Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

A state that serves the nation

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

Last January, you may recall, the bishops of the United States gathered at our seminary in Mundelein  for a retreat at the invitation of Pope Francis. He sent Italian Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa as the retreat director. Father Cantalamessa has served as preacher to the papal household since he was appointed by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

The week of Aug. 19, the seven auxiliary bishops of the archdiocese and I came together to reflect on some of Father Cantalamessa’s talks as part of the spiritual exercises we schedule for ourselves each August. In preparing for our time together, I had the chance to review one particular talk we heard in January, and I was struck by a distinction Father Cantalamessa made as he addressed the topic of church unity.

He reminded us that one of the lasting contributions of the Second Vatican Council was the definition of the church as the “people of God.” Prior to the council, the church was understood more in terms of an organization, hierarchical in nature, and as a state. By referring to the church as a people of God, the emphasis shifted, so that the church now is understood primarily as a people or a nation.

As our preacher noted: “The term ‘nation’ suggests a people, a social reality and individuals, whereas a ‘state’ points to how that reality is organized: the government that maintains it, the constitution by which it is governed, the various authorities (judiciary, legislative and executive) and the symbols that represent it.” He added: “It is not the nation that is at the service of the state, but the state that is at the service of the nation.”

That distinction has significant consequences for how we experience church life. By placing the emphasis on the communion we share as the people of God, all of the structures of the church serve the growth of that communion. Both aspects of the church, understood in terms of nation and state, are essential, insisted Father Cantalamessa, but the council did shift the priority of one over the other, or, as he put it: “The relationship between communion and hierarchy has been inverted. The hierarchy is now in service to communion and not vice versa. [According to Pope John Paul II,] communion is seen as ‘the soul of the institution.’ Hierarchy will fade away; communion remains for eternity.”

During last week’s retreat, my brother bishops and I were able to explore the deeper meaning of this insight. Placing communion over structure has much to say about how we approach our efforts during Renew My Church. In fact, by giving priority to organizing a consultation at the local level through the grouping of parishes, I wanted to make sure that whatever decisions we come to are the fruit of listening to each other respectfully, and result in a stronger unity within the church.

Our sights primarily cannot be set on structures, buildings or how we organize ourselves. The goal is to bring about a greater unity so that we can take up the mission of Christ in a way that positions us to pass on the faith we have received.

This distinction between state and nation has much to offer us as we think about our country, especially in a time marked by great polarization and division. In thinking about America, what does it mean for us to make the people, the nation and our unity or communion with each other the priority? At the least it would call into question the attempts to reduce our great country to a business, to the point that we measure and define the good of the nation singularly in terms of economic growth and profits, with little regard for making sure the economy benefits everyone.

Pope Francis has challenged the world to put aside this narrow approach to living as a nation. In doing so, he builds on the insights of St. John Paul II, who argued for an understanding of a country’s economy in terms of solidarity, so that inclusion and economic security for all are the measures of economic health and the criteria for economic decision-making. Solidarity produces a social-market economy, Pope Francis observed, which involves “passing from an economy directed at revenue, profiting from speculation and lending at interest, to a social economy that invests in persons by creating jobs and providing training.”

The way we think about the church has much to offer how we think about our country. In both cases, we need to keep in mind the distinction between being a nation that is served by the state and not the other way around.


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