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.