Loyalty and the Unity of the Church

Loyalty is one of those qualities we honour in theory but often ignore in practice. The loyalty of friends, families and communities to ourselves is something we tend to take for granted. Any little infringement is tantamount to abject betrayal, to be greeted with stony silences or hurt looks and huffy gestures. But our loyalty to others is sometimes more nuanced. Yes, we are loyal . . . up to a point. This is seen particularly clearly when the loyalty in question is to the Church, or to her pastors, especially the pope.

Already some readers’ hackles will be rising, so I will address my remarks only to members of the Catholic Church who should, in principle, know what I am talking about. During the past few years I have become concerned about the increasing lack of respect for the office of pope and bishops and the lack of loyalty towards the Church and her teaching. Part of the problem, I am sure, is the ability of anyone and everyone, no matter how ignorant or prejudiced, to express an opinion online, plus the fact that such opinions are often reactive rather than reflective — and mercilessly instant. I read X and comment Y immediately. Frequently, of course, I haven’t actually read X, I’ve only skimmed through it, or I’ve taken my view of it from a summary by Z; but, never mind, I have the right to my opinion. Indeed we do; but not the right to disparage, calumniate or otherwise misrepresent another.

It is perfectly legitimate to question the pope’s meaning or intention, for example, but we overstep the boundaries if we proceed to name-calling and accusations of heresy or the imputation of evil motives to him. At the very least, we should take the trouble to read his remarks in full and in context and then think about them before rushing to judgement. Rash judgement, after all, is matter for confession! Similarly, one often hears people who identify as Catholics saying they don’t believe this or that article of faith as though they were enlightened beings who had progressed ‘beyond all that’ and were free to pick and choose which doctrines are true.

Being a Catholic isn’t easy. It certainly isn’t an intellectual cop-out; and if we take our religion seriously, it will confront us with hard choices and difficult decisions. But we can’t cherry-pick, and we can’t go around being dismissive of our pastors or the Church in general. Loyalty may not be a fashionable concept but it is a very necessary one. It doesn’t mean suppressing doubts or difficulties or avoiding discussion of them. Rather, it means remembering that we are bound together in a common enterprise, an enterprise that transcends the merely local or temporal. We are seeking the kingdom of God, and we do so together. That requires a certain self-discipline, an awareness of and respect for others, a graciousness and humility that may not be natural to us but which can be ours if we pray. Being able to count on the support of others as we journey along the way is important. If we are not prepared to give that support in our turn, shouldn’t we be asking what we ourselves intend? The unity of the Church is not some abstraction dreamed up by theologians, it is a reality we are meant to incarnate every day of our lives. The question is, do we?