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Follow-up on Couturier on Franciscans

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Some time ago I posted an entry on remarks made by Fr. David Couturier that I deemed to be wrongheaded. Recently Fr. Couturier contacted me via e-mail offering a courteous and thorough clarification of his statements. By way of correction of my original post, and in light of the topic’s potential intrinsic interest to readers, I’m copying below some excerpts from that message and the ensuing e-mail dialogue.

[Fr. Couturier:] I would like to clarify that I strongly and firmly believe in the Franciscan’s direct and personal charity and love of the poor. After all, St. Francis did not kiss an institution,but a leper! One cannot get more personal than that!

My talk was not meant to suggest that Franciscans abandon charity for and among the poor by direct and personal means of self-sacrificing and theocentrically ordered love. I wanted to challenge Franciscans that we must do more, as well… While it is not our role to offer political solutions, as Pope Benedict suggests, we are to offer rational arguments and the spiritual impulse to all the faithful (including religious) to align all things to the will of Christ’s love,including those things at the social, organizational and political level.

Might I suggest that both Dr. Mirus and yourself misread me (or I was unclear)…

If today we have the means to influence the diplomats of the world when they decide the fate of the poor at the United Nations, can we not perhaps help at that level?…

You are correct in warning us that we ought not let this new level of charity dispense us from our primary obligations. I do not believe that it does and I did not mean to suggest as much…

[Schmiesing:] … Your clarification certainly satisfies me to a large extent, if not completely. I agree that there is no reason for Franciscans (or any other group) to be absent from the political process at any level, nor to refrain from offering “rational arguments and the spiritual impulse,” as you say. I do think that for Capuchins (and all other religious), the emphasis should be squarely on the direct and personal charity that you extol. Actually, the same should be true for all Christians. But the differentiation of the roles of clergy and laity outlined by the documents of Vatican II–among other sources in the Church’s tradition–does suggest that the calling to involvement in political life in general–including, I would think, UN lobbying and so forth–is more properly a lay calling…

[Fr. Couturier:] …I agree with you that religious priests do not and should not have the same role as the laity. The development of political solutions to global problems belongs properly to the laity and not to the clergy. We are not politicians or political leaders… At the same time, we do have a role in promoting peace and justice, in setting out rational arguments, in explaining the Church’s social teaching, and in advancing the opportunities whereby the laity take up their role.

That is precisely what we do at Franciscans International… We explore and explain the Church’s social teaching and reflect on the message of St. Francis and try to apply it to contemporary issues. Remember that the Franciscan Order is largely composed of lay men and women. St. Francis founded three branches of the Franciscan Order: the first Order of men, the second Order of women, and the third order of lay men and women. The majority are lay men and women. They have a right and obligation to live out their baptismal call and thus advocate for social justice and social conversion.

…Over the last number of years, we have brought hundreds of ordinary lay men and women from our poorest missions to speak to the diplomats of the world. The diplomats legislate but are often divorced from the real life situations of the poorest of the poor. We give the poor the training and the opportunity to speak face to face with diplomats. It has a profound impact on diplomats who are accustomed to their diplomatic language to hear the straight talk of the ordinary poor of this world.

I believe this is consistent with the teaching of the Church, a proper role for someone like myself, and is faithful to the roles that the Church has given us…

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of