The Politics of Fear; a Truly Catholic Response
A new article from La Civiltà Cattolica, a Vatican approved newspaper has American Catholic communities in an uproar. In the article Editor-in-Chief, Fr. Antonio Spadaro S.J., offers an analysis and a critique of the current theological and political climate of the United States. In the article, he goes over five areas of concern that he feels are important to analyze. Now, we could go over the article, express our feelings over it and react to his statements and those made by many Catholic Media outlets. But in all honesty, we believe there is something more important to discuss in all of this.
Namely, what kind of spirit of division is currently entering our church that the Vatican is against American Catholics and American Catholics are attacking Vatican officials? We are One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This infighting is neither logical nor just and must be stopped for the sake of the survival of the Church everywhere, including in America. I think the heart of all of this division is the current political climate in the United States. Politics in the US has become highly divisive and even destructive. On either side, the finger pointing and blaming is endless as each side emphasizes issues it believes are important. All the while ignoring other issues that are also important but perhaps less politically advantageous.
At times like these, it is imperative to step back and allow reason to come to the forefront. Although, this division has not spared the Catholic Church in America. Catholicism is still not bound by the boundaries of political lines and has no need to subscribe to them. If we move past the battle lines drawn between liberals and conservatives then the fear that each side brings to the table will finally be eliminated. This will allow the Body of Christ to do more than simply lament the state of the Church. We will be able to respond to the culture, not in fear but with love and truth. We will finally respond with an authentic spirit of evangelization. Currently, the state of the union as it relates to Catholics is such that each side is at war with the other. Conservative Catholics are up in arms about the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of life. Frankly, they should be, these are incredibly important issues that cannot be ignored and must be defended ardently to preserve social well being of all and avoid the spiritual and structural disintegration of the family and of souls. On the other side, those who would label themselves Liberal Catholics are more concerned with Immigrant rights, Civil Rights for those ostracized in minority communities, and other social disorders that justly occupy the public’s attention. Unfortunately, mixed into these just issues are also a few social disorders that are not so just, despite what they may claim. But for the sake of mending divisions we will work with those causes that have just merit according to the teachings of the church.
Politics and Division
So, who is right among them? What is a true Catholic to do amidst the divisive uproar all around us manifesting in the form of likes, shares, pins, tweets, searches, and blinking screens of various sizes?
All of these issues are important in our church per their differing degrees of gravity, of course. But none of the issues above can be ignored or thrown aside for the sake of political expediency. Our picking and choosing which teachings we will uphold per our political leanings is detrimental to us all. To speak frankly, this spirt of division arriving in the guise of politics unchecked and unfettered is becoming a modern form of idolatry. It is a golden calf where causing even good Catholics to bend to social pressures of the world found on either side of the aisle. In some sense, we must remain irreverent of party lines for the sake of remaining reverent of (and loyal to) the teachings of the Church. But let’s be even more clear; there are negative effects that we will suffer by becoming hyper-political beings concerned with the temporal rather than the eternal. Such an inner dynamic will cause us to see through the lens of political rhetoric rather than through the lens of faith. This will allow our political leanings to color our world view. We will then no longer see as Christ sees but instead we will see as the world sees regardless of which “side” we find ourselves on. Through the narratives of fear put out by both sides, we begin to label everyone who we believe exhibits even the mildest hint of defection from our political ideals as the “other” or “the enemy”. Even the Pope has been subject to this kind of “branding” from news organizations and other publications. This is a good example of excessive politicization. Realistically, the Pope is not even American and probably does not even act nor think, through the lens of American politics as many of us do. Thus, branding certain papal actions as left or right is useless and not an accurate basis for assessing the efficacy or value of his pontificate. This inner psychological space that we may find ourselves in could place us at risk of extremism, no matter the side that we're endorsing. Therefore, we must be careful not to allow political rhetoric to cause an anti-formation that usurps the true catechetical formations we received through our faith.
If we permit this, we will become political extremists looking for signs of defection in others rather than disciples of Christ looking for opportunities to love and evangelize. So what do we do if we are struggling with this inner dynamic? Well, if you feel weighed down or burdened by worry, fear, doubt, and the overall negative tone of American politics; then be not afraid, this article is not here to condemn or leave people without solutions. It is here to serve as a basis for discernment and to help you with the concrete steps written below.
The True Solution; Removing Fear
It’s true, it’s hard to discern in this imperfect world. We’re not perfect, and we cannot love perfectly as God loves nor can we remain perfectly in sync with the Church on every single issue without his loving grace to assist us. We are very much dependent on God. Therefore, the answer to cleansing our hearts and minds of fear is turn to God himself for discernment and for faith. Fear that gets out of control becomes more than a simple emotion. It becomes a tool in the hands of our spiritual enemy. Therefore, we must turn to God to remove fear from our hearts, our lives, and our politics so that we can be renewed with courage. Fear still is an emotion, we may sometimes feel fear but that courage allows us to push past it. As it says in 1 John 4:18 "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love".
God has not left us alone to writhe in fear over the impending future before us and before our children, in fact “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline”. (2 Timothy 1:7). Therefore, if we TRULY believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving then we must also believe his promises in that he will not allow our Church, our hearts, our families, nor our souls to fall into permanent error as long as we trust in Him. Indeed, His mercy and strength is greater than human sin and we need not fear as he has destroyed the sting of sin by the power of His Holy Cross. Sin may exist in the world but do not let its presence scandalize you so much that it causes you to dwell on it and forget that the world is fading away and that God has already defeated it by the power of the Cross. Therefore, through the continued practice of our faith through the sacraments, our continued embrace of the graces offered in the confessional, and the strengthening of our prayer life and scriptural study we can be assured of God’s loving care and providence. As Psalm 91 says:
“You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.” - Psalm 91: 5-6
As we begin to lose our fear, we will stop operating from a posture of defense as a Church and begin to operate from a posture of love. We will learn to be patient with sinners because we will experience for ourselves God’s care and patience with us. We will learn to guide, to love, and to care for others because we saw God do it for us. We will learn to respond with faith not fear, even in crisis, as we will be secure even in the storms knowing that we have the peace and care of an omni-potent God who calls us not merely his servants but his friends (John 15:15). We will progress in prayer and in understanding of the scriptures, we will transition from servanthood to friendship and begin to realize that God wants that friendship for all of us. He wants us for who we are not merely for what we can do, which is truly of no value to God anyway since he can do all things. He is not here simply to make us pay, pray, and obey out of fear. He desires our friendship, not out of need, not out of any strange and mildly creepy desperation taught in 1960’s religious education classes but instead out of the goodness of his character and the abundance of His love and generosity. In other words, he does not just love us for what we do or hate us for what we fail to do instead he loves us and brings his ever-constant mercy to us because that is who He is and He cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13). He desires that we be obedient, kind, merciful, just, and tender lovingGod first and then neighbor for our own good and that of our eternal destiny. After all, no one can nor will judge God at the end of time and God is not at risk of any eternal damnation. He is perfect. It is we who need his ever-constant help and loving graces to sanctify us. Therefore, all that he does, he does not out of self-righteous anger or fear but out of love for us all. He allows us complete freedom for our good and dispenses His justice and mercy as he sees fit for the good of all humanity per our choices.
Discerning God’s voice amidst the Noise of Politics
All of this said, so how do we discern what is from God and what is not? Well, the answer is found in 1 Kings 19. In a summary of this story, the prophet Elijah fears for his life in this story as Queen Jezebel vows to kill him for his zeal for the Lord. In his humanity, he runs far away into the wilderness. Jesus too later in time, will enter the wilderness for in the wilderness and struggle of our lives is where God is most present to us. But in this wilderness, he looks around and falls to the ground praying a brokenhearted prayer that God take away his life for he has zeal for the Lord and all around him were sinners who had abandoned the Lord and who were now coming to take his life. After this heartfelt prayer in which Elijah hungers and thirsts for righteousness, he falls asleep and an angel wakes him up with a cake on hot stones and a jar of water. He is commanded to eat “or else he will not withstand the journey”. The scriptures then say that on the strength of this food he goes on for forty days and nights on a journey to Mt. Horeb at God’s command.
The story then continues with Elijah’s at Mt. Horeb in verse 11 where he stands on the mountain as instructed as the Lord is supposed to pass by Him. After that, the following occurs:
“11 a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites, have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” - 1 Kings 19: 11-14
Elijah is scared but he waits upon the Lord and then the Lord gives him instruction as to how to anoint Elisha as the new prophet and a new king of Israel. God rewards him with an answer to his prayer.
What on earth does all of this have to do with modern day politics in America or anywhere else for that matter?
First, like Elijah, we must eat or else the journey will be too much for us. If we want the world or even American politics to come to conversion than we must too must be the first examples of holiness through a renewal of the practice of our faith. We must practice not merely because we are told to but because we are cultivating a relationship with a loving God who cares for us and in doing so we receive the strength and healing we need to soar above the storms around us. In practicing our faith, we exercise humility in accepting the reality of our human condition; that without food we will die and without the Eucharist we will also die a spiritual death. This means that in humbling ourselves to accept this reality, we must be avid celebrants and partakers in the sacraments. The sacraments HAVE the power to change us and the power to our change lives. When change does not happen in us, it is not due to a failure of the power of God or the sacraments. Instead, it is often due to a lack of an open heart and a humble disposition. It is usually a failure on our part to receive the many gifts Christ offers through his sacraments and a failure to allow God’s powerful grace to work in our hearts. That is the reason, that we see spiritual destitution in our culture. It is due to a lack of spiritual openness, the anti-witness of constant scandal, and the often too lax or too scrupulous interpretations of our faith that many souls are driven away. These pitfalls make us spiritually weak and tepid when facing a terribly misguided yet very convincing culture. Right practice of our faith is more than simply returning to the past to revive lost traditions. Instead, a right practice that honors our Lord is one that listens to the Magisterium of our Church in obedience. God is the source of grace, after all, not any one standard or another. Instead, practicing well simply means practicing per the norms of the Church, out of love and often. Similar to the way that a man and a woman in love make sure to have dates often to never lose the spark of love that brought them together in the first place.
The second lesson Elijah’s experience gives us on Mt. Horeb has to do with his familiarity with God. Notice, that Elijah is a contemplative critic. Not so much in that he is critical or negative but instead that he is discerning and unmoved by fantastic events. He does not jump at the sounds or sights outside, nor does he assume they are Godly occurrences despite their rather mighty presentation. He does not jump to conclusions. He does not believe in his own ability to reason it out. Had he relied on his own reason alone he could have been fooled. After all, such powerful occurrences could believably be perceived as God’s voice due to their might and extraordinary nature. In that same way that he refuses to jump at every miracle, we too must never to jump straight to fear, to believing false voices that contradict the scriptures or the Church, to believing immoral narratives, to believing political narratives based on fear (conservative or liberal), to heeding worldly ambitions and seductions, nor even to the wicked desires of the flesh that pursue us all from time to time. Instead, as Elijah does, we must move only at the sound of the whisper of God’s voice found only in the humility of pure silence. He knows God is found here because he has cultivated relationship with God and has allowed the Lord to teach him and meet him there therefore he knows who God is and he knows his voice. We too must learn to recognize God’s voice through the scriptures and through prayer. St. Jerome famously said, “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. At times, we can highly underestimate the effect of Lectio Divina (Scripture reading as prayer) and of maintaining an intimate relationship with Christ. We cannot appear faithless before God for “one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).
Instead, we need to renew our faith and our faith in God’s ability to speak to us and in his ability to help us hear when we have trouble. We need to run to him to truly discern our present political climate and the many societal situations we face as a Church.
A Prayerful Path to Security in Christ
There is a path for this. By knowing the scriptures, we can become accustomed to the timbre and tone of God’s true voice much like a child rapidly recognizes the sound of his mom’s voice when he is lost running to it when in need of refuge, clarity, and safety. In doing this, we will begin to realize that when the culture announces more confusing rhetoric filled with temptations to abandon or betray our faith, we too can run to the intimate place of our hearts where God meets us. Here in meditation and contemplation waiting patiently upon the voice of the Lord, we will find a safe harbor at sea. His voice comes in many forms and in many ways in our lives but I assure you it will be heard if we do not despair nor become impatient but instead wait faithfully upon the Lord. It is good practice to ask him to speak in a way that you can understand as you are in your journey with him. He is generous, he will grant you your request. You need only be patient and vigilant for his voice. As it states in scripture: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint”. (Isaiah 40:31-1).
It is good to know that we may experience temptations to distraction in our prayer life or get frustrated in the silence if we do not have an immediate experience of God but we cannot succumb to these temptations. Instead, hold firm in prayer, examine the conscience to ensure there is no hidden sin that obscures relationship with God and continue to have faith in God’s good character and generosity. God will answer us in a way we can understand if we keep our hearts open to him and allow him to meet us there in the depths of our souls. Through this faithfulness, we will find peace and will hold fast to truth as we can always be assured that the Deposit of Faith remains secure in the trifold revelations of God; the Scriptures, the Traditions of the Church, and the Magisterium. Truth cannot and will not contradict either of these three sources. Truth will not contradict them but may choose to coincide, come alongside, and speak alongside them so do not remain rigid out of fear but faithful and obedient to his voice, ready to discern, ready to listen. In fact, it is common to see over the course of Salvation History, God’s hand moving in accord with and in favor of mankind to respond to new events, new challenges, and even new victories. Be encouraged, his hand will move for us as well if we do not lose faith.
All in all, the key to American politics right now as Catholics is to remove our focus on it and instead place our focus on God, the one who cares for us. In doing this, He will reveal to us the right moves necessary to be in right relationship with him and to win back the culture to goodness and truth. If we fail, we need not be discouraged, we can confess it, receive His forgiveness and continue in discernment and evangelism. We need only remain steadfast in our faith and in our prayer life. As the desert Fathers had been known to say, let no praise nor criticism move you but instead exhibit self-restraint and strong faith in waiting upon the word of Lord. No matter the suffering, endure, and God will rescue you for He is your help and your salvation, your God in whom you trust.