Mater et Magistra or politico and ideologue?

Why is the Church taking sides in European politics and not focusing on the rampant secularization and the dilution of Europe’s Christian roots?

Pope Francis greets Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 17, 2019. In a new interview on the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, Pope Francis praised the increased awareness and efforts among young people to seek action on climate change. (CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters)

How does it feel to go to Church to celebrate the Assumption of Our Lady—or, as Byzantines say, the Dormition of Our Lady—and hear politics?

I am back from a splendid pontifical high Mass in a very special Marian shrine with an overwhelmingly large number of pilgrims overflowing the church, which is unusual in northern Europe (Germany). The local bishop seemed more like a politician preaching in favor of a political party than a bishop teaching the faith. The homily started with a statement in support of the European Union, bashing nationalists and populisms, while praising partnerships and advocating for protecting the environment. Only after this diatribe did all who were gathered, having traveled miles to attend, hear about the Assumption of Our Lady.

Why are our clergy and bishops not teaching what they are supposed to teach, instead becoming entangled in contemporary politics and ideology—and worse, taking sides in current politics and with certain politicians and sharing the same script of their political agenda? Don’t we have enough of politics already, as we are bombarded from every direction? Why isn’t the Church being the Church, a teacher—a magistra–of faith? Why aren’t our bishops teaching?

Obviously, I was disappointed, to say the least. However, the homily for the Feast of the Assumption reminded me of the August 9, 2019, La Stampa interview of Pope Francis. The topics covered seemed almost identical to those included in the homily. In fact, when I first read the Holy Father’s interview, I thought it to be probably one of the most political interviews in his pontificate so far. The themes explored in the interview are hot buttons, highly contested in both European politics in general and Italian politics in particular: European Union integration, sovereignty, immigration, globalism, populism, nationalism, and the environment.

Where is Christ and the Church as Mater et Magistra in all this? Why are the priorities shifted to a an ideological-political platform? What has the Church to offer that is different from what the political parties and political contestants are offering to the faithful and to the lapsed Catholics who on Holy Days make an effort to return? In what ways, exactly, is the Church qualified to make judgments on political parties and policies?

The August 9 interview seems to show no boundary between the secular realm and the preaching of the Kingdom of God. The Church’s involvement in politics—and worse, taking sides in political debates and highly contested matters—can cause dangerous misunderstandings and exclusion of people, including the faithful who do not abide by what they hear coming from the altar. By involving itself in this way in politics, the Church also misses out on teaching opportunities, as was the case of the homily of the bishop on the Feast of Mary’s Assumption.

Pope Francis is the pope of the peripheries, bringing the peripheries and the plight of the peripherals to the center’s attention, as he is constantly doing with immigrants, the poor, and the marginalized. Additionally, Pope Francis is the pontiff who greatly values the vitality and the particularities of the periphery. According to his theology of the peripheries, the periphery and the peripherals can both enrich and challenge the center’s perceptions. In the 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis made an important distinction between globalism and Europeanism on the one hand, and sovereignties, nationalisms, and populisms on the other by using the model of a sphere versus a polyhedron, explaining: “… the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead…the polyhedron… reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness.”

In other words, the pontiff is making a distinction between the global, which in his model is a sphere (which does not value the particularities of different cultures) and the specific, which is a polyhedron (which values the particularity of every culture).

However, the August 9 interview is very different from Evangelii Gaudium and the sphere-polyhedron model—the global versus particular—when the Holy Father talks about the global European Union. In the interview, the pontiff rightly emphasized how important dialogue is between different countries and parties and among people in the European Union. He explained that integration and unity of European identities is important, and the way to accomplish this oneness is through dialogue.

However, immediately after making this statement of global Europeanism (the sphere) which is “the dream of the Founding Fathers [which] had substance because it was an implementation of this unity [of different identities/peoples/countries],” a contradictory argument is laid out condemning the sovereignty of each nation (polyhedron): “Europe first, then each one of us. Each one of us is not secondary, it is important, but Europe counts more.” Does this sound like America First or Italy for the Italians?  Why the change for the global Europeanism—the sphere? The European Union’s “unity has weakened over the years, partly because of administration problems and internal disagreements. But it must be saved,” the pontiff remarked, adding unreserved approval of the newly elected Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen as President of the European Commission, saying “because a woman can be the right person to revive the strength of the Founding Fathers. Women know how to bring people together, unite.”

Why is the Church or the Pope taking sides and supporting politicians who still have not proven their worth in their new political positions? Why alienate the men here, who make up half of the population? Are not men capable of establishing unity? There is much more to say about the difficult transition of countries to the European Union and the yet unresolved and highly contested issues between member countries. Much remains to be seen in the relations between the powerful-axis countries Germany and France and the second-class European Union citizens, or the newcomers to the European Union, and how these countries are treated—or how the countries leaving the union or those aspiring to enter the union are treated.

Again, why is the Church taking sides in European politics and not focusing on the rampant secularization and the dilution of Europe’s Christian roots? Teaching the faith is urgent, and this is what the Church, Mater et Magistra, is called and expected to do.

As for the homily of the bishop in the Marian shrine on the Feast of the Assumption, I am not sure if the faithful in the congregation brought any uplifting Christian message to home; they all probably, like me, left thinking of politics as usual.


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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 11 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/) is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.

26 Comments

  1. I had a similar experience in 1966. Went to Mass on Sunday only to be treated to.a sermon that essentially extolled the virtues of socialism–ironically, on the Feast of Christ the King. Didn’t have to leave the country for the experience, though. It was in Lincoln, Nebraska.

  2. “Again, why is the Church taking sides in European politics and not focusing on the rampant secularization and the dilution of Europe’s Christian roots?”

    Because so many in the hierarchy are not simply “progressive” but apostates, not heretics, apostates. They have decided on “the Church” as an NGO…and as old and close to death as they are…they love money and want broader funding (and therein lies the connection to Judas).

  3. The Church is “taking sides” because, in His every word and deed, Jesus Christ “took sides.” Rather than the hard words of the Gospel, there are too many who would prefer to hear theological niceties. A discourse on the Hypostatic Union is much easier to ignore than “love your neighbor more than you love yourself.” A discussion of the European Union, or “Make America Great Again,” is not appropriate content for a homily, but neither are preachers who somehow find a way to include abortion and homosexuals in every homily they deliver.

    Too many priests and bishops have forgotten the triune office to which they are called and ordained: prophet, priest and king. Both in the Jewish Testament and in the Christian Testament, prophets were a short-lived bunch. Their challenges to the status quo and their irritating penchant for making the comfortable uncomfortable pretty much guaranteed that a pension plan was not an important part of their benefit package. We need more prophets in our pulpits.

    It would be wonderful to encounter priests and bishops who model their homilies on the first sermon recorded in the first book of the Christian Testament (Matthew 5:3-10):

    Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.

    Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.

    Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

    Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

    Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.

    Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

    Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    • Politics is about group behavior. It contains no hard words, only prudential judgments and experimental policies. “Hard truths” involve resisting the world, the flesh, and the devil. Not governmental relief plans or welcome overtures.

    • “but neither are preachers who somehow find a way to include abortion and homosexuals in every homily they deliver”

      Sorry, but this almost never happens in my world. I don’t know what world you are living in, but I have heard abortion and homosexuality mentioned in a homily maybe a dozen times each in 30 years. Yes, one time we had a visiting priest from Germany who said that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” which I thought was pretty funny.

      • Been attending Catholic Church for 25 years (I’m a convert). I can count on ONE hand the number of times I’ve heard about contraception/abortion/euthanasia. Heck, we can throw divorce/remarriage in there, too!
        .
        Homosexuality/sodomy/gay marriage has never been brought up during any homily or any kind of Church service (ie, Wed evening prayer).
        .

      • Dear Benny XVI and DJH: As a church musician serving as an Intentional Interim (for churches suffering musician/clergy conflict, scandal, etc.) and as a contractor for U.S. Military chapels at home and abroad, I have served at more than 50 churches/chapels over the years (I’m old).

        Many, many of the younger Presbyters coming out of seminary are so far right that I’ve heard them describe ETWN and the National Catholic Register as being “too liberal.” I have personally served in parishes where the new Presbyter has gone so far as to start clandestine Extraordinary Form Masses in direct opposition to his Bishop’s direct orders to him. In the past year, I have heard with my own ears Presbyters calling Holy Father Francis “a heretic” and/or “in serious error”: from the Ambo during regularly scheduled Sunday morning Masses.

        In the parish where I have most recently served, the Bishop installed a young Presbyter with a few years’ experience as an Associate. On his FIRST Sunday in a new parish, he managed to cover abortion, euthanasia, NFP, instructed married couples to refrain from all genital activity until they “prayerfully consider” being “good Catholics”, stated that suicide remains a grave sin, the evils of same gender marriage, and wrapped up by describing homosexuals as “an attack on the Church,” and an “attack on men and masculinity.” The only good thing is that it was a well-crafted homily.

        With many of the younger Presbyters, this would not have been an exceptional homily. I’m not sure where you are, but if you are blessed with Presbyters who preach the entirety of Church doctrine and tradition, stay there. And thank God for holy Priests.

        • Not sure why you refer to new priests as “Presbyters,” since that ordinarily carries a Calvinist connotation. As to “clandestine EF Masses,” I’m confused there as well since, under Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, permission from the local bishop is no longer necessary. If people in a particular parish want the EF, then it must be given to them, thankfully without the obstructionism and hostility that such folks so often encountered in the past. As for issues of sexuality, what are you saying? We certainly don’t endorse same-sex marriage and, in a time when simply refusing to accommodate such weddings with a cake can carry a huge cost for sticking to those principles, I’d say it takes some backbone to publicly articulate Catholic teaching on marriage. Finally, what exactly do you mean by “the entirety of Church doctrine and tradition?” It does include marriage and sexuality,, doesn’t it?

    • Never really hear anything at all about abortion and homosexuality, except from the occasional priest who chastises us for being obsessed with such things. Much more likely to hear about how many straws are in the ocean.

  4. The Church, of course, is not the least bit qualified to make authoritative judgments on matters of policy. I don’t know why this is, but many Catholics seem to think that the instant someone puts on a bishop’s hat, he is suddenly filled with wisdom from on high on all matters. The “magic hat” theory of Catholicism. And that’s not even the worst aspect of all this. The worst part is that they have absolutely no mandate or commission from Jesus Christ to pontificate on these matters. Their job, given to them by Jesus, is to preach the gospel. I dearly wish they would.

    • Not just “preach the Gospel”, but live the Gospel. While I am no theologian: With the exception of Our Lord’s Passion, I don’t recall any biblical references of Our Lord waxing eloquent in the Praetorium about the social, political, economic, or even environmental realities in Roman controlled Judea, and other adjacent territories. Seems to me that Our Lord spent most of his time teaching(preaching to) the people directly, or in the Synagogues, or, when in Jerusalem in the vicinity of the Temple.

    • As the former Australian PM (and devout Catholic) Tony Abbot put it, the Bishops can transform wine and wafers into the body and blood of Christ, but they cannot transform bad logic into good logic.

    • Josef: I would contend that Jesus lived out (incarnated) His opinions on the religious establishment, the government, and social constructs. Jesus surrounded Himself with social outcasts, the destitute, and “least of these.” Except for Luke, all the disciples were unclean and unworthy by the standards of their day. Jesus’ followers were overwhelmingly the poor or slaves. With a little research, you’ll find that even the “turn the other cheek” narrative has political overtones and consequences (explore the millennia-old etiquette of the front-handed slap versus the back-handed slap).

      Informed by the fact that He was living in a region occupied by Rome (where even speaking the Emperor’s name improperly could be an immediate death sentence), His most momentous attacks were always on the religious establishment: “You brood of vipers”; “you are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean”; “you appear to be righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness”; et al.

      It should surprise no one that the secular and religious state had Him murdered. Priests and Bishops are ordained with the mandate to be Prophets, Priests, and Kings. It is not coincidence or happenstance that speaking with a prophetic voice is their first charge. Like Jesus, their (and our) first call is to be a prophetic voice, challenging people, societies and their cultures, the Church, and the state (at every level). As with the Prophets of old, inevitably, that will get you killed.

  5. Have you ever discussed politics with your local priests? Barely 1 in 10 has any clue about politics. They trust TV news and have such sweet naivete. This is where our Bishops come from. Who can forget the silly letters from The USCCB, during the 1980s about war, nuclear arms, the economy, homelessness, etc. All Provoked by a Republican in the White House and all proven wrong by the end of the decade.

  6. Easy to preach on politics when the media provides ready made sermons (“Blessed ‘whoever/whatever’” is in vogue at the moment and then tie it to the Sermon in the Mount”), and the public is predisposed to accept. This the Cult of Man continues unabated and God is ignored. Harder to preach on the truths of our faith which require study, prayer, humility? and reflection.

  7. Murzaku writes: “Pope Francis is the pope of the PERIPHERIES, bringing the peripheries and the plight of the peripherals to the center’s attention, as he is constantly doing with immigrants, the poor, and the marginalized.”

    But, what is Europe?

    In 1991, on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI wrote a book entitled “Turning Point for Europe?” (and I think there’s even a sequel). In it he begins: “Now, at the end of the century, we have experienced the internal disintegration of Marxist ideology together with the structure of power it created [….] Liberalism and Marxism were in agreement in refusing religion both the right and the capacity to shape public affairs and the common future of mankind.”

    In 2005 Pope John Paul II’s “Memory and Identity” was published. From a deeply patriotic Polish perspective, he ALSO advocated what he termed a “non-exclusive solidarity.” The great riddle: both-and rather than either-or…

    Especially in the face of a Secularist and very septic mindset, and a European Charter both “ANTI-HISTORIC AND OFFENSIVE” (his words, interview Feb. 28, 2002) which imposes continent-wide amnesia and disdain toward the combined Classical AND Christian roots of Europe. “The ‘old’ continent needs Jesus Christ [Man does not live by “dialogue” alone!] so that it does not lose its SOUL [!] nor that which made it great in the past and gives rise to the admiration of other peoples still today.”

    To bad that since 2013 so many of our first-rate thinkers and spiritual guides are confined to the “periphery” of the Catholic presence at this pivotal moment in history. (Instead, for example, Fr. James Martin, S.J. as the keynote in Ireland for the World Meeting of Families!) In fifty years Europe will be EITHER Muslim or will have recovered its memory and future as Christian.

    Of the PERIPHERAL St. John Paul II and emeritus Pope Benedict et al (and with George Orwell): all “peripheries” are equal, but some peripheries are more equal than others.

  8. The bishops, including the patriarch of Rome, think that it is part of their duty to offer conclusions of some sort of reasoning as clear Roman Catholic teaching, when at best they should be stating those precepts of the Natural Law that have either been Divinely Revealed as well or are clearly intelligible to most people. But they are caught up in the liberal statist project.

    • SOL Where, pray tell, is the construct described as “Natural Law” “divinely revealed”?

      The same can be said of “religious liberty.” Never before in the history of The Church has she advocated for “religious liberty.” In fact, for 2,100 years The Church has sought to stifle all religious liberty (the Crusades, the Inquisition)—save for her own.

      Yet again, and to their eternal shame, right-wing Roman Catholics are borrowing liberally from the Protest-ant Fundamentalist playbook—never mind that these are the same people who, 100 years ago, were burning down Roman Catholic churches and schools and raping nuns.

      “Natural law” instructs that mothers (and fathers) ought to eat their young; that only the strongest win/survive (this in direct opposition to the Beatitudes); that everything (including The Church) must die. The list is endless.

      It’s the blessing of America that everyone can express their opinion. However, that blessing does not include the right to “baptize” every political opinion as somehow “divinely revealed.”

  9. The people that Jesus is “siding with” in the Beatitudes are his own disciples. Scriptural illiterates galore in this church, including the guy at the helm.

    • G. Poulin: Since you apparently abhor “scriptural illiterates,” please cite chapter and verse where Jesus expressly limits his teaching to the Disciples. You can ignore Matthew 5:1-2, where the word adelphos is mis-construed and placed out of context—yet another Protest-ant error infecting the Roman Catholic Church.

      And while you are quoting, please cite ANY magisterial teaching of the Church which limits the Beatitudes narrative(s) to the Disciples alone. Are you a Muslim convert? There is a passage in the Qu’ran that limits the Beatitudes narrative(s) to “the righteous.” Perhaps your position is a carry-over?

      Ultimately your point is a facile attempt to give those claiming to be Christians a “pass” when it comes to the social gospel demands of the Beatitudes. And let us not forget the “woes” of the Beattitudes found in Luke 6:24–26:

      24.) But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.

      25.) Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.

      26.) Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

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