… For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence.” There’s the connection of wisdom and action, or virtue.
So, we covered a lot of ground today, and that was my goal. Principally, to show that there is no real separation of religion and politics in the Catholic faith. We can talk about political obligations in Church, and must live our Church obligations in the political world. We have the divine obligation to live the self-revelation of the truth, the way, and the life; to be vigilant and actively seeking the wisdom of God, requiring us then to apply that wisdom in private and public acts of religious worship and political-economic life. And stemming from that obligation to live our faith publicly, politically, and economically, comes the natural right to do so, whether the secular, modernist society likes it or not, or permits it or not. It doesn’t matter which Caesar sits on the throne. We must render unto God what is of God… which is everything.