The power of the Church


Followers of Christ manifest the Gospel’s power in secular culture through the divine power of service, where those who are marginalised because they are poor, foreigners or different, have their feet washed with tenderness.

A recent article in La Civiltà Cattolica caused a storm of controversy in the US media and beyond. It argued that there is a dangerous religious-political “ecumenism of hate” between “fringe” integralist Catholic groups and a certain type of Evangelical fundamentalism, in contrast to the “diplomacy of Pope Francis”. The article caused even greater furore because its authors, Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro and Presbyterian theologian Marcelo Figueroa, are close associates of the Pope. Conservatives and liberals alike interpreted the condemnation of a “Manichean mingling of politics, morals and religion” as coming from the Vatican.

Yet, as Spadaro noted in an interview on America Magazine, “this is a risk that is not just confined to the US, it is valid in other countries too.” When the article was published in mid-July, Malta was in the midst of a heated political debate that took religious undertones. Likewise, emerging far-right discourse can appropriate religious rhetoric. Is Malta at risk of an ‘ecumenism of hate’ or, the Church at risk of a Catholic fringe faction?

Spadaro and Figueroa mention three characteristics of the ‘ecumenism of hate’: a Manichean worldview that reduces the moral landscape to good versus evil, world vs ‘god’; a biblical literalism that distorts the scriptural notion of stewardship to an apocalyptic expectation of divine triumph over evil; and the ‘prosperity gospel’, that, as today’s rehash of Puritan pietism, teaches that God’s favour­ed ones are to be “physically healthy, materially rich and personally happy”. Dualism, militantism and a sense of entitlement characterise the Christian right’s political rhetoric.

Dualism, militantism and a sense of entitlement characterise the Christian right’s political rhetoric. All three theological positions are antithetical to Catholicism

All three theological positions are antithetical to Catholicism. However, what Spadaro and Figueroa argue is that the minority of Catholic right-wingers seems oblivious to the contradiction because of their own equally dangerous nostalgia for Church ‘triumphalism’. The ‘ecumenism of hate’ is founded on the age-old dynamic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend – where the newfound friends’ common enemy is none other than secular culture and its morals that undermine the expectation of theocratic order. Religious adversaries bond through their common fear of the death of a ‘Christian’ civilisation.

All this American theological-political rhetoric should seem strangely foreign to the local context. Malta’s Catholic heritage inoculates against extreme dualistic thinking, apocalyptic ideations and puritanism. But Maltese culture has its own tendencies to tribalism, and therefore to reducing the world to us-against-them. It is also not immune to dogmatism, in particular when preached by Messiah-like figures. And it shares the typical underdog conviction that “il-flus jagħmluk nies” (“wealth makes one a someone”).

Whether these dynamics conspire with or against ‘the Church’ depends on historical circumstan­ces. But our culture is not im­mune to bringing together strange bedfellows of ‘hate’. When that rhetoric is justified through pseudo-theological babble, in particular, in the local context, a nostalgia for ‘Constantinism’ or ecclesiastical imperialism, the Catholic Church must take note, and where necessary, correct and teach by example.

As Spadaro and Figueroa argue, there is an authentic way of manifesting the Gospel’s power in secular culture, even if, as Jesus himself told Pilate before his execution, “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). It is the divine power of service, where those who are marginalised because they are poor, foreigners or different, have their feet washed with tenderness by the followers of Christ, because it is the powerless who represent the ‘king’.

The extent to which the local Church manifests the Gospel’s power, through its clergy and laity, is through their unconditional service that recreates our culture, in the words of John Paul II, as a “civilisation of love” – not through power politics, but from the ground up, through personal bridges.

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