Politics & Vocation

It’s interesting to see Roman Catholics appropriating Luther’s doctrine of vocation.  Traditionally, Catholics have used the term to refer only to the calling to be a priest, a monk, or a nun.  Matthew Cantirino here discusses a prominent Catholic thinker who says that we have a “baptismal vocation” to participate in the political process. It’s not quite as clear as Luther’s point that we have a vocation as citizens.  Still, at a time when many Christians are giving up on civic engagement and many others are misinterpreting what that means (NOT to take over so as to Christianize the government), the doctrine of vocation can help sort out our responsibilities, namely, to love and serve our neighbors in our civic life and political duties.

Harvard Law professor (and longtime First Things contributor and supporter) Mary Ann Glendon offers advice to young Christians inclined to politics in a recent interview with the National Catholic Register. Her main point is one especially worth noting in an election year: that while an obsession with the contemporary political scene can often distract us from more enduring truths, it still must be taken seriously and engaged thoughtfully. Glendon even goes as far as asserting that:

“Nearly everyone who takes his or her baptismal vocation seriously has some form of calling to participate in that process [ie, politics broadly understood], as he or she is able. If we Christians truly believe we are called to be a transformative presence in the world — to be salt, light and leaven — we have to do our best to improve the conditions under which we live, work and raise our children. Even our cloistered contemplatives are not merely meditating on the mystery of the universe — they are praying for the world.”

This is helpful advice for Christians in the public square today, where a sense of defeat can become overwhelming. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a movement among some on the ‘religious right’ towards shunning—even disdaining—politics altogether. This attitude has enjoyed a resurgence as something of a reaction to the previous decades of alliance between Christian leaders and partisan figures, especially in more fundamentalist circles. And, and Glendon notes with concern, many of today’s brightest and most devout students scarcely consider a political career at all, often believing it to be a certain path to corruption.

Ultimately, however, as Glendon points out, this retreat impulse is misguided, overwrought, and even dangerous, as it allows others very hostile to religious faith to step in and have free reign. It is, as the ironic title of her lecture and interview alludes to, an implicit agreement with Max Weber’s thesis that “he who lets himself in for politics … contracts with diabolical powers.” So, she concedes, while “culture” may indeed more important than “politics” narrowly construed, there is a larger sense in which the latter is a constitutive element in the former. Referencing the example of Vaclav Havel, she calls the two part of a “two-way street” and notes that the two are, to a significant extent, inseparable. Especially in today’s America, where (national) politics occupies an admittedly bloated position, Christians really don’t have much of a choice in the matter.

via First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.  Here is a link to Glendon’s interview.

The conventional approach to politics is that everyone should follow his or her own rational self-interests.  The vocational approach says that we must deny our selves in love and service to our neighbor.  How might that latter emphasis manifest itself in a Christian’s political engagement?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    In many respects, my rational self-interest and my interest in seeing my neighbor do well, supporting him, and upholding his property broadly coincide. I am for measures and laws that uphold my neighbors’ rights and mine, yet I would be opposed to laws that narrowly construct an advantage for one neighbor to the disadvantage of another, even if there is no direct impact on me. I generally oppose laws that seek to take from one neighbor and give to another, whether that is taking from the rich to give to the poor, or taking from the poor to give to the rich; in that respect, I don’t support Robin Hood or the Sheriff of Nottingham. Especially in our modern context where Robin Hood and the Sheriff are largely interchangeable.

  • SKPeterson

    In many respects, my rational self-interest and my interest in seeing my neighbor do well, supporting him, and upholding his property broadly coincide. I am for measures and laws that uphold my neighbors’ rights and mine, yet I would be opposed to laws that narrowly construct an advantage for one neighbor to the disadvantage of another, even if there is no direct impact on me. I generally oppose laws that seek to take from one neighbor and give to another, whether that is taking from the rich to give to the poor, or taking from the poor to give to the rich; in that respect, I don’t support Robin Hood or the Sheriff of Nottingham. Especially in our modern context where Robin Hood and the Sheriff are largely interchangeable.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Dr. Veith: “The vocational approach says that we must deny our selves in love and service to our neighbor. How might that latter emphasis manifest itself in a Christian’s political engagement?”

    A more pertinent question would be: How might the Lutheran 2-Kingdom approach manifest itself in a Christian’s political engagement WHEN the State interferes with Church teaching, eg., the recent HHS mandate controversy?

    From a comment on a prior thread, Dr. Veith writes:

    “According to the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the state is not to interfere with the church. Also, God rules the secular realm with the moral law (the 1st use). That means that we are right to work for civil righteousness in the world.“

    The issue becomes specific applications of general principles. When you say that “we [conservative Lutherans or the Church] are right to work for civil righteousness in the world” do you support political activity in the Public Square as one of the means to effect civil righteousness in the world?

    As a 2-Kingdom Lutheran when given actions of the State interfering with the Church’s critical teachings and practice , would you support, or at least not oppose, what some Christians are advocating (provided that all “reasonable” means have been exhausted): Civil Disobedience?

    I.e., would a 2-Kingdom Lutheran like yourself support civil disobedience when the State interferes with the Church?

    Does 2-Kingdom Lutheran dogma support or permit civil disobedience?

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Dr. Veith: “The vocational approach says that we must deny our selves in love and service to our neighbor. How might that latter emphasis manifest itself in a Christian’s political engagement?”

    A more pertinent question would be: How might the Lutheran 2-Kingdom approach manifest itself in a Christian’s political engagement WHEN the State interferes with Church teaching, eg., the recent HHS mandate controversy?

    From a comment on a prior thread, Dr. Veith writes:

    “According to the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the state is not to interfere with the church. Also, God rules the secular realm with the moral law (the 1st use). That means that we are right to work for civil righteousness in the world.“

    The issue becomes specific applications of general principles. When you say that “we [conservative Lutherans or the Church] are right to work for civil righteousness in the world” do you support political activity in the Public Square as one of the means to effect civil righteousness in the world?

    As a 2-Kingdom Lutheran when given actions of the State interfering with the Church’s critical teachings and practice , would you support, or at least not oppose, what some Christians are advocating (provided that all “reasonable” means have been exhausted): Civil Disobedience?

    I.e., would a 2-Kingdom Lutheran like yourself support civil disobedience when the State interferes with the Church?

    Does 2-Kingdom Lutheran dogma support or permit civil disobedience?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Good question Veith. Whereas SKP is right in one sense, namely that one cannot support either Robin or the Sherrif, careful thinking and investigation will show that everyone for himself and the devil takes the hindmost also doesn’t work.

    Thus, whears most people tend to want to pigeonhole themselves, I cmpletely reject the pigeonholes. A balanced system is what is needed. That is EXACTLY why I am always advocating Ordoliberalism, which is largely non-ideological. When thinking about society, which is but the collection of our neighbours, policy making becomes a precarious process by which we try to maximise benefit overall, and minimise harm. But as Christ has often reminded us, what about the widow and the orphan? Shall my policy making be good or harmful to them? In the sort term, AND in the long run. Dumping a pile of cash in their laps will not do them any good in the long run. Leaving them to fend for themselves will do them no good either. Helping them to fish……

    You see where I am going with this. Investment in people bears fruit for all society – the right type of investment. That requires beig a careful steward. That requires giving due attention to one’s vocation.

    Which is impossible if one is consumed by silver-bullet platforms, populism, and culture wars. Yes I said it.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Good question Veith. Whereas SKP is right in one sense, namely that one cannot support either Robin or the Sherrif, careful thinking and investigation will show that everyone for himself and the devil takes the hindmost also doesn’t work.

    Thus, whears most people tend to want to pigeonhole themselves, I cmpletely reject the pigeonholes. A balanced system is what is needed. That is EXACTLY why I am always advocating Ordoliberalism, which is largely non-ideological. When thinking about society, which is but the collection of our neighbours, policy making becomes a precarious process by which we try to maximise benefit overall, and minimise harm. But as Christ has often reminded us, what about the widow and the orphan? Shall my policy making be good or harmful to them? In the sort term, AND in the long run. Dumping a pile of cash in their laps will not do them any good in the long run. Leaving them to fend for themselves will do them no good either. Helping them to fish……

    You see where I am going with this. Investment in people bears fruit for all society – the right type of investment. That requires beig a careful steward. That requires giving due attention to one’s vocation.

    Which is impossible if one is consumed by silver-bullet platforms, populism, and culture wars. Yes I said it.

  • Booklover

    Perhaps the Catholics’ *terminology* of “vocation” hasn’t been used perfectly in the past, but their love and service to neighbor always has been apparent. Look at orphanages, adoption agencies, homes for unwed mothers, hospitals, schools, shelters for the unfortunate, etc., etc., and you will more likely than not find them to be Catholic. Their mission is to serve not only fellow Catholics, but the world.

  • Booklover

    Perhaps the Catholics’ *terminology* of “vocation” hasn’t been used perfectly in the past, but their love and service to neighbor always has been apparent. Look at orphanages, adoption agencies, homes for unwed mothers, hospitals, schools, shelters for the unfortunate, etc., etc., and you will more likely than not find them to be Catholic. Their mission is to serve not only fellow Catholics, but the world.

  • SKPeterson

    KK @ 3 – I suppose too, the a Lutheran doctrine of vocation in the political realm would encourage a sort of skeptical idealism leavened with great humility. Perhaps that is the biggest problem with power, and why so many shrink away from engaging in the public sphere – the tendency for arrogance and hubris to be the norm and to drive out the civility and concern for the other that should define our relationships with our neighbors. Much of our politics has made a mockery of the term “public service,” it has now become equivalent to personal aggrandizement and acquisition of power. It is so much easier to force people to behave the way we want them to, than to actually listen to them, talk with them, disagree with them, even, but still look to give them our best service.

  • SKPeterson

    KK @ 3 – I suppose too, the a Lutheran doctrine of vocation in the political realm would encourage a sort of skeptical idealism leavened with great humility. Perhaps that is the biggest problem with power, and why so many shrink away from engaging in the public sphere – the tendency for arrogance and hubris to be the norm and to drive out the civility and concern for the other that should define our relationships with our neighbors. Much of our politics has made a mockery of the term “public service,” it has now become equivalent to personal aggrandizement and acquisition of power. It is so much easier to force people to behave the way we want them to, than to actually listen to them, talk with them, disagree with them, even, but still look to give them our best service.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP – “skeptical idealism leavened with great humility”. I love it! Good one!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP – “skeptical idealism leavened with great humility”. I love it! Good one!

  • Bill Cork

    This goes back to Vatican 2, and its decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. Prior to Vatican 2, Catholics spoke of “Catholic Action,” which was collaboration of the laity in the work of the clergy. Vatican 2 underscored that there is a baptismal vocation, a lay vocation, in the world. Prior to Vatican 2, this was emphasized by Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. He was seen as a liberal and a radical for suggesting that the laity have a vocation in the world which is theirs by baptism and not merely something they do because the clergy told them to do so. Mary Ann Glendon has some Opus Dei connections, I believe.

  • Bill Cork

    This goes back to Vatican 2, and its decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. Prior to Vatican 2, Catholics spoke of “Catholic Action,” which was collaboration of the laity in the work of the clergy. Vatican 2 underscored that there is a baptismal vocation, a lay vocation, in the world. Prior to Vatican 2, this was emphasized by Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. He was seen as a liberal and a radical for suggesting that the laity have a vocation in the world which is theirs by baptism and not merely something they do because the clergy told them to do so. Mary Ann Glendon has some Opus Dei connections, I believe.

  • kenneth

    KK

    Now that’s a new one on me? Ordoliberalism sounds like– no ideas otherwise known as non-ideological Politics!

    Also a church without a spiritual warfare against the old evil foe.. Is that gone too? Please lets return to realism. The church needs all it’s weakness of spirit to combat the spiritual realms, great humilty indeed! So that the Holy Spirit can help us do His work.

  • kenneth

    KK

    Now that’s a new one on me? Ordoliberalism sounds like– no ideas otherwise known as non-ideological Politics!

    Also a church without a spiritual warfare against the old evil foe.. Is that gone too? Please lets return to realism. The church needs all it’s weakness of spirit to combat the spiritual realms, great humilty indeed! So that the Holy Spirit can help us do His work.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Wilhelm Roepke’s “A Humane Economy” walks this road a bit as well. (KK – He is perhaps the “uber- Ordoliberal” at least in economic thinking). This fits in very well with Catholic Social Teaching, without being full-scale Distributism.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Wilhelm Roepke’s “A Humane Economy” walks this road a bit as well. (KK – He is perhaps the “uber- Ordoliberal” at least in economic thinking). This fits in very well with Catholic Social Teaching, without being full-scale Distributism.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Kenneth – what Steve said. ordoliberalism is an economic theory: http://www.eucken.de/fileadmin/bilder/Publikationen/Diskussionspapiere/04_11bw.pdf

    Also the chief task of the church in doing spiritual warfare is not protesting laws, insulting politicians, and rebuilding society according to its image: You are preaching liberation theology, albeit the rightwing variety, something akin to the preachings of North, Bahnsen and their Reconstructionist claptrap.

    No: We fight in the spiritual realm by Word and Sacrament, preaching, teaching, baptising and administering the Eucharist, and by following Christ’s commands just as the early Church did: Proclaim the Gospel, and care for the widow and the orphan. And each fulfilling their vocations. Which includes career vocations, vocations within the family, within the church, and as citizens.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Kenneth – what Steve said. ordoliberalism is an economic theory: http://www.eucken.de/fileadmin/bilder/Publikationen/Diskussionspapiere/04_11bw.pdf

    Also the chief task of the church in doing spiritual warfare is not protesting laws, insulting politicians, and rebuilding society according to its image: You are preaching liberation theology, albeit the rightwing variety, something akin to the preachings of North, Bahnsen and their Reconstructionist claptrap.

    No: We fight in the spiritual realm by Word and Sacrament, preaching, teaching, baptising and administering the Eucharist, and by following Christ’s commands just as the early Church did: Proclaim the Gospel, and care for the widow and the orphan. And each fulfilling their vocations. Which includes career vocations, vocations within the family, within the church, and as citizens.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Steve – yes, him, and Eucken. Distributivism is too idealistic. And ordoliberalism actually works – see the link I gave to Kenneth above.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Steve – yes, him, and Eucken. Distributivism is too idealistic. And ordoliberalism actually works – see the link I gave to Kenneth above.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    BTW, Kenneth, I’m most defintely not advocating for Ordoliberalism being the Christian answer to economics. I find that it is consistent with Christian teaching. But I most emphatically do not believe in the existence of something like “Christian politcal theory”, “Christian economic theory” etc etc. I like Ordoliberalism because it makes sense, has a proven track record, is a balanced system, and is most likely to provide an equitable outcome without compromising economic growth.

    I realise there are Christians, many of them far better Christians than I am, that, for instance, are devotees of Austrian economics, or Keyenesian economics, or even Socialism-lite (as in Social-Democratic) economics. I disagree with their economic theories sharply, but that does not mean that they are not my brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    BTW, Kenneth, I’m most defintely not advocating for Ordoliberalism being the Christian answer to economics. I find that it is consistent with Christian teaching. But I most emphatically do not believe in the existence of something like “Christian politcal theory”, “Christian economic theory” etc etc. I like Ordoliberalism because it makes sense, has a proven track record, is a balanced system, and is most likely to provide an equitable outcome without compromising economic growth.

    I realise there are Christians, many of them far better Christians than I am, that, for instance, are devotees of Austrian economics, or Keyenesian economics, or even Socialism-lite (as in Social-Democratic) economics. I disagree with their economic theories sharply, but that does not mean that they are not my brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Klasie @ 10
    Very good description of spiritual warfare. One of the most important acts of spiritual warfare that I perform is taking my kids out for dinner and play on Sunday nights so my wife can meet with her friends for prayer, coffee and support. This break that it gives her (and the bonding time that I have with my boys) is priceless. Spiritual warfare does not have to be overtly religious (or political). It is embodying the life of Christ in the face of the pressures that all of us face to live selfishly.

    That being said, there is also no substitute for Word, Sacrament and Prayer.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Klasie @ 10
    Very good description of spiritual warfare. One of the most important acts of spiritual warfare that I perform is taking my kids out for dinner and play on Sunday nights so my wife can meet with her friends for prayer, coffee and support. This break that it gives her (and the bonding time that I have with my boys) is priceless. Spiritual warfare does not have to be overtly religious (or political). It is embodying the life of Christ in the face of the pressures that all of us face to live selfishly.

    That being said, there is also no substitute for Word, Sacrament and Prayer.

  • SKPeterson

    KK, Kenneth and Steve – I think what we are getting at is the concept of scale and its relationship to politics. In effect, the “all politics is local” concept. I tend to prefer politics at the local level, or rather, that basic decision-making be from the ground up and distrust the more centralizing tendencies of the national political apparatus. This is consistent with Catholic Social Teaching (which I think of as small “c” catholic, where us Lutherans are) and the concept of subsidiarity, though I don’t hold to the Belloc/Chesterton distributism, but rather to that envisioned more by the Acton Institute. For a good view of my political ideal, read that great Catholic thinker, Tolkien, and his description of the Shire, its politics and its relationship with the “Kingdom.” It’s also a good commentary for the constitutional thread.

  • SKPeterson

    KK, Kenneth and Steve – I think what we are getting at is the concept of scale and its relationship to politics. In effect, the “all politics is local” concept. I tend to prefer politics at the local level, or rather, that basic decision-making be from the ground up and distrust the more centralizing tendencies of the national political apparatus. This is consistent with Catholic Social Teaching (which I think of as small “c” catholic, where us Lutherans are) and the concept of subsidiarity, though I don’t hold to the Belloc/Chesterton distributism, but rather to that envisioned more by the Acton Institute. For a good view of my political ideal, read that great Catholic thinker, Tolkien, and his description of the Shire, its politics and its relationship with the “Kingdom.” It’s also a good commentary for the constitutional thread.

  • kenneth

    Klasie

    I should read about ordoliberalism but who can afford it? Liberation theology makes me ill, it’s best representative is Hugo Chavas. I don’t know if he took a course in ordo….

    Bahnsen had me completely sucked in but when I read that he thought homosexuals should be killed in accordance with the Old Testament I was very saddened and floundered to find somekind of ideology. I think I found it in a RC whose name escapes me unfortunately.

    Spirituals wafare is best done in word and sacrament as you say but there is no reason the right can not be the better choice in politics. In other words sprituality is solidly Christian thinking and can win against the left. Someone has blogged and Dr Vieth has not answered his idea that there is a fluid line between the twoingdoms as another person has adocated on this blog. His notion that Christians can use the political left’ tactics is called for if we are to really engage postmoderan miasma.

  • kenneth

    Klasie

    I should read about ordoliberalism but who can afford it? Liberation theology makes me ill, it’s best representative is Hugo Chavas. I don’t know if he took a course in ordo….

    Bahnsen had me completely sucked in but when I read that he thought homosexuals should be killed in accordance with the Old Testament I was very saddened and floundered to find somekind of ideology. I think I found it in a RC whose name escapes me unfortunately.

    Spirituals wafare is best done in word and sacrament as you say but there is no reason the right can not be the better choice in politics. In other words sprituality is solidly Christian thinking and can win against the left. Someone has blogged and Dr Vieth has not answered his idea that there is a fluid line between the twoingdoms as another person has adocated on this blog. His notion that Christians can use the political left’ tactics is called for if we are to really engage postmoderan miasma.

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    Since the motto of the American Revolution 1776- was -No King But King Jesus…
    and since many of the singers of the Declaration of Independence were of the Black Regiment (Christian clerics)–
    why are we Christians now questioning our right to speak and act openly via politics-
    could it be that our “leaders” allowed the debauched LBJ to put forth the dreaded 501 C3-
    you know – the ‘silencer’ of free speech-
    Come ON-
    Christians – Be bold!
    Carol-CS

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    Since the motto of the American Revolution 1776- was -No King But King Jesus…
    and since many of the singers of the Declaration of Independence were of the Black Regiment (Christian clerics)–
    why are we Christians now questioning our right to speak and act openly via politics-
    could it be that our “leaders” allowed the debauched LBJ to put forth the dreaded 501 C3-
    you know – the ‘silencer’ of free speech-
    Come ON-
    Christians – Be bold!
    Carol-CS


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