EDITORIAL: Unlike a political community, the unity of the Church is not our own effort. It is a work of God, who guaranteed that the gates of hell would never prevail against it.
This year, midterm elections were followed a week later by the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops’ general assembly, during which the bishops were set to elect a new conference president and several other officers. The juxtaposition of the two elections provides an important opportunity to reflect upon the differences between worldly politics and ecclesial communion — and the danger of allowing the logic of the former to inform our participation in the latter.
This is especially a threat today, when our culture is dominated by electoral politics, which are increasingly characterized by partisan brinkmanship and zero-sum contests over power. This kind of political warfare offers a mode for thinking about all forms of community and relationships, and if we’re not vigilant, it can begin to characterize the way we understand and live out our belonging to the Church.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned about this in an instructive homily, later entitled, “Party of Christ or Church of Jesus Christ?” The future pope cautioned that “factional strife” can arise in the Church when we each “develop [our] own idea of Christianity,” which “conceals from us the word of the living God, and the Church disappears behind the parties that grow out of our personal opinion.”
This isn’t a denial that the Church is political, in a sense, because it must organize itself in its human dimensions. Nor does it preclude us from believing certain clerics are better equipped to lead the Church than others, or from making judgments about what processes and ideas are harmful to the life of the Church. Instead, Cardinal Ratzinger criticizes a more fundamental attitude that reduces our belonging to the Church and the way we operate within it to a principle of personal choice. “We have difficulty understanding faith [other] than as a decision for a cause that I like and to which I therefore wish to lend my support,” he writes. The problem, though, is that the Church then becomes ours instead of Christ’s. This attitude underlies approaches to reforming the Church that accommodate it to the times and the will of the world, which is certainly a present concern.
But, ironically, we can also treat the Church like the Party of Christ in our defense of orthodox teaching, when our motivation is animated more by clinging to something we prefer than being faithful to what the Church teaches. Anytime this attitude is adopted, we damage ecclesial unity, not to mention the Church’s witness to the wider world, and we are at risk of developing many of the neuroses we can see in earthly politics, which have taken on an almost apocalyptic character for many.
The solution, Cardinal Ratzinger writes, is to “abandon my taste and submit to” Christ and what he has given us. “Only the unity of the Church’s faith and her authority, which is binding on each member, assures us that we are not following human opinions and adhering to self-made party groupings, but that we belong to the Lord and are obeying him.”
Unlike a political community, the unity of the Church is not our own effort. It is a work of God, who guaranteed that the gates of hell would never prevail against it. Reflecting on this truth can prompt a good examination of conscience, perhaps especially for those of us who write and read Catholic journalism. And rather than producing quietism, it can deepen our resolve to oppose error and division within the Church, animated not by personal preference, but by love of Christ and neighbor. In turn, a proper ecclesial attitude can also lead to a healthier engagement in earthly politics.
Because if, through the Church, we truly belong to Christ, then we do not need to look to politics as our salvation, nor as something to be feared and avoided. Instead, we can enter into it with the humility and freedom of the children of God.