Is the Church Fundamentally Political – or Spiritual?

When future reporters learn the art of journalism in their colleges and universities, the subject matter upon which they hone their skills is most often politics. In other words, most reporters are trained to be essentially political reporters. There’s a certain wisdom in this, since most of the journalism jobs available will be ones that cover the political realm. But the downside to this is that reporting in virtually all other areas tends to take on a political tone. This can lead to severe distortions in coverage.

Examples abound, but they seem to proliferate especially in the area of reporting on religious matters. And we see this tendency not only among reporters in secular outlets, who struggle over making such basic errors as mistaking a crozier for a “crow’s ear” or calling Carmelite nuns “Karma Lites.” Of course, a five-second Google search could easily fix this – if you know what you don’t know. What’s more disturbing is that we also see similar basic errors in Catholic news outlets. Catholic journalists routinely import political terminology into their reporting of Church affairs, and the results are less than enlightening.

One of the most commonly occurring tropes that have shaped so much ecclesial discourse (or rather, misshapen it) is the division of the Church into “progressives” and “conservatives.” To the journalist who sees all through the lens of politics, this would be a natural enough move. Politics is essentially about factions with interests competing for power in order to put their ideas or agenda into action. And in American politics, the factions generally fall into these two camps. So when reporters attend the USCCB annual meetings and hear bishops discussing whether to prioritize pro-life issues or social justice issues, they don’t see too much difference between that and Republicans and Democrats in the Senate debating the details of a spending bill.

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Yet Church teaching does not map on to secular politics so neatly, and the attempt to cast prelates in one role or another is often futile. If you read the writings of Archbishop Jose Gomez or Cardinal Sean O’Malley on the life issues, you would label them conservative; but if you read their remarks on immigration or fair wages, you would think them progressive. The truth is that neither label is fitting in an ecclesiastical context, yet too many Catholic journalists insist on using them. Such a practice only serves to exaggerate and exacerbate divisions among Catholics.

Applying the labels in a purely intra-Church fashion is even less appropriate. Typically, Catholics who defend the Church’s teaching and practice are labeled “conservative,” while those who agitate for change from what has been (usually to something more in line with modern secular mores) are labeled “progressive.” Yet you would think that the Church’s teaching would be the baseline by which all other things are measured. Surely, then, anyone who advocated simply preserving the Church’s doctrine should be called a “moderate.” The terms themselves reveal the tunnel vision and prejudices of those who use them.

Another problem arises in the way in which reporters and outlets describe Church teaching itself. The teachings of the Church, her doctrines and dogmas, are understood by Catholics as truths, rooted in Scripture, passed on by apostolic tradition, unfolded by the Magisterium through time. Yet far too often, Catholic journalists will describe some of these truths with political terms: the Church is said to have a “ban” on contraception, a “policy” against female ordination, a “rule” about euthanasia. This terminology is entirely unfitting – and misleading. Bans can be lifted. Policies can be altered. Rules can be changed. Truths cannot.

All of these words may properly belong in analyses of the political sphere, where factions vying for power implement their preferences only to see them reversed when the opposing party ousts them. Using them to describe Church teaching only leaves the reader with the impression that doctrine and dogma are indeed mutable, subject to power struggles and backroom deals. Imagine cardinals trading changes to paragraphs of the Catechism like congressmen signing off on each other’s pet projects.

Now, of course, there is some element of truth in this way of talking about the Church. Anyone familiar with the wheeling and dealings of Vatican officials can tell you that there is an awful lot of politicking going on. As long as the Church is populated by human beings – and not angels – there will indeed be factions and politics.

But this is not the essence of the Church. This does not define what the Church is, what its teaching is, what its saving message is. The Church is composed of people, but it is fundamentally a divine institution. It is the Body of Christ, enlivened by the Spirit of God, bringing people to the Father through its teachings and sacraments and everyday life.

Without that foundation, the Church would have long ago dissolved. This should be the guiding vision of the Church. But good luck getting a journalism school to realize – or teach – that.

 

*Image: Joan of Arc at the Coronation of King Charles VII (1403-1461) in the Cathedral of Reims on 17 July 1429 by Jules Eugene Lenepveu, c. 1890 [Pantheon, Paris]

Nicholas Senz

Nicholas Senz

Nicholas Senz is the Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX, where lives with his wife and two children. He holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. His website is nicholassenz.com.

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