I was already going to comment on the confusion that inevitably happens when believers — Protestant and Roman Catholic — invoke Christianity to make the world better. And then I saw that the Gospel Allies have a project called Every Square Inch (I guess the Kuyperians didn’t copyright that one). From ESI’s Theological Vision of Ministry (as opposed to the anthropological or logical or pharmacological one):
The good news of the Bible is not only individual forgiveness but the renewal of the whole creation. God put humanity in the garden to cultivate the material world for his own glory and for the flourishing of nature and the human community. The Spirit of God not only converts individuals (e.g., John 16:8) but also renews and cultivates the face of the earth (e.g., Gen 1:2; Psalm 104:30). Therefore Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word, but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship—all for God’s glory and the furtherance of the public good. Too many Christians have learned to seal off their faith-beliefs from the way they work in their vocation. The gospel is seen as a means of finding individual peace and not as the foundation of a worldview—a comprehensive interpretation of reality affecting all that we do. But we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data-entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Such a church will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions. Developing humane yet creative and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel is part of the work of bringing a measure of healing to God’s creation in the power of the Spirit. Bringing Christian joy, hope, and truth to embodiment in the arts is also part of this work. We do all of this because the gospel of God leads us to it, even while we recognize that the ultimate restoration of all things awaits the personal and bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sounds wonderful, even inspired. The problem is that adding Christianity to the common realm only gums up the works. It either turns Christians against Christians, or it leads Christians to say nothing that your average American on anti-depressants wouldn’t also affirm. In the former category is the ongoing efforts of U.S. Roman Catholics to get right with America. In doing so, Cafeteria Catholicism rivals Cafeteria Papalism:
The point is that someone doesn’t become a “cafeteria” Catholic just because they decline to follow Leo’s analysis of property rights in favor of the traditional Thomistic analysis and the political consequences that follow from it, because Rerum Novarum, although it clearly declines to makes use of it, never explicitly condemns the Thomistic framework as a legitimate form of analysis for Catholics to employ—just as, for example, John Paul II’s decision to use Aquinas’s framework for the analysis of human action in Veritatis Splendor does not mean that every form of ethics apart from Thomistic ethics is now prohibited by the Church.
Leo goes on to allege that socialists endeavor “to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large,” an assertion which is ambiguous and somewhat questionable—even Marx, many of his commentators agree, did not want to transfer individual property to the community, but only productive property. Throughout Rerum Novarum, one of the accusations to which Leo returns continually is the idea that socialism is driven by the jealousy of the poor over the wealth of the rich. Socialism, Leo claims, preys on the lower classes who are “ever ready for disturbance” (# 47), and on “the poor man’s envy of the rich” (# 4); a socialist system would lead to the door being “thrown open to envy, to mutual invective, and to discord” (# 15).
Again, my point here is not that Leo is wrong. On the contrary, he’s right. Socialism that attempts “to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large,” as well as socialism that is borne from envy and hatred—as opposed to, say, a passion for justice—really is immoral, and as Catholics we can be confident of this if for no other reason than that Leo himself condemns it.
But clearly this characterization doesn’t apply to all (or arguably even most) forms of socialism. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, as Cardinal Ratzinger, once said that “democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine, and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.” For this reason, Weigel and company surely deserve a very careful hearing when they claim that the kind of predatory capitalism condemned by the Church is not the kind of capitalism they seek to foster and promote. This doesn’t mean they are not wrong. My sympathies lie with the Christian socialist camp. But Weigel can be in serious error without being theologically heterodox.
So what is distinct about Roman Catholic social thought? It’s not what the pope says, it’s not what Aquinas says, it’s not what Weigel says. After all, you can be in serious error and your theology is still fine. That works, by the way, in a 2k universe. It doesn’t work so much when you’re trying to tell the rest of the world what is humane or just or compassionate. Plus, what exactly is serious error that doesn’t use theology to judge seriousness?
But evangelicals, as we all know, are equally flummoxed when it comes to making the world a more Jesussy place. A recent story in the Atlantic about evangelicals and immigration reform made a big deal of how born-again Protestants are a key demographic in the President’s legislative initiative. The story took me to the Evangelical Immigration Table which lists these key convictions of immigration reform, allegedly inspired by the gospel:
As evangelical Christian leaders, we call for a bipartisan solution on immigration that:
Respects the God-given dignity of every person
Protects the unity of the immediate family
Respects the rule of law
Guarantees secure national borders
Ensures fairness to taxpayers
Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents
Wow! You needed the Bible or Jesus in your heart to come up with that?
Compare this to the Tea Party’s own statement, and what difference does evangelicalism or reform make?
1. Real reform would prioritize securing the border.
2. Real reform would represent the people’s voice.
3. Real reform would be fair and Constitutional.
4. Real reform would be understandable.
5. Real reform would benefit the economy.
6. Real reform would promote American values.
The difference (aside from thinking about American problems not as Christian but as American problems) would appear to be that some evangelicals find rubbing shoulders with President Obama more congenial than going to Tea Party fundraisers. On this narrow matter, I thoroughly agree. I’ve watched some of West Wing and I find the power of the presidency downright intoxicating.
But I still don’t see what difference evangelicalism, the gospel, papal social teaching, or Jesus’ lordship makes, except to lead Christians to think that they have the answers to all this world’s questions. On that one, they are not following Jesus.