Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
Several scholars have written books recently about the place of the Church in the world with regard to Vatican II. Some say that the effects of the “Protestant” Reformation were largely unintended. It is true, for example, that Martin Luther went to his death saying that he never intended to start another church. Politics got involved in the dispute, as always happens, and the struggle over who had the power of the universities in Europe at that time became the motive for the Thirty Years’ War that sealed the division of denominationalism.
Some say that Vatican II actually began with the French Revolution, when Church leaders, those corrupt as well as those not corrupt, were rounded up and put to death by the mob. This watershed event, the struggle between Catholic and reformed Christian monarchs caught in a new struggle with a dawning “enlightenment” of
post-Christianity, marked the beginning of the Church’s divestment of temporal power, finally with the loss of the Papal States. Vatican II was the first time that the Church soberly looked at herself as an institution without a temporal kingdom, and sought to clarify what it meant to make a bridge (literally, “pontiff”) between the world and the Kingdom not of this world. She sought to self-identify as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, in the world, but not of the world, without the encumbrances of secular politics.
As much as Europeans might not like to admit it, I think this process needed the witness of the American Experiment to take place. Principles of democracy and equality, religious liberty and separation of Church and State had not really been tried before. Please don’t misunderstand, I believe that Church and State are such that they cannot be mutually exclusive in certain ways as long as people of religion are considered among the citizens. But there is a healthy separation
that must be in place for religious liberty truly to be religious liberty for all, and not just for some. Liberty must be cherished and protected, but religion must also be supported and nurtured.
Looking around today it is a rare occurrence to find a religion existing independently of state government or political power. And religions are at their least authentic expression while being driven by a government. Wherever a particular religion is promoted as the national religion, you will find discrimination, the possibility of forced conversions and, especially where the abuse of power goes unchallenged, extreme abuses and crimes claiming religion as justification. The
reality is that the actual religion has little or nothing to do with these extreme practices, but the government in power has developed a culture with its own propaganda and subsequent history, so it is exceedingly difficult to uncover the truth. Such were aspects of Christianity a millennium ago, to which Vatican II is a stark contrast today.
In the same way, some of us hope for world religions to experience the same self-discovery of their faith and culture in the American context, where religion has the rare chance to exist free from political power. We need to work together so as to let this example shine to other parts of the world where people still know the
oppression of political systems that define their religions and prevent peaceful coexistence. The American Experiment can still shine a light on what is possible. Islam and Hinduism, even some branches of Christianity, have a chance here in the United States to breathe fresh air and learn their traditions free from imposed political ideologies that would otherwise twist and distort their practice.
In such an environment, we might even be able to progress beyond mere tolerance to respect. According to all the relationships we have formed interreligiously here in the U.S., I can tell you that I know of not one event when these abuses, murders, terrorist activities and fear have not been condemned by our interreligious
brothers and sisters.
We do, however, have the ability to sustain the hate and intolerance. With broad strokes it is easy to identify the enemy and lump all people of a particular profile into that category. This is when I call upon all Christians to do the uniquely Christian thing, the one thing that makes us different. If we truly have an enemy, we must love them. We must do good for them, as we would do for a friend. The practice of compassion and loving kindness, which is shared by all religions, is a good starting place. Then, let us use encouragement in friendship as we go about living this American Experiment together.
God bless you.