A City Set on a Hill: On Worldliness in the Church

People sometimes ask my what gifts I bring to the Catholic Church as a convert.

I’m not really quite sure how to answer since I feel I have received far more than I have given, and perhaps they are thinking that my answer will be that I have brought with me the Anglican choral tradition or Evensong or a love of fine liturgy or some such, but as I get older I realize more and more that while I love Anglican tradition and treasure my fifteen years in that church, I was never more than passing through.

They gave me a warm welcome, but I didn’t really fit in. I always felt like the son of the gardener in a grand house who happened to have befriended the son and heir of Lord Faunci.

My real roots, of course, are in independent Protestantism, and the strengths of that tradition are really the gifts I feel I can bring to the Catholic Church.

One of the best parts of that tradition is the realization that as followers of Jesus Christ we are in this world but not of this world. The Mennonite speaks loudly within me, and I have always understood the church’s relationship with the establishment structures of this world to be in opposition. There was always the expectation that if were were not being persecuted we soon would be.

The world–and by that we meant the political, academic and media establishment–were quite simply “of the devil”. The establishment could not be trusted because anyone who was in a position of worldly wealth and power had already sold their soul to get there.

Now I realize this may be harsh and I came from an extremist background and even though my family had moved on and I have moved on even further, still this foundational understanding remains as a kind of bedrock.

And is it so very wrong? Certainly the whole Biblical saga of faith assumes that this is the default setting. From Father Abraham onward God’s people were nomads, wanderers, shepherd and renegades who were never going to put their tent stakes too deep. There is one interpretation that says the name “Hebrews” comes from the word Egyptian word “Hapiru” which means flotsam and jetsam or to more blunt–social trash.

Is it not the theme of the New Testament. From the beginning our Lord and his disciples are outsiders. They are not part of the establishment and the establishment–both religious and secular–conspire together to destroy them.

Is this not, in fact, the underlying assumption of the entire story of salvation? That we are in mortal combat with the prince of this world. This world belongs to him. Christ Jesus came as an undercover agent to infiltrate and plant the seeds of an eventual takeover and we are soldiers in that battle still.

Therefore, one of the things I have found most difficult in being a Catholic is to see Catholics and our Catholic leaders assume just the opposite–that they have a seat at the high table–that they hobnob with politicians and celebrities and they take their place not in opposition to the establishment, but as part of it. This shocks me.

Furthermore, so many of our diocesan and parochial structures are not run along the principles of faith, but are run according to the worldly wisdom of corporate finance and investment, corporate consultants, lawyers insurance men and property developers. The chanceries are full of super safe people who run a PR machine, a legal team, an insurance consultancy and a development strategy team. It’s not a sin per se, but it is just assuming that we always do things the way of the world. In the meantime, little strategic charities and start ups on the local level almost never receive support from above.

Most disconcerting is that our Catholic leadership–not just bishops–but leaders of Catholic academia, Catholic media and Catholic charities all assume that somehow or other they are part of the establishment, that things are A-OK and this happy relationship will continue forever.

I realize that it goes back to the old glory days when everyone in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago were Catholic. Visiting Boston once the priest told me how the Mayor, the Bishop and the Chief of Police–all Irish Catholics–would have lunch together every week at some swanky club. It illustrates my point. The Cardinal Archbishop of New York guffawing at the Al Smith Dinner or also makes my point.

In fact, the conflict goes back even further to Augustine’s City of God and earthly city. If I were a better (or more diligent) historian I might trace all the church’s problems down through the ages to the constant compromise with the worldly way of doing things and therefore a constant compromise with Satan. At the temptation in the wilderness he offered Our Lord all the nations of the world. It’s like we’ve said, “OK then. That sounds good. Let’s make a deal.”

If this is the way it was, maybe that worked in the past, and maybe at times to be prudent one did need to adjust for reality, but this compromise should not have become the new normal. If it was that way in the past in the USA, when are our leaders going to stop and realize that it is not like this anymore?

What will it take for our leadership to realize that the trend in America is anti-Christian and especially anti-Catholic?

The establishment and the Catholic church are in opposition. We are not on the same side. On almost every issue that matters the establishment (both right wing and left wing) are in one way or another in opposition to the fullness of Catholic teaching.

Think how much more invigorating church life would be if we all realized that this world is not our home. We’re just passing through, and what if we all decided, when it comest to politicians and the establishment leaders to hope for the best but expect the worst?

What if we assumed that most everything they produce and propose will be in opposition to the gospel in one way or another?

Then I think we would be much more focussed on preaching and living the gospel and being the salt of the earth, the light of the world–a city set on a hill that cannot be hid.

2019-01-26T16:05:00+00:00January 26th, 2019|Categories: Blog|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Laurence McClelland January 28, 2019 at 12:05 am

    I always respected the Mennonites for their position on divorce which is so different than many/most professed Christians including Catholics – Callista Gingrich? or Ambassador Gingrich if you must. The local Mennonite High School carries on against all odds but seems to produce graduates who are decent people. I notice the Mennonites I encounter while shopping or at my dentist, they don’t string together profanity laced conversations or blaspheme. There are a lot of attributes of the Mennonites which could be brought into or back to the Catholic Church.

  2. Jeffrey Dundon January 28, 2019 at 12:48 pm

    Father,

    I agree with your comments but would point out that this country has been anti-Catholic since the colonial settlements. In most of the colonies Catholics were not able to vote or practice law that included Maryland which was sponsored by Lord Baltimore as a refuge for Catholics in England. As soon as the protestants outnumbered the Catholics, the same laws were put in place. Ironically, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Continental Congress and eventually a signer of the Declaration of Independence was Charles Carroll, a catholic, trained as a lawyer in Europe but not allowed to practice in Maryland. But also respected enough to be a representative.

    That was followed by the Know Nothing Party and then the KKK in the 1910s and ’20s. I just got a little more subtle after WW2.

    • Dwight Longenecker January 28, 2019 at 4:13 pm

      Indeed, and Philip Jenkins’ book Catholicism, the Last Acceptable Prejudice chronicles this anti Catholic history in America

  3. Daniel Webb January 28, 2019 at 2:42 pm

    “The establishment could not be trusted because anyone who was in a position of worldly wealth and power had already sold their soul to get there.”

    This line reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy:

    “You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man.”

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