Thursday, August 23, 2012

Constantinianism & Cardinal Dolan

I learned yesterday that Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has agreed to give the benediction at the Republican convention in Tampa on the final night of the convention, the night Mitt Romney is officially to accept the nomination.

Cardinal Dolan's spokespeople have assured us that his benediction should not be viewed as an endorsement, and that he would have been quite willing to pray at either or both party conventions.  I respect Cardinal Dolan, and I believe that he truly doesn't see this prayer as an endorsement of the Republican nominee.  The reality, of course, is that his prayer will widely be viewed as an endorsement by those within and without the Catholic fold, but frankly, I don't really care about that.

What bothers me much more about this benediction is that it seems to me to be a further manifestation of the kind of Constantinianism that needs to be rejected by the church.  John Howard Yoder, the late Mennonite theologian, had a great deal to say about the dangers of Constantinianism, and in such a short space I cannot really do any kind of justice to his thoughts.  Chris Huebner, another Mennonite theologian, describes Yoder's understanding of Constantinianism as follows:
Whereas pre-Constantinian Christianity was that of a minority church existing in a world that was largely hostile toward it, Yoder claims that the Constantinian shift resulted in an alignment of the church with the ruling political regime of the day. In other words, Constantinianism represents a fusion of church and state, clergy and and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities, or the general continuity of Christianity with the wider world. As Yoder himself describes it, the structure of Constantinianism is rooted in the “basic axiom” that the true meaning of history, the true locus of salvation, is in the cosmos and not in the church. What God is really doing is being done primarily through the framework of society as a whole and not in the Christian community...
What is characteristic of [Constantinianism] is that [it] compromise[s] the lordship of Christ by identifying God’s cause in some way with the powers of the political establishment. Accordingly, Yoder calls for the church to resist such a Constantinian temptation by embodying the counter-establishment character and corresponding critical stance called for by the “politics of Jesus.” He maintains that it is only through its concrete presence as an alternative community that the church can truly serve as a witness to the world (Chris Huebner, A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, And Identity, 57-58).
Put briefly, Constantinianism generally results in the theological, moral, and ecclesiological compromises, all in the name of gaining - or being aligned to - political power.  The focus of the church thus is placed more on transforming society from the 'top-down' through gaining access to the reigns of power (reigns that Jesus himself rejected), rather than upon becoming the nascent Kingdom of God on earth devoted to living out the kind of selfless love exampled by God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Constantinianism is as much a temptation for the left as it is for the right; indeed, I often hear Constantinian ideas from my politically left-leaning friends who seem much more focused on getting the Democratic incumbent elected than on actually living out their lives after the example of Christ.

I believe Cardinal Dolan to be an intelligent, thoughtful, and devout man, as well as a good bishop and leader.  But it seems to me that there are some theological and ecclesiological complexities (and dangers) associated with giving a benediction at the Republican convention.  He may not be endorsing a particular candidate, but he is implicitly endorsing an understanding of the church's relationship to the world that I find troubling.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the USCCB already endorsed the Republican Party, seeing how obsessed they are with keeping same sex marriage illegal and not paying for contraception.