“To be ‘Catholic’ means to love your country, and to let nobody surpass us in that love.” — St. Josemaría Escrivá
Josemaría Escrivá was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 6, 2002. I marked the occasion by re-watching There Be Dragons, the epic film about his life during the Spanish Civil War. It’s an excellent antidote to the laughable caricature of Opus Dei peddled by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
One scene in particular always strikes me. At the outset of the war, two of St. Josemaría’s followers are arguing about whether to support the Soviet-backed Republicans or Franco’s Nationalists. One faction is seen as resisting political progress; the other has set itself up in opposition to the Church. Their conversation is historically dubious, but the Escrivá character’s mediation is authentic:
I’m not going to tell you what to think. God gave each of you a brain and reason and conscience. Why? So that you can come to conclusions on your own, and take personal responsibility for them. But, before rushing to act—before trying to change the world—first think about changing yourselves.
We’re building something vital here… Now, especially, now, we have to be sowers of peace and joy.
Think about how (and I hate to use this word) radical such a call would’ve been in civil-wartime, when Leftist militias were hunting priests for sport and torching churches. This was the Age of Ideology, when Europe was torn between fascism and communism. St. Josemaría refused to take sides. Why? Because our poor world doesn’t need dictators, generals, or autocratic political parties. It needs Christ, and it his Church.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” St. Josemaría wrote in The Way:
an open secret: these world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of men “of his own” in every human activity. Then, pax Christi in regno Christi—“the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.”
This is a timeless message, but in the years leading up to World War II, it was indispensable. No ideology—fascism, liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism—can substitute for Catholicism. To settle for less is naïve, lazy, cowardly, or some combination of the three.
I tried to touch on this theme in my last Crisis article, “Toward a Catholic Conservatism.” Of course, none of it was original. Most Catholic political thinkers, from Donoso Cortes to Kuehnelt-Leddihn, have said as much, and said it better. Catholicism is the one true faith—the only “belief-system” with a complete understanding of natural law. The Catholic Church is the only organization led by Christ’s viceroy, the pope. It’s the only religious body in the West entrusted with valid and efficacious Sacraments.
There have been many efforts to blend Catholicism with popular ideologies, from Marxism to Christian Democracy. But why? What can we possibly achieve except diluting the fullness of truth entrusted by Christ to his Church? Whom are we helping by subordinating the Bride of Christ to the powers of this world? That’s not to say we need a theocracy, of course; but what we don’t need are suggestions that Locke or Marx have insights into human nature the Church lacks. We certainly don’t need “political messiahs,” whether it’s Lenin or Hitler, Obama or Trump.
Los Angeles’s Archbishop José Gómez, himself a former member of Opus Dei, took up this theme in a pre-election homily at the Red Mass in Houston. It deserves to be read by every American Catholic, but especially those active in politics, on whatever level. It has to do with (let’s say) Escrivarian civics: the best citizen is a good Catholic.
“No matter who is president,” said Archbishop Gómez, “no matter what party is in power,”
we are not going to restore religious values “from above.” If we want America to be greater, then we need men and women like you and me who are committed to serving God and living their faith in every aspect of their lives. If we want to live in a society that promotes virtue and justice and human dignity—if we want leaders who reflect these values—then we need to become leaders and role models in our society.
Our country and our world will be renewed, not by politics, but by saints. And that means you and that means me. If we want a greater America, we need to become, by the grace of God, greater saints. No matter who is president, Jesus Christ is still the King. And we are still called to be saints and to renew this world in the image of his Kingdom.
To be certain, St. Josemaría didn’t dismiss politics altogether. In fact, he had harsh words for those who embrace “nonsectarianism” and “neutrality”—who “leave one’s Catholicism aside” on taking political office, as if “checking your hat at the door.” The Church needs witnesses in government. Nearly any occupation can be a vocation, so long as we understand our work as having a higher goal: giving glory to God. “His kingdom is ‘not of this world’,” St. Josemaría reminds us, “though it is in this world.”
How can we build the Kingdom in this world without relying on governments? Before engaging someone in a political debate, we might ask ourselves if our time and effort wouldn’t be spent more wisely talking to our companion about Christ and his Church. Before donating to a campaign, we might ask ourselves if that money would go to better use in the collection-plate. Of course, sometimes the answer will be, “No.” But, in our hyper-political age, I suspect it will usually be, “Yes.”
God knows I’m not an authority in these things, but I’ve found these four exercises can make a world of difference in my own spiritual, social, and professional lives—which, St. Josemaría tells us, should be integrated seamlessly. Maybe they’ll help some of you.
First, don’t make personal insults, especially in anger (Matthew 5:22). Secondly, don’t gossip (The Way, 445). These are two apparently minor sins that have a way of piling up and weighing us down until they become a habit. They also happen to be the two most common sins in American politics, especially in the press and on social media. Can you imagine how much better our society would be if every American agreed not to insult each other, and not to gossip? Such small acts of self-discipline, of striving for greater holiness, would go a long way toward suturing the divisions in our country.
Thirdly, follow St. Josemaría’s advice:
Your crucifix: as a Christian, you should always carry a crucifix. Place it on your desk. Kiss it when you go to bed and when you wake up. And when your poor body rebels against your soul, kiss it again!
Fourthly, say a prayer to the patron saint of your profession (in my case, St. Francis de Sales) before you start work. These are quick, simple tasks that remind me to “consecrate my writing”—my work—“to your glory.” Naturally, I fail. I fail often and I fail badly. But I think I do better than I would otherwise. Hopefully, I make the world around me a little better—a little more “Catholic”—for it.
One last note: I have nothing against Opus Dei, but Josemaría Escrivá isn’t an “Opus Dei saint”—he’s a Catholic saint, a universal saint. Pope John Paul II canonized him so that he could be a light to all the faithful. And The Way is a treasury of piercing meditations and sound advice to those who understand that the war for America’s soul can only be won by the Company of Heaven and the saints here on earth.
Pax Christi in regno Christi.