Liddick: Clarifying the Catholic Church’s mission
Ryan Summerlin May 7, 2012
I blame Bill Ritter.
The following thoughts, percolating for awhile, were finally pulled into focus by the former governor’s recent comments on the Catholic Church. Published as an op-ed in the Denver Post, they are one example among many of the problems the political class has with this venerable institution.
“A Departure from the Catholic Church’s Mission,” the headline cried. Now, as a columnist I know the ex-guv didn’t pen that line: headlines are all generated in a giant factory buried deep beneath Cleveland. Still, it nicely captures Ritter’s argument: The church’s longstanding efforts on behalf of the poor, the downtrodden, the vulnerable; its quest for “justice” and “service,” are being derailed by “conservative activists” in the hierarchy. Nor is he alone in his criticism: From New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to the White House, from Nancy Pelosi to Paul Ryan, our pols and their hangers-on have trouble deciphering what the church is about. Or maybe they are engaged in that longstanding American tradition, a willful failure to understand.
In the preface to his complaint, our former governor describes himself as “a practicing Catholic,” but he seems to need a little more practice. He and many others of the leftist flavors see only the church’s services to, and support for the poor as legitimate functions. They are therefore goaded to fury by the church’s steadfast opposition to gay marriage and civil unions; to abortion and other reproductive practices it considers seriously sinful; and to an attitude increasingly in vogue on the left end of the political spectrum that religion is an illegitimate topic for the public square.
Their error lies in thinking that, because the church and its members engage in great works of charity and service to the poor, it is nothing more than a social welfare organization. This view is made very plain in the former governor’s comments, but he and the others who embrace this line of reasoning are profoundly mistaken.
Their mirror image on the Right suffers from a similar misapprehension. Conservatives of various strengths and stripes look first to the church’s opposition to various secular practices and embrace it as an ally in what they see as a constant struggle against the deterioration of our culture and public life. What infuriates and confounds them is the church’s embrace of “the least among us,” and its call to recognize, honor and support the dignity of each individual human being, regardless of circumstance.
Both of these views, and both sets of frustrations, spring from a profound misunderstanding of the nature – and yes, the “mission” – of the Catholic church.
At its base and by its nature, the church is beyond politics as the term is generally understood. Its mission in this world is not primarily to provide social services, to succor the defenseless nor to be a voice for the voiceless. It has another, and higher, purpose. Neither is it here to justify or support any particular political party or philosophy. The Church has cooperated with governments since the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and has opposed them since the conflict between Bishop Ambrose of Milan and Emperor Theodosius soon after.
The Church’s “mission,” if we wish to speak of it as such, is salvation: the redemption of human souls. Its goals are not the goals of this world and its politics, such as they are, are not the politics of Left or Right. As a consequence, today’s politicians criticize the church for inconsistencies or, to use the former governor’s words, making “a drastic departure” from its core mission, which they see as “addressing poverty and hunger in a serious way.” Their criticisms, based in political dogmas and current conveniences, miss the point: the Catholic Church serves another master, and measures its success or failure by other criteria, than the secular leaders with whom we are familiar.
There is another point, equally as important: The church abides. It has seen the rise and fall of states and world-girdling empires. It has survived the profoundest challenges and seen the creation and disappearance of all manner of philosophies, political, economic and moral. It cares not a wit for the current fashion in secular politics or popular belief. It is unmoved by opinion polls, because it cares only about one opinion, and pollsters do not have that telephone number. Its attention is firmly fixed not on the here and now, but on the universal and eternal. As such it provides durable tools to measure the ephemeral positions our present politicians find so crucial, which is why they are so often wounded and baffled by its pronouncements.
But it’s simple, really – whether Bill Ritter understands it or not.
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.