On Ontology and Organizations Voluntary

In his column, which is published in many Catholic diocesan newspapers around the U.S., this week, George Weigel, who is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., criticizes Catholic candidates who are running for the presidency when they appear to bracket their Christianity “when they put on their hats as public servants.”

Specifically, Weigel writes, “when a candidate for public office avers that ‘membership in the faith community’ is deeply personal or a matter of ‘my relationship with Jesus’ then suggests that being a Catholic Christian is a compartment of life that can be hermetically sealed off from first principles of justice (abortion, euthanasia, and embryo-destructive stem-cell research), we’re dealing with a confused camper. One might even say, it’s a camper with a severe identity crisis.”

Such politicians fail, according to Weigel, to take seriously how certain sacraments change their recipients ontologically, “conferring on him or her a new identity….” In particular, Baptism, which is “a sacrament with what we might call ontological heft…, incorporates a Catholic into the Church.” Membership in the Church, moreover, “is not incidental to our identity as new creations in Christ….” Indeed, Weigel notes that becoming a Christian through Baptism “is qualitatively different from becoming a citizen, a member of the Supreme Court bar, a Detroit Tigers fan, a collector of vintage Volvos, a bourbon drinker, a member of the Democratic or Republican parties, a lifelong student of Dante or a trout fisherman.” In other words, “we don’t ‘join’ the Church the way we join the Kiwanis, the American Association of University Women, the AMA, the American Legion,” etc. In sum, the problem is “that too many Catholics imagine their Christianity to be the religious variant of their membership in other voluntary organizations.”

So far, so good.

According to Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes): “Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (no. 43). So Weigel appears to be on the right track.

However, it is curious that, although he mentions how “Baptism is qualitatively different from becoming a citizen,” in Weigel’s own efforts defending the U.S.-led war in Iraq over the last few years he seems to neglect to take into consideration how supporting an unjust war might be at as much odds with one’s Christian identity as any of the other ethical issues he mentions.

In the Ekklesia Project’s “Who We Are” link, in connection with the Political it says: “All other loyalties – familial, political or ideological – derive their meaning by participating in the Body of Christ and bearing witness to his Kingdom. We hope to challenge ourselves and the Church to resist accommodation to America and analogous temptations globally.”

Is it possible that just as Weigel worries that “too many Catholics imagine their Christianity to be the religious variant of their membership in other voluntary organizations,” he perhaps comes close at times to doing the reverse: imagining his American identity/loyalty to be the political variant of his membership in the Church?

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