A public Church, not a partisan Church

George Weigel

WARSAW. The temptation to ally the Church with a particular political party and its program is a perennial one, it seems. When that temptation is not resisted, it invariably leads to trouble — politically and, more importantly, evangelically. That was true in 20th-century Quebec, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal; it is now a danger in 21st-century Poland, where a number of Polish bishops have identified the Church’s public interests with those of “Law and Justice,” the present governing party.

As I had been invited to speak to several groups in Poland at events marking the 40th anniversary of John Paul II’s election, I thought it a good moment to raise some cautions about this, drawn from the teaching of Poland’s greatest son, in these terms:

“As envisioned by John Paul II, the Church of the 21st century was neither an established Church nor a partisan Church: it was not a Church that sought to put state power or the mechanisms of a particular political party behind its truth claims. As the Pope wrote in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, ‘the Church proposes; she imposes nothing.’ The Church asks, and if necessary the Church demands (as it did under communism), to be able to makes its evangelical proposal in public; and the Church claims the right, as a civil society institution, to be a vigorous partner in the public debate. But the Church does not seek legal establishment, nor does it ally itself with any political party. Partisanship jeopardizes the independence of the Church and, even more importantly, partisanship reduces the Gospel to a political program — precisely one of the criticisms that John Paul II made of certain forms of Latin American liberation theology.

“Nor was the 21st-century Church described in the teaching of John Paul II a privatized Church, withdrawn from the public square by its own decision, by the application of coercive state power, or both.

“European Catholicism had long been accustomed to ecclesiastical establishment. Those days, John Paul II knew, were over. And the alternative to ecclesiastical establishment was neither a privatized Church nor a ghettoized Church nor a partisan Church but a public Church: what John Paul II called in Redemptoris Missio a proposing Church.

“As John Paul II taught explicitly in his most developed social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, this proposing Church would work in public primarily through the free associations of civil society, rather than as a political actor. The proposing, public Catholicism of the 21st century would make arguments; it would not seek to craft policies, although the arguments it made would suggest that some policies were more compatible than others with freedom lived nobly, in solidarity, and for the common good. The proposing, public Church sketched by John Paul II’s social magisterium would work at a deeper level of public life — the level of cultural self-awareness and self-understanding. The Church would, in other words, be the guardian of the truths that make it possible to live freedom well.”

In a conversation with several Polish bishops concerned about the problem of the Church in Poland being perceived as a partisan political actor, I suggested looking to the U.S. bishops’ role in the pro-life battles of the past 40 years as a model for their consideration. In their promotion of the right to life from conception until natural death, the American bishops have, over four decades, made explicitly public arguments that any reasonable person can engage. In the abortion debate, they’ve appealed to science (human conception produces us a human being, as we know that from elementary biology and genetics) and they’ve appealed to rational principles of justice (innocent human life deserves the protection of the laws). Those appeals, plus the effects of the sonogram and other technologies, have made a real difference over time.

And while the pro-life cause has come to be identified primarily with the Republican Party, the U.S. bishops have consistently urged the Democratic Party to be open to pro-life candidates at every level — even as the bishops have been critical of Republican policy in other areas. The bishops, in other words, have been public actors, not partisan actors, in the drama of American politics. It was, I suggested, a lesson from which my Polish friends might learn.

COMING UP: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.