The Message to the Powerful and Prayer
March 19, 2021
In the wake of the Capitol riot on January 6 I have sought to provide a sort of analysis of the political and cultural situation in this country, based on a recognition of the very deep divisions rooted in radically different and irreconcilable worldviews. Then, recognizing that the anti-Christian world view, which manifests itself in the radical evils of abortion and pro-LGBT ideology, has become dominant, I have written in the first place about how we must resist this ‘movement’ in prayer, in thought, and in action.
Resistance, however, is not enough; the mission of the Church is evangelization and the evangelization must reach out to everyone who is alienated from Jesus Christ for whatever reason. That is the highest love.
In respect to evangelization, I want to make a distinction between the powerful people and the ordinary people.
The powerful people, the ones who are caught up in the grave evils of the anti-Christian world view, must first of all be resisted. Then they must be evangelized, but here evangelization consists in the first place of warning them of God’s impending judgment.
Consider St. John the Baptist and King Herod. St. John the Baptist rebuked Herod not for the immorality of his rule, but for the immorality of his conduct, living an adulterous marriage with his brother’s wife. St. Ambrose, the great 4th century bishop of Milan, which was then the imperial city, rebuked the Christian Emperor, Theodosius for ordering a retaliatory massacre of innocent citizens of Thessalonica, denying him communion until he repented.
These two examples I think illustrate the proper relation of the priesthood to the powerful ones of the earth; it does not interfere directly in their rule (though the priesthood does teach the principles of justice and right rule), but calls them to account for their particular crimes in light of God’s judgment.
The basic message is enunciated in the Book of Wisdom: Listen therefore, O kings, and understand; learn, O judges of the earth. Give ear, you that rule over multitudes, and boast of many nations. For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High, who will search your works and inquire into your plans. Because as servants of his kingdom you did not rule rightly, nor keep his law, nor walk according to the purpose of God, he will come upon you terribly and swiftly, because severe judgment falls on those in high places. (Wi 6:1-5)
Now two characteristics of modern government are that it has set God aside as irrelevant to right government and it has become impersonal. There are elected officials, but they change, while much of the real power lies in the faceless bureaucracies. The ‘buck’ is always being passed. Meanwhile, personal rectitude is regarding as being of little importance; instead everything is seen to depend on the right ‘policies’.
In this context, it looks like the bishops, by and large, have abandoned the practice of directly rebuking leaders for their immorality, even the gravely immoral support of wicked policies like abortion and the LGBT ideology, and instead have turned to ‘lobbying’ for policy changes on a whole realm of issues, ranging from clear cut matters like abortion to rather debatable stands on particular legislation dealing with matters such as immigration, environment, or gun control.
Their lobbying on particular issues, since so much of this is debatable, tends to usurp the rightful role and judgment of the laity, investing particular policy matters with a false moral quality dependent on episcopal endorsement or rejection. Their proper role here should be more discrete, teaching the great moral principles that bear on justice and warning against grave deviations from justice.
Really, though, the most important matter here is not particular policies, but the right use of power. There will always be people who wield great amounts of power. Practically, for the common good, it is important that powerful fear God, otherwise, however well-meaning they start out, they will inevitably give way to the abuse of power. Lord Acton famously affirmed that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is true when there is no fear of God; we could say that the greater the power, the greater must be the fear of God and the greater the purity of heart.
That is why, it seems to me, that bishops must first of all remind the powerful that they must render an account of the use of their power to almighty God. In doing so they not only render a service to the common good, insofar that the powerful will use their power better the more they fear God, but they will also show care for the souls of the powerful.
For our part, that shows us the first way in which we should love the powerful: we must be aware of the danger they are in as regards the salvation of their soul, the more so the more wicked is their action; then we must pray for them, believing that no matter how corrupt there remains within them some chink of goodness that God can use to reel them in. Our bishops too are counted among the powerful, at least within the Church.
Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.
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