Lord, please don’t hear this prayer

Published November 3, 2004

The Catholic Difference

As I understand the theory behind the General Intercessions or Prayer of the Faithful, the petitions are supposed to be short and rather formulaic: we are to pray for the universal Church and its pastor, the local Church and its pastors, the civil authorities, the sick, the dead and dying, and the world’s salvation, adding special local needs as required. Yet the subscription services that supply many parishes with their general intercessions often turn the petitions into mini-sermons in which various messages, theological and political, are encoded. I particularly dislike the now-widespread custom of jumping immediately from a pro forma prayer for the universal Church or the Pope to a second, much lengthier petition for some political desideratum, often accompanied by a protracted secondary clause suggesting, not too subtly, that all social goods are to be secured by government action.

These canned petitions do have one use, though: they reflect with considerable precision the default positions on certain questions in today’s U.S. Catholic establishment.

Take, for example, a petition I heard (in the #2 slot, of course) a few weeks ago: “That all world leaders may put aside their political differences and work for true and lasting peace, let us pray to the Lord.” I didn’t. Why? Because that petition, however innocently crafted, reflects a host of misconceptions about world politics, world peace, and world order: misconceptions that I have been trying to counter – evidently, without much success! – for more than a quarter-century.

Why couldn’t I answer “Lord, hear our prayer” to the petition I just cited? First, because I don’t believe that “political differences,” in the normal sense of that term, define the fault-lines in world politics today. The differences between the civilized world and Al-Qaeda, or between the United States and North Korea, or between Christian blacks and Muslim Arabs in Sudan, or between the Russians of Beslan and the terrorists who held their children hostage and then murdered them in cold blood, are not “political differences” – if by “political differences” we mean disagreements about the best means to achieve commonly-agreed public goods.

The difference between the civilized world and Al-Qaeda is that the civilized world wishes to run its affairs by the rule of law, and Al-Qaeda wishes to impose its Islamist will on others through indiscriminate violence and the murder of innocents. North Korea is run by a lunatic with a couple of nuclear weapons who has no compunction about starving his own people; our “differences” with him and his regime are not “political,” in the sense that House Speaker Denny Hastert’s “differences” with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are “political.” Prayers that suggest otherwise are unreal.

Secondly, I couldn’t answer “Lord, hear our prayer” because, as a matter of considered moral judgment, I don’t want my political leaders to put aside their differences with Al-Qaeda, or Kim Jong-il, or the nuclear-weapons-seeking mullahs of Iran, or the Islamists who commit genocide in Darfur and Beslan. I want my political leaders to craft wise policies, guided by moral reason, to insure that, if I may put it bluntly, we win and they lose: that is, that the civilized world and the rule of law prevail over terrorists and crazies.

Third, I couldn’t say “Lord, hear our prayer” to that oleaginous petition because it smacks of the psychobabble that has corrupted Catholic thinking about world politics for forty years or more. In the classic Catholic understanding of the word, peace is “order:” the “order” of law-governed societies whose domestic and international affairs are guided by a commitment to the rule of law and the political adjudication of conflict. “Peace,” as Catholics have understood it since Augustine, is not a matter of therapy; it’s a matter of law and politics. But you couldn’t tell that from the petition above, which sounds far more like Rodney King (“Why can’t we all just get along?”) than The City of God (“Peace is the tranquillity of order.”).

Am I making too big a deal out of this? I don’t think so. The worship we offer God, including our intercessory prayer, should arise out of our deepest Catholic convictions. It shouldn’t be shaped, and mis-shaped, by the shibboleths of the therapeutic society.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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