3.1.6 Two temptations for Christians to avoid

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Unit 3 Contents

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To conclude this introductory part of Unit 3, and before we start to explore distributive justice more fully, we shall give attention to two mistakes that Christians can make – and sometimes have made – in relation to government and politics.  These are discussed helpfully in a few pages in J. Milburn Thompson’s book which you’ll be asked to read in a moment.  He calls them two temptations.

By way of introduction, they can be summed up in this way.

One mistake is to think that the only thing that matters for Christians is spiritual life, and this requires participating in charity, but it also means keeping out of public or political life altogether.

Thomson calls this the ‘privatization’ of faith.  It is a temptation especially for individual Christians, but it is one which church institutions might go along with or even encourage.

The second mistake is to think that the Church itself should try to take over the government, to use the power of enforceable law to bring in a Christian society.

Thomson calls this one the ‘politicization’ of the Church.  As that outline of it implies, it is a temptation especially for the institutional Church, especially in contexts where the majority are Christians and the Church is culturally powerful.

As Thompson brings out, the first temptation, ‘privatization’, is one to which Christians have been prone in the modern period of history. Many would say it remains a major problem now.  In contrast, the second temptation, ‘politicization’, is one to which the Church proved vulnerable after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313 and throughout the medieval period.

But both of these can be a real problem at any time.

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Reading (4pp)

Thompson, Catholic Social Thought, pp. 37-41

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Reflection

Do you agree with Thompson that both ‘privatization’ and ‘politicization’ are mistakes for Christians and the Church to make in relation to politics?

From whatever experience you have of church life, can you see evidence that seems to point to a tendency or vulnerability to one or the other?

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The very fact that you are interested in Catholic Social Teaching probably suggests that you are not very tempted by ‘privatization’.  But are you prone to thinking that if only enough Christians gained positions of political influence and power, government would be able to bring in a Christian society?  This is one variety of the temptation of ‘politicization’.

The fundamental reason why privatization is a mistake is the following. As we saw in Unit 2 (2.2.7), God has authorized government in the world, to fulfil part of his purpose – namely to ensure there is justice in human societies.  If Christians opt out of this part of God’s work, we become people who witness injustice but just stand by and let it continue.

The fundamental reason why politicization is a mistake is even more basic in Christian faith.  It was not the way of Jesus. As we also saw in Unit 2 (2.2.5), Jesus’ gospel mission was precisely not to try to take over political power in order to bring in the reign of God.  He repudiated such means.  Rather, he relied on ‘the ministry of the word’ and the Holy Spirit.  For Christians to try to do use power to do that by imposition would be totally contradictory to the gospel.  It could only make a society un-Christian.

Recognizing that both these pitfalls need to be avoided, how does CST describe the distributive justice that governments must do?  This question will occupy the next two parts of the module.

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End of 3.1 INTRODUCTION: JUSTICE

Go to 3.2 THE PRINCIPLE OF SUBSIDIARITY

Module B outline

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