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What I Want from Catholics: Occupy the Public Space

Editor's note:
In the "What I Want From Catholics" series, Protestant writers from every tradition explain what they think of the Catholic Church, particularly her work in the world. We asked them to speak honestly and directly. See What We Want From Protestants for a description of the series. At the end of this article you will find links to the articles published so far.

This series is, as I understand it, meant to focus on what Protestants want from Catholics in regard to the public sphere, but I will start with what I want from the Catholics in regard to public transportation. I write this on September 25, and the Pope is somewhere in Midtown, and I am going to have to get back through Manhattan to Queens at some point late this afternoon. What I would like from the Catholics in New York today is for them to consider walking as opposed to taking the subway in order to stake out the Pope, because otherwise the F train will be seriously jammed.

Beyond that, from each Catholic I want the same thing, and it’s the same thing I want from each Christian and non-Christian I know: I want him to trust Christ for his salvation, and to live in such a way that he is seeking the Kingdom of God; I want him to love God and love his neighbor as himself; I want him to pray—to the triune God, rather than to anyone else—for me, that the same might be true of me. It’s not an abstract want. It’s not a “theologically correct” answer. It’s something I want from the center of myself for every person I meet, and the want only gets more pointed as I get to know that person.

That’s all, and I’m sorry it’s not more elaborate. That’s what I want from each Catholic. Please do that.

But we were talking—we are always talking—about the public thing, the res publica.

The Public Thing

There is a fashion these days to sneer at the culture war co-belligerency model of Catholic/Protestant relations—the ecumenism of the trenches which has been so often cited. I can’t join in this sneering. I wholeheartedly—well, almost wholeheartedly—second what Bruce Ashford wrote in his article.

In the face of the Planned Parenthood videos, the fact of Catholic and Protestant unity in opposition to abortion is not something to take lightly. If we find ourselves together in opposing this, we can’t shrug that off, any more than we can shrug off the fact that we affirm the creeds, and (most centrally) affirm the wild and unlikely statement that Christ is risen.

This can go badly. This kind of ecumenism can become a bland civil religion: a doctrinally minimalist Christianity that serves the cause of “Western civilization,” or—worse—“America,” but does not demand precision of thought, does not demand that I as a Protestant confront my Catholic friends with my objections to those doctrines which I believe to be untrue. For the sake of clear thinking and for the sake of friendship I can’t do that; I can’t allow our points of agreement to become a slurry of good feeling and niceness that leaves no place for a crisp pursuit of truth, and a submission to the truth that God has revealed.

It’s with that caveat that I want to talk about the rest of what I want from Catholics. Let’s start with one particular thing that Catholics can offer the public discussion right now, which Protestants cannot. And that’s this new Pope of yours. I’d urge Catholics to use Francis’ popularity specifically among American leftists as an occasion to point those leftists to the link between his so-called “leftist” concerns and the pro-life witness he continues (if sometimes too quietly) to bear. On what basis are modern leftists concerned for the well-being of the weak, of the powerless?  What is the source of their moral intuition?  How did that get written on their hearts, for one thing, and how did it get inscribed in the Western conscience, for another?  And given this essential decency for which the left has been such a powerful voice, how precisely are we meant to draw a line saying that this particular group of the powerless—this weakest group of humans—is outside of our concern?  These are the questions that, under Francis’ papacy, Catholics are now in the best possible position to ask—and answer.

But there’s something beyond this that I want from Catholics. Anglicanism, my tradition, shares with the Roman tradition a robustly public understanding of the Gospel: it is the announcement of a Kingdom, which is a public challenge to other Kingdoms, most specifically the dominion of the devil.

Catholics would understand this Kingdom to be essentially identical with the visible church. Anglicans come down on the question of the nature and tangibility of this kingdom in a variety of ways. Even those, however, who hold to a more traditionally Protestant understanding of the Church as invisible, have for the most part not been tempted, as other Protestants have, towards an interiorization or privatization of Christianity.

We Anglicans are trying—Oliver O’Donovan is a key figure here, as are John Milbank and N. T. Wright—to re-read and re-understand our sources, so as to re-proclaim the public nature of the Gospel. These men disagree with each other on key points, but they share a concern to revitalize what’s called political theology, and to do so as non-Roman Catholics.

Against the Secularist Fantasy

The heart of this attempt, as I am coming to understand it, has to do with examining the question I refer to above: What is the Kingdom of God? That breaks down into all kinds of other questions: How do we understand Christ’s lordship over the nations of the earth– all these other kingdoms? How do we understand the just authority of human rulers in light of the fact that all authority comes from Christ? How do we understand the right of the Church in the public sphere? These are the living questions with which Anglicans (and not Anglicans alone) are grappling.

Merely by asking them, of course, these theologians are stepping outside the bounds of allowable liberal opinion. No answer to this question is acceptable to liberal orthodoxy, except perhaps for the answers given by the most antiseptically-separated versions of Reformed two-kingdoms thought. Roman Catholics can and should join their voices with those of these writers to jeer at the notion that there can be such a thing as a religiously neutral space. Secularism is a fantasy, and a snooty, bossy one at that. Catholics know this in their bones. They need to keep saying so.

And I have confidence that they will. One thing that Catholics have given the Church is a persistent reminder that our allegiance to Christ as our king has public implications. The Gospel makes a difference, and it makes a difference not just in what one chooses to do with one’s spare time, and not even in pointing one towards specific commitments of social activism. Social activism in the modern world, after all, can easily be taken as either a private hobby, or a public project disconnected from any coherent vision of the public nature of the broader Christian claim.

Christianity is not a self-soothing practice like coloring in Zentangles. It is not a guide to choosing the correct side on questions like abortion, or a helpful social lifehack that serves primarily to get you out of the house on a Sunday. (And a Wednesday, if you’re an Evangelical.)

Rather, it’s a universal religion—a catholic religion—with a proclamation that calls to all men and women in all walks of life, and in every part of their lives, and speaks to people not just as individuals but as members of households or as citizens, as (in some cases) heads of households or as heads of states. It calls them to personal conversion, but a personal conversion which does not set them rattling around as private individuals, however holy.

To continue to remind Evangelicals—who still need reminding—that Christ’s kingship is a public thing, that faith is not privatized, that the whole world is His, is something that I hope Catholics will do. And I hope too that they’ll be willing to learn from the Anglican and Reformed traditions as well—which have themselves developed their own set of approaches to this question, in many cases approaches which are very strongly influenced by the Scholastic tradition which has so thoroughly shaped all of Christianity in the West.

Take Up Space

Therefore what I would like from Catholics in public is for them to continue to take up space, to be by their presence—even the physical presence of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown, for example, with all those Catholics now jamming the streets, and despite my request, I’m sure, crowding the subway—an insistence on the fact that there is no such thing as a religiously neutral public sphere. I want St. Patrick’s there, facing off against the statue of Atlas that was placed across the street at the entrance to Rockefeller Plaza, a symbol (as I take it) of an alternative universal church: the Kingdom of Americanist Internationalism.

However I can’t pretend that that cathedral represents a Christianity that is identical to mine. Inside that building, men and women are adoring the Host: if Catholics are right about what happens during the consecration of the elements, they are right to do so, and I am wrong to refrain; if they are wrong, then they are doing something very dangerous indeed. I can’t skate by that.

After all of this, though, I have to end where I began. What do I want from Catholics? I want for them what I want for myself and for all those I love. I want them to truly be part of the church catholic, to enter in by accepting their Lord’s offer of clemency on His terms, to give their allegiance to Him as their king. I want them, through prayer and Scripture study, to grapple with the specific doctrines of the sixteenth century split, and to help me as I do as well.

I want them to give all their trust and all their loyalty and all their hope to Christ their captain, this best ruler, who loves and calls each of them to join His band. I want them to ruthlessly storm towards truth, to beard reality in its den, and then to allow what they find to shape them. In other words, I want them to reform.

Susannah Black is a native New Yorker living in Queens. She is an editor at Solidarity Hall and blogs at Radio Free Thulcandra. She attends Christ Church NYC, an Anglican congregation that is part of a missionary diocese of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

Other articles in the series

David Mills’ What We Want from Protestants (Catholic)

Bruce Ashford’s Save the Drowning (Southern Baptist)

Carl Trueman’s Be True, Not Paper, Roman Catholics (Presbyterian)

Christopher Jackson’s More Good Bishops, and Better Eschatology (Lutheran)

Peter J. Leithart’s Become Protestant (Evangelical)

Jerry L. Walls’ Don’t Overreach (Methodist)

John Wilson’s Keep Doing What All Faithful Christians Have Done (Evangelical)

Bob Hartman’s Read the Bible More (Churches of Christ)


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Kevin Hadduck

    Thank you, Susannah. Beautifully and intelligently said, as I have come to expect from you. My question to all Christians who consider the Church’s proper role in the public square is this: How shall we live in the context of cultural and political defeat? Where and what is the voice of the Church in the context of a hostile world that may not, at some point, acknowledge ANY civil rights for religious believers, such that there is no cathedral on any corner in any city? In that scenario, where Atlas rules supreme, does our mission change? I’m inclined to think that approaching the issue of the public nature of the Church from that direction will help us understand the fundamental nature of the Church. Surely, even in that scenario, “the gates of hell” have not prevailed.

  • RS

    “if they are wrong, then they are doing something very dangerous indeed. I can’t skate by that” You might have dropped this sentence. It undermines your appeal and implies that the RCC’s best choice for your hope of reform is to become Protestant.