Is Prayer a Political Problem?

This title may shock you. The question is provocative, and seems an offensive one in today’s society, even to Christians. After all, prayer is a matter of personal faith and is of a purely religious and spiritual nature. Calling it a political problem seems almost vulgar. Yet, Jean Daniélou S.J. argues exactly this in his 1967 book Prayer as a Political Problem. He believes that “there can be no radical division between civilization and what belongs to the interior being of man; that there must be a dialogue between prayer and the pursuit and realization of public policy; that both the one and the other are necessary and in a sense complimentary” (Daniélou 15). In this article, I will explore this work of one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians, and how it relates to contemporary conceptions concerning the place of religion in politics and civilization.

Before I begin, it is necessary to discuss the book itself. I purchased my copy from Cluny Media (one of my favorite publishers) and, with it being only 117 pages, was able to finish it after only two or three sittings. It is broken up into seven chapters, a foreword, and a conclusion. Three of chapters diverge into topics such as technology, art, and even paganism. These chapters are almost a different work entirely, and I plan to devote a separate article or two at a later date to covering those chapters along with another work by Daniélou called The Advent of Salvation. The other four chapters deal more closely with the issue of prayer and politics and are the ones I will be drawing from here.

The task of politics is to assure to men a city in which it will be possible to fulfill themselves completely, to have full material, fraternal, and spiritual life.

Jean Daniélou

The first argument that Daniélou makes, which lays the foundation for the rest of the book, is that the Church is for the Everyman and not only a select few (he speaks here of the Catholic Church, but you can imagine he speaks of Christianity in general). He believes that the “poor” which the New Testament speaks of are not only the materially poor, but the spiritually poor, and really the masses as a whole; the ordinary person, if you will. He argues that the idea of protecting Christian purity and zeal at all costs, namely at the expense of bringing the Gospel message to the masses of mankind, is a grave mistake and contrary to the teachings of Christ. To Daniélou, the ideal Church is not that of the underground Church with its house churches and secrecy, but the Church of Christendom. He asserts that “the Church was most truly itself in the days of Christendom when everybody was baptized and it is this state of affairs which is to be desired (Daniélou 2). He prefers the Church which has a mix of Saints and sinners, and endorses the Augustinian view that the Church is a net where many kinds of fish are caught, and where “the task of separating the good from the bad is for the angels” (Daniélou 2). If Christ can dine with tax collectors and sinners, the Church can surely count among its ranks the lowly and the less-than-pious.

Daniélou also points out that there are people for whom “a life of prayer is always possible, whatever the circumstances” and there are people who struggle to maintain a prayer life and spiritual life in a poor or hostile environment (Daniélou 20). There are also people who withdraw from society in order to create an environment that is conductive to prayer, monks being the most obvious example of this. Yet, what does it say if prayer is so dependent on the environment, especially for such men as monks? If they require an environment that is conductive to prayer to live the life they do, doesn’t it follow, then, that the masses also require an environment conductive to prayer, though obviously to a lesser degree? How can the Everyman be faulted for not having a mature prayer life when all that surrounds him and takes up his time discourages it? The problem, Daniélou says, is that society is being dechristianized (I would argue it has reached full dechristianization at this point). Even further, it is formed in such a way that prayer has been made difficult. He does not even mean in a political way here, but in our very lifestyle. “The first thing that strikes one is that our technological civilization brings about a change in the rhythm of human existence. This is the speeding up of tempo which makes it more difficult to find the minimum of freedom on which a minimum life of prayer depends” (Daniélou 23). This was written in 1967 and is even more true in the 21st century with the hyperactive nature of the modern internet. Combine this with our consumerism, our secular society and insistence on “separation of Church and State”, the 24/7 news cycle, the constant barrage of advertisements, the noise of our machines and our every interior space, the dissemination of leftist propaganda in schools and in media, and the breakdown of traditional morality, and you can see how difficult a life of prayer is for the average person. Indeed, “Prayer is thus rendered almost impossible for most men, unless they display a heroism and a strength of character of which – we must face it – the majority of men are not capable” (Daniélou 23). Most people’s only spiritual experience occurs for an hour or two on Sundays. This is not how it’s meant to be.

Acknowledging this, it becomes abundantly clear that an environment which allows the masses of men to cultivate a life of prayer is absolutely necessary. The question, then, is how to bring about such an environment. The answer does not lie in a “withdrawal” from society or the making of all men into monks. The Catholic Church is very clear that marriage and living a “secular” life out in the world with a secular job is the calling of the vast majority of Christians. The Second Vatican Council puts it well:

“But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer”

Lumen Gentium NO. 31

We cannot tell people that they need to exit society, as this is not a choice most can practically make, nor is it their calling to exit society. On the contrary, their calling is to engage in temporal affairs by “ordering them according to the plan of God.” Does this not include the political sphere? The Church certainly thinks so, but such an idea is in direct opposition to the current Liberal order and even the thought process of many conservative Christians (think David French and the National Review). We are constantly told that it is impossible to mix the spiritual and the temporal, that the Church must stay far away from politics. But, as Daniélou points out, “if we accept a complete disassociation of the sacred and the profane worlds, we shall make access to prayer absolutely impossible to the mass of mankind” (Daniélou 27). Indeed, the temporal and political order has been understood to have an influence on the minds, hearts, and souls of men since Plato and his Republic, at least. The Church understands that there are two spheres, the temporal and spiritual, each with unique responsibilities and varying degrees of autonomy. But, as has been taught consistently by the Church from the time of Pope Gelasius‘s letter to the Emperor Anastasius, “There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment.” This is due to the fact that our highest end is eternal happiness in heaven and that the eternal state of our soul is the most consequential matter of all. If, then, the state shapes our very soul, the political order must acknowledge this and be ordered towards the ultimate end of eternal life.

Some will counter this by saying that the political order exists merely to secure our rights, or to establish order in society and oversee the mechanical functions of the nation. This could not be further from the truth. We know that law is intimately tied to morality, and the laws of a nation reflect its values and moral spirit. We also know of the concept of the common good, and that the common good is not merely concerned with the material. Rather, “An essential element of the common good is that man should be able to fulfill himself at all levels. The religious level cannot be excluded” (Daniélou 29). When it is, you arrive at the state of affairs that exists today. Take science, for instance. “Science, in particular, is totally unable to guide a movement which it has itself set in train. Men feel that science has sent them on a journey without benefit of steering wheel or brakes” (Daniélou 29). How true is this now, especially when we look at the debate surrounding abortion, transgenderism, euthanasia, and gene editing? Of course, the Left has absolutely no issue with the total destruction of any constraints and believes religion to be nothing more than a private practice which must be kept within the walls of a church, a coping mechanism of sorts, merely existing to console men. Unfortunately, many conservative Christians uncritically absorb the separation of Church and State argument, believing that they can somehow achieve a political order that simultaneously excludes them and respects them. They are content with the Leftist demand of privatizing religion and compartmentalizing it. Religion becomes nothing more than yet another consumable identity, a social club, a thing that makes you feel good when you’re down, instead of a transcendent and reality defining belief.

This mindset inevitably leads to religion being pushed out of politics. After all, why should the State bother itself with this kind of religion? This religion has no justification for existing. Therefore, Daniélou asserts that “Churches have to establish their claim to a place in technological civilization of tomorrow. They have to show, through their self-evident vitality, that there is indeed a function in the building of this civilization which they and they alone can fulfill” (Daniélou 32).

So, the argument has been made that Christianity must be involved in civilization and that includes government. We understand that “The Church cannot disclaim any interest in temporal society, for that also is subject to the law of God of which the Church is the interpreter” (Daniélou 36), and we the understand that “Christianity ought for the sake of its own final end to seek to influence the institutions of the earthly city” (Daniélou 41), though with the understanding that the Heavenly City cannot be achieved here on Earth. The next logical step is to understand what this looks like in practice.

First, Daniélou makes it clear that a Christian being uninterested in political affairs is the cause of a “faulty formation of conscience” (Daniélou 111). Rather, “the duty of building the earthly city proceeds directly from the demands of the Christian conscience” (Daniélou 111). He uses the Old Testament prophets to make his case here, pointing out that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos were “assiduous in denouncing injustices and in occupying themselves with international problems” and that “The role of the prophet is continually to denounce these violations of [the alliance between Yahweh and his people], to recall to men’s minds what is God’s law in the earthly city, and thus to set in train some concrete action against the breaches of it” (Daniélou 111-112). He goes on to refute the argument that Christians should not get involved in politics lest they get their hands dirty, saying, “When, whether in unions, politics, or cultural matters, a Christian becomes wholly involved in struggles to bring the earthly city into conformity with its charter, or, what is the same thing, with the true ends of man, he does not quit God nor God’s sanctuary to lose himself in a foreign world, as all too often he is led to think” (Daniélou 112). Finally, he seems to endorse what is called the theory of indirect power, that is, that the Church ought not to be directly involved in temporal governance, but that it be involved indirectly and still seek to influence the earthly city. “Of course, there is a distinction of powers, and this world is not subject directly to the authority of the Church. But to say that this world is not directly subject to the Church’s authority is not to say that it is not subject to the law of God, of which the magisterium of the Church is the interpreter” (Daniélou 113).

This follows the thought of Jacques Maritain in his work The Things that are Not Caesar’s (I use here the J. F. Scanlan translation). In it he states, “The terrestrial State, being a moral whole, as such owes duties to God. In its own sphere it is subject to the universal temporal sovereignty of Christ; for Christ, as Man, received from God dominion ‘over the works of His hands’ and ‘all things have been subjected under His feet,’ and it is from Him that kings and the heads of States and every human power derive their authority; the State, as such, is bound to observe His Law and the precepts of His morality” (Maritain 6). He also characterizes the indirect power as “affecting the spiritual order of salvation—not because of the temporal good itself to be procured but rather with a view to the denunciation or avoidance of sin, the preservation of the good of souls and the maintenance of the liberty of the Church” (Maritain 9). He concludes that “The Church has thus a right of authority over the political or the temporal itself, not because of political things, but because of the spiritual principle involved. One sword is under the other: not to be oppressed in its own sphere, but to be controlled and directed by the upper sword as regards the latter’s own sphere” (Maritain 12).

What this actually looks like in real practice largely depends on the relationship between the Church, the State, and the civilization itself. If, for instance, the population as a whole is mostly comprised of Catholics, or if the government formally recognizes the Catholic Church as the official religion of the nation, or if the State is simply predisposed to listen to the Church, then the power of the Church would be far greater. But “In modern times, when the conception of the State has attained its full ‘laic’ structure, the exercise of this same ‘indirect power’ appears simply in for form of a counsel not proceeding so far as a formal order compelling obedience…and the use of it therefore tends to diminish considerably” (Maritain xi).

Daniélou seems to agree with Maritain’s conception of the indirect power as laid out here, as earlier in the book he states “On the one hand, the earthly city is subject to the Law of God, not, it is true, in its particular applications, but in the principles which govern them. The Church has always asserted its right and duty to intervene in this domain, basing its claim to do so on the fact it has the care of the Natural law. (We would prefer to call this the divine law, for it is from God that it acquires its whole authority in the eyes of the Christian)” (Daniélou 40). He also adds, “The Church cannot fail to have an interest in civilization to the extent that the city of this world must be subordinate itself to the city of eternity. The Church has been given by God himself the task of leaden men to this heavenly city, and has therefore the right to ask of the earthly city that it put no obstacle in the way…In this sense, Christianity ought for the sake of its own final end to seek to influence the institutions of the earthly city” (Daniélou 40-41).

Even the Second Vatican Council seems to endorse something like the indirect power:

There are, indeed, close links between earthly things and those elements of man’s condition which transcend the world. The Church herself makes use of temporal things insofar as her own mission requires it. She, for her part, does not place her trust in the privileges offered by civil authority. She will even give up the exercise of certain rights which have been legitimately acquired, if it becomes clear that their use will cast doubt on the sincerity of her witness or that new ways of life demand new methods. It is only right, however, that at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach her social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it. In this, she should make use of all the means—but only those—which accord with the Gospel and which correspond to the general good according to the diversity of times and circumstances.

gaudium et spes no. 76

This could not be any further from the Liberal view of things. Liberalism does not recognize any right of the Church or of religion in general to influence the government and the temporal order, especially in the way that Daniélou and Maritain put forth, nor does Liberalism see prayer (the spiritual life more broadly) as a necessary part of human fulfillment. Daniélou, on the other hand, remarks that “A city which does not possess churches as well as factories is not fit for men. It is inhuman. The task of politics is to assure to men a city in which it will be possible to fulfill themselves completely, to have full material, fraternal, and spiritual life” (Daniélou 19). Whereas Daniélou and the Church see religion as absolutely necessary for human fulfillment and prosperity, Liberalism sees religion as an antiquated practice which, someday, they hope, humanity will progress past. As far as the Liberal is concerned, religion is nothing more than a private practice, a belief one holds to themselves and which is, ultimately, inconsequential to the grand scheme of things. Consequently, the Liberal demands that all religious beliefs be left at the doorstep of the church or home, and not taken outside into the public realm or, God forbid, the voting booth. This idea is so engrained into Western thought at this point, particularly in the American mind, that many people believe that “separation of Church and State” is actually in the First Amendment. (In fact, blasphemy laws were in place across the United States at one time, and punishment was not seen as a violation of free speech.)

What is the alternative to Liberalism, then? One emerging alternative in the last several years is called “integralism.” Now, if you know what integralism is, you probably have a strong reaction to that word. Either you are pumping your fist in delight, or you are fuming and prepared to declare how ridiculous it is. For those that don’t know what integralism is, I will simply quote The Josias on the issue: “Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.” In other words, the Church and State are two separate entities, but are very much related to one another, and the Church is actually the greater of the two and should have authority over the State.

This sounds very, very familiar to the writings of Daniélou and Maritain. However, as with many ideologies and philosophies of political order, there is a spectrum of beliefs one can hold while still maintaining the core principle of subordination. The most immediately obvious is the difference between direct and indirect power, or the Church being directly involved in government and indirectly involved. The former would essentially have the Church be nearly synonymous with government. It could formulate laws, it could depose leaders, it could even enforce the law. When you think about the idea of direct power, think about the height of the Church in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, the latter concept of the indirect power does not see the Church this involved, though it certainly does not see the Church detached from politics either. Really it is more fluid because, as Maritain points out, the relationship between Church and State and the circumstances of the society each exist in will determine how and when the indirect power is practiced. It may be the case, such as today, where the indirect power is seldom used and when, frankly, it is rather weak, though this is not really the fault of the Church, since it has been effectively pushed out of the public sphere and the culture has been thoroughly dechristianized.

Integralism, at least by this definition (it has many), is essentially just a re-presentation of the theory of the Two Powers and of subordination. Many people have accused integralists of being anti-democracy, anti-freedom of religion, and other such things. As far as I can tell, none of this is necessarily true, but it certainly can be. Integralism, still being new to the political scene and, frankly, mostly online, is simply not yet a fully coherent movement, so it is hard to say what exactly a modern integralist state would look like. This is still a “new frontier” so-to-speak, inasmuch as there are still many discussions to be had on the issue and lots of theorizing still left for writers and thought-leaders to tackle. Regardless, it is not hard to see the similarities between Daniélou, Maritain, and integralism.

As for how Prayer as a Political Problem applies to the modern Catholic living in the United States, I think Daniélou would agree with these selections from the Church’s Magisterium:

Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics”, the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice”. All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ. At the same time, it unites “its own commitment to that made in the social field by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, whether at the level of doctrinal reflection or at the practical level”.

Evangelii Gaudium, no. 183

Additionally, Pope Saint John XXIII says in Pacem in Terris:

Once again we exhort our children to take an active part in public life, and to contribute towards the attainment of the common good of the entire human family as well as to that of their own country. They should endeavor, therefore, in the light of the faith and with the strength of love, to ensure that the various institutions–whether economic, social, cultural or political in purpose — should be such as not to create obstacles, but rather to facilitate or render less arduous humanity’s perfectioning of itself both in the natural order as well as in the supernatural.

Pacem in terris no. 146

Finally, the Second Vatican Council:

Christians must be conscious of their specific and proper role in the political community; they should be a shining example by their sense of responsibility and their dedication to the common good; they should show in practice how authority can be reconciled with freedom, personal initiative with solidarity and the needs of the social framework as a whole, and the advantages of unity with the benefits of diversity.

All citizens, therefore, should be mindful of the right and also the duty to use their free vote to further the common good. The Church praises and esteems the work of those who for the good of men devote themselves to the service of the state and take on the burdens of this office.

Gaudium et spes no. 75

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