A Church for the poor requires religious freedom

To bring the Gospel to all men and women, not to just the wealthy or intellectuals, Christianity must be incarnated in every aspect of civilization, including politics. This requires that the Church be free to cultivate the life of prayer needed to nurture discipleship in people who can, in turn, be leaven in society.

That is the argument of the late Cardinal Jean Danielou, a Jesuit, in his overlooked book, “Prayer as a Political Problem” (1965). In it, he highlights how, to make possible the Christian civilization of tomorrow, the Church cannot become a mere sect or aloof from the civilization in which it inhabits. It cannot be “of the world” but it must be in it, constructively engaging society and creating an ambient religious culture where economic and spiritual supports and structures exist for people to order their lives toward God.

Without those support structures, Danielou says, it takes a heroic effort by most persons to be a serious Christian. To preserve those structures and nurture disciples, we need religious freedom to pray and serve the world around us.

Cardinal Danielou states in the foreword to his book: “There is no true civilization which is not religious; nor, on the other hand, can there be a religion of the masses which is not supported by civilization. It would appear that today there are too many Christians who see no incongruity between the juxtaposition of a private religion and an irreligious society, nor perceiving how ruinous this is for both society and religion.”

Danielou argues that a truly religious society can flourish only when religious institutions exist in a collaborative relationship with the state. The state must recognize spiritual aspirations of the human person and the Church’s unique role in meeting those aspirations.

“On this view of the matter,” Danielou claims, “the Church was most truly itself in the days of Christendom when everybody was baptized, and it is this state of affairs which is much to be desired.”

But that ideal presupposes a Church which is involved with civilization; if civilization runs counter to the Church, a Christian society that embraces the common man and the poor — that is, most of us — is hard to sustain. Obviously, we live in post-Christendom today, and so the task, Danielou says, is to realistically assess our surroundings and what can be done. In the political realm, that means securing religious freedom so that the Church can continue to form people in the life of prayer so that they have the grace and spiritual tools to go forth in service to shape civilization.

“Prayer,” then, becomes a political question, because it is incumbent on the state to give religious institutions the freedom and the supports they need to meet people’s spiritual and material needs. It is there, in a genuinely religious social ecology, where a true religious civilization can be built.

The stakes could not be higher, because, as Danielou notes, only a civilization with a genuinely religious culture is a healthy one — one able to stand up to the scourge of modern, technological civilization and its soft totalitarianism that suppresses the religious impulse in man and reduces the person into a mere consumer.

The Holy See’s International Theological Commission makes a similar argument in its recent document “Religious Liberty for the Good of All,” which Pope Francis approved for publication.

“Safeguarding religious liberty and social peace presupposes a state that not only develops a logic of mutual cooperation between religious communities and civil society,” the commission says, but is also capable of nurturing a genuinely religious culture.

And, as Catholic News Service summarizes, the commission notes that “since Christianity and many other religions are lived not only within the walls of a church, mosque or temple, but motivate their members to undertake works of social good, ‘there is no true religious freedom’ in states that would make it difficult or impossible for believers to carry out their good works.”

Attacks on the religious freedom of Christians, whether they are the recently passed “Equality Act” in the U.S. House of Representatives or the bombings in Sri Lanka, are all meant to marginalize the Church in both her prayer and her action. They seek to discourage active and public religious presence in society.

Defending religious freedom means defending believers’ rights to respond to the call of the Creator consistent with their conscience. It means defending our ability to build a civilization in which the Church exists as leaven in the world so that all can encounter Christ.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

Religious Freedom Week June 22-29

Catholics face challenges both in our current political climate of polarization and within the Church. We want to encourage Catholics to persist in the struggle to participate in the advancement of the kingdom of God by finding hope in Jesus Christ. Join us in marking Religious Freedom Week June 22-29. It begins with the feast day of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, includes the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and ends with the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. This year, the week also includes the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) and the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The theme for this year is “strength in hope.” Find details on events, prayers and resources to use in your home, parish and community at mncatholic.org/religiousfreedomweek.

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