Prayer as a Political Problem: A Classic Reconsidered

When Groucho Marx announced that he would never want to join a club that would have someone like him as a member, it obviously hadn’t crossed his mind that he had just made an excellent (if unwitting) case for membership in the Roman Catholic Church.  A club where the admissions policy is so perfectly promiscuous that even Groucho himself could belong. Unlike, say, the pages of Vogue or Vanity Fair, in which only the beautiful people appear—or the Society of Mensa, in which the dimmest bulbs are never allowed to shine—nobody is ever turned away from the door of the Church. How thin the ranks of Catholic Christianity would be if all the stupid and ugly people were denied entry!

Or sinners, for heaven sake. Surely the most salient feature of the human condition is that we’re all more or less mired in the muck. An evil worm having insinuated its poison into every apple, the fruit is no longer pure. And so if anyone were actually to find the perfect Church, its very perfection would diminish by one having joined it.

How fortunate, then, for fallen human beings that the Church’s criteria for admission are so wonderfully unexacting. Have you got a heart? Does it beat sufficiently to evince life? Well, then, what’s keeping you from being baptized?

There are no secret handshakes, or hidden insignia, to gain entrance to the Catholic Church. Nor are putative members required to turn over large sums of cash before signing on. Not only are there no walls to be breached in order to find God, but this mighty fortress of open windows and limitless spaces appears to be in constant motion to find us. So entirely delighted does God seem to be with the human race that he’s eager to enroll every member in the Kingdom.   Especially sinners. Why else had he sent his Son if not to suffer and to die for them? He certainly didn’t come on the strength of anything we’ve got to offer him.

If the world then is to be made welcome in its worship of the one true God, it follows that the only exclusions will be self-inflicted.   The door leading into hell is not locked from the outside. The Catechism is very direct on the subject, reminding us in Article One that, “at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church.”

But what is meant for all must somehow be within the reach of all. And so Christ fashioned the Church of the Poor, so that those for whom he most hungers, indeed, the generality of the human race—men and women not to be found among the chic and the stylish—might all the more easily find their way home to God. In order to facilitate that blessed moment, however, when mankind finds itself at last in the arms of God, transported to the precincts of the Celestial City, the Church must ask the City of Man that it not put roadblocks in the way. Indeed, she wants even the Earthly City to help signpost the way leading back to God. Prayers do not hinder or impede, the Church is saying, the effort to build a world where it is easier for men to be good; where, at the very least, the enticements to vice are not quite so many, nor so damnably hard to resist.

Nowhere has this notion found more profound traction than in the writings of Jean Cardinal Danielou, particularly in a little book he wrote near the end of his life called Prayer as a Political Problem, which first appeared in French in 1965, followed two years later by an English translation put out by Sheed & Ward. And while the argument of the book has fallen out of favor (alas, even before the book itself fell out of print), it has simply got to be revived if the idea of the Church of the Poor is to survive, if souls made by God for eternal and perfect felicity are to find their way safely back to him

So what is the argument Danielou is making here? Well, putting the matter briefly, he has set the whole thing out in the form of a question, which furnishes the book’s foreword:

What will make the existence of a Christian people possible in the civilization of tomorrow? The religious problem is a mass problem. It is not at all the problem of an elite. At the mass level religion and civilization depend very much on one another. There is no true civilization that is not religious; nor, on the other hand, can there be a religion of the masses that is not supported by civilization.

Who could possibly quarrel with that? And yet, sadly enough, it is precisely among the People of God that we find widespread refusal even to acknowledge the connection, so forgetful have people become concerning the naturalness of the nexus between an interior life and its external expression. In other words, the belief that in the public life, which encompasses so much of the life of culture—the place where politics and play, industry and art, education and family all come together—there ought to be an obvious interface. That just because it is so natural for man to experience life in this way, it ought therefore to remain open to God, for that wholeness which only he may confer. What else has grace to do but penetrate and perfect nature? Yet too many simply fail to see the essential falseness of the disjunction they’ve drawn between the two orders: nature and grace, politics and piety, work and worship. In the circumstance, laments Danielou, they find nothing in the least objectionable, “in the juxtaposition of a private religion and an irreligious society, not perceiving how ruinous this is for both society and religion.”

The real challenge, then, is to forge an alliance between the two that is so respectful of the harmonics that it disturbs neither prayer nor politics. Again, Danielou puts it best. How, he asks, “are society and religion to be joined without either making religion a tool of the secular power or the secular power a tool of religion?” In other words, we don’t want Father Brown running the city; nor do we want Mayor Jones presiding over the parish. Yet there ought to exist some interplay between the two worlds since man, the subject of this whole exercise, equally inhabits both the sacred and the profane; and unless he’s recently been diagnosed a schizophrenic, he is certainly entitled to feel perfectly at home in each world.

Whether any of this will happen, of course, decisively depends on one’s conception of the Church. And concerning that, says Danielou, there are two competing models. For some, the Church should function only as a sign, “giving witness in the world to that which surpasses the world.” Here the driving imperative is for the Church to hold the world at bay, “keep it clear of civilization lest its purity be compromised.”   So fastidious a notion of the Church will, as paradigm, be sublimely pure, but will likewise remain a sect, an arrangement, reminds Danielou, utterly unacceptable to the Mystical Body, whose thirst for souls remains as wide as creation, as generous as salvation. To prefer that solution, Danielou is saying, surrenders the entire sacramental mission of the Church, to nullify no less the sheer redemptive reach of Christ himself.

Christ has come to save all that has been made. Redemption is concerned with all creation … civilization is part of the order of creation…. It is sick and needs to be healed, like all things that pertain to man in his wounded state.… Christianity must take up and consecrate all that has to do with man.

The purist position, therefore, is not an option, inasmuch as it would effectively abandon both the poor and that civilization instituted to assist in their salvation. “A Christian people,” argues Danielou, “cannot exist without a milieu to sustain it.” Thus it becomes an exercise in unreality to suffer any sort of separation, “to consider that the Church and the civil society ought to move in two separate worlds … it leaves that society to shape itself in an incomplete and inhuman manner.” To countenance such a separation, he is saying, is to indulge “that most detestable form of idealism which separates spiritual existence from its material and sociological substratum.” And separates, as well, the poor from salvation.

Here we touch the theme most dear to Danielou’s heart, that of the Church of the Poor, which so exactly corresponds to the Augustinian image of the Church as a vast net in which “all sorts of fish are caught, the task of separating the good from the bad is for the angels.” Her task, meanwhile, is hardly so exacting.   To enfold all of humanity into the Body of Christ, enabling thereby the weak and the wayward to endure. For they also have been summoned to a life of sanctity, which is “an absolutely universal human vocation.” And because prayer and holiness are entirely necessary to man, to his fulfillment both in time and eternity, they remain a fundamental and continuing feature in the common good which is the chief business of politics to secure.  “No true polity can exist,” he insists, “where there is no room for prayer.” A world without prayer is a place where people are literally gasping for breath. This is especially true of the poor, the average and the mediocre, those whose strength of character cannot long survive a public life indifferent to prayer. “If we accept a complete dissociation of the sacred the profane worlds,” he warns, “we shall make access to prayer absolutely impossible to the mass of mankind. Only a few would be able to find God in a world organized without reference to him.”

The argument is surely unassailable. Religion really is a mass problem. “There cannot be a personal Christianity unless there is also a social Christianity.” Or, putting it in its most provocative form: “There can be no mass Christianity outside Christendom.” Before faith, therefore, can truly sink its roots into the soil of a nation, “it must penetrate its civilization and bring into existence a Christendom.”

What a lot of work we need to do before the flower of Christendom can once more be seen to bloom. With this little book, however, we have been given both an indispensible primer on how it may be done as well as an impetus to begin doing it.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • NB

    I see this argument as descriptive (what the church should be) rather than prescriptive (a primer on how to bring it about).

    One major problem I have with finding ‘a primer’ here is that membership in the Church is open to everyone not so much because they have beating hearts, but because they are sinners who acknowledge their sinfulness and the existence of sin as a reality (for example, that their infant child is capable of sin and tainted by original sin). That’s the rub: if people don’t acknowledge the reality of the existence of sin, and their own personal sin, they don’t need a savior, and hence they don’t recognize the need for Christ, the Church or for prayer.

    Groucho’s joke about not wanting to join a club that would have him for a member implied that he was such a reprobate, only clubs for low-lifes would welcome him. That indeed does sound like the Church, since we are all ‘low-lifes’ and reprobates compared to God, and the Church is in the business of saving us from that. But note that Groucho said he did NOT want to join such a club. And that’s the rub. Who wants to join a group when the criterion for joining is acknowledging that ‘I’m a low-life and a reprobate and I need help not to be’?

    Pride prevents many from making that admission at all; others make that admission briefly, and then quickly move on to a once-saved, always-saved assumption that allows them to ignore or gloss over the reality and consequences of sin; still others revel in their sin and take pleasure in it, are proud of it and have no desire to give it up (read the ‘Entertainment’ and ‘politics’ pages on the web). Each of those – the proud, the presumptuous, and those who take pride in their sins already have their ‘elite’ clubs – the world is full of them.

    Very few have the humility and the courage to say, ‘I am a sinner! I need help! Let me in!’

    It seems to me that a prerequisite for a Christian society is a society of people who recognize the reality of sin and its consequences; who take personal responsibility for their own sin, and who thus find themselves asking, ‘Brothers, what are we to do?’ ‘Brothers, what are we to do?’ seems to be the prayer that is the prerequisite for grace, baptism and a Christian life of constant prayer.

    • ForChristAlone

      NB, you round out nicely what was omitted from this article. Well done.


    Good piece, but the opener about Grouch Marx – can it, throw it out!! Doesn’t need to be there, should NOT be there and it lingers over the rest of the piece, which is excellent in and of itself.

    • TERRY

      Not to take away from the simple fact that what GM originally said WAS funny.

  • RufusChoate

    Nicely done, Mr. Martin. Cardinal Danielou is looming larger in my consciousness with every article I read about him. Sophia should reintroduce us all by publishing his works.

  • ColdStanding

    Theologians of that era, to make a wide sweeping characterization, relied too much on wide sweeping characterizations. Too quickly were inferences drawn from single or infrequent occurrences. Exceptions to the rule where elevated to a new rule. Their thought was heroic not dogmatic, which is the wrong mode for thought because heroic pertains to the moral action of the will, where as dogmatic is the rightly ordered action of reason by which the will is governed. (Dogmatic, another Catholic word of solid useful value that has been needlessly ceded, even by Catholics, to disparaging non-Catholic maligning. If you can track down Fr. Van Noort’s three volume Dogmatic Theology, I propose you will find in it a vindication of “dogmatic” reasoning. You’ll be wondering, “How did I get through life, here-to-fore, without this?”). Oooh! I get a little thrill every time I kick one of the modernist “thinkers” to the curb.

    Attempting to compass the problem by opening to the widest aperture for the frame of reference is the same as not wanting to solve the problem because it makes the problem unsolvable. An elephant can not be swallowed in one gulp. Writing suffused with “Christendom”, “civilization”, “Church of the Poor” and on and on is muddled. The definitions, grammar, and logic might well be in order, but the effect is little better than saying the sun will rise tomorrow, the sky is blue, and water is wet. All true statements, however, the utility is questionable.

    I propose that civilization (and other kindred generalizations) is not what we should be working towards because it is a by-product; a residue of the work of (more or less) ordered reason and controlled appetites upon a plentiful supply of resources; something that is found only after; aka cheese. An excess of resources can present, due to the volume of activity, a misleading signals that lead the unwary to believe they have found signs of civilization. Either way, that which enters the register as under the heading civilization, pseudo- or authentic, means the formative principles and formative agents have already moved on.

    Let’s not reason back from the cheese to the milk, as if the cheese were already in the milk.

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