It has been said that “all politics is local”, and this is a valuable axiom for winning public office. Unfortunately, after such victories, politics mostly proceeds from the top down. This creates a huge temptation to seek change by leaping over what is local in an effort to control high-level socio-political policies. In the Church, this temptation tends to take its most virulent form in the role played by national episcopal conferences. I began an assessment of such conferences last week in On funding (or dissolving) episcopal conferences. Today I take up their tendency to substitute a thirst for political influence for each soul’s thirst for God.
Last week I mentioned the tendency of episcopal conferences to focus on desired policies and goals, including influencing other institutions and governments in their response to major public issues. At the same time, this tendency tends to gloss over each bishop’s direct personal responsibility for his own local flock. Attention is often focused more on the positions the conference is taking on public issues, and less on creating a vibrant local Catholic culture beginning with each parish and diocese.
A vibrant local Catholic culture will naturally give rise to various groups and institutions which advance specific Catholic goals at higher levels. But the essence of what the Church has been called into being to do does not consist in adopting influential socio-economic and political positions in the hope of transforming the surrounding secular culture. Rather, it has to do with forming Catholics to create radically different communities, communities which live and breathe the Gospel in all the concrete interactions which constitute our daily lives.
One wonders where the idea came from that we can make the world better, as a Church, by advocating social, political, and economic programs at the governmental level? I do not mean that Catholics have no responsibility as citizens of a particular political entity. The laity do have a responsibility to vote wisely and for the common good, and to serve in a Christ-like manner should they be elected to public office. But the Church’s job is not to change the world through political advocacy at the macro level. The Church’s job is to make her members holy, so that in all their interactions they live and act as Christ has called them to do. It is in this way that her members will form, in many places, local Catholic cultures—vibrant cultures tangibly different from the surrounding wasteland.
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