The Church in Europe: ‘kept in the sacristy’?

The Church in Europe: ‘kept in the sacristy’?

By Phil Lawler | Oct 19, 2017

Next week COMECE (the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community) will open a three-day conference on the future of Europe. The timing is auspicious: the conference falls on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which began the construction of the European Union. And it comes at a time when the European community, politically fractured and morally adrift, could certainly use some sensible advice from the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately COMECE is not likely to provide that sort of advice. COMECE regularly organizes events in which political topics are discussed by religious leaders; only rarely does the organization dare to raise recognizably religious issues.

Last week, in a Vatican Radio interview looking forward to next week’s conference, the secretary-general of COMECE provided an illustration of the problem. Brother Olivier Poquillon said that COMECE is anxious to “enter into the heart of public policies, to put at the heart of those policies the human being.” He remarked the COMECE does not want “to be kept in the sacristy.”

What a revealing pair of comments! Notice first that the Dominican brother proposes to put “the human being” at the center of public-policy discussions. There’s nothing wrong with that suggestion; the Church has a long and noble tradition of promoting Christian humanism. But it is significant that Brother Poquillon does not take the more radical step of proposing to put God front-and-center in the public-policy debate.

Next, look carefully at the image that the COMECE spokesman uses. He doesn’t want to be “kept in the sacristy.” There are, ordinarily, two ways to leave a sacristy: one door leads to the world outside the church; the other door leads to the sanctuary. Brother Poquillon clearly wants COMECE to be included in the political discussion among European leaders. Indeed it seems the very purpose of COMECE is to plead for a place at the table when European leaders meet to discuss public policy. But I wish COMECE showed an interest in the proper work of the Church, which consists in worship and evangelization.

Does this seem unreasonable? I realize that COMECE is a specialized organization. It goes without saying (at least it should) that the bishops who lead COMECE make worship and evangelization their top priorities, and use this conference as a convenience for secondary purposes. Still, if the European bishops want to exercise some clout in the public square, they cannot do so simply by currying favor with public officials. Politicians operate by the calculus of power; they will respect the Church if the Church demonstrates the power to influence public opinion.

And how does the Church influence public opinion? Not by issuing policy statements or hosting public discussions, but by forming the hearts and minds of the faithful—by worship and evangelization.

Just once, I wish COMECE showed an interest in leaving the sacristy to enter the sanctuary. That’s where the real work of the Church is done—where the Church can make her most valuable contribution to the future of Europe.

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