Oct 19, 2021 Last Updated 1:03 PM, Oct 19, 2021

The role of the Church in civil society: some theological orientations

Categoria: Missione Oggi
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1. Official Ambivalence

One would imagine that, following Vatican II [1962-‘5], Medellin [1968], and the great Social encyclicals from Popes John XIII to John Paul II, the Church now has a clear mandate to be involved in the promotion of justice in civil society. But there is ambivalence. On the one hand, the Church’s official teaching at the highest level calls for a restructuring of the international economic order [Populorum Progressio, nos. 57-60]; it proclaims that working for justice and the transformation of society is “a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel” [Justice in the World, no. 6]

On the other hand, there is a glaring gap between the official teaching and the actual practice of the Church and its official leaders. What is done in practice tends to become the acceptable teaching and the official teaching become more and more like rhetoric: unrealistic, incredible and (for many) honoured ‘more in the breach than in the observance’ (Shakespeare). To be loyal to the Church almost seems to demand that I accept the unjust status quo, keep my head down and don’t rock the boat or cause too much disturbance.

There are enough official statements to support one’s suspicion and fear of getting involved in working for an alternative and more just economic and political social order. For example, we have frequent warnings about the danger of reducing evangelization to the economic, political, social and cultural spheres, and of the dangers of the excessive politicization of the role of the Church [Evangelii Nuntiandi, nos. 33 - 35]. Priests are admonished to leave politics to the politicians: “Remember my dear brothers that … that you are not social directors, political leaders, or officials of a temporal order” [from Homily of JP II in San Salvador 1983]. Every so often we read in the secular and religious newspapers such headings as: “Pope warns Church to keep out of politics”, “Church condemns liberation theology”, “Priest/Bishop told to preach the Gospel and stay out of politics”.

Pope Benedict XVI’s first Encyclical Letter, God is Love, echoes this ambivalence. While insisting on the inseparability of love and justice, the encyclical also insists that it is the task of the State to ensure justice and that the Church “cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible” [Deus Caritas Est, no. 28). Pope Benedict seems to be saying that, while the Church must educate and conscientise people about the demands of justice, ‘action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world,’ is not really part and parcel of the Church’s mission. Perhaps it is this official ambivalence which lies behind the hesitation of some religious and missionary congregation to give wholehearted support to intercongregational advocacy projects, such as the AEFJN, directed towards the goal of changing unjust economic structures. However, before tackling the question of what the mission of the Church in the world is, a few clarifications are in order.

2. Some Clarifications

Politics in the wider sense

When speaking of the Church role in civil society, we should distinguish between politics in the narrow sense as the art of the politician, and politics in the wider sense, involving everything which pertains to the social and economic orders and to the establishment of social justice. All the members of the Church must be involved in politics in this wider sense. The exercise of the politician’s art and involvement in political parties and in government is primarily a task for lay persons, not priests or religious.

However, this distinction between party politics and politics is more easily maintained in theory than in practice. In situations where all democratic parties follow the same fundamental moral values, then the Church can maintain neutrality in relation to them. But what happens when a party follows a line which promotes or sustains an unjust social order? If Church leaders say or do something to challenge the injustice, the party members will say that the Church is ‘interfering’ in party politics. They are correct, of course, but what else can the Church do if it is to be an effective and credible sign of justice? Priests and religious may have to take a stance that is seen as explicitly political so as not to end up in collusion with structures of injustice and inequality (e.g. Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Albert Nolan).
Even if all ‘political’ action in the narrow sense is left to lay people, the problem remains because priests and religious have a duty to educate people about the causes of injustice and how these may be overcome. They may think globally, but their examples of injustice and their efforts to redress them will have to be local; so they will be involved, whether or not they want to, in issues that are overtly political. Furthermore, education with regard to justice should be carried out, not from a detached academic distance, but from a position of solidarity with those who suffer injustice.

Social Stability or social change

From Pope Leo XIII until Vatican II, the predominant value the Church sought to promote in society was social stability and order. The Church would speak out on behalf of the poor but, at the same time, exhort the poor to be patient and not disturb the existing order. The poor were invited to follow the suffering Christ – a call usually supported by an escapist and other-worldly spirituality. In this spirituality, this world was seen as a ‘vale of tears’. Heaven was our true home, where the inevitable injustices of this world would be put right. Vatican II, especially its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern world, sought to overcome this dichotomy between this world and the next, and highlighted the importance of seeking justice by changing the status quo. The poor themselves were viewed, not as objects of history, but as privileged agents of God in bringing about a new world. This vision was strongly advocated by Liberation theology but is not so popular today.

The mission of Church to society is neither to uphold the status quo, nor to topple it by violent means. Its challenge is to give a deliberately chosen and lived witness of contradiction to the unjust status quo, and of opposition to those who seek to uphold it because they benefit from it. It is also equally challenged to oppose those tough minded utopians who are prepared to resort to any means to topple the ‘powers that be’ and usher in the Kingdom.

The Church’s mission is love; the mission of the State is justice

This is a false dichotomy, for love and justice are inseparable. The Church preaches and practices a love which incarnates itself in action for justice; however, its concern is for justice which will settle for nothing less than a ‘civilization of love’, to use a phrase made famous by Pope Paul VI. The Church must avoid, on the one hand, an inept moralism which would reduce Christian love to mere sentimentality, and, on the other hand, a fanatical concern for the righting of wrongs that can so easily degenerate into a loveless pragmatism, blind to any standard other than sheer political success. This brings us to the question of what is the mission of the Church in the World. Its mission is surely to promote the Kingdom or Reign of God, but what does this mean?

3. The Goal of Mission - God’s Reign – is not an other world but this world radically transformed.

3.1 Jesus’ Vision of God’s Reign Jesus was no zealot and yet God’ reign, as manifested in his ministry and teaching, implied nothing less than a radical change in the existing social and political order. Jesus’ words and actions represented a consistent challenge to the attitudes, practices and structures that tended arbitrarily to restrict or exclude potential members of the Israelite community. Jesus sought out those on the periphery, those who were marginal to the Jewish establishment. His evangelical practice represented a complete reversal of the value system that marked the society of his time.
The afflictions of the poor, in Jesus’ time as much as today, were in large measure caused by repression, discrimination and exploitation by the rich and powerful, the upholders of the status quo. In his ministry, Jesus focused quite deliberately on those who had been pushed aside: in his compassionate outreach to these outcasts, Jesus concretely embodied God’s reign as good news for the poor; God’s reign would mean the end of their misery and the introduction of a new order of social relationships based on the principle of inclusion. No one is excluded from the love of God “who causes his sun to rise on bad as well as good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike” (Mt 5:45). What amazes one again and again is the inclusiveness of Jesus’ mission. It embraces both poor and rich, both the oppressed and oppressor, both the sinners and the devout. His mission is one of dissolving alienation and breaking down walls of hostility, of crossing boundaries between individuals and groups.
Jesus’ mission, however, did not meet with universal acceptance. On the contrary, it met with fear, suspicion, hostility and rejection on the part of the Jewish political and religious leaders of his time. Finally, it led him to Calvary where he prayed for forgiveness for those whose fear had led them to destroy him. If the Cross can be said to represent Christ’s supreme witness to God’s reign, it is his resurrection from the dead which is the foundation and guarantee of its victory over the power of evil, and hence the ground of Christian mission. The disciples of Jesus met him again on Easter Sunday morning and caught a glimpse of a new world where the promise of God’s reign would be realised. The world as they knew it was passing away and a new creation was about to be born. All the relevance and urgency of the early Church’s mission was derived from this certain hope.

3.2 Paul’s Vision of Mission in the Light of God’s Victorious Reign in Christ Nowhere is the relationship between mission and hope of God’s reign seen more clearly seen than in the writings of Paul. In Paul’s vision, mission and the reign of God are intimately linked. Mission paves the way and prepares humanity for the final stage of God’s reign, when not only humanity but all creation will be liberated and transformed on the model of Christ’s resurrection. For Paul, mission means announcing the Lordship of Christ over all reality and inviting people to respond to it. It means the proclamation of a new state of affairs that God has initiated in Christ, a state of affairs that concerns the nations and all of creation, and that climaxes in the celebration of God’s final glory.
But proclamation is not enough. As David Bosch points, God’s final victorious reign offers no justification for ethical passivity. Mission invites and sustains an active participation in God’s plan for the liberation of humanity in the here and now (see Transforming Mission, 1991, p. 176). In Paul’s theology of mission, we find the foundation for courageous protest against the oppressive structures of Sin and Death and a wholehearted commitment to the promotion of justice, peace and the integrity of creation. In the light of God’s coming victorious reign, Christians are called upon and empowered to challenge oppressive structures and establish signs of God’s new world. However Paul was careful not to simply identify the reign of God which is our ultimate hope with our efforts to create a more just society. They are related but not identical. I now turn to the dynamics of that relationship.

4. Christian Hope and the Struggle for a Just Society

The Reign of God for which we hope is not something Christians can finally establish on earth. To make this mistake would be to equate Christianity with Marxism. As Karl Rahner has said, the Reign of God for which Christians hope is the absolute future which is God himself. ‘God himself … wills to be the infinite future of humanity, infinitely transcending all that human beings could ever plan or fashion for themselves’ [Theological Investigations, vol. 12, p. 239)] This hope in God as our absolute future challenges the Church to adopt a critical stance towards the historically given state of any society. ‘Such a critical stance’, says Rahner, ‘can be radical, patient and courageous; it implies neither a conservative glorification of the present situation, underpinned by ideology, nor a destructive impatience which seeks violent means to force a new world into existence by sacrificing the men of today’[Theological Investigations, vol. 16, p. 242].

However, the Christian affirmation of God as our absolute future, far from undermining the value of our socio- political commitments within history and our efforts to transform the world, provides a perspective which can guarantee their enduring significance and true value. This it does in three ways: first, by offering a framework of meaning profound enough to do justice to the complexity of life and to support human efforts to transform the world; second, by functioning as a critical perspective which de-absolutises all human achievements of justice; third, by providing a positive incentive to human beings in their efforts to transform human life in history.
Since God is our absolute future and the ultimate horizon of human freedom, no historical achievement, however great, is unsurpassable or beyond criticism. At the same time, precisely because we have an absolute future in God, all our efforts to transform human life within history have enduring value.

This view of the relationship between the absolute future (God) for which Christians hope and human efforts to transform the world seems to me to find an echo in the following statements from Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:
Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectation of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society.
When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise -- human dignity, sisterly and brotherly communion, and freedom -- according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom ‘of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace’. Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes it will enter its perfection (no. 39).
Furthermore, God is bringing about this transformed world now, far beyond the frontiers of the Church. Our task is to get in tune with what God is doing. We have to find out where the Kingdom is already present in an initial and germinal way. We have to discern and nourish such seeds of the Kingdom by putting our resources and energies there. In discerning and nourishing these seeds of the Kingdom, contemplative prayer and presence will have to balance active social and political involvement.

5. Political as well as moral Conversion

The Church is quite convinced of the need for religious and moral conversion, but it need to equally convinced of the need for political conversion, i.e., a commitment to change unjust structures. I will illustrate this with a parable that you may have already heard.
The Parable of the Bend in the Road “There was once a farming town. When you came into the town, the main road narrowed into a very bad bend. As more people in the town purchased cars and traffic increased, this bend came to be regarded as an accident blackspot. At the local Church on Sundays, the priest often preached on the Good Samaritan. He usually congratulated the people on their fine Christian spirit in helping to get accident victims to hospital, by phoning for an ambulance or by using their own cars. Then, one day, a member of the local Council suggested widening the road and removing the bend. However, the town Mayor had a market farm just where the bend in the road occurred. He had the finest tomatoes, strawberries and early vegetables growing there every year. The Council man suggested to the priest that he have a word with the Mayor about it. But the priest and most people figured that they had better stay out of politics. So the following Sunday, he again preached on the Good Samaritan and encouraged the people to continue their fine work of picking up the accident victims and getting them to the hospital.”

In this parable it is easy to see which of the two course of action is the most effective expression of Christian charity. Picking up the victims and bringing them to hospital is certainly a charitable act but doesn’t go far enough; it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. This parable can be applied to the wider world. It is not enough for us to pick up and try to heal the victims of a structurally unjust world or to lessen the bad results of a bad political or economic system. We need to go to the root of the problems and create more just and equitable structures. We need to change structures or what Pope John Paul II calls ‘social mechanisms’ as well as people’s attitudes. AEFJN is one example of collaborative effort by religious and missionary congregations to do just this.

6. Conclusion

The Reign of God means nothing less than the integral transformation of humanity and the recreation of the world as we know it, the liberation of men and women from all forms of bondage and oppression, personal and social. It signifies the manifestation and realization of God’s plan in all its fullness. Mission is at the service of this reign. Thus conceived, mission, as Carl Braaten puts it, will mean “something more than saving souls and planting churches; it will mean something more than emergency relief and charitable works. Mission will assume the role of advocacy, tracking down causes of global injustice and violence… If faith is radical dependence on God, mission is total interdependence among people, overcoming all idolatry on the one hand, and all systems of domination, oppression, and exploitation of the many by the few on the other” [The Flaming Centre, p. 89]. Mission in the horizon of the God’s Reign, to quote again the words of Carl Braaten, “tries to embrace both the passion of the evangelicals for the uniqueness of the Christian message and the vision of the ecumenists for the universality of its scope” [The Flaming Centre, p. 87]. It brings together evangelization and humanization, Gospel and social concern, faith and political action, religious worship and secular work.


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