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Steven P. MilliesOctober 25, 2023
Members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, organized into 35 groups based on language, begin their small-group discussions Oct. 5, 2023, in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” which Pope Francis signed with the grand imam of Al-Azhar in 2019, we read that “the concept of citizenship is based on the equality of rights and duties, under which we enjoy justice” so that “It is therefore crucial to establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship.”

What is full citizenship? It is the opposite of whatever “engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority.” Full citizenship is a circumstance in which none of us is above or below another, one where we stand side-by-side with one another, looking each other in the eye. When I enjoy full citizenship and you enjoy full citizenship we encounter one another as equals.

We should note that this language is also rather ordinary inside the Catholic Church. The language of an “equality of rights and duties” is a near-quotation from Pope John’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris.Such discussion of equality and rights also might lead one to think of the tradition of political liberalism from John Locke to John Rawls, or the sort of politics we take for granted in modern states like the ones where we live.

Most modern constitutional states today describe themselves as republics. Such republics sound as though they have a lot in common with Catholic social teaching. They do.

But listen here to another voice—that of Philip Pettit, a social and political theorist who was not writing about anything having to do with the Catholic Church:

…freedom is seen in the republican tradition as a status that exists only under a suitable legal regime…. [T]he laws create the freedom that citizens share…. For republicans, a person is made unfree by the fact that others have an arbitrary power of interference over them…. [F]reedom requires the non-existence, not just the non-exercise, of such a power.

Mr. Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government is one of the definitive books about republican political theory. And what he seems to say is that a republic depends on laws that establish freedom among citizens, and freedom depends on equality. We each must be full citizens, a principle Mr. Pettit put this way: “each is to count for one, none for more than one.”

Another contemporary republican writer, Charles McIlwain, put it this way: “The state, as a bearer of rights, is the whole of the citizens… it is no abstraction apart from the people, and therefore these rights inhere in the people themselves, and what is more, in each of them individually…. And what was thus true of rights was equally true of duties.” That language about rights and duties echoes the Document on Human Fraternity, itself an echo of a much deeper republican history. But we also hear again the fundamental equality in which citizenship and freedom are rooted.

What I am describing is the republican political tradition, which is similar to the liberal tradition we are more familiar with but has important differences. Liberalism is individualist. It is based on self-interest. The heart of liberalism is its expectation of private property: Liberalism assumes I can keep what’s mine from you. A republic also is a free state, yet it is not individualist. Private property certainly may exist in a republic, but a republic is oriented more toward the common good, toward the good of the community.

Most modern constitutional states today describe themselves as republics. Such republics sound as though they have a lot in common with Catholic social teaching. They do.

Synodality and a mature faith

Jerome Kerwin is someone most people have never heard of. He was born in Albany, N.Y., in 1896, and died in Santa Clara, Calif., in 1977. He was the first Roman Catholic appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago. Kerwin was a political theorist and a major player in the social action circles of the Archdiocese of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, groups that were forward-thinking about matters of racial justice, economic justice, liturgical renewal and what it means for a fully engaged Catholic faith to come alive in social and political life. He was, in other words, an important if relatively unknown figure of 20th-century Catholicism.

A decade after the end of the Second Vatican Council, Kerwin wrote about the “strumming guitars and twanging banjos” that had come to the liturgy, “the ear-splitting noise of traps and drums to replace the music of the majestic organ.” That probably sounds a little grumpy. But Kerwin went on to write that reform in the church had been “too long neglected” before Vatican II, and for too long the church suffered “the lack of intelligent papal direction,” so that the excesses were natural. And those excesses were natural to a phase along the way toward something greater, which was why he concluded:

If this is an age of frustration [with guitars and drums and all sorts of post-Vatican II experimentation], it may also be an age of purification. Out of it will come a church renewed…. Some will find [this] era of challenge too much to bear…. [But] we must now depend more fully on a mature faith.

What I want to zero in on is that description of a “mature faith,” a faith that everyday lay Catholics can be living in our workplaces, in our homes, at the ballot box and everywhere we go. And I might be tempted to ask, 50 years later, what happened to that promise, that an “age of purification” would burn away all of those medieval accretions that encrusted the church? Because, of course, they still encrust the church. But now, perhaps, with synodality, 50 years later Kerwin may at last be right.

Our Roman church inherited much from its classical Roman ethos—including its sense of authority as growing from a past.

A Roman inheritance

I first began thinking this way several years ago, early in the Francis papacy, while I was reading the German political theorist Hannah Arendt. Arendt was an astute observer of the Catholic Church during the time of Pope John XXIII (she admired him), and I came across a passage that began to change dramatically how I think about the church. In turn, it points toward Pope Francis’ synodal vision. Arendt wrote about the “Roman influence on the Catholic Church.” We can accept as a given that our Roman church inherited much from its classical Roman ethos—including its sense of authority as growing from a past, and that is obvious enough when we think about the Catholic sense of tradition. But we can make a good case for a less noticeable but no less certain Roman inheritance: Our church can be seen in republican terms, as a republic.

This is by no means a common interpretation, I think. I do not find a lot of people saying this. But when we think about it, it is an implication of how “Lumen Gentium” emphasized our common baptism as the basis of the church community. My colleague at the Catholic Theological Union, Stephen Bevans, S.V.D., identifies this as a fundamental equalizing of all of us within the church so that “lay women and men participate in the priesthood of Christ, a priesthood they hold in common.” But it was the great church historian John O’Malley, S.J., who wrote that “the first reality of the church”—the church’s real character now since “Lumen Gentium”has reminded us of it—”is horizontal and consists of all the baptized without distinction of rank.”

The encrustations burn off in purification. And this, I think, is the “mature faith” that Kerwin described, the one that Pope Francis calls us to with synodality. It is a faith where each of us accepts our baptismal calling as a beckoning to “full citizenship” in our church.

We do not have to work very hard to see that our action in the world need not really be so different from our action together in the church.

Politics and the church

I mentioned earlier that the Document on Human Fraternity was very important. Why? Because it was the document that set Pope Francis down the path to write his 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” on social friendship or solidarity. That encyclical is a blueprint for social life, a way to live in the world as believers in the Gospel of Jesus. But we do not have to work very hard to see that our action in the world need not really be so different from our action together in the church.

It is for this reason that it always has caught my attention, the way Pope Francis has talked about politics. Early, in “Evangelii Gaudium,” he reminded us that politics is a “lofty vocation.” In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis told us that “a healthy politics is sorely needed,” and chapter five of “Fratelli Tutti” is devoted to describing for us “a better kind of politics.”

As a political theorist, what I see when I read these things is that Francis is calling us to an understanding of human beings as social creatures, the nature of our communities and the possibilities that exist in social life. Pope Francis sees the possibilities that we can discover in politics with solidarity. I believe he also thinks that we can discover those possibilities in the church. In a way, the call to synodality is a call to see the church as a political community in a particular way, in light of that Roman influence and Vatican II’s teaching about the primacy of the baptismal vocation—our full equality before God and, so, our “full citizenship” in the church. This is the call to a “mature faith.”

A look back to Jerome Kerwin can serve as a reminder to us how long we have waited for Pope Francis’ call to engage the church as a kind of political community through the synodal process—one rich with possibility, but only if we are ready for it. As a graduate student at Columbia University, Kerwin wrote his master’s thesis about the Council of Basel, which took place between 1431 and 1445. The council was a disaster: The main issue was what historians call conciliarism, the idea that a council made up of bishops could function as a sort of legislative assembly while the pope is merely an executive who carries out what the council decides. In plain fact, what Basel proposed was a sort of democratic representation in the church that would have sidelined the pope’s authority.

Not only did Pope Eugene IV strenuously object (futilely trying to dissolve the council, but no one would go home), but the political machinations of the feudal powers who all had interests at stake in the church collided with the messiness that you’ll find in any democratic process or legislative assembly. Basel fizzled out in 1445, and Kerwin’s appraisal was tart: “Democracy in the Church had its trial at Basel; unfortunately it lent itself to the selfish, nationalistic desires of [those who attended].” The selfish motives of interested parties kept conciliarism from becoming the model for the church, and that was that.

The church can be lived in as a republic or a political community, but it still must be a community based on faith.

A community based on faith

I mention Kerwin and Basel this way because of something Pope Francis said in October 2015 when the Synod on the Family got underway: "The synod is not a parliament, where in order to reach consensus we start to negotiate, making deals and compromises. The lone method in the synod is to listen to the Holy Spirit.”

This is a significant point. It is important to think of the church as a kind of political community, as much as it is also good and important for us to hold politics itself in esteem and to see it as something noble, dignified and honorable. But for as much as the church is and can be lived in as a political community or a sort of republic, it is not a political community in exactly the same way as the Dominion of Canada or the United States of America or the United Kingdom. Those other political communities are political communities based on reason and interest. The church can be lived in as a republic or a political community, but it still must be a community based on faith.

This is why what Pope Francis has said about the method of the synod is so important: “to listen to the Holy Spirit,” who in fact is the legislator and the executive and the judiciary, while we each are full citizens. In other words, I am saying that this synodal church we are invited to become still depends on us. It depends on our seeing the church as a republic of faith, a place where we gather and discern and listen together all as equals. It depends on not bringing our own interests and reasons and agendas to the church. And that can be very difficult.

This, however, is the challenge that Pope Francis is inviting us to accept, the challenge to live the mature faith that Jerome Kerwin hoped one day we would reach. Whether purification comes or frustration continues, that is entirely up to us.

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