The Church’s Mission: Apostolic or Political?


In a recent column at, Phil Lawler criticized the bishops of the United States for issuing statements on “too many debatable political issues” rather than sticking to matters that fall more properly within the scope of their teaching authority.

As an example, he pointed to a newly released USCCB statement that “appeared to give the bishops’ perspectives on the federal budget, taxation, deficits, welfare, defense spending, housing assistance, foreign aid, job training, tax credits, Pell grants, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.”

Lawler wonders (as do many others) “why the bishops feel obliged to speak on all those subjects.”  

Well, with no intention of making excuses for this propensity for things political, it seems to me that at least some of the blame rests with the Council Fathers, who in their zeal to ensure that the power of the State would be limited with respect to the activities of the Church, managed to produce a document (Dignitatis Humanae – The Declaration on Religious Liberty) that often compels churchmen to behave more like statesmen. 

At the urging of American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, the Council abandoned the dictates of the traditional doctrine on religious freedom (that for centuries had greatly influenced the way in which the Church interacted with the world) for a version of the civil right to religious liberty enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – a charter specifically intended to guide, not the activities of a religious institution, but the legal and political culture of a nation.

It can hardly come as a surprise, therefore, that this departure from tradition led to a corresponding shift in behavior wherein Apostolic works all-too-frequently take a backseat to political endeavors. 

Based on the experience of the last forty-plus years, one can reasonably argue that Dignitatis Humanae has contributed a great deal to what looks like an ecclesial metamorphosis; a reordering of episcopal priorities so profound that the Church in our day is substantially distracted from Her divinely instituted mission.

That regrettable downhill slide looks something like this:

– The Church adopted a guiding principle derived from a charter that is concerned with ordering a State’s political affairs.

– Taking its cue therefrom, the Church’s hierarchy began preaching less like Apostles while speaking more like politicians.  

– Politicians are under tremendous pressure to play by the modern culture’s number one rule of engagement; political correctness.  

– Political correctness places a very high premium on avoiding such non-inclusive concepts as “absolute truth” lest someone get offended, or worse, feel disenfranchised.    

To secular ears, this may sound harmless enough, but for Catholics who realize that absolute truth is none other than the person of Jesus Christ, the problem is obvious. The current church-state controversy in the United States – where Catholic bishops speak often about the First Amendment but preach very little (if at all) on Humanae Vitae – reveals just how serious the problem is.

The mission that Christ gave to the Apostles and their successors cannot be properly engaged by pussyfooting around in the face of Evil as though all religions – with their conflicting doctrines and manifest errors – are of equal dignity before the Lord. They clearly are not, but in calling on governments to grant a civil right to religious freedom to all, regardless of confession, Dignitatis Humanae implies just such an equality, and this untenable suggestion has radically influenced the way in which the pastors of the Church interact with the world.

How radically?

For context, let’s begin by reacquainting ourselves with the nature of the mission as Jesus presented it:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mt. 28:18-20).

With this directive firmly in mind, consider the following statement offered by Bishop William E. Lori, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Religious Liberty:

“When we speak about religious freedom as the first of the freedoms, it’s not to aggrandize the Church, but to uphold the first line of defense for the dignity of the human person.”

I think most readers realize that the mission that Christ gave us (which is ordered toward the salvation of souls – the ultimate defense for the dignity of the human person) actually requires that we “aggrandize” the Roman Catholic Church; i.e., to call man’s attention, loudly and clearly, to the universal sacrament of salvation that the Lord has given us.

That said, let me be clear: This example isn’t offered to criticize Bishop Lori personally at all, but rather just to illustrate how effective the “gravitational pull” of Dignitatis Humanae is at compelling prelates to speak in ways that conflict with the mission of the Church as Jesus presented it.   

This certainly isn’t the case in the United States alone; it’s a reality throughout the Catholic world. In fact, even the Bishop of Rome isn’t immune. Consider, for example, the first general audience of 2011

After the Angelus that day, the Holy Father announced his intention to “go as a pilgrim to the town of St. Francis” to host the “World Day of Prayer for Peace” – the third such ecumenical gathering of its kind now commonly referred to as “Assisi III.”

The “aim” of the event, according to the Holy Father, was to invite peoples of many different faiths (including pagans and atheists) to gather with him “to solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service to the cause of peace.”

For most of the last two millennia (save for the most recent four decades or so), it would have been absolutely unthinkable for a Roman Pontiff to suggest that non-Catholics will do well persisting in “their own religious faith” for any reason, much less with the implication being that doing so could possibly render “a service to the cause of peace.”

Even so, this particular papal pronouncement undoubtedly struck most Catholics as entirely ordinary, not because the Church now views false religions as pathways to peace (it does not, and they are not); rather, it only seems unremarkable thanks to Dignitatis Humanae and the undeniably strong influence it has had on the Church’s evangelical tone.

In summary, Phil Lawler’s concerns about the American episcopate are well founded; unfortunately, however, they’re really just a symptom of a much larger problem:

Like a computer virus disguised as a necessary update to an important program, the “Americanized” version of religious liberty espoused at Vatican II is increasingly revealing itself as a particularly insidious strain of indifferentism; one that threatens to claim nearly as many victims as the post-conciliar liturgical crisis.

The biggest difference between the two, of course, is that many laity and churchmen (including the Holy Father) plainly recognize the need for a “reform of the reform” of the liturgy; whereas one can only hope to see the day when the same can be said about the Council’s treatment of religious liberty.


About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.

  • Mary Kochan

    Louie, you seem to be suggesting (and that might be too soft a word, here) that Dignitatis Humanae finds it source in the US Constitution instead of the Holy Spirit working through the Church.

    I don’t have a problem with someone objecting to misuse/abuse of the council — and you have done so many times — but this seems to be going in the direction of outright rejection of a conciliar document. Is that where you want to situate yourself?

  • The simplest way to answer to your question, I think, is this (though a brief answer probably isn’t ideal):

    When you say “reject a council document,” this needs qualification. First, WRT to what is meant by “council document.” We cannot lump the all the text of Vatican II in a category with every other document of every other ecumencial council.

    Furthermore, we can’t even lump the various docuemtns of VII together, reason being they don’t all have the same doctrinal weight.

    In the case of DH, let’s consider its weight. The entire premise of the document is that the centuries old traditional teaching as it existed up to 1965 was historically nuanced such that the departure represented by DH was not a departure from settled Tradition. So, if centuries of Church doctrine on church-state relations was not a settled matter, it makes sense to understand that neither is DH. I suspect its weight is more disciplinary than anything else. God willing, the Holy Father will remove all doubt one day, but that hasn’t happened.

    Remember – this council did not attempt in any way to create new doctrine, therefore, it is entirely legitimate to question whether or not the propositions put forth in DH are truly good for the Church. They may not be, in fact, if by “rejecting” you mean to ask if I am saying that they are not, yes, I am saying that the experience of the last 40 years leaves little doubt on this point.

    Also, I would say plainly that some of the premises that supposedly under gird DH have already been rejected by Catholic theology; e.g., the notion that freedom is possessed absolutely regardless of relationship with truth, and the idea that human dignity is static and does not exist in degree based on unity with God. The contrary to these notions form the basis for DH’s propositions.

    As for the US Constitution, this is in fact the inspiration for DH. JC Murray deliberately sought to reconcile the 1st Amendment with Catholic doctrine. If you revisit the four installments I wrote on his “theology” it is hardly possible to conclude that he succeeded. In fact, he himself said after the Council that the theology is not yet developed. “Credit card” theology – remember? : )

    Long and short, Mary – life would be much easier if we could simply embrace for dear life every utterance that VII gave us, but that would be making the mistake that Pope Benedict XVI described as treating VII as a “super dogma.” It’s simply not.

    • Mary Kochan

      LOL. Well, call me simple-minded then, but I do embrace for dear life every utterance of every council. I don’t care if JC Murray was a purple two-headed Arian or a secret Satan worshipper. And you can go after him personally and every jot and tittle he ever wrote. But once something comes from a council, I don’t think it is any longer merely the work of a man, or any group of men. It is the “the Holy Spirit and us” per Acts 15: 28.

  • sodacan

    I think Louie is bringing our attention to a very “inconvenient truth”, especially with regard to Fr. John Courtney Murray’s influence. In fact,he is considered by many as the architect of DH. David Wemhoff also looks at the implications of this in “Just Be Catholic”. I also recommend Randy Engel’s “The McHugh Chronicles” provides a more detailed history of these issues.

  • sodacan – thanks for the comments, and also for the username. : )) Made me laugh! : )

    You’re not simplistic, Mary. The truth is, in “normal” times, a Catholic should be able to treat the propositions of an ecumenical council exactly that way, but these aren’t normal times, and VII is a unique animal among the 21 ecumenical councils.

    E.G., I’ll take a stab here and assume that you’re not nearly as enthused about labor unions as the Council Fathers appear to be in Gaudium et Spes. And therein lies yet another challenge WRT the conciliar docs.

    Within the various documents of VII one will find things that are drawn from Tradition and are therefore perfectly “embraceable” for lack of a better word, yet, two paragraphs later one will find a concept that is not even necessarily doctrine at all, like an opinion on labor unions.

    DH is a great example of this.

    E.g., DH 13. The bulk of it expresses the freedom due the Catholic Church. Bravo! But… then it veers into new territory by asserting the same right for all men of all religions, even those in grave error, as though freedom is not possessed in degree with holiness. (The phrase “slavery to sin” might come to mind.)

    At the conclusion to the Holy See / SSPX discussions, the Vatican Information Service press release re: the Doctrinal Preamble indicates that there is room for “legitimate discussion concerning the formulations and expression of VII and the later magisterium.”

    That is precisely what we’re doing here.

    In the end, trust in the sacred hierarchy is never a bad thing, even when they are off the mark. God honors that trust. Truth is, not every Catholic is well suited to dissect the council documents. But… let’s be honest, when a bishop speaks these days, how confident can you be that they’re on the money? I think most readers here do what I do, and that is measure what they say against the doctrine of the Church. Sometimes they speak well, other ties they don’t. Such are the times in which we live…

    • Mary Kochan

      A single bishop may very well be “off the mark” — I don’t think you can compare that to an ecumenical council. The proposition that a council can err is Lutheran.

  • You’re over applying infallibility, Mary. This protection extends only to matters and faith and morals. Nothing more. You are right to say that it is impossible for a valid ecumenical council to plainly teach heresy and I agree entirely. VII did not, indeed could not, do this. This does not mean that the docs will necessarily be well written and clear.

    That protection does not extend to matters that are disciplinary, or opinions on matters beyond the faith (like WRT the value of labor unions or directives on how states should relate to non-Catholic religions). These things do not properly belong to the deposit of faith. The Council Fathers may propose things in these areas that are neither good ideas nor the will of the Spirit.

    • Mary Kochan

      So you are not saying that DH teaches heresy, then?

  • Correct! I am not saying that DH is teaching heresy, it isn’t. An ecumenical council cannot plainly contradict that which must be believed by all with divine faith. (The definition of heresy.) So on this we agree 100%.

    The blameworthy ideas in this document do not concern the deposit of faith. DH essentially calls on States to treat all religious expressions as though they are equal in dignity. It doesn’t plainly say they are equal in dignity, which would be incompatible with the faith, but the implication is noteworthy and damaging.

    This is a seriously flawed approach that has had terrible consequences. It discourages States from embracing Catholicism as the official religion of the State and directly supporting the Church in Her mission. May sound OK to Americans who know only the 1st Amendment approach, but this is nuts! We want rulers who embrace Christ’s Kingship and governments that understand their duty to serve Him! NOTHING could be of better service to the common good. (Pope Leo XIII articulates this clearly. He wasn’t simply mistaken because the Americans knew better!) Again, not heresy to imply otherwise as DH does, but gravely flawed.

    Think about it, Mary – here we have a document on church-state relations that mentions the Kingship of Christ ZERO times. Wow. It’s very easy to preach this version of religious liberty, it is much more difficult to tell the world that Christ alone is King, but this is the mission Jesus gave us. Our shepherds have been skating the easy DH path for forty years. No wonder indifferentism runs rampant.

    What we’re discussing, really, is how well (or not) the directives put forth in DH reflect those underlying truths that do concern the deposit of faith. I think the witness of the past forty years testifies very clearly that it has done a miserable service to the mission of the Church.

    I appreciate the dialogue and hope it was helpful.