A senior American prelate once said to me that the “greatest curse” of Catholic life since the Second Vatican Council was the epidemic use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to categorize, demonize, or canonize everybody and everything. This distinguished churchman wasn’t just offended by the crudity of the taxonomy. He thought it impeded our living the reality of the Church as a communion of those called to holiness, as the Council had taught in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.
He was right. Judging from his address to the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey on March 12, Pope John Paul II agrees.
During this year’s series of American ad limina visits to Rome, the Holy Father is reflecting with the bishops of the United States on the reception of Vatican II in our country, choosing a different Council text as the focus of his remarks to each regional group of bishops. In his March 12 address the text was Lumen Gentium and its teaching that the Church is, above all, “the community in which we meet the living God and his merciful love.”
The Church exists, the Holy Father said, for one reason: to tell the world that, “in the fullness of time [God] sent his Son, born of a woman, for the salvation of the world.” The incarnation of Christ and the redemption of the world took place in history. That means that “the history of salvation has entered the history of the world.” The story of salvation — the story of the Church, and the story of Israel that made the story of the Church possible — is the world’s story, rightly understood. The mission of the Church is to tell the world the truth about itself through a dialogue of salvation. The Church exists to tell the world: You are greater than you can possibly imagine.
That’s what the Church is for. And because the Church is “the kingdom of God now present in mystery” (Lumen Gentium 3), the Church is not one religious organization in a supermarket of religious “options.” The Church has a “unique importance for the human family,” for the Church is where humanity learns the truth about its origin, dignity, and destiny. The Church is where we experience a foretaste of that destiny, which will be eternal life within the light and love of the Trinity.
That is why the Church is, most fundamentally, a “communion:” a communion of believers with the living God, with each other, and with the “communion of saints” who have preceded us. Thus the Church encompasses far more than the community of Christians we see around us in the world. The Church “embraces those who now see God as he is and those who have died and are being purified.”
If the church really is a “mystery” of love and communion, the Pope continued, and if telling the world the truth about the human story is what the Church is for, then “her reality can never be fully captured by sociological or political categories or analyses.”
Like, for example, “liberal” and “conservative.”
During the February consistory at which the archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, was made a cardinal, I agreed to do an interview in St. Peter’s Square with WMAQ-TV, Chicago’s NBC affiliate. The reporter was very cordial, but kept trying to draw me into a “liberal/conservative” comparison between Cardinal George and his predecessor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. After fending off seven probes along these lines, I finally tried a variant on something Cardinal George had said last year at his first pres conference in the Windy City.
“Mary Ann,” I said, “look at that obelisk behind me. That’s probably the last thing the Apostle Peter, a witness to the resurrection, ever saw on this earth. He’s buried five hundred yards beyond there. Looking at that and thinking about that, the question isn’t whether any of this is ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ The only question is whether it’s true.”
That, I think, is what the Holy Father was urging all of us to believe more deeply and preach more vigorously as the Great Jubilee approaches: the truth of the Gospel, which is the truth about both God and us.
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.