Politics and worship

In the wake of the Notre Dame scandal, I have been having discussions lately with a friend about the nexus of liturgy and politics under the eyes of St. Augustine of Hippo.

What we saw at the Notre Dame commencement was a kind of secular/political liturgy but in an ecclesiastical setting.  Corruptio optimi pessima.

If politics should be about the social expression of the City of God, liturgy is the sacramental expression of the City of God.

The language and effect of the one will be in discord or harmony with the language and effect of the other.

It may be that the only way we can emphasize the hollow sound of their progressivist, secularizing cymbals is through authentic Catholic worship.

To that end I found an interesting quote today in a very good book by R. Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in Augustine.  Anyone really interested in digging into Augustine and wants a good, very hard, but clear book, should have this one. 

Anyway, I was using this to parse that awful piece by O’Malley, SJ, when I found this in Dodaro:  

"Satan’s is, therefore, the archetypal seduction because it embodies the form of all future misdirection of the soul.  Similarly, it constitutes the prototype for all secular political discourse, in that it displaces within the soul the original blessing of life lived for the sake of authentic spiritual communion, and introduces in its stead the illusion of self-sufficiency and of satisfaction with a lack of moral rectitude. In Augustine’s view, this retreat into a rival ‘creation’ by Adam and Eve inaugurates the realm of the essentially private.  Such, indeed, as the political form of Satan’s own pride: a self-deception which rejected the exclusive divine claim to hegemony, and substituted the domain of self-rule.  Satan’s rival city remains eternally devoid of truth because its genesis represents an act of usurpation.  Augustine’s insistence upon the fundamental mendacity of Satan’s actions is intended to establish the eloquent lie as the cause of social and political disruption characteristic of the earthly city, where he holds sway."  Genesis 3 marks the primordial transition of natural desire away from beatitude in human existence, as it was order, toward the ‘mimetic desire’ of longing to have what God alone posses.  Augustine maintains that human beings seek to create good works out of their own capacities, but that these attempts, which stem from the original act of defiance, are doomed to failure.  When good does result from human efforts, it is because they are never without divine assistance.  Knowledge and love of God, the proper worship of God, are impeded by the dissonance of this free-floating selfhood.  Augustine describes the sin of Adam and Eve as self-worship as opposed to the correct worship of God…  (pp. 68-69).

Then, right on cue, a reader sent the following:

I ran across the following quote in reading Machiavelli’s Discourses for a political theory class I’m taking:

"Princes or republics that wish to maintain themselves without corruption must, above all else, maintain free of corruption the ceremonies of their religion and must hold them constantly in veneration; for there is no greater indication of the ruin of a country than to see its religious worship not respected." (The Discourses, Book I, Chapter XII)

Just thought I’d let you know!  I’m a big fan of your blog – thank you for taking the time to write it.

A direct hit.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Biff says:

    Good stuff but a hard sell in view of the prevailing American Exceptionalism so common here. It took Puritan’s Empire by Dr. Coulombe to sway me

  2. TC says:


    We all know that a university vests its graduates and/or “the honored” with a hood recognizing their academic rank or stature. When I saw the picture of the Notre Dame president placing the academic regalia over President Obama’s head, it made me think about how the university president is a priest, and that he has received and been part of others receiving the stole and chasuble during the Rite of Ordination.

    Now, I know there’s enough in this whole mess to discuss without getting into minutia, but it has struck me that with all the honor and praise heeped on President Obama by Notre Dame officials, the scene of “vesting” him as gone slightly unnoticed. Many of us are increasingly focused on the growing calumny that our more secular brothers and sisters seem to have for the sacred. Since the Rite of Ordination is such a sacred event (and I know the graduation wasn’t that) I felt extremely uncomfortable with a priest in THAT position, especially if you take note of part of the prayer (unless I am mistaken) that is prayed by the Bishop immediately prior to giving a seminarian the stole and chasuble.

    “May they be faithful in working with the order of bishops, so that the words of the Gospel may reach the ends of the earth, and the family of nations, made one in Christ, may become God’s one, holy people.”

    Just a thought.

  3. Luke D. says:

    “Just thought I’d let you know! I’m a big fan of your blog – thank you for taking the time to write it.”

    I could not have said it better myself. Thank you Father for consistently writing the truth in charity. Have you ever considered authoring a book? Your pithy style has a place on my bookshelf anytime you chose to fill it. ;-)

  4. Andrew, medievalist says:

    For more commentary on the power-worship nexus see Matthew 4:8-10.

  5. EDG says:

    Augustine’s insistence upon the fundamental mendacity of Satan’s actions is intended to establish the eloquent lie as the cause of social and political disruption characteristic of the earthly city, where he holds sway.”

    Wonderful summary with a couple of great phrases, particularly “eloquent lie.” I have been thinking (particularly in connection with that awful effusion by the Jesuit who said that Obama was a “Vatican II” president) about this whole issue of truth and image. The only thing that can defeat a lie is the truth, and Our Lord did say that he was the Truth; yet one of the great problems is that the Church, which should be the ultimate repository of the truth, has been infiltrated and many people aren’t even sure where to seek the truth anymore. The current political situation is entirely directed at confusing people, blurring the idea in their mind that there is any conflict between the two cities, and projecting the new, improved image of man, self-made and self-referential; it was not an accident that Alinsky dedicated his book to Lucifer.

    Of course, unorthodoxy was certainly a problem in St. Augustine’s day, as well, and we are fortunate at least that we have a Pope whose defense of the truth is even more eloquent than Satan’s lie. But we need the restoration of visible orthodoxy and orthopraxis so that people can find the truth about the two cities when they look for it.

  6. John says:

    The loss of respect is demonstrable in many ways but the manner of dressing for Mass is one of the most stryking example, at least where I live. In the last several years fewer and fewer people bother to dress as if they were attending a serious occasion when they go to Mass. It started with the youngsters but now it has penetrated equally among all age groups. Going to Mass is no longer a special occasion.

  7. CS says:

    I agree with John’s comment however I’d still rather see people come to mass dressed down vs. not coming at all.

  8. Frank H. says:

    I’m always amused when I see a lot of people in suits and dresses at the Saturday 5 pm Vigil Mass. I know they are then heading over to the school building for the annual fundraising dinner and auction. Then, next week, it’s back to jeans and sneakers.

  9. Dan says:


    In almost all cases, no matter what the financial level of a family, one is able to wear something respectable and apropriate to publically adore God at Holy Msss.

    I pesonally knew a family that literally where relying on the generosity of others to feed their 5 children and pay their bills during a down time in their lives, yet the father and the boys had on a suit and the mother and girls wore nice dresses at every Mass.

    There is absolutely no excuse for dressing shabbily in the presence of Almighty God at the Holy Sacrifice of Mass.

  10. Flambeaux says:

    Fr. Z posts a provocative quotation about the nature of worship and its intersection with politics and the resulting discussion revolves around carping about how others dress at Mass?

    *shakes head*

    Biff, thanks for the recommendation of Puritain’s Empire. It’s on my reading list, as is this excellent work Fr. Z has brought to my attention. Both just got moved up the queue.


  11. crazylikeknoxes says:

    With respect to the Machiavelli quote, our country’s “religious worship” is not liturgical, but political. I’m not saying that poorly celebrated masses do or do not affect the body politic. Rather, to apply Machiavelli’s dictum to America, I think one should look at our civil ceremonies (political events, national holidays, etc) rather than strictly liturgical ceremonies. Properly speaking, America worships at the altar of democracy or freedom, etc.

    In Augustine’s time, as well as Machiavelli’s, the state and religion were intertwined in ways that are difficult for us to fully imagine (although we may recognize that fact intellectually). For much of American history, a similar state of affairs existed in as much as the demands of citizenship did not conflict with the tenets of faith. This is no longer the case, but this development (the divergence of civic and moral/religious values) is relatively recent in our history and, in my opinion, just beginning to unfold.

  12. Tod says:

    Can anyone recommend an “easy reading” book on Augustine’s writings?


  13. Ohio Annie says:

    Some of us dress down for Mass lest we be considered whited sepulchres. Also we need some ringers in the group so we don’t scare away people from the homeless shelter down the street.

  14. Eoin Suibhne says:

    Augustine maintains that human beings seek to create good works out of their own capacities, but that these attempts, which stem from the original act of defiance, are doomed to failure. When good does result from human efforts, it is because they are never without divine assistance.

    Leo XIII makes the same point in Rerum Novarum, speaking specifically of socialists’ Now successful) attempt to usurp the Church’s care for the poor:

    At the present day many there are who, like the heathen of old, seek to blame and condemn the Church for such eminent charity. They would substitute in its stead a system of relief organized by the State. But no human expedients will ever make up for the devotedness and self-sacrifice of Christian charity. Charity, as a virtue, pertains to the Church; for virtue it is not, unless it be drawn from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ; and whosoever turns his back on the Church cannot be near to Christ.

    Typical Catholic worship today is agonizingly bland and vapid because we have chosen to turn worship back on us instead of on Him who sacrifices Himself for us.

  15. Robert of Rome says:

    Tod, in answer to your request for an “easy reading” book on Augustine’s writing, you could try Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999.

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