Theology Matters in Prayer and Politics

Catholics do what they do for a reason
In a recent piece in Celebration (“Wary in our Welcome,” September 2017) Brett Hoover notes the influence of Evangelical Christianity on Catholicism, especially in certain parts of the country. This is not surprising in one sense, because America has always been a Christian nation, though decidedly not a Catholic one. For much of our history, immigrant parishioners, foreign languages and our global ecclesiology made us suspect. This suspicion was based largely on cultural factors, but there are important theological differences that shape our distinctive Catholic culture. Even though we can profitably borrow much of value from our evangelical brothers and sisters (e.g., intentional discipleship, emphasis on preaching), the theological presuppositions that make us Catholic should not be lost.

The most basic theological issue behind these differences (and perhaps the only question in theology) is the relationship between nature and grace. Catholics tend to see the two as relatively compatible. You might say that we see nature generally and especially human nature as fit for grace. This is what Thomas Aquinas means when he says that grace perfects or integrates nature. Some reformed theology would say that nature has to be destroyed and replaced by grace. Not so for us. Everything we do — our sacraments, our devotions, our liturgy — are based on the assumption that human nature, flawed by sin, is still good enough to bear the weight of grace. Created things can actually become the body and blood of Christ. For most Protestant Christians, this is not possible. At most, the Eucharist memorializes or recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, but it certainly does not make it physically present again, as we Catholics believe it does.

Our different theologies affect soteriology — how we are saved. Evangelicals favor a more individualistic approach. They “find Christ,” they are “born again,” they “choose Jesus Christ as their personal savior” For them, this individual, explicit act of faith is first and foremost. Catholics believe in a personal relationship with Christ, but we tend to avoid singular language. Think of the venerable and beautiful hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It is an excellent example of the individualistic spirituality Hoover describes. Its language, e.g., “saved a wretch like me” and “I once was lost and now am found” is strange to Catholic ears both because of the emphasis on the individual and also because of its emphasis on helpless human sinfulness.

A Lutheran student in one of my classes helped me see this more clearly. One day as I was comparing Catholic and Protestant theology she said that the difference between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics talk about sins, while Protestants talk about sin, a much darker and more pervasive reality. Even though we sometimes joke about “Catholic guilt,” in reality Catholics, rarely if ever, talk about the “utter depravity of human nature.” In fact, our practice of frequent confession signals a relative optimism about God’s grace and our ability to grow in virtue.
This optimism about the compatibility of nature and grace extends to political life as well. While many fundamentalists (Christian and Islamic) see a radical dichotomy between grace and human institutions, Catholics see these institutions, including political life, as potentially able to identify and act on behalf of human goodness and the common good. 

But we go further. We say that the common good, which is the purpose of political life (This is hard to imagine in our current situation, but it is at least theoretically true.) is actually a foretaste of the reign of God. So, to the extent that we are able to make society a little more just, a little healthier, a little more educated, we are cooperating with God in bringing about the reign of God. This is the reason we are so invested in educational and health care institutions. For us, they are not just charitable undertakings, giving a handout to those who are poor and miserable, but a concrete attempt to prepare the way of the Lord by transforming society.

For some time, I have been concerned about our seemingly uncritical partnerships with evangelicals on some political issues, primarily related to sexuality and abortion. We now celebrate a fortnight of freedom, using language that is far more familiar to evangelicals who want to be free of the destructive influence of government. This fascination with freedom derives from the freedom of individual commitment to Jesus Christ that is such a significant part of evangelical spirituality. This is not a bad thing, but it is not part of the Catholic ethos. I fear that in embracing this kind of freedom language uncritically, we are abandoning basic convictions about how we stand in the world as a church. We are not an isolated sect, seeking freedom from culture. Rather, our view of political life leads us into public engagement in a way that empowers as many people as possible. We have to move beyond “freedom from” to “freedom to.” In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks recently described this as freedom of detachment and freedom of capacity (“Republicans Can’t Pass Bills,” July 21, 2017). Brooks says:

Freedom as detachment [gives] people space to do their own thing. It’s based on the belief that people flourish best when they are as unimpeded as much as possible. Freedom as detachment is marked by absence — the absence of coercion, interference and obstacles. ... Freedom as capacity means supporting people so they have the ability to take advantage of life’s opportunities. You encourage your friend to stick with piano practice so he will have the freedom to really play.

True freedom is not just making sure we’re free of others’ concerns, but able to act well, for the benefit of ourselves and others. Our position as Catholics should be collaborative and communal, not antagonistic and individualistic. When we think that religious freedom is not having to sign a paper delegating contraception coverage to a third party, we have lost something important.
I was encouraged recently when I read an article by Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, a theological advisor to and a friend of Pope Francis (Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism published in the Italian periodical, La Civitá Cattolica). He notes some of the same tendencies that Hoover did, and is critical of our adoption of evangelical or fundamentalist principles that he thinks have become more radical in the last century. These principles — which include individualism, the prosperity gospel, a tendency to Manicheanism, and a certain apocalypticism which disdains political structures in favor of a Bible-based morality — are all inimical to Catholicism. He says, like Hoover, that as “Catholics express themselves in ways that until recently were unknown in their tradition and using tones much closer to Evangelicals” he fears we are indulging a “nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state” rather than an honest engagement of the Gospel in a pluralistic democracy.

To clarify these differences is not to denigrate evangelical Christianity. Ecumenism is important, but it would be pointless if there were no real differences between us. It is good for us to understand where Evangelicals are coming from theologically, but it is even better if a difference leads us to understand our own tradition better. Wars were fought over the Reformation because we view the world and God’s action in it differently. I lived with the Jesuits for several years and I have often told people that I did not understand what “Dominican” meant until I lived with Jesuits. I have nothing but admiration for the Jesuits, but Jesuit life is not my life. Together, we are distinct rays of God’s grace in the church.

So what does this mean for preachers and liturgists?

It means that we should be cautious about appropriating elements of evangelical spirituality without thinking through what it means. For preachers, it means that we should examine our assumptions about freedom. Is it an end itself, or a precondition for authentic human action? Is it merely detachment or a commitment to building human capacity? Have we uncritically accepted prevailing hostility to political life and government, or do we encourage our congregations to stick with the political process as a means to the common good? Have we begun to live a Catholic version of the “prosperity gospel?” Do we favor justice, which obliges us to restructure social institutions and distribution of income — or are we more comfortable with the privilege and the option of an occasional charitable act?