During my own missionary globetrotting, I saw that missionaries often met with tension from the local public authorities. This is especially so when they are engaged in works like education, health and the care of the poor. In poorer countries, the state can envy missionary-run schools and hospitals, not just because of their facilities, but because the people prefer them; they feel warmth and welcome and respect. It’s not that the local government could not have efficient state-run institutions; it’s no secret that corruption is often rife and money is diverted to personal and crony interests.
More frequent still is the suspicion that missionaries are spies from their country of origin. They are seen as trying to promote a foreign political outlook. When I was in El Salvador, I worked in a poor area at weekends, known as a “zona marginal”, and I soon learnt that because I did that I was seen by some as filo-communist or at least left-wing. When I then did similar work in Cuba, I was labelled right-wing because I encouraged people to stand up for their rights which were sorely oppressed by the Castro regime.
But working for the poor and encouraging them to stand up for their rights are simply two elements of the Church’s social doctrine. That doctrine just applies fundamental truths of the Gospel to the social reality. The problem, then, is not the doctrine but the fact that people look at it through political spectacles. You could say that it is Caesar trying to fit God and religion into ideological categories. But they don’t, can’t, fit.
When I was in the US, I used to help out with Mass in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in DC on Sundays. What I noticed very quickly was that people wanted to know whether I was a Democrat or a Republican before asking anything about my faith in Christ. It was as if your core identity was defined by political beliefs and not by anything else, let alone religious beliefs.
Sadly, today, among many Catholics, we see the same thing when we hear, “I am for Pope Francis” or “I am for Pope Benedict” as if it were a matter of factions or politics. Or, you hear people talk about left-wing radicals or right-wing neo-conservatives when referring to people or issues in the Church. The words of Christ, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, should give us pause for sobering thought. They mean that we need to claim back a true religious outlook from such political hijacking. Political categories only poison the Church community. They cast people into parties, groups, factions, with the result of fomenting opposition and division.
But the question is not about right and left: it’s about right and wrong. If something and someone is faithful to Christ, then we are on the right track; to the degree that they are unfaithful, then that is the wrong track, irrespective of where they come on the merely political spectrum.
What makes a Church community what it is, is not ideology, but what St. Paul says in our reading today: “We always mention you in our prayers and thank God for you all, and constantly remember before God our Father how you have shown your faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope, in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Not Labour, Conservative, SNP, or right or left, or any party, but genuine faith, hope and love for Christ: that’s what it means to be Church. If the Church sometimes has to speak the truth to secular power it can’t be (and should never have been in the past) to gain such power for itself, but rather to rescue humanity from being reduced to the power of Caesar and to return it to the power of God.