Is the Church Like a Political Party?

Monday, July 21, 2003



My wife and I were discussing how some people seem to be in a rush to exclude others from belonging from the "in crowd" or the group.

We were particularly baffled by a recent letter to the editor in this month's issue of Commonweal regarding an article in the June issue by Luke Timothy Johnson.

Mister Johnson wrote a very good article (Sex, Women and the Church) suggesting the time has come for married and women priests and a reconsideration of the church's treatment toward homosexuals.

In turn, a reader wrote to the magazine asking that his subscription be cancelled since the magazine has become so thouroughly "uncatholic".

My wife stated that she felt this was like those who exclude others from political parties by using labels. She was particularly distressed with fellow liberals or progressives outside of the Church who call her and I conservative right wing nuts because we oppose abortion on demand. We are equally dismayed at times by Republicans who consider us too liberal and socialist for their taste and label us communist. Where do faithful Catholics with a strong sense of social justice belong politically?

Yet, I did not like the analogy to a political party and here's why.

A political party is a group of adults who want to gather around an explicit agenda, and that agenda must be clear (even "simple" to some extent) so that we can discern whether we want to support it or not. A political party that allows wide diversity becomes confused and loses political direction and effectiveness. It is important for a political party to exercise some exclusiveness and discrimination in order to remain focused on furthering its agenda.

I believe that the conservatives in the Church want the message of the Church to operate in the same manner as a political party, and that is why many are so distressed by "liberals" and "progressives" in the fold. They want the Church teaching to be a clear agenda that differenciates Catholics from others. This is an understandable desire, but it is misplaced.

I believe the analogy of the political party as applied to the Church falls short of the reality of being Catholic. We are not Catholic merely through an adult choice to support a simple agenda. We are made Catholic by an act ultimately outside of ourselves - an act of God operating through grace!

We all desire that our religion, as an organized body, will give a coherent witness to the world. As Catholics, we trust the guidence of the Holy Spirit to shape the agenda of the Church, where the Church is understood as the entire body of the faithful. Perhaps we need a different analogy to see this clearly.

In my mind, a better analogy for Catholicism than a political party is the analogy of cultures. We all know that there is such a thing as a distinctive African American culture, and an Italian culture, or an Asian culture, or a Latino culture, or a Jewish culture, and so forth.

To the insiders within a culture, there can be incredible diversity, and even individualism. However, to the outsider, there is no mistaking that there is a unified whole - a world-view and paradigm that shapes the consciousness of each individual within the given culture. A culture is not shaped by a simple agenda or set of rules. It is formed in a complex language of symbols that unite a diverse people into a single body to form a community.

At this point, I repeat that we Catholics believe the Holy Spirit is guiding the formation of our Catholic culture....but culture, and its complex set of unifying symbols is not easily encapsulated in a simple agenda resembling the platforms of a political party. The agenda of the Spirit is discerned in the day to day living reality of being part of the community.

Perhaps an even better analogy than that of a culture is the anaolgy of family! We do not chose to become a member of a family - it is simply a given reality! Certainly, some people chose not participate in family life, but the fact remains that there is a biological bond that cannot be severed in family, even by choice.

When we are baptized, we are born into a spiritual reality that is just as real as the biological bond of family.

Jesus was known for the inclusive fashion that he reached out to sinners, the outcasts and the marginalized in first century Jewish society. He made those who felt excluded feel included once again in the group. He came for the lost sheep of the house of Isreal.

We who call ourselves Catholics should certainly take Church teaching seriously and try to undertsand it. However, we do not cease to be Catholic if we have questions or doubts about a teaching anymore than a child questioning his parents ceases to be a son or daughter of the parents!

When we Catholics disagree with one another, we must remember that our "in house" debate is with a sibling - a family member!

Ignoring for the moment the issue of the authority to bind and loose as exercised in formal excommunication, no one Catholic has anymore right to call another Catholic "uncatholic" than my biological brother has a right to call me an "uncecil".

On the issue of excommunication, we see in the letters of Paul to the Corinthians that excommunication was used as a means of correction - as Paul used it with a man committing incest by sleeping with step mother. The goal of excommunication is not to permanently label who belongs and who does not belong in the fold. The goal is correction. Paul used excommunication only as a last resort, and referred to it as temporarily handing the sinner over to Satan. No Catholic should ever desire that another Catholic be handed over to Satan!

If we must label certain attitudes or beliefs as "uncatholic", I would say that the tendency to want to define baptized people as having departed the faith is the most "uncatholic" of all attitudes and beliefs. It is the exact opposite attitude and belief demonstrated in the words and deeds of our founder, Jesus Christ!

Those interested in this topic may also enjoy the following articles:

Is the Church a Divine Monarchy?
What is Infallibility?
Did the Church Support Slavery?
How Does Doctrine Develop?
The Primacy of Conscience
Papal Infallibility?

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 3:41 PM

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