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Ideology and Idolatry

October 25, AD2013

Jason Hall - Ideology and Idolatry

A recurring theme of my writing and speaking these past few years has been the need for Catholics to overcome allegiances to political movements, parties, and ideologies. We are called to shape our culture, or at least be a prophetic voice that is unattached to purely temporal causes. My assumption, based on my own journey, has been that there are many people who are serious Catholics with a real relationship with Jesus Christ but who simply have difficulty detaching themselves from the constant pressure of our polarized and politicized media culture.

I now believe that assumption is often wrong, and people like me are partly to blame. I have been reading Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples (truly, as Mark Shea says, the most important Catholic book of the decade) and contemplating with fresh eyes the hundreds of confrontations I’ve had online and in person with my fellow Catholics involving political disagreements. The problem is not too much politics. It is too little conversion and discipleship.

In describing the third “threshold of conversion,” Openness, Weddell tells the story of an atheist she calls Gareth. Gareth went through a time of great personal tragedy and reached out to a Catholic friend. However, he didn’t reach out as an intentional spiritual seeker. He simply had a new openness because he was thinking seriously about serious topics for the first time. The conversations usually involved intense disagreement, tough questions, and rash dismissals. But, he kept starting new conversations. That reminds me of a great many political conversations I’ve had with Catholics in the past three years.

I have come to realize, with great sadness, that I have often failed in these situations to be an effective witness for Jesus Christ. Even as someone who works in the public policy arena on behalf of the Church, my primary mission is to evangelize. When someone has a strained relationship with the Church, or has not yet experienced a life-changing encounter with the Lord, of what use is it for me to try to convince them that a just and compassionate immigration system would include this or that, that abortion and euthanasia are not negotiable, or that it is time to abandon the death penalty? Even if I win an argument, what is the risk I will lose a soul? And, if I win the soul, will the argument ultimately be necessary?

Last week, as though he were speaking directly to me (alas, he has not yet actually called or emailed me directly), Pope Francis addressed this very topic. Using the analogy of Church buildings that are routinely locked up (also a major pet peeve of mine), the Holy Father identifies ideology as a locked door that keeps people from entering the Church and encountering Jesus:

The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.

What does Francis believe is the cause of a Christian becoming “a disciple of the ideology?” “These do not pray, abandoning the faith and transforming it into moralistic, casuistic ideology, without Jesus.” In other words, they are not disciples. Christianity becomes a set of principles or positions with which to judge others, not a living relationship with God.

The response to the Pope’s homily was extremely instructive. My favorite was from Michael Sean Winters. He correctly points out that the trick is recognizing our own ideologies; it’s really easy to spot ideology in other people. “Of course, no one ever thinks that they themselves are ideological. My ideology is a worldview. It is the other’s guy view of the world that is an ideology!” (For an almost-too-perfect-to-be-real example of this, click here.)

Winters’ point is exactly right, and his column is truly outstanding, but what I like most about it is that I know he and I come from completely different political backgrounds. I have spent almost my entire life in the “conservative movement” as a registered Republican. I am sure Winters would self-identify as a liberal or a progressive. I am sure he and I could have some intense debates about tax rates and health care policy, maybe even about the most effective way to increase legal protection for human life.

Yet as I read this column, particularly the last four paragraphs, I see a kindred spirit in the midst of a hostile world. Once you strip away the divisiveness of the politics of our particular country in this particular historical moment, we are brothers in Christ who can disagree on prudential matters but share without reservation our most cherished values. That’s because we have a friend in common, and His name is Jesus Christ.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Jason Hall is an attorney and Catholic convert. After spending some time working in the political world followed by a brief sojourn in seminary, he apparently discovered the value of moderation and now works as a lobbyist for Kentucky's Catholic bishops. In his spare time, he likes to read great books, analyze political and social trends, and cheer on his beloved Cincinnati Reds. Jason's contributions to Catholic Stand primarily focus on the principles and application of Catholic Social Teaching.

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  • john654

    Hi Jason,
    You said, “assumption is often wrong”. I went for more than 40 years assuming that the Catholics around me knew that Jesus Christ is God. That included my blood brothers and sisters. One day I told my wife that I was going to start asking the people around me “THE BIG QUESTION”, is Jesus Christ God? Well, that ended up being a real interesting period in my life. IMHO, that’s what Pope Francis is doing. I also live in KY, I work at the Fathers of Mercy, come visit some time. God Bless you, John

  • Greg

    Jason, well written essay. The additional problem, which does not come up in the scope of this article, comes about when outsiders purposely seek to divide the Church.

    Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizers, at one time funded by the Church, provides an example. In Rules for Radicals, dedicated to Lucifer, he shares his tactics of causing division and unrest. It is unfortunate that so many became trained in his tactics – and to this day negatively influence Catholics.

    Another key example is George Soros, who has put money into Catholic organizations, though he is a self-proclaimed atheist and not a friend of faith. It is easy to see his funding and influence are meant to be divisive, meant to insert ideology into the Church.

    These two examples illustrate the problem we sometimes face when Catholics themselves are not driven by ideology and could get along fine looking for solutions that speak to the dignity of man but instead are driven apart intentionally by forces outside the Church.

    When we become sophisticated at detecting attempts to undermine our peace, we will be better prepared to surmount ideology and meet each other as brothers.

  • John Darrouzet

    Jason, well done. Keen insights here. Recognizing political agendas disguised under religious talk is becoming easier and easier as the political divisions in our country escalate. When asked whether I am a Democrat or a Republican, for example, I respond: “I am a Catholic.” And as a Catholic, my primary allegiance is to Jesus.

    I disagree with James when he writes: “…Jesus’ wish that all be one is a pan religious ideal that started with and will end with perfect eccuminism (sic).” James brings that interpretation to the table from his own starting point.
    Peter Kreeft writes well of “The Philosophy of Jesus” in his book by that name. [ ] .

    He follows that one with another that is quite telling and differentiating. It’s called “Jesus Shock” and it will shock the pan out of ecumenism. [ ]

  • james

    It is interesting that the preface for many conversations starts with ‘ let’s not talk about
    politics or religion.’ I have heard this so many times that it has become an assumption. Both have sullied their fields and the result is spirituality and the attitude is: don’t mess with mine. That is why I believe that the path to dialogue lies in the subject of theology. What is one’s understanding of God ? How does one relate to God ? Where does one practice this relationship ? What does one derive from it ? Jesus’ wish that all be one
    is a pan religious ideal that started with and will end with perfect eccuminism.