Bishop Paprocki: ‘Are We Followers of Christ, or Admirers of Christ’?

The Springfield, Illinois, shepherd says US Christians must renew themselves in one of Christ’s core teachings — to love your enemies.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki. (photo: Diocese of Springfield)

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, gave a homily on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord that reflected his thoughts on the course the United States has taken during a tumultuous election year, and particularly the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

He was interviewed by senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond Jan. 12, where he discussed his homily, his reasons for what he wrote, and a way forward.

 

Your latest Sunday homily, partly sparked by the riot at the Capitol last week, asked whether Christians were admirers of Christ or actual followers of Christ? If the latter, were they ready to love their enemy as Christ called them to do? What prompted that homily?

The homily was the fruit of prayer and thought, as I reflected on our times and what has been taking place in our country. We have seen a series of violent outbreaks over the past few months in the country. We have also seen how politically divided our country is. The Georgia Senate runoff last week was almost 50-50, with a slight margin.

In all these contests, you have winners and losers and people tend to demonize their political opponents or the opposing party. 

Then I reflected on the readings, which include the Baptism of the Lord. I reflected on how his baptism set an example for us. The Father’s voice says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

We are adopted sons and daughters of God. And as the Son loved the Father, so we are also called to love the Father. In the second reading, we are called to show our love through following the Commandments. It struck me that people often think they are good Christians, but are they following the Commandments? 

Catholics are supposed to go to Church on Sunday, but well over 50% of Catholics are not going to Church on Sunday. How can you say, “I am a true follower of the Lord,” if you are not going to Church on Sunday? 

Of course, one of the most difficult commandments is to “love your enemy.” If you voted for Biden, can you say you love Trump and his supporters? And if you voted for Trump, can you say you love Biden and his supporters? 

In our society, we tend to make enemies out of our opponents. Instead of sitting down and talking things out, we have people literally going at each other’s throats.

In contrast, consider the example of the late Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who had a cordial relationship. And after Scalia died, Justice Ginsburg talked about how she was writing the majority opinion in one case while Scalia was writing the dissent. 

He brought his dissent to her, and said, “When you write the majority opinion, take this into account.” She said that had been really helpful. 

That is the kind of give and take we need, while having ideologically different opinions. We should be able to talk reasonably, winning our adversaries over with persuasive arguments.

 

What kind of reaction did your homily receive?

I am hearing very positive reactions from people who were in Church on Sunday and heard the homily, and from pastors. 

I have also had interviews with secular media, and I am a little surprised by their interest in my homily, as if I had said something revolutionary. In fact, I am repeating something Jesus said at the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”

In the development of Christianity that teaching was one of the most important mysteries of the faith, and it affected how the early Christians lived and persuaded the early Romans to follow them.

As a bishop, I want to simply remind people that this is one of the core teachings: Love your enemy. But what does it say that it is being received as if people had never heard that before? Our culture has been described as a post-Christian culture, and this reaction shows that this basic teaching has been forgotten. 

Today, we should not only remind ourselves that this is a basic Christian teaching, we need to live it and put it into practice.

 

In your homily, you referenced Soren Kierkegaard’s distinction between “admirers” and “followers” of Christ. The admirer “plays it safe,” while the follower is not afraid of the Cross.

We just celebrated Christmas. 

And while everybody loves the Christmas story, we have really domesticated Christmas. To be a true Christian is not to just admire the story, but to live it. That is what makes you a follower. 

A lot of people think religion is therapeutic. If I am religious, it will make me feel better. But Jesus said, “To be my follower, you have to carry the cross.” 

 

Identity politics on both the left and the right have evolved into a culture of personal grievance, based on class, party status, religion or race. Does this encourage us to demonize our perceived enemies and drop the search for common ground?

It is a culture of grievance related to a culture of entitlement. It is all about my grievance. 

The Church does believe in justice. We have our Catholic social teaching and social justice, and from a Christian perspective it is right to give each person his due. If someone is denied their due, we should be concerned. 

But too often it gets translated into not justice for my neighbor, but concern about justice for me. Society owes me and I will make a scene about this until society gives me what I want. 

Christian justice asks us to be more concerned about our neighbor than ourself. The common good ties in with the notion of love. As [St. Thomas] Aquinas wrote, love means that we are called to will the good of another person, even our enemy. 

In the case of abortion, if your political opponent is pro-abortion, loving that person doesn’t mean you simply accept them. It means because I will the good for you I will pray that you turn from this sinful policy because it is not good for you to pursue something that is evil. You do that in a way that is concerned about the common good, not just making someone an adversary.

 

Some say we have “spiritualized politics.” What is the right way to approach the interplay of faith and politics?

There has always been a close relationship between spirituality, religion and politics going back to the early Christian community. The struggles between the early Christians and the Roman empire was not so much over politics as religion. The Roman authorities said, “You have to worship Caesar, and the Roman gods,” and that is what led to the early Christians’ martyrdom.

In our country, where we have a variety of religions, we have this concept of pluralism and we don’t have a state religion or the government taking a “religious” position. 

But many of our policies are based on moral teachings, the natural law and moral and religious convictions. We separate the government of the Church and of the country, but you can’t make a clean separation of politics and religion. And when we address a particular issue, like migration, someone might argue for a particular way to treat migrants, precisely because there is an underlying moral issue at stake. 

The criticism that is often hurled at pro-life people is “Don’t impose your religious beliefs on others.” But I have never heard that objection raised when dealing with other policy issues. A politician advocating for gun control may be motivated by some underlying conviction they have, leading them to enact legislation that reflects that. But I have never heard someone say, “I am for or against gun control but I won’t impose what is my personal belief on others.”

 

What do we need now?

What we really need is a renewal of bipartisan efforts in our country. Some of our most successful legislation in the past has been enacted when both parties sat down and work things out. Civil rights legislation is a good example of that. 

That isn’t happening now. Take the recent Senate confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. She was the first justice not to receive one vote from the minority party for their Senate confirmation. Given her qualifications and the way she handled herself she should have had at least 70 votes. And when Sen. Feinstein congratulated the GOP chair of the Judiciary Committee on the conduct of the hearing, she was pilloried by Democrats for giving a Republican credit for doing something right.

Yet, back in 1993, the Senate overwhelmingly approved Justice Ginsburg’s nomination. Members of the minority party voted for her, and there was a level of deference to the president who has the power to nominate a justice.

My question is: Can people who were opposed to Trump give him credit for anything? And can those who opposed Biden recognize anything he has done as good? 

 

In the wake of widespread condemnation of President Trump’s perceived role in inciting mob violence at the Capitol building, Congress is considering whether to hold one-day impeachment proceedings, with no hearings or debate. Other lawmakers say Congress should enact a joint rule of censure, or press the president to resign. Your thoughts?

I don’t know if a summary impeachment process will help our country heal. 

You have to be good winners, as well as good losers. And winners should be magnanimous. 

It seems to me this move for an impeachment [is an act of] further revenge that will not help healing. It will further antagonize and incite Trump’s supporters. He just has days left in office. I don’t think it is a wise move.

 

President-elect Biden has promised to foster unity and healing in our country. How can he do that?

President-elect Biden has talked about the fact that he will be president for the entire nation. His Catholic faith could be a good motivator for that. 

As a follower of Christ who asks us to “love our enemies,” Biden should make that teaching part of the way he treats his opponents. That will be the real test. 

 

Last week, in an interview with the Register. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry accused Church leaders of being “passive” in the face of all the political developments in this country that led to the events last week. Your reaction?

I am not buying the underlying premise that we were passive. We were clear in the new introduction to our letter for forming consciences during the election year regarding abortion being the pre-eminent issue. The vast majority of bishops agreed with that statement. The chair of our committee was very vocal on that issue and so were others of us, for which we received criticism.

[We are] concerned about not getting entangled in partisan politics. As bishops, we need to address moral issues, but we also need to bridge differences. 

So instead of picking one side, we try to speak out in terms of principles.

People get frustrated. Some thought I should have been more direct when I talked about the principles, but you have to take your own direction.

 

Last week in his address to Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the following point: “Self-government, my colleagues, requires a shared commitment to the truth. We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities.” At a practical level, how can we overcome the problem McConnell calls out — operating with “two separate sets of facts”?

There is a moral duty to look at how we are using social media and recognize when it becomes problematic. The documentary, The Social Dilemma points out how addictive social media can become. The film explains that people who go onto social media are described as “users,” not “customers.” The advertisers are the “customers.” 

And the documentary makes the point that the term, “user” is normally employed for those addicted to drugs or alcohol.

We are addicted to social media and we need to recognize that. 

In a few weeks, we will head into Lent. We can ask ourselves, “Can you give up social media for Lent?” If that is hard, if you can’t give it up for 40 days, maybe you need to get help giving it up.

 

Any other New Year’s resolutions that would be helpful right now?

I would go back to the message of the homily. We are called to love our enemy and will the good for them.

Our tendency is often outright rejection of those who don’t agree with us. Instead, find out what they believe and continue to engage them. If they don’t want to get into a reasonable discussion, that’s different. But it shouldn’t’ be your fault. To the degree that more people have those conversations it will be better for our country.

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