A Church Divided?

The Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul, which the Catholic Church in England and Wales celebrates today rather than on 29 June, was always, for me, a celebration of the unity in diversity of Catholicism. The Preface of the feast expresses this with beautiful economy, by comparing and contrasting the two ministries of Peter and Paul:

 . . . by your providence
the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul bring us joy:
Peter, foremost in confessing the faith,
Paul, its outstanding preacher,
Peter, who established the early Church from the remnant of Israel,
Paul, master and teacher of the Gentiles that you call.

And so, each in a different way
gathered together the one family of Christ;
and revered together throughout the world,
they share one Martyr’s crown.

Like Martha and Mary, Peter and Paul show us two aspects of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Both are necessary; both express something of the unity of the Church. Why, then, have I become less and less convinced that many who call themselves Catholic have any interest in maintaining the unity of the Church? Could it be because of the hate-filled rhetoric that distorts much public discourse and the extraordinary (as it seems to me) position of those who believe everyone, from the pope down, to be in serious error if they happen not to believe the same things that they do on any given subject? Only this week I have had to ‘unfriend’ one person on Facebook for making gravely defamatory accusations against Pope Francis while at the same time having to defend myself privately for not thinking exactly as another does on the subject of ‘assisted dying’. To one I am a liberal spawned in hell, to the other a reactionary bound for the same destination. The idea that someone might (a) be sincere in her opinions and (b) have come to whatever conclusions she has after years of prayer and study (which are on-going) is, apparently, irrelevant. Many others have experienced the same. I hold no particular brief for Fr James Martin SJ, but I was dismayed to read on Facebook some of the criticisms he has received, not to mention the terms in which they were expressed. There is more here than mere disagreement. There is a fundamental disregard for the Church herself.

One doesn’t need to know much Church history to know that theological disputes have often been attended with heated language and even physical violence (St Nicholas of Smyrna, for instance, allegedly punched the heresiarch Arius on the nose). But most disputes were conducted with a little more theological awareness than many display nowadays. There was a sense of the Church, of the importance of establishing what was true rather than assuming that truth was a weapon to batter others into submission. Perhaps I am guilty of idealising the past, but I think people were ready to die for their beliefs because they were also ready to live for them. In our comfortable existence in the West, we tend often to compartamentalise things, putting religion into its slot (a slot, moreover, defined by ourselves) and forgetting about it most of the time. Inevitably, therefore, because we have privatised religion, it seems to affect less and less of life. It has become an intruder, and as such, ‘the Church’ can be blamed for everything we dislike or disagree with: she says too much about some subjects; too little about others; and exactly what we don’t want to hear on some that touch us most nearly. The Church in such circumstances is always something other, something we either have no part in or, conversely, that we feel such a deep sense of ownership of, that we feel betrayed when she does not speak or act as we think she should.

What is wholly new, I think, is the way in which modern media, above all, blogs and Social Media, have given everyone the opportunity to voice his/her opinion, irrespective of their knowledge, understanding or commitment to Christian living. It is worth thinking about that in relation to our own lives. When I express opinions about the Church (such as this one), what am I hoping to achieve? What motivates me? It can be shocking to discover that one’s views on certain subjects have more to do with ‘I’d like it to be that way’ than with any real conviction of the truth of one’s viewpoint. I’d argue that I care about the unity of the Church and believe that thinking with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) is the only sure way to avoid devising some more or less loopy heresy of one’s own.

And that is the crux of the matter. Our western society places great value on freedom of choice, on personal autonomy and the like. They are undeniably great goods, but they are not necessarily the greatest or truest. Perhaps only a pedant like me would want to remember that the roots of the word ‘heresy’ are to be found in the Greek word ‘hairesis’, meaning ‘choice’. Today’s feast is a reminder that we should be careful what we choose.


14 thoughts on “A Church Divided?”

  1. Much of my long life seems to have comprised endless indecisions (that’s not the word I want!) not the least of which is religion. I would hate to belong to a religion which insisted on my belief being totally based on what that church said, but on the other hand, as you say, one’s own ‘loopy heresies’ are so very easy to devise. (and of course, ‘hate’ is also the wrong word!)

  2. Many of us wish that there was just one holy, catholic and apostolic Church as promulgated by SS Peter and Paul. You and your sisters try to live that original and beautiful message of Christian love, hope and peace. Where did it all go wrong? Did the people forsake the message or did the Roman Church forsake the people? That Pope Francis is trying to recognise the desire of the human condition to be part of the greater whole with God is encouraging. There is much to be done. But Jesus rejected noone. He was inclusive. All he asked was that we love God and each other. A blessing for the world as fresh now as it was then.

  3. I think one added problem is that people are not clear what the Church is for. It does not absolve you from the responsibility to think, or to use your conscience. It is there to guide and inform. As many of the issues are complex and have troubled great minds for centuries I am glad for that guidance. I will have a go at thinking for myself but can not claim a great mind or that I have time to devote to it all! Far too easy to shoot people down in flames for not agreeing with your ideas/beliefs.

  4. Surely it’s because people fear the very future of the Church is imperiled, that they become furious in argument? Excepting those who just want to win an argument whatever. Your observations are sad for me to read, for I’m a very recent arrival into the Church and therefore not yet acquainted with much going on in her. Yes, I’ve noticed opinions in my congregation about Pope Francis differ, and I’ve been surprised at how suspicious of him some are. I probably don’t see big differences of opinion as abnormal or a worrying sign because I’ve coped with them for 40 years as a Christian outside the Church and somehow managed to see a semblance of unity: so my overwhelming sense now is how powerfully I’m united now with all Catholics and Christ through the Eucharist and the sacramental bond of being in nurtured by the church, our Mother. That family identity makes it safe to argue strongly. It’s a world away from the evangelical groups I knew before, where there’s such a fear of rocking the boat. So please, fellow Catholics, don’t get fearful like them! The one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church is not imperiled: the gates of hell can’t prevail against her, and she even holds the keys to them!

    Our opinions and impressions of things are not to be deeply trusted: we see dimly and our hearts are wicked. And that doesn’t stop Jesus owning and shepherding us perfectly! My beloved parish priest taught me that beautiful phrase “sentire cum ecclesia”. The only point I disagree with you, is to translate ‘sentire’ as ‘to think’.

    • I’m not sure about your first point. If one really loves the Church one does not want to harm her or her members, and one is humble before her teaching. Love never justifies furious attacks on another but, sadly, that is what some of us, at least, perceive to be happening at times. As to my translation of sentire cum ecclesia, do you know St Ignatius’s Rules for Thinking with the Church, where the phrase originates? Or, in another context, these words of an eminent American blogger:
      In Latin sentio means, yes, to discern by the senses, be sensible of”, like percipio, but it also has the “sense” sense of intellego: “to observe, notice” and “to judge, deem”. For example, there is a construction – exactly the construction we are interested in here – sentire cum aliquo, which means “to agree with one in opinion”. If you want to say, “I agree with you!” you can say “Tecum sentio!”, and you would be speaking exactly, like Plautus, Cicero, Quintillian, and writers of Latin through the ages.

      If you have to cast your lot with one English word for sentire in the phrase sentire cum ecclesia, you would have to pick “think” or “agree”, and decidedly not feel. That is not to say that emotions are excluded … but the governing concept is the mind, not emotions.

  5. I have found the same to be true. And it puzzles me that some who would be so critical for this reason or that, don’t bother to research why the Church teaches whatever it is causing the criticism. After 2,000 years of study, the Church seems to have some very logical explanations for its teaching. Perhaps the truth makes them uncomfortable? I am reminded of the parable of the seed falling on rocky ground, in the path and some on good soil. Even when everyone hears the same thing, it doesn’t take root the same way.

  6. As a non-Catholic, I am just as concerned about love and unity, because it seems to me to be on the heart of God. If it was important enough for Jesus to pray for unity the night before He died – it should be important for us all. I have been in situations where the “truth” (as understood by the speaker) has been expressed clearly and lucidly, but without an ounce of love – and the clanging gong of St Paul comes to mind. History means that we belong to different churches, yet, to me, we belong to the same huge family of God and your blog reminds us wonderfully that members of the family need to love each other. As a parent, I have always been upset when others criticise a child of mine. I remind myself that God must feel the same when we criticise each other..

    Thank you

    • I hold the belief that God (and indeed logic) intends us to belong to one religion and church. If I start a church/sect I am essentially implying that I disagree with the tens of thousands of denominations. It makes no sense that I will choose not to join a denomination I share faith and doctrine with and instead choose to cause further ‘division’

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