Wednesday, November 27, 2002

I’m still working through the whole Who needs the religious busybodies conversation.

Sometimes people who are immersed in religion – particularly in a particular religion – forget that the rest of the world doesn’t see things from their perspective. Oh, we may say we know it’s true, but we really don’t. Take us Serious Catholics. We really do assume, unthinkingly, that the internal matters which take up our attention are also issues of interest for non-Catholics. We assume that our interest in what the Pope says or does is shared by the rest of the world.

Well, for the most part, it’s not, is it?

So that’s the first point to consider before taking umbrage at the dismissal of the views of religious leaders on various issues. Do I care what the president of the Southern Baptist Convention thinks about environmental issues? Nah. Do I even bother with the latest pronouncements of the Presbyterian Church USA on sexuality issues? Well, I do read them – or read about them – as a part of my self-education in where the culture is on these matters – but do I take them in as something to consider when forming my own conscience?

Well, no.

So – why should I or any of us be surprised when people who have no truck with religion express such profound indifference to what religious leaders say?

All right, but…let’s look at it from another angle (I didn’t say this was an argument. It’s thoughts offered with the baby snoozing on the couch, and with me killing time until I have to go get the other kids to take them to the airport.)

Ah, yes – the other angle.

Now, I would be concerned about what the president of the Southern Baptist Convention has to say about something like prayer in public schools, especially if he was for it (which, historically speaking, he really shouldn’t be, but you never know these days), and was leading a push in my state to impose prayer in public schools, something to which I am stubbornly opposed.

So why would I be concerned in this case? Because it’s an issue that would affect me and my own. But would the proper response be to tell him to just go away and stick to reciting the books of the Bible? No, because he is a citizen, his group represents citizens, and they have a right to duke it out in the political process as much as anyone else does.

But…what about those SUV’s? And the other issues that don’t seem to have anything to do with religion? We can excuse the SBC president for participating in the discussion and trying to mold policy in our example because it’s about prayer and well, prayer is something religious leaders are supposed to know something about.

But the SUV’s?

Well, see, here’s where the deep Christian vision and the secular society butt heads. The secular society wants to privatize religion, rendering it something akin to selecting ice cream flavors. Trouble is, it’s not like that. Well – it is for some people, who mouth a creed on Sunday and merrily violate it the other 6 23/24 days of the week.

But ideally, faith is not simply one compartment of life. Faith concerns our self-identification: do I belong to God or something else? Naturally enough, then, that self-identification impacts how we spend our lives. Secularists want to bind the hands of faith, but authentic faith shapes everything it touches.

Here’s the thing: You can’t slam Christians for selling out to the culture and for being hypocrites and at the same time insist that they keep their faith to themselves.

You can’t slam Christian churches for not doing enough in regard to whatever human rights issue you pick – including the Holocaust – and then demand that churches today shut up and mind their own business and stop commenting on matters beyond their ken.

I think it’s that last point that irritates me the most. It simply makes no sense to judge Christians in the past guilty for silence or inaction on what might be called political matters and then hold churches’ present-day efforts to do just that up for ridicule, a ridicule based not on the content of the efforts, but on their mere expression.

Finally – I think – one more thought on Catholic bishops, specifically, one that’s been running through my head all week. What some – Catholic and non-Catholic – don’t understand is that when Catholic religious leaders and teachers speak, they shouldn’t be heard as speaking merely from the tops of their heads, out of the present moment, based on the current research. What they are supposed to be doing is interpreting Tradition for the present day, bringing it to bear on new situations. Now, granted, this is a difficult area, and one that is not infallible. Got it?

On one level, it makes little sense: when bishops teach on contemporary issues, they teach authoritatively, but not infallibly. Even – I dare say it – much papal teaching falls in this category. I’m still reading those bios of J23 (yes…) and am currently slogging through accounts of how radical Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris were in the context of previous centuries of papal pronouncements –especially on freedom of conscience and freedom of religious practice. Apologists can try all they want to say “Well, they weren’t really a change..” but they’re just grasping at straws. Yes, they were.

So why should we listen? (We being Catholics now) Because the bishops et al aren’t speaking solely for themselves. They are supposed to be speaking out of the whole of Christian tradition, rooted in God’s revelation through Scripture. So, the point is – when the bishops condemn abortion or call us to care for the poor – I can gripe all I want about their relative inaction on abortion and Bishop Murphy’s Sub-Zero freezer, and I have a right to gripe, and all of us have a right and an obligation to point out dissonance between words and actions to these same bishops. But in the end, I have to responsibly tease out the essence of what they’re saying and take it seriously.

But the hard part is the fact that there is no dearth of misapplications and misstatements of tradition, even by bishops, and even by popes – especially the more specific the issue. Which brings us back to the knotty issue that got me started: Faith extends to all areas of life, including, for example, how I spend my money and how I treat the environment. It really does. It’s called stewardship, and it’s all over the Gospels. My faith in Christ should touch all of my decisions, great and small. But somehow, something goes screwy – something doesn’t seem quite right when religious leaders try to pin down that specificity and make pronouncements on economic policy, for example. Does anyone care about the bishops’ pastoral on the economy issued lo so many years ago? Did anyone care then?

So here’s the question – how can religious leaders and teachers walk the line, balancing the commitment to help the flock understand the totality of the faith commitment, yet avoid making statements on the minutiae of life that make them look at best silly and at worst, like frantic little totalitarians?

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