In today’s Gospel Jesus says:
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit unless it remains on the vine,
So neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
– John 15:4b-5
This text is commonly (and correctly) applied to us as individual Christians, but it’s also a useful lens for thinking about the state of churches today. (Nothing I’m about to say should be taken to impugn the sincerity, or integrity, or faith, of members or leaders of other churches. I’m speaking here of organizations and social forces, not individuals.)
One thing about the growth of Christianity in North America was, to use the Gospel imagery above, a disconnection from the “vine” of historical Christianity. Historians note that Christianity was spread in the early days of the U.S. by roving preachers founding local churches and by traveling revivalists; there were few universities to train (and thus certify the soundness of) preachers (except in the Northeast, where Harvard and Yale were founded as seminaries to train Puritan and Congregationalist clergy respectively). There was little centralized authority to correct religious leaders whose teaching went off the rails. This not only led to the growth of eccentric religious groups (think Mormons [founded in the 1820s], Christian Scientists , Millerites , and many, many more) but also to a social environment for clergy that has been called entrepreneurial. Clergy succeeded when they “brought people to Christ,” founded church congregations, saw to their growth, and were seen to have social influence in the wider community. (Think of the recently deceased Rev. Billy Graham as an outstanding model of this sort of clerical ministry.) The deep political involvement of some non-Catholic clergy flows from this social model, with consequences for the public perception of Christianity, especially by young people who may not be closely connected to any church.
The “vine” of historical Christianity (Roman Catholic in the west, Orthodox in the east) serves as a brake on clerical freelancing and entrepreneurship. If I start preaching there are four persons in the Trinity the bishop will correct me and, if necessary, remove me. I can’t start founding new parishes or organizations without an ok from above (from the bishop, not from God). Bishops who go off the rails in their teaching or innovations get corrected by their fellows or by higher church authority. Theologians have to show that their teaching is consonant with a tradition that not only goes back to origins, but takes into account the thought of scholars all along the way. Candidates for Catholic or Orthodox priesthood must undergo approved professional training, be examined on their mastery of an approved curriculum, and be ordained and supervised. Freelancing of any sort is forbidden.
And there’s no reward (in terms of acclaim by peers or upward promotion) for Catholic clergy who seek to wield political influence. Through long experience with different forms of political organization all over the world, our Church has learned that too-close connection to secular politics is damaging to the Church over the long run, whatever short-term benefits it may seem to offer.
Our ongoing connection to the Vine through history is one reason many faithful Catholics feel homeless in today’s political arena; our moral values and our perspective on what is truly beneficial to human life and flourishing don’t line up with any political agenda. The only way to be comfortably at-home within any secular political perspective is (again to return to the Gospel image) to cut off our connection to the “vine.” The organizational history of other churches in America may make it possible – even opportune – for them to involve themselves deeply in political issues and to seek political influence. Our heritage is different and, we believe, is more in keeping with the desires of the One who gives us true life. Until next week, peace.
- Writing about his visit here in 1831, the French political scientist / historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted that “religious insanity is very common in the United States.” [Democracy in America, Book II, ch. 12.]