Bishop Sheen on Politics

By now, the disappointing results from the last election have settled in. There were many disappointments on issues that Catholics consider non-negotiable.

At the core of voter differences are those who follow their religious convictions pitted against those who say religious beliefs have no place in politics.   Although it would seem to be a more modern argument, it has been around as long as Christianity has been.

Sheen: A Lesson on Politics

Regarding  religion and politics, I was recently taken aback while reading a book written by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1947, Characters of the Passion (Liguouri/Triumph).  In it, he takes a look at the characters that played a role in the Passion of Jesus Christ and relates them to our modern world.  No one would call 1947 modern, but the lessons of the passion held true in 1947 and still ring true today.

In chapter 3, “Pilate: A Lesson on Political Power,” Sheen disseminated public opinion as it relates to politics. He stated:

“Those who have their finger on the pulse of contemporary civilization have probably noted that there are two contradictory charges against religions today.  The first is that religion is not political enough; the other is that religion is too political.  On the one hand, the Church is blamed for being too divine, and on the other, for not being divine enough.  It is hated because it is too heavenly and hated because it is too earthly.”

Same old, same old.

Sheen portrayed the political/religious process as Jesus stood before the political Pilot and the religious Annas and Caiaphas.  Christ was accused of being too religious before Anna and Caiaphas.  Under the veil of mock indignation at the supposed insult to God’s majesty, Christ was declared too religious, too concerned with souls, too infallible and too Godly.  After all, they cornered him into declaring Himself to be God.  Sheen writes:

“Because He was too religious, He was not political enough.  The religious judges said that He had no concern for the fact that the Romans were their masters, and that they might take away their country (John 11:47-48). By talking about a spiritual kingdom, a higher moral law, and His divinity, and by becoming the leader of a spiritual crusade, He was accused of being indifferent to the needs of the people and nation’s well being.”

Counter Church

Likewise, pro-lifers are accused of being too religious.  Who are they to know the mind of God…to know when life really begins? We are accused of trying to force our religion on others, of being fanatics, of being downright dangerous to a free society.

Ultimately, Jesus was sent into the political arena, to Pilot.  There, religious charges would not have prevailed.  So instead, he was accused of being too political. Jesus is charged with meddling in national affairs; that He was not patriotic enough.  “We have found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he is Christ the king” (Luke 23:2).

Sheen explained:

“And so throughout history, these two contradictory charges have been leveled against the Person of Christ in His Body the Church.  His Church was accused of not being political enough when it condemned Nazism and Fascism; it is accused of being too political when it condemns Communism. It is the second charge that needs specific consideration, namely, that the Church is interfering in politics.  Is this true?  It all depends upon what you mean by politics.  If by interference in politics is meant using influence to favor a particular regime, party, or system that respects the basic God–given rights and freedom of persons, the answer is emphatically No! The Church does not interfere in politics.  If by interference in politics is meant judging or condemning a philosophy of life that makes the party or state, or the class, or the race, the source of all rights, and that usurps the soul and enthrones party over conscience and denies those basic rights for which the war was fought, then answer is emphatically Yes!.

The Church does judge such a philosophy.  But when it does this, it is not interfering with politics, for such politics is no longer politics but theology. When a state sets itself up as absolute as God, when it claims sovereignty over the soul, when it destroys freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, then the state has ceased to be political and has begun to be a counter-Church.”

The Government Is Trespassing

In reality, the Church adapts itself to government, supporting authority. The Church teaches that the state is supreme in temporal matters.  But when politics make religious proclamations such as women have the right to end the life of their unborn babies—politics enters into the religious realm and claims supremacy over the human soul.  Voting and campaigning against candidates and issues that compete with religion is not against politics but against a counter religion.

For all the accusations that fundamentalist Christian and Catholic teaching is dangerous to our free society, the reality is quite the contrary.  Preaching Christianity is sometimes labeled dangerous and incendiary.

For instance, on the issue of homosexuality, the Christian churches are increasingly coming under fire for teaching against homosexual marriages.  Never mind that the teaching advocates loving the sinner but hating the sin, politics claim that it’s not okay to hate the sin. Any teaching against this sin is more and more being labeled “hate” and said to encourage discrimination.

Christians are not being allowed moral stances that could be viewed as discriminating against a lifestyle.  Such a social straightjacket makes it impossible to teach right and wrong because it will offend the people engaging in the wrong.

As Sheen reminded his reader:

“It was Jesus Christ who suffered under Pontius Pilate; it was not Pontius Pilate who suffered under Jesus Christ.  The grave danger today is not religion in politics but politics in religion.”

So when politicians preach a counter-religion message such as the HHS Mandate which is the government forcing Catholic businesses to offer artificial birth control and abortifacients to their employees, our religious leaders have no choice but to protest. Although the politically correct clamor against invasion of the spiritual, if our eyes are open, we will see that the problem is just the opposite—the invasion of the spiritual by the political.

Christ was always and is forever our example.  He did not deliver himself from the power of the state although he ultimately held all power:  “You would have no power unless it were given to you from above,” (John 19:11).

But he never stopped preaching and living the truth. The state is often indifferent to God’s moral laws. Still, we must never give in or give up.  We must be willing to bear the marks of Christ as we follow him.

Sheen equated God’s truths with true freedom:

But whatever be the reason for these trying days, of this we may be certain:  The Christ Who suffered under Pontius Pilate signed Pilate’s death warrant; it was not Pilate who signed Christ’s.  Christ’s Church will be attacked, scorned, and ridiculed, but it will never be destroyed…. The bold fact the enemies of God must face is that modern civilization has conquered the world, but in doing so has lost its soul.  And in losing its soul it will lose the very world it gained. Even our own so-called liberal culture in the United States, which has tried to avoid complete secularization by leaving little zones of individual freedom, is in danger of forgetting that these zones were preserved only because religion was in their soul.  And as religion fades so will freedom, for only where the spirit of God is, is there liberty.”

Copyright © 2013, Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She currently works as a communications specialist with Teresa Tomeo Communications and worked in the fields of social work and public administration before staying home. Patti is an award-winning writer, speaker and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on EWTN, and Catholic TV as well as radio stations across the country. Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families (Scepter Publishers) and Dear God I Don’t Get It (for children from Liguori Publications), will be released in Spring 2013. To read more visit Patti’s blog and website. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook at her author page.

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