Driving home Wednesday afternoon, I heard this discussion on NPR’s All Things Considered about the legacy of Cardinal Bernard Law, most famously associated with Boston’s clergy sex abuse cover-up, who had died that morning. May God have mercy on him.
When the Boston Globe journalist interviewed on the program, in her summary of Law’s complicated pastoral history, described the Catholic Church in Boston during the time of his tenure as “so powerful, so influential,” contributing to his “prestigious” stature as archbishop, I cringed.
The association of the Catholic Church with power and influence and prestige, to such damaging effects, illustrates exactly why the Church must not seek power and influence in the way the State understands them. To influence the surrounding culture from the ground up, yes – like leaven working through dough. To bear witness to the gospel through her ministries, most definitely – this is the practice of the works of mercy that all Christians are called to. And this is fundamentally, radically, diametrically different from any pursuit of ecclesial social privilege, from which individuals, ministries, and the very institution of the Church can only fall harder when that position is abused – and we must not be seduced by the presumption that any of us is immune to the temptation to abuse power.
That tempting presumption subtly infects the most innocuous arguments for Church-State integralism, claimed – and often sincerely believed by its proponents – to be motivated by love, by the earnest desire to share as widely as possible the goodness and truth and beauty that we know in our beloved Church. But the means by which we share these things, if they are to have any consistency with our message, must imitate the Son of Man who “did not come to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Real love cannot rule by force. As St. Mark reminds us in the preceding passage, love seeks to serve: not to make our authority felt within society at large (“the Gentiles”), but to be “the slave of all.” That is how our Lord defined greatness, and that is what will make the world take notice.
I’m not talking about PR optics here. I’m talking about faithful witness to the gospel. The world may yet hate us, or at least look at us askance, as I wrote in an early post:
If we truly are what we call ourselves – the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church – these ecclesial marks should call national loyalties into question for Catholics everywhere. Our compatriots should at times be given cause to speculate: “There’s something strangely foreign about those Catholics. Their ideas about universal human dignity, community and the common good threaten our hallowed doctrines of exceptionalism and individualism. They are always defending the most inconvenient people – the unborn, the poor, the prisoners, the immigrants, the citizens of enemy nations. Can we really believe that such people, belonging to such a large, old institution beyond our borders, are fully loyal to the flag and the republic for which it stands?”
If the world does hate us, let it then hate us for our defense of the vulnerable, not for our defense of the Church’s social position at their expense.
May God have mercy on Bernard Law, and on us all.