Ecclesiology Is Political

In 1992, the Archdiocese of Chicago began to require reporting allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement along with other safeguards. That policy remains a model for the seriousness and transparency the Church should bring to all such allegations. Still, the U.S. bishops rebuffed Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s urgings to adopt a similar policy for the whole nation. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law is said to have complained that making bishops accountable would “change the Church forever.” Now rich with terrible irony, this episode points us toward the deep roots of the sexual abuse problem that are not found in a “gay subculture” or a sexual revolution.

We are learning that this problem is not unique to Catholics. Other religious communities, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, also have been plagued by clerical sexual abuse and, like Catholics, something in their institutional personality has prevented them from rooting the problem out long ago. Sharing this problem as we do, despite our theological differences, should get our attention. 

My training is not in theology. I studied politics, and for fifteen years I taught politics in a secular university before I joined a faculty in theology. As a political theorist, I bring two prejudices to this conversation, both rooted in the fact that my training tells me to pay attention to how power is distributed in any arrangement of human beings together. My first prejudice is that our ideas have consequences. Whether those ideas are theological and spring from Divine Revelation or whether they are political, how we live generally results from what we believe. My second prejudice is that all human social organizations inevitably are political.

Let us start with that second one. It is much too common to abuse the word “politics,” which we mistakenly use almost always to describe partisan divisiveness. Politics really means something else. We get our “politics” from the ancient Greek politeia—literally, “the things shared by the city,” a much more rich and meaningful idea. Pope Francis often talks about politics this way. In Laudato Si, Francis writes about a feeling of being “held in a network of solidarity and belonging,” and in Evangelii Gaudium he describes cities as “places of encounter and solidarity.” Seeing politics this way means noticing how our human relationships always are the most important features of our communities, and every sort of community is served best by pursuing the common good. In this more helpful sense, that politics is a sharing we do with one another, seeking the good for one another, every human community is political. That is what politics really is, allowing it to describe a nation, a city, or a church. Each of us is, as Aristotle taught, a zoon politikon—a political animal. Our nature craves relationships with one another, and that fact of human nature always defines our social life, for good or for ill.

Of course, everything depends on seeing our communities as political in this way. If we do not see the community as something that exists for the good of every member, we quickly begin to distort our relationships. Power can be abused much more easily, and this is where my first prejudice becomes important: our ideas have consequences.

How we construct our ecclesial communities, in this way, is very much like how we construct our political communities. When we see our communities in terms of authority and power, it becomes a little easier not to do what is necessary to protect the vulnerable. Not wanting to “change the Church forever,” Catholics have seen too much of this. But it is not an exclusively Catholic problem. Whether we privilege the authority of tradition or the authority of Scripture when we construct our communities, inevitably we are placing those authorities above something—or, someone. The effects can be subtle, but over time they always are corrosive.

The greatest commandment tells us to love God entirely and to love our neighbor as ourself. Our faith begins in these fundamental commitments, and nothing else in Christianity makes sense without them. Wherever something in our church structures begins to interfere with how we honor God and care for one another, it demands re-examination—no matter how challenging that may be.

It is by no means to attack the office of bishop or the authority of Scripture to say that, in frail human hands, our churches’ arrangements of power should trouble us as Christians. And, if we are troubled, we must be moved to act.

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