The model which distinguishes faith and temporal realities, Church and world, leads to the perception of two missions in the church and to a sharp differentiation between the roles of the priest and the lay person; this model soon began to lose its vitality and to become a hindrance to pastoral action. Two instances can illustrate this point.
The rise and development of an adult laity has been one of the most important events in the Church in recent decades. Although they foreshadowed a profound ecclesiological and spiritual renewal, the lay apostolic movements as such have nevertheless been experiencing for some time a deep crisis which it would be well to examine and analyze in detail. This crisis, indeed, provides us with a number of lessons and points for reflection.
As we have pointed out, the distinction of planes approach held that the mission of lay apostolic organizations was to evangelize and to inspire the temporal order, without directly intervening. But the life of these movements overflowed this narrow and aseptic conceptual model.
The movements, especially the youth groups, felt called upon to take ever clearer and more committed positions, that is to say, to take on themselves in greater depth the problems of the milieu in which they supposedly assured ‘a presence of the church.’
Initially this change was presented as deriving from a pedagogical concern: the youth movements could not separate religious formation from political formation. The question, however, went deeper. At stake was the very nature of these organizations: the fact that they took a stand on the temporal plane meant that the Church (especially the bishops) became committed in an area foreign to it, and this was not acceptable. Simultaneously, because of the very dynamics of the movement, the members felt compelled by circumstances to make ever more definite commitments; this necessarily led to a political radicalization incompatible with an official position of the Church which postulated a certain asepsis in temporal affairs. Therefore, frictions and even divisions were inevitable.
He then continues under a new header:
The ‘social problem’ or the ‘social question’ has been discussed in Christian circles for a long time, but it is only in the last few years that people have become clearly aware of the scope of misery and especially of the oppressive and alienating circumstances in which the great majority of humankind exists. This state of affairs is offensive to humankind and therefore to God. Moreover, today people are more deeply aware both of personal responsibility in this situation and the obstacles these conditions present to the complete fulfillment of all human beings, exploiters and exploited alike.
People are also more keenly and painfully aware that a large part of the Church is in one way or another linked to those who wield economic and political power in today’s world. This applies to its position in the opulent and oppressive countries as well as in the poor countries, as in Latin America, where it is tied to the exploiting classes.
Under these circumstances, can it honestly be said that the Church does not interfere in ‘the temporal sphere’? Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government? We discover, then, that the policy of nonintervention in political affairs holds for certain actions which involve ecclesiastical authorities, but not for others. In other words, this principle is not applied when it is a question of maintaining the status quo, but it is wielded when, for example, a lay apostolic movement or a group of priests holds an attitude considered subversive to the established order.
Concretely, in Latin America the distinction of planes model has the effect of concealing the real political option of a large sector of the Church —that is, support of the established order. It is interesting to note that when there was no clear understanding of the political role of the Church the distinction of planes model was disapproved of by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. But when the system—of which the ecclesiastical institution is a central element—began to be rejected, this same model was adopted to dispense the ecclesiastical institution from effectively defending the oppressed and exploited and to enable it to preach a lyrical spiritual unity of all Christians. The dominant groups, who have always used the Church to defend their interests and maintain their privileged position, today—as they see ‘subversive’ tendencies gaining ground in the heart of the Christian community—call for a return to the purely religious and spiritual function of the Church. The distinction of planes banner has changed hands. Until a few years ago it was defended by the vanguard; now it is held aloft by power groups, many of whom are in no way involved with any commitment to the Christian faith. Let us not be deceived, however. Their purposes are very different. Let us not unwittingly aid the opponent.
Further, in the face of the immense misery and injustice, ought not the Church especially in those areas such as Latin America where it has great social influence—intervene more directly and abandon the field of lyrical pronouncements? In fact, the Church has done so at times, but always clarifying that this was a merely supplementary role. The scope and omnipresence of the problem would seem to render this argument inadequate in our day.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).