Prayer as a Political Problem

Below you will find the text to the beginning of Jean Danielou’s 1967 book Prayer as a Political Problem. It is long out of print and nowhere online, so I thought I would reproduce some of it for a wider readership.


The question which this book presents to the reader is this: 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 a problem of the elite. At the mass level religion and civilization depend very much on one another. There is no true civilization which is not religious; nor, on the other hand, can there be a religion of the masses which is not supported by civilization. It would appear that today there are too many Christians who see no incongruity in the juxtaposition of a private religion and an irreligious society, not perceiving how ruinous this is for both society and religion. But how 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? This book invites the reader to join in the search for an answer to this problem which is vital for tomorrow.


Chapter I: The Church of the Poor

Not all who today speak of the Church of the poor put the same meaning on the term. Indeed, one can see in the term two opposing conceptions of the church. On one view, the Church stands before the world as a sign, giving witness in the world to that which surpasses the world. On this view, the essential thing is that the Church should bear witness and make sure of satisfying the first requirement for this, which is purity. Attempts are made to keep it clear of civilization lest its purity be compromised. There is a nostalgia for the times of the martyrs and talk of the end of the Constantinian era. To protect the Church’s purity, those who hold this view would go so far as to risk the abandonment of the crowd of baptized Christians for whom Christianity is hardly anything more than an external routine.

In opposition to this view there as another which is beginning to make headway. This does not look back to defend a Christianity embedded in history, but rather forward to what the Gospel itself calls for on a realistic view of the future. For those who take this view of the matter, the essential character of the Gospel is to be the religion of the poor—using that term not to indicate those who are detached from: earthly things, but those who form the great mass of mankind. This view shares St. Augustine’s picture of the Church as a net in which all sorts of fish are caught, where the task of separating the good from the bad is for the angels, not for men. On this view of the matter, the Church was most truly itself in the days of Christendom when everybody was baptized and it is this state of affairs which is much to be desired. But this situation supposes a Church which is involved with civilization, for if civilization runs counter to it a Christian people cannot exist. This Church, a great crowd of saints and sinners intermingled, is found preferable as a Church to one which might be purer but would strongly resemble a sect.

What does seem to be clear is that the Gospel message is addressed to all men, and especially to the poor, and that the Church, the community of those who have received this message, is therefore open to everybody. This is stated clearly in the Gospel, where Christ applies to himself the words of Isaiah: “I am come to preach the Gospel to the poor.” The word “poor” can have several meanings. It can mean those who are in poverty; and Christ then will comfort their misery. It can mean the poor in spirit, those who seek first of all the kingdom and its righteousness, and will risk everything else to gain that. But it means also the undistinguished and unprivileged, those who lack money, education, and rank. This is the sense in which we use it here.

Christ’s own actions support this meaning. We see him in the New Testament followed by men of all types. There were notabilities, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, but there were also extortioners and harlots. One notes in particular how Jesus scandalized the Pharisees when he refused to set any value on the purifications prescribed by the law and sat down to eat with whoever happened to be around. He made it clear that faith alone gives entry to the kingdom. Further, although Jesus selected and trained a small band of disciples in the first part of his ministry, he also spoke to the multitude. And the Gospel says they followed him. Then there is the way in which Jesus welcomed Children—which, as Cullmann has shown, expresses the simple sense of community.

That this universalism is one of the marks which distinguishes the Church is shown again by a study of the early Christian centuries. Most remarkable evidence of this is given by the pagan Celsus condemning the Christian communities as packs of vagabonds and pointing by contrast to the Pythagorean brotherhoods recruited from the intellectual and moral elite. Nor can we oppose the pre-Constantinian era to the Constantinian in this particular. By the third century, in Africa and in Alexandria, we have Cyprian and Origen complaining that an increase in numbers brings with it a loss of fervor. Moreover, we know that the persecutions were sporadic and limited in duration.

This much only is true—the extension of Christianity to an immense multitude, which is of its very essence, was held back during the first centuries by the fact that the social cadres and cultural forms of the society in which it operated were hostile to it. To cleave to Christianity called then for a strength of character of which the majority of men are not capable. When the conversion of Constantine removed these obstacles the Gospel was made accessible to the poor, that is to say, to those very people who are not numbered among the elite. The man in the street could now be a Christian. Far for from distorting Christianity, this change allowed it to become more truly itself, a people.

It is this Christian people which exists today in Brittany and Alsace, Italy and Spain, Ireland and Portugal, Brazil and Colombia. It is this people which feels itself betrayed by those groups of Catholics, clerical and lay, whom it sees as more concerned with dialogue with Marxists than with work for its defense and growth. Of course missionary work is essential, but St. Paul asks us to think also of those who are our brothers in the faith. It would be criminal if the crowd of poor confided to its care were abandoned on the pretext that the Church could do more effective missionary work without them. It is this Christian people which has stood firm in Russia against the Marxist ideology. It is this people that the persecution now going on seeks to destroy. And that is why this persecution is particularly hateful, for it seeks to destroy that most sacred thing, the faith of the poor.

The modern drama of Western Christianity, of that part of the world, that is to say, where a Christian people has existed, lies precisely in this, that the masses are being dechristianized. Of course there are crises among the intellectuals, but that is nothing new. It is no more dangerous for a Christian country to have in its midst a few atheistic intellectuals than it is for an atheistic country to have in it a few Christian intellectuals. It is much more serious when a Christina people is destroyed, for it can be built up again only after a long and patient effort.

Our task, therefore, is to discover what those conditions are which make a Christian people possible. To do that we have to ask what conditions in fact made a Christian people possible. And what we may find, strangely, is that those who speak most of the evangelization of the poor are often those who fight hardest against the conditions which make the Gospel accessible to the poor.

We can begin with one of the best established findings of contemporary missionary theology. Christianity is on the retreat in the old colonial countries and particularly in the Far East. A major cause of this is that Christianity had become tied to its Western forms and was not incorporated into the systems of thought and art and manners of those countries. Christianity came to seem alien to national traditions. Its future becomes precarious because conversion acquires a smack of treason and becomes a difficult thing, at best forcing a man on to the fringe of the life of his country. We see now that before the faith can be truly rooted in a country it must penetrate its civilization and bring into existence a Christendom. Christianity is accessible to a people as revelation only when it is rooted in that people as religion.

Thus contemporary pastoral theology confirms the legitimacy of the Constantinian process. It was because from the fourth century Christianity had penetrated Western civilization and formed a Christendom that the immense Christian people of the medieval West became possible. Of course, this people had the defects common to all people. For many, Christianity was less a personal engagement than a social tradition, less a supernatural faith than a religious need. But is it not desirable, we should ask, that the Gospel should be taken even to such poor as these, who do after all receive something of its saving power?

Such indeed is the problem which the pastoral care of the masses poses. Experience shows that it is practically impossible for any but the militant Christian to persevere in a milieu which offers him no support. Think of the many who attend service in their villages but cease to go once when live in a town. Are we then to speak of sociological Christianity and conclude that it is better to be rid of Christians such as these? It would be entirely wrong of us to do so. The Christianity of these Christians can be real, while yet not personal enough to prevail against the current. Such Christians have need of an environment that will help them. There can be no mass Christianity outside Christendom.

There lies the choice. Among those who will say that Christianity does not need a great following, that it is better to have only a few Christians who are fervent than many who are not, there are some who will add that the Gospel demands are clearly beyond the capability of more than a small number of people. Christianity, they will say, should be content to be the leaven and the salt and for that reason take care to avoid being mixed in with the dough. The one thing essential for it is to keep its savor. The Church is a sign set up in the midst of the peoples. Her solicitude should be rather to remain intact than to recruit large numbers of members. Besides, only God knows who is to be saved. There are different ways in which people can belong to the Church. What the Church should do is remain faithful to herself.

That there is much that is true in this argument cannot be denied. Nevertheless, it is unacceptable. Certainly, it is true that only a chosen few will ever fully satisfy the requirements of the Gospel; but does it follow that the Church should number no more than this elite? Is it not essential that all men who put their faith in Christ should belong to the Church? Is it not a matter of some importance that a man should express his fundamental religious need in the Christian way? Is it not essential that the Church be everywhere present as an institution in her teaching and her sacraments so that all may come to her and take from her what they can? Otherwise, is there not a danger of turning Christianity into a sect and a religion for intellectuals?

The Church has an absolute duty to open herself to the poor. This can be done only be creating conditions which make Christianity possible for the poor. Therefore there is laid upon the Church a duty to work at the task of making civilization such that the Christian way of life shall be open to the poor. Today there are many obstacles standing in their way. In a technological civilization men tend to be absorbed in care for material things. Socialization and rationalization leave little room for personal life. Society is so disordered that large numbers have to live in a poverty which makes a personal life impossible. The result of the secularization of society is that God is no longer present in family, professional, or civic life. A world has come into being in which everything serves to turn men away from their spiritual calling.

It is sufficiently clear that Christians ought to be trying to change the shape and pattern of society so as to make possible a Christian life for the whole of mankind. It is also obvious that such a transformation must in any case be slow and may sometimes be ruled out by circumstances. However that may be, somehow a start has to be made, and this can be done by creating oases in the prevailing secularism where the Christian vocation can develop. This thought inevitably raises the question of those Christian institutions would provide services not of themselves within the church is competence, but which the church might be brought to provide: schools, unions or employers and workers, etc., which bring Christianity into social life not merely at the level of individual witness but at that of a community.

In doing this sort of thing the church laid claim to nothing about any religious body could not lay claim to. Religious freedom must be thought of as a right that belongs to communities as well as to individuals. It implies not only that people should be able to practice a religion publicly, but also that they should have the scope and mutual support necessary to order their lives in accordance with the demands of that religion. In no other way can a tradition be kept alive among the people. Hence, a religion has the right to set up at the family, educational, cultural, and social levels those institutions of which it has need to ensure its continuance and development.

It is in this perspective that the need for relations between Church and public authority becomes evident. This question it often put on a false basis because it is looked at in a mistaken way. It is seen in the light of conditions which obtained in the past, when because the Church enjoyed privileges in certain states she found herself entangled in their political and social structures. The overthrowing of these temporal structures leaves behind sociological factors which are so many obstacles preventing the Church from carrying out her mission. This explains why some Christians, rejecting as “sacral” societies those which have an association between the two, call for a radical separation of ecclesiastical from civil unions.

This position is explicable, but nonetheless false and dangerous. It fails to recognize the fundamental fact that religion of itself forms part of the temporal common good. Religion is not concerned so late with the future life; it is a constituent elements of this life. Because the religious dimension is an essential part of human nature, civil society should recognize it in at a constituent element of the common good for which it is itself responsible. Therefore, the state ought to give a positive recognition to full religious freedom. This is a matter of natural law. State atheism, which stifles religious life, and laïcisme, which ignores it, are both contrary to natural law.

Furthermore, in a socialized society, as ours is becoming more and more, it is certain that recognition by the State

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