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« Baby Hatch | Main | Works that Stand Out: A Primer on Works (5 of 8) »

May 15, 2007

Can I Get a Witness?

Over at his blog, Rod Dreher asks,

How do we discern the difference between religious believers legitimately bringing their witness and values to the public square, and them doing so in the inauthentic way warned against by the pope?

"The inauthentic way warned against by the pope" refers to a quote from George Weigel's piece on Benedict XVI's new book, Jesus of Nazareth. Weigel describes a "new chord" in Benedict's writing:

Benedict XVI’s insistence, repeated several times, that a Christian Church faithful to its Lord cannot be a Church of power. Benedict does not quite describe Christianity’s alliance with state power as a Babylonian captivity. Still, he comes very close when he writes that “the temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in various forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.”

Rod's question is a good one. Let's start with what we know is not only permissible but mandatory: working towards the maximum protection for human life from conception to natural death. Between this kind of witness and the "embrace of power" Benedict writes about, there's a lot that the Church can do.

Of course, first we have to answer a small question: who is the Church? When Benedict and Weigel use the term the answer is obvious. Likewise, when an Anglican prelate, an Orthodox (I'm including Copts and the various Churches of the East here) patriarch, or (I think) a Lutheran bishop uses the word "church," we have a good idea of what they mean.

This clarity means, among other things, that in this setting the "fusion of faith and power" that concerns the pope isn't likely sneak up on anyone: it's going to involve an ecclesial hierarchy or a movement led by someone, i.e., a priest or minister, visibly identified with a church.

Not so in America where any person with sufficient ego and/or chutzpah can plausibly -- at least to those too lazy and/or ignorant to verify it -- claim to speak on behalf of every Christian. Who's going to say otherwise, especially when it is in the interest of the person talking, the people reporting on the talking, and the fundraisers to go along with the fiction?

People acting under no one's authority but their own can, at least in the public's eyes, forge the kind of suffocating identification Benedict warns against. The result in this case is the worst of possible outcomes: enjoying the hatred directed at those in power while not actually wielding power. Call it anti-clericalism without clerics. Sound familiar?

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