Jesus’ challenge: Integrate politics and religion

April 9, 2019

A stained glass window at St. Anne Catholic Church in Houston depicts a young Jesus Christ teaching in a synagogue. Photo by James Ramos/Herald.

Every year, during the season of Lent, I try to participate in a parish mission as they challenge me to consider how I live the Gospel in the world today. 

This year, I accepted an invitation to be with the community of Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Spring. The Mission is titled, “Prophetic Politics: How We Heal the Division of Our Day.”

As the title implies, we are wrestling with how we practice, in our own day, the social teachings of the Gospel, which are manifested in the Corporal Works of Mercy and Catholic Social Teaching.

In polite society, we are taught that the two things we should not discuss in public are religion and politics.

However, the difficulty is that we often discuss one without the other, when the Gospel is challenging us to live both. At the University of St. Thomas, where I am chaplain, I find students are longing for lives where the two come together. Their hunger is for the integration of social justice and spirituality — which is precisely what Jesus challenges us to do.

It means we have to watch the news with a Bible in our hand and ask ourselves if our hearts are ready to break open for what breaks the heart of Jesus? It means that “What would Jesus do?” is no longer a popular phrase but a guiding question for how we vote, care for our money, our environment and spend our free time.

It means that we have to look at the politics of our country, city and communities and ask what kind of conditions Jesus would place on the stranger? On the hungry? On the sick? On those without clothes and/or shelter?

In the first part of this two-part series, I asked if we were living a truly Catholic culture, or simply with a Catholic heritage? That this Lent is a season of awareness: not only of what we have and have not done, but of our heritage that must give way to a renewed culture.

Rather than retreat into our churches, this moment in time seems to demand that we go outside of them in service of the mission we have received.

Too often we are asked how we can support our Church, but more and more, I am asking how we can better support the communities where our churches dwell. What culture will we create that is both rooted in our tradition, and stems from the mission given to us by Jesus?

Quite rightly, many of us are aware and advocate for issues connected to the dignity of life and rights of people at the legal and legislative level. Catholics make their perspectives known on these national issues; such as abortion, immigration and the like. This is critical. However, these days I often wonder what kind of city Houston might be if we, as a Catholic community, act with greater intensity concerning issues at the local level?

What would we say about the relocation of I-45 from the west to the east side of downtown? What would we contribute to the Metro Next Transit Plan? What would we demand of city planners and developers regarding our green spaces and bayous? What might we be willing to support so that the children of our city do not miss out on an opportunity for education and healthcare?

As a result of our crisis, I dare say we have lost our moral authority. As I have been preparing this Lenten mission, I have been asking myself what the Gospel teaches us about how we might regain this credibility that we have lost? The answer, I believe, is through sacrifice.

Though it is a word we use often, and in many ways, defines the central activity of our Church in the Eucharist; I must confess that I never understood its original meaning until I went to look it up. It means to make holy. Thus, when I think of those who have made possible all that we have in our city and country today; they were not simply the “greatest,” but one could argue their sacrifices made them holy.

Thus, if Lent is to be a season when we are both more aware, and called to be made more holy; then we must ask ourselves what are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of those in our community?

As Easter approaches, my hope is that newness of the resurrection inspires in each of us a new spirit of local engagement. That our parishes, schools and homes are places where we study and discuss the social teachings of the Church, and the implications they demand. 

Father Chris Valka, CSB, is the chaplain and director of Campus Ministry at the University of St. Thomas.