Public opinion matters a great deal today. That situation creates a way in which all of us participate in public affairs, even in hierarchical settings like the Church. So we should try to understand what’s going on.
But if we are to sit in judgment over public affairs, what attitude should we take toward social leaders? After all, to judge one is to judge the other. It seems that caution is needed. If someone has legal authority we need to recognize it. And it’s antisocial not to give constituted leaders presumptive loyalty and deference. In the case of those holding the highest positions, who personify social authority in a special way, public respect seems especially necessary. Society can’t exist without authority, and you can’t heap abuse on the guy at the top without effectively damaging the principle of authority itself.
On the other hand, it’s silly not to notice that many prominent people acquire and use their positions in damaging ways. Further, silence regarding public acts can imply consent and thus become indirect participation in evil. We may want to speak respectfully of both popes involved in the Cadaver Synod, but the concept of a God of surprises can’t explain everything away, and at least one of them must have been a truly unfortunate choice as pope. So people at the time should have said something. (Actually, they did, and decided to strangle the pope who had dug up his predecessor and mutilated the corpse. That may have gone too far.)
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So what attitude should we take toward higher-ups we have doubts about? What, for example, Would Jesus Do?
From the Gospels it appears that there were a lot of bigwigs Jesus didn’t like. He spoke harshly about scribes and Pharisees. And he had problems with the religious authorities, who condemned him to death, and rich people, whom he advised to divest themselves of their wealth. (On one memorable occasion, he drove some of them out of the Temple with a whip.)
He distinguished cases. He loved the rich young man who inquired about perfection, and had nothing against Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, or Saul of Tarsus, even though Saul persecuted his followers, Nicodemus hid his beliefs, Zacchaeus had led a checkered life, and the rich young man wasn’t ready to go the distance. He was always ready to have dinner with prominent people, and not just for the food. He was concerned about their well-being, happy to teach anyone willing to listen, and had no doubt noticed that prominent people lead, so it’s worthwhile trying to influence them.
But what did he have against bible scholars and people who were scrupulous about religious law that made him generally so critical of them? Didn’t he want people to know the scriptures and take religious obligations seriously?
Their basic problem, he thought, was a temptation to turn the pursuit of religion into pursuit of position and reputation—greetings in the street, the highest place at banquets, their own sense that they knew all about God and practically owned him. As a class, they were more interested in having religion advance their careers than having it take effect among the people and help them live better lives that bring them closer to God.
As for the rich and powerful, Jesus noticed like the rest of us that they can be greedy and domineering, but more generally he viewed their positions and possessions as a drag on them. They failed to look after their deepest interests because they were so busy attending to their worldly ones. Hence the timidity of Nicodemus and the failure of the rich young man.
But what does this mean for us today?
For one thing, it means we shouldn’t admire our secular leaders too much or take them too seriously as leaders. Nolite confidere in principibus—trust not in princes—and that applies to cultural as well as political leaders.
That’s true not only because of their personal flaws but because of the nature of our public life. Career, consumption, comfort, and social standing are now treated publicly as the supreme human goods. They are sold as the American Dream, they’re the goal of education and the point of the EU, they’re what people have in mind when they talk about “making something of yourself.” Even when people get idealistic it’s about those things. “Social justice” means spreading wealth, power, and position around so more or at least different people get a piece of the pie.
So the goals now promoted in public life are the ones Jesus warned us about. Any other concern is considered a weird social issue that everyone reputable wants to get rid of. With that in mind, it seems we should be skeptical of mainstream political and cultural figures. They’re not our saviors, and instead of making America great, enlightening the public, or offering us hope we can believe in, they generally encourage us to go in directions we shouldn’t.
It also seems we should be somewhat skeptical of today’s religious leaders, unless they’re often at odds with top secular leaders and their admirers seem genuinely interested in living better in basic ways. That goes double for the ones praised by respectable mainstream opinion.
The Church today has lots of paid functionaries, clerics as well as academics, religious educators, and bureaucrats of various sorts. They have careers and want their rewards. That’s a problem in an increasingly anti-Christian age, because to get along you must go along. That’s why—for example—many well-placed professional Catholics, the scribes and Pharisees of today, don’t consider heresy a problem. Instead, they consider the word “heresy” a problem, because it makes it more difficult to accommodate to the world, and mentioning it might injure someone’s career. And from their standpoint, it is those things and not truth that the Church is all about.
But how do you distinguish the good guys who care about the Faith and what it can do for people from less good guys whose fundamental concerns lie elsewhere? Caution and discernment are needed, but a few principles seem evident from the Gospels.
Jesus couldn’t stand virtue signaling, ostentatiously praying on street corners or whatever the current equivalent might be. He saw it as a career ploy, and as a substitute for actual virtues that are likely not there. In the current sex scandals, for example, the greatest feminists have often been the greatest predators. So public sanctimony is a bad sign, especially when angled toward modish conceptions of virtue and evidently intended to make other people look bad.
Similarly, Jesus didn’t like excessive concern with public relations. If someone claims he’s pastoral and merciful, for example, is he helping people escape what’s bad and attain what’s good? Does he show a way—even if arduous—for people to find a better way of life that brings them closer to God? Or do his words and actions help him gain favor by blurring important issues and so making things easier for everyone in the short run?
Outreach is a good thing, and Jesus consorted with a variety of questionable people. But what’s really going on when someone says he’s doing outreach? If he gets along swimmingly with bureaucrats, billionaires, and opponents of the Faith, is it because they realize they’ve been missing something important and are happy to find a way of gaining it, or is it because his words and deeds fit into what they already intend and they’re happy he’s joining their projects?
One could go on. We all have weaknesses, and the habit of complaining about those of other people is notoriously a serious one. Even so, public thought requires public discussion, and a community needs a certain amount of back-and-forth from all its sections to function well. So concern for order and authority shouldn’t always keep us quiet when important matters are at stake. At times we need to speak out and register our disagreement. What, when, and how is a matter of judgment, and prudence is not something that can be demonstrated. Such is life, and we can only do our best. So with that in mind, oremus pro invicem—let us pray for each other—and each do what seems best to him for the Church and world.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Christ before the High Priest” painted by Gerard van Honthorst, circa 1617.