Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 4, 2012


“Let’s talk.”  It’s such a simple idea, and heaven knows that today we have many opportunities for it by way of social media.  Sometimes, even via Facebook or Twitter, we just scream at each other.  We often have no interest in what another person has to say on a subject.  We may take conversations too far afield and at other times ignore the parts of a conversation we don’t appreciate.

Last night I happened to see a carload of people unloading in front of a restaurant.  Two kids jumped out of an SUV.  They were full of energy and excitement but the three adults with them were all glued to their portable devices (i-pads and cell phones).  It seemed they couldn’t appreciate the moment.  I regularly see couples who are physically together, but socially disjointed as each is busy communicating with somebody at a distance by way of their electronic gadgets.

In addition to this theological blog, I also write another which is dedicated to political issues (  Though I try to keep the topics of the two forums separate there is overlap at times.  It was Mahatma Gandhi who reminded us, “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”  He is remembered in India with the affectionate name of “Gandhiji.”

All things human are necessarily political.  Politics is nothing more than the practice of navigating our way through the myriad relationships of human society, and negotiating systems of power exercised by individuals and groups.  Someone once suggested to me that I might have a problem with authority.  I don’t think that’s quite right.  What I have is a problem with power.  I’m not referring so much to the personal power that each of us possesses as a reality of our personhood, but power that is exercised by groups of people who bond together for the control of others and for the purposes of limiting the options and creativity of others.  My wariness (and weariness!) concerning the exercise of power is a product of my Christian faith and personal experience with the reality of original sin, the brokenness which marks all humans, all human endeavors, and every human institution.  In short, if it’s true that humans are frail and imperfect, so too their political institutions (whether those institutions are governmental or ecclesiastical).

Where there are two or more humans there is politics, and this applies to churches as much as general society.  While I am vividly aware of the imperfection that marks all things human, I’m aware of the unlimited potential for good that is also present.  My catholicism causes me to think of this as the presence of the divine, or holy Spirit–universally active in every community and religion on earth.  Sin can lead to pessimism.  The Spirit can lead to optimism.  I choose to be a practical optimist.  Like the hotelier in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I choose to believe that things will all work out in the end.  If they haven’t worked themselves out, it must not be the end.

Organized communities must have leaders; leadership implies the exercise of power.  But what is our philosophy of power?  I subscribe to a philosophy which is known in the church as subsidiarity and which is known in the governmental arena as libertarianism.  In other words, power should be exercised at the closest social level that is possible.  Issues should be dealt with locally.  If possible, on the personal or familial level (in some societies this would include tribally).  Power is best kept in check when it is devolved to the “lowest” possible level.  My presumption is that we don’t need a law for the entire church or the whole country when an issue is a local one,  not even necessarily when local communities are facing the same questions.  One question can have multiple valid solutions.  Universal, top-down dictates (from popes or presidents) often have the result of stifling creativity and limiting healthy options.

Disagree with me if you like, but at least give me credit for being consistent.

This consistency puts me in the odd position of being called a “liberal” in theological circles, but “conservative” in political discussions.  It also causes me to wonder aloud about the news commentators who are so quick to condemn the centralized power in the Catholic Church while adoring the centralized power exercised by the federal government of the United States (as long as their preferred political party is in power).  If, as Lord Acton wrote, “power tends to corrupt,” and “absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” wouldn’t all communities be better off by keeping a check on the accumulation of power?  Nothing breeds revolution or schism quicker than abuse of power.

On the other hand, nothing dispels fear quicker than genuine dialogue and the sharing of power that can accompany it.

As Nicholas Sagovsky has written in Ecumenism, Christian Origins and the Practice of Communion, “conflict is integral to life in community.”  It’s inevitable everywhere that people are found together.  There is simply no way around it, though we often prefer to imagine that conflict doesn’t exist at all.  We should not mistake silence as the absence of conflict.  Here is another gem of wisdom from Sagovsky:  “It is not the presence of conflict that is unhealthy for communal life, but the premature suppression of conflict in the interests of an unauthentic unity.  Serious, impassioned conflict, where the protagonists are committed to apparently irreconcilable positions, is characteristic of humans living in community” (bold emphasis is mine).

It should not surprise us or anger us that others have differing opinions–and that they are passionate about their beliefs and value commitments.  One of the most beautiful characteristics of postmodern (“pomo”) thinking is its renewed appreciation for local values and ideas.  I like that alot.  It’s very catholic.  There is nothing more workable than two people seeking mutual understanding.  Their disagreements may persist, but the very act of seeking mutual understanding is a transcendent one.

Sometimes dialogue can lead to argumentation.  That’s not a bad thing if the argument is handled respectfully.  After all, the etymology of our word “argue” comes from Latin arguere, meaning “to make clear”.  If we argue because we want to understand each other clearly, then arguing can be a very good thing indeed.  Far too often, however, we’re afraid to enter the dialogue (or the debate or the argument) because we know strong feelings accompany strong commitments.

It’s not unusual to hear passionate debaters say that “we’ll have to agree to disagree.”  That’s fine, but it’s certainly not noble.  What is noble is when we continue to be engaged in dialogue despite the disagreement.  If we don’t remain in the dialogue the result can be more intervention from the top.  Local issues can be pushed upstream and can eventually land on the desk of those “higher ups” who patrol the halls of power.  Too often, in my opinion, their commandments function as ultimatums.  In religion or government, when it comes to an ultimatum, there is always a price to pay.


  1. John – You and I may disagree on a large number of things but I will most definitely give you one thing you requested in this posting. You are consistent. I knew that about you even before you mentioned it. I admit that I am not consistent. I am all over the board politically but religiously I am basically conservative. Although even on the issues that I am the most stringent on, even then I say, there are always exceptions.

    • Barry, dear friend, thanks for commenting. It’s good to know you’re reading the blog. I do hope you’re finding it useful in your journey!

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