Religious liberty and avoiding political idolatry

Photo: Christ before Pilate, Duccio, Wikiart Photo: Christ before Pilate, Duccio, Wikiart

Passion for politics shouldn’t consume the part of us belonging only to God

In 1937, Pope Pius XI saw a grave threat to religious liberty in Nazi Germany’s idolatry of the state that fostered abuses of the church and the German people and threatened to obscure the light of Christ. So, in his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, or With Burning Concern, he expressed his “deep anxiety [at] painful trials of the Church and the increasing vexations which afflict those who have remained loyal in heart and action in the midst of a people that once received from St. Boniface the bright message and the Gospel of Christ and God’s Kingdom.”

Knowing the encyclical would enrage Adolf Hitler and his deputies, the pope ordered absolute secrecy in the production and distribution of Mit Brennender Sorge in German to every German parish. Many parish priests hid it in tabernacles. Then, on Palm Sunday, March 14, 1937, every priest read it aloud to every congregation.

The encyclical put to rest any doubts about the church’s concerns regarding the new German Reich: “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State … above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.”

Though the dramatic manner of the production and release of this encyclical was unusual, its message was not. Since the time when Moses confronted Pharaoh and Jesus stood before Herod and Pilate, God’s word has been a countercultural witness for religious liberty and against idolatry of the state.

This is not to say that the church is opposed to civil authorities. St. Paul calls Christians to pay taxes and give “respect to whom respect is due.” (Romans 13:7) What the church opposes is making an idol out of the state, investing in it the kind of trust meant only for religious faith.

There is an important difference between the respect we owe civil authorities and the faith we owe the church. As Catholics we approach the teachings of the church with what the Second Vatican Council referred to as “religious submission of intellect and will.” In other words, when we encounter something of the faith that presents us difficulty — for example, the mystery of the Trinity — we offer our assent to something we do not fully understand. We give it the benefit of the doubt. We trust the reliability of the church Christ founded and, even if it takes years, we let the idea work in our hearts and minds to shape us and prepare us to receive the teaching.

It’s very different with our cooperation with civil authorities. We pay taxes even if we don’t believe that all the money will be used as it should. We respect leaders we didn’t vote for but who were elected to represent us. However, no matter how much we might like or dislike political leaders, we never surrender our hearts and minds to them. In other words, we never let our politics replace our religion.

This doesn’t mean politics aren’t important. Our bishops take public policy matters very seriously (you can check out what they have to say on the issues of the day at our Washington State Catholic Conference’s new website, WACatholics.org). As Catholics, our faith calls us to engage constructively in the political questions of our day.

At the same time, we must never let a passion for politics enter into that space in our hearts and minds that belongs only to God. This means that when we engage in public life, we remember that no leader, state or political philosophy will solve all our problems. Knowing that the New Jerusalem is not built by human hands enables us to approach politics with a powerful combination of equanimity and resolve grounded on our hope in Christ — something needed by every nation and every time, including our own.

Northwest Catholic - October 2018

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.