The Church Obedient

It was not the head of the Catholic Church who finally condemned the tyrannical decrees of various state governors that churches are to be “nonessential,” while marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores, and abortuaries can remain open. It was President Donald Trump. He said that he is “correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

In earlier times, the Church willingly submitting to state decrees in gross violation of its freedom to practice the faith would have been a scandal of epic proportions. A public outcry, beginning at the top, would have ensued, and a contingency of priests no doubt would have gone into the catacombs to continue uninterrupted the 2,000-year-old celebration of the Mass with the faithful.

Now, with a few noteworthy exceptions, the Church has accepted its shameful public demotion and “nonessential” status. Incredibly, Pope Francis urged “obedience” to civil protocol after Italian bishops complained about the continued closure of churches while other businesses were permitted to reopen. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Covid-19 is not nearly as deadly as the vocal and carefully chosen public experts first claimed, including the now disgraced Neil Ferguson whose pandemic modeling was laughably if not criminally off the mark. Researchers have demonstrated that the mortality rate is likely lower than that of the seasonal flu and threatens almost exclusively the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Yet, even as many scientists and medical doctors suggest that total lockdown may not only be unnecessary but also harmful, the Catholic Church, for the most part, has throughout remained submissive to the civil authorities.

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The Church is a long way from where it stood during times of plague and pestilence prior to the modern era. Priests and bishops seized the opportunity, dangerous as it was, to convert souls when disease and fear were widespread. Many religiosi went to the “front lines,” to borrow an oft-used phrase by Pope Francis, ministering to the sick, dispensing the sacraments, and working tirelessly to save souls. In the year 2020, during the global spread of Covid-19, the Church has closed off access to the sacraments and “live-streamed” the Mass each Sunday.

Pope Francis has often (rightly) praised the medical workers who are “giving their own lives to help the sick, to save the lives of others.” Yet this emphasis on the material, on bodily health and well-being, contrasts with the message of the Church in earlier times, which stressed the health of the eternal soul above all else. Accepting its role as “nonessential” for American life, the Church is perhaps unknowingly revealing its commitment to a competing philosophy of materialism. This secular philosophy, which holds that bodily and material well-being is foremost, manifests politically as the welfare state and, at the extreme, the Leviathan State.

The basic insight of Thomas Hobbes, the great philosopher of materialism, is that fear of one another—and, above all, fear of bodily harm—drives us to form a social compact based not on perceived rights to self-govern but on a desire for protection emanating from the great Leviathan State. As alarming as the draconian violation of traditional American liberties by state governors and local authorities is, the Church submitting to this encroachment on its territory seems to reveal a sinister connection between the mission of the state and that of the Church. It also suggests that materialism has found a strong foothold in the Catholic Church.

Until Trump’s announcement, the vast majority of bishops continued with the closure of churches and refused the offering of public Masses, even considering it the “reasonable, rational” thing to do. It may have been tempting to view the Church’s response to Covid-19, especially at the outset, as prudent and measured, but a look at the Church’s response to other pandemics throughout history demonstrates a stark contrast between the Church of an earlier time and the Church now.

Dramatic is the difference. During times of plague and pestilence, priests, bishops, and even laymen offered themselves as martyrs to the cause of saving souls. During the Black Death, Saint Roch turned from being the coddled son of the mayor of Montpellier to a minister to the ill, eventually succumbing to the disease himself. As one recent article put it, “our woke world would probably accuse him of irresponsibility, spreading contagion wherever he went, yet for centuries he was invoked as the patron to ward off plague.” Saint Charles Borromeo ministered to the sick and starving after a plague followed massive crop failures in Milan. While the governor and other nobility fled the city (some things never change), Borromeo remained and went into debt feeding thousands daily. Saint Jacinta of Portugal, who died at age nine of the Spanish flu after an excruciating operation, offered up her suffering for the conversion of souls. Entire cities used to call on the protection of plague saints. Saint Sebastian, who is said to have converted a Roman officer who was then cured of a plague at his conversion, was popular in Italy during the Black Death.

Recently, many have looked to the Spanish flu of 1918 in order to contextualize our current situation. Churches closed then, we are told. In reality, however, these closures were not widespread, and civil decrees met with resistance particularly from Catholics. Yet 1918 is an interesting year for comparison. It was one year into Woodrow Wilson’s aggressive propaganda campaign, administered by the Committee for Public Information, meant to crack down on dissent from the war and promote Wilson’s view of things.

Wilson, under the influence of the progressive Social Gospel movement, believed (along with many Protestant ministers and activists) that World War I was Armageddon and the arena in which the forces of good and evil were battling for the fate of the world. With the stakes so high, there could be no dissent from Wilson’s war efforts. Many Protestant and some Catholic churches supported these efforts, believing with Wilson, that the end justified the means. Yet the end—a world rid of evil—represented a perversion of the traditional Christian belief that only Christ can redeem the world with His second coming.

Fueled by political fervor to “end tyranny in our world,” to borrow the words of a future democratic crusader, many of the so-called pacifist leaders of the Social Gospel movement urged war and bid Wilson to join the Allies. The turn within these Protestant churches in the United States was decidedly material, in the philosophical sense. Saving souls ranked beneath the first goal of redeeming the world politically. It was thought that through political action would come salvation. Only after the Central Powers had been defeated, the Social Gospelers believed, would the widespread salvation of souls finally become possible. Democracy, they (and Wilson) believed, would be the vehicle through which general salvation could take place. Given this turn toward earthly and corporeal goals, it is not altogether surprising that many Protestant ministers would have readily accepted the closure of their churches during the Spanish flu outbreak.

In the 1940s and 50s, Social Gospel-like sentiments spread within the Catholic Church. Today, we seem to be seeing a revival of those sentiments within Catholicism.

This Catholic Social Gospel tradition can be traced to the philosophy and teachings of Jacques Maritain, the influential French Catholic philosopher, Pope Paul VI, and Pope John XXIII, among others. It competes with the earlier, Augustinian tradition that emphasizes the separation of the things of God and Caesar above all. For all of their differences, including competing strains within each individual thinker, Maritain, Pope Paul VI, and Pope John XXIII all at times looked to a democratic welfare state to aid the Church’s religious mission and to ameliorate what are, at bottom, spiritual problems.

In his 1951 treatise Man and the State, Maritain makes the case for a revived Christian civilization that politically is almost indistinguishable from the liberal order envisioned by John Rawls. Maritain emphasizes the role of the Gospel in the unfolding of history, but he nonetheless views human history as moving progressively toward a universal liberal democratic order. “Democracy,” writes Maritain, “is the only way through which the progressive energies in human history do pass.” Through Gospel inspiration, “democracy can progressively carry out its momentous task of the moral rationalization of political life.” Because democracy is the only system of government that legally and rationally recognizes freedom, according to Maritain, its survival is crucial for mankind’s earthly destiny.

The tragedy of our time, Maritain says, is that the so-called democracies of the world “have not yet succeeded in realizing [true] democracy.” Maritain believes that the “leaven” of the Gospel has created the essential conditions for democracy in the West, but its work is not complete and human hands must bring democracy into its “next historical stage,” which, Maritain argues, is one that will have many of the attributes of an advanced liberal welfare state. Maritain even suggests that revolution must take place. In Europe, actual revolution, and in America, a spiritual revolution, which must raise “democracy to the height of the cross.” Uniting the spiritual with the political made building a democratic order on earth an eschatological imperative for Maritain.

Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris draws on a similar type of Catholic political thinking, and includes a litany of human rights that resembles a United Nations declaration. His successor, Pope Paul VI, emphasizes similar points in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, adopted in the Second Vatican Council. It stresses the importance of material equality enshrined in political rights and envisions a new age of democratic equality. These figures arguably depart radically from earlier Catholic teaching, which focuses on personal sinfulness and spiritual salvation, even—and especially—at the expense of worldly and material concerns.

Ultimately, Maritain, Pope John XXIII, and Pope Paul VI all call on the state to assist in the Church’s spiritual mission. The state owes the Church the “material task” of promoting prosperity, “the equitable distribution of the material things that are the support of human dignity,” and, in so doing, it contributes to “the spiritual interest of the Church,” Maritain asserts. The denouement of Man and the State is a call for a global governing body, a “world council” run by a “senate of wise men.” Morally and intellectually superior experts would, Maritain says, beneficently administer global democracy.

In some ways, Pope Francis seems to have inherited the legacy of Maritain, Pope Paul VI, and Pope John XXIII. Like these thinkers who demonstrate kinship with the progressive Social Gospel desire to bring about spiritual change through the political apparatus, Pope Francis has freely suggested policy prescriptions on a range of issues from immigration to the economy, in order, presumably, to further a spiritual mission. The Holy Father’s musings on climate change and on “sustainable development,” among other political issues, illustrate a commitment to the idea that material conditions are one of the major preconditions for spiritual advancement and conversion.

Recent events have put this belief in sharp relief. That the Holy Father has not protested the state forbidding public Masses suggests general agreement between the Church and the state that the health of the body and also of the body politic comes before the health of the mystical ecclesial body of Christ and the sacramental life.

In an interview in early April of this year, Pope Francis cites the nineteenth-century novel The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, which centers on the plague of Milan in 1630. Pope Francis mentions the faux pas of Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, who greets villagers with the window of his carriage closed to protect himself. “This did not go down well with the people,” Pope Francis says. “The people of God need their pastor to be close to them, not to over-protect himself. The people of God need their pastors to be self-sacrificing, like the Capuchins, who stayed close.” Yet is Pope Francis not keeping the windows of the carriage up, so to speak, in allowing the worldly authorities to determine when and how it is appropriate to administer the sacraments?

In this same interview, Pope Francis says that the current pandemic is an “opportunity for conversion.” But he seems not to imagine the type of conversion that Saints Charles Borromeo or Jacinta envisioned. For the pope, the conversion will be to “reconnect with our real surroundings” and “to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world.” The pope sees in the spread of the novel coronavirus either the “revenge of nature” or at least “nature’s responses” to our actions. That is, our poor stewardship of the earth is causing natural disasters from the fires in Australia to Covid-19. Pope Francis hopes that by reflecting on our role in these catastrophes we will collectively change our behavior and take better care of the earth, its resources, and especially the poor who are affected most by our abuses.

A “conversion” of the sort Pope Francis imagines seems to be one oriented toward the material and natural world, rather than toward the unseen, spiritual life of Christ, whom he does not mention in connection with conversion in this interview. Through his emphasis on mitigating climate change and on a need for appreciating nature’s sovereignty, he suggests a collective dimension to our salvation not unlike that emphasized by the progressive Social Gospel.

Indeed, Pope Francis’s ominous remarks following the latest sexual abuse scandal within the Church supports this idea. “With shame and repentance,” he writes in 2018 after clerical sexual abuse and ecclesial cover-up once again became public, “we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” We?

Many Catholics would no doubt take issue with the pope’s condemnation of the entire ecclesial body. This notion that conversion, repentance, and salvation can be accomplished collectively is a hallmark of the Social Gospel. It is no coincidence that many of the Social Gospel preachers were political activists and demanded war in the name of salvation. If sin and salvation are corporate, then changes to the structure of society—that is, political changes, have spiritual significance. Pope Francis would seem to be at least friendly to this idea.

There is, however, another contingency within the Catholic Church, one that harkens to the belief of Saint Augustine that “we should desire not a life of vanity under the sun, but a life of verity under the sun’s creator.” On May 7, 2020, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, together with cardinals and bishops, made a public appeal against the restrictions on fundamental personal and religious freedoms that, the authors claim, have been imposed using the outbreak of Covid-19 as pretext. The letter does not mention climate change or any general references to “the poor” or the need for stewardship over our “common home,” all significant issues, to be sure.

Rather, it draws our attention to issues seldom acknowledged by Pope Francis and Vatican officials. It warns of sinister forces and supranational authorities that would gather unto themselves great power over nations and individuals and, through their actions, destroy communities and bonds of kinship. “We have reason to believe,” the letter says, “on the basis of official data on the incidence of the epidemic as related to the number of deaths, that there are powers interested in creating panic among the world’s population with the sole aim of permanently imposing unacceptable forms of restriction on freedoms, of controlling people and of tracking their movements. The imposition of these illiberal measures is a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”

The letter calls our attention to dangerous government overreach, to modern day eugenics programs, to subtle forms of social and political tyranny, and to the use of technology in aiding the state in controlling its population. The letter concludes by calling our attention back to Christ and to our spiritual rights and duties as Christians. “The rights of God and of the faithful are the supreme law of the Church, which she neither intends to, nor can, abdicate.” The letter asks for restrictions on the public celebration of Mass to be removed and emphasizes our need to “assess the current situation in a way consistent with the teaching of the Gospel. This means taking a stand: either with Christ or against Christ. Let us not be intimidated or frightened . . .” The meaning seems clear. For Catholics to hyper-focus on bodily and material well-being in a way that is out of proportion and out of keeping with the message of Christ on the cross is fundamentally unchristian.

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor seems to have had it right. The iconic figure understood that one could not at the same time seek after earthly bread and heavenly bread. The spiritually weak will choose earthly bread, and will gladly prostrate themselves before their earthly counsels of experts and wise men. “We shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.”

Indeed, he prophesied, “In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’ ”

Image credit: AFP via Getty Images


  • Emily Finley

    Emily Finley holds a Ph.D in Politics from The Catholic University of America and is currently a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. She is the managing editor of Humanitas, an academic journal of politics and culture, published by the Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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