Church & Politics

by Fr. Charles Irvin

July 1996



God is everywhere, isn’t He? So why, then, do I have to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion. I can commune with God by simply going to a place of solitude and quiet. I can talk with God there, can’t I?

Why do I have to go to a priest and confess my sins in order to receive God’s forgiveness? Why can’t I go to Jesus directly? Why does a priest stand between me and God? Isn’t the Church sticking its nose into my own private, personal relationship with God?

Good questions, aren’t they! They go right to the foundation of the Church and the meaning of ordination into Holy Orders, the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

But the direction of the questions is wrong. The direction of the questions have to do with what we must do to get to God. The presumption is that we humans construct the means by which we will reach God. The direction of the questions presume that religion is a human enterprise, that the Church is simply an aggregate of like-minded persons who voluntarily associate to form a religious institution known at the Catholic Church because they have chosen to assent to a certain set of religious doctrines which they have fashioned for themselves. The hard reality is that the questions are faced the wrong way; they are disoriented.

In Sacred Scripture we read of God choosing Eliakim to exercise headship over Israel (Isaiah 22:19-23). It is God who speaks; God who determines; God who sets the agenda; God who determines how the efforts of religion will be directed. GOD – not man. “And I (says God) will place on his shoulders the key of the house of David; he shall open and none shall shut; and he shall shut and none shall open.”

Those thoughts and that commission from God are re-echoed in Matthew 16:13-20: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Yet another Gospel passage (Matthew 18:18) has Jesus Christ saying to all of the Apostles (not just St. Peter): “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

We need to pay attention to the symbolism of the keys. In times past when there were real kings ruling over people, whoever was given the keys by the king was the highest official in the realm under the king. He was the Chief Executive Officer, so to speak. The symbolism of the keys could not escape people in those days. The symbolism could not admit of any other meaning. The meaning of the conferral of the keys could not be explained or rationalized away, as many rationalize it today… seeing the Church, as they do, as merely a political party or political movement of some sort.

Now the keys come from God and from no one else. The conferral of the office did not come from popular election, or from the will of human beings. The office, the responsibility was conferred only from God.

From whence comes authority? The question is as big as it is fundamental. Does authority come from God or does it come from human beings? And lest we answer that question too quickly or too simplistically, let us remind ourselves of our own founding documents as our American Republic. We appealed to our Creator for our warrant to rebel against King George of England. We appealed to God for our authority, and no one else, not even our selves.

The Church, then, comes from God; it is constituted by God. It is, from a secular human perspective, merely a voluntary association of like-minded individuals with respect to their relationships with God, as they understand the term God. But the Church, from God’s perspective, is quite something else. It is the Body of Christ, the Dwelling Place of the Holy Spirit. It is that special and sacred place cut out of ordinary human time and space, in which we humbly receive from God that which He wants to give us.

It is in that context that I can now only suggest the outline and direction to the questions asked at the beginning of these remarks. Those questions, again, were:

God is everywhere, isn’t He? So why, then, do I have to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion. I can commune with God by simply going to a place of solitude and quiet. Why do I have to go to a priest and confess my sins in order to receive God’s forgiveness? Why can’t I go to Jesus directly?

Good questions, aren’t they! They go right to the foundation of the Church and the meaning of ordination into Holy Orders, the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Why, after all, do we have a Church? Do we have Sacraments? Because we have decided we need them? Because we have fashioned them after our own tastes? HARDLY! If that were the case the Church would have been wiped off the face of the earth centuries ago. No merely human institution could have possible survived the attacks against it from without and the corruption that has weakened it from within were it not something from God, were it only of human making.

The promise of 2,000 years ago is still good, still working, still as strong as ever: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

 

PARISH AND POLITICS

Dying parishes are dying because they do not afford opportunities for their members to participate in parish life. Their parishioners feel powerless, discouraged and demoralized. Why be involved? Often the leadership of such parishes is concerned more with its own comfort and security than with service the people they profess to serve or with attending to their real needs.

Political parties can die from the same causes. Fewer Americans, we are told, are voting or even registering to vote. More and more Americans talk, with cynicism, about political scandals, government officials being “owned” by special interests and political action committees, and are becoming “non partisan”, a code word for disengaged and uninvolved. I have shocked myself by finding myself numbered among such folk.

St. Francis parish exists as a neighborhood institution that promotes active involvement, cooperation and mutual interdependence over and against individualism, independence and noninvolvement. As such we contribute to the underpinning and support of democracy.

Nonpartisans leave political activism to others, all the while thinking of themselves as politically superior to those engaged in party politics. Nonpartisans are much like Catholics in name only who attend Mass once in a while, maybe throw a dollar in the collection basket, and only want to “get Mass over with” so they can leave Church as quickly as possible. For them, it’s “awful” if the priest preaches over ten minutes. Yet they will voice hour-long complaints to all who will listen about how terrible the Church is and how awful the priests are. They want a dollar’s worth and ten minutes worth of salvation… and then want out. Perhaps if that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get!

Here at St. Francis we want Catholics to live out the goal of government and politics, namely the Common Good. We pay attention to people as a whole as well as to individuals in particular. As a pastor I want to hear what anyone has to say. Oh, I may disagree with some, even get emotional in my disagreement, but I listen and pay attention. Just because I disagree with someone doesn’t mean that I didn’t listen to them or didn’t understand them. On the contrary!

In this election year, as in all election years, whether city, state or national, we ought to promote civil discourse. We do that by presuming others speak in good faith; by presuming that they are not evil people, or stupid, or that they have bad intentions. Discourse is a skill, even an art – it has to be learned. It’s a lesson we’re always learning.

We need to understand, also, that on points of public policy we can have differing views and positions. Good citizens and good Catholics can have divergent views on public policy matters.

Government is an honorable thing. Civic virtue is, in fact, a virtue. Public service is an honorable profession because government itself is honorable.

We likewise need to apply good Christian principles to political life. After all, theology and law are both concerned with governing human behavior; both Church and State have the task of telling us what is good behavior and what is bad behavior, what is lawful and what is unlawful. Religion and politics are both concerned with public policies – as such, they are joined at the hip.

Citizenship is a virtue, the American bishops have declared. Participation in the political process is an obligation we have as Christians. Otherwise we abandon the field to our Ancient Enemy and give him free reign to wreck havoc upon us.

We must therefore, as Jesus tells us, render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, while rendering to God what is God’s. And this is true even though those in government at the time of Jesus inflicted great evil on both Jesus Christ and upon the early Christians who followed Him. That in itself is lesson enough. That in itself ought to give us sufficient motivation to bring our values to bear upon those who exercise authority over us, an authority that comes from God, not from the fickle and unreliable will of men and women.

 


About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”