Whose Side Are You On?

JMJ

YOU HAVE TO ADMIT THAT life seems to be polarizing right now: socially, politically, and religiously. Everyone needs to be on a side and you’d better be on the right side as well. Generally, of course, the right side is my side. We are seeing this in all areas: if you don’t agree with me, then you must not only be wrong but you must be filled with hate for me. Anyone so wrong must be hateful.

This is not only a secular issue, for we see it in other religions and in the Church. It’s something I’ve seen for most of my life in every religious tradition in which I’ve participated. People tend not to hold together, but rather spin apart. The more “religious” people get, the more fractious they get. It’s practically a joke among protestants. Well, two jokes actually. Both of those jokes could be told about political parties or social groups and, in some cases, friends or relationships. They run like this in the religious form:

When the man was found on the deserted island, his rescuers found he had built a house and two churches. They asked why. “Well,” he said. “That’s the church I go to. That’s the church I used to go to.”

Many people think the first [denomination name] was [founder name]. In fact the first [denomination]s are mentioned in Genesis. Abram said to Lot, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine.”

It’s a bit of a commonplace to note this about the Anglicans of my youth: lawsuits filed against departing parishes, bishops denied entry to their churches, parishes split over questions of morality and polity, etc. Even before the present moment, there were the liturgy wars and the prayerbook wars. Yet, even before that, there are other bodies which pealed away from the “Anglican mainstream” to become their own things: the Methodists and the Reformed Episcopal Church for two. In these latter days, the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Catholic Church also split away. Fleeing Anglicans and their divisiveness, I was certainly seeking stability, but I was too quick to believe the writings of some converts to Orthodoxy who said all these problems were solved in the Eastern Church. Everything was calm, cool, and kosher in the East as compared to everything in the West where things are falling apart and heretical.

This mythology was false: in the Eastern Churches, as in the West, the person next to you in the liturgy may not believe all the things the Church teaches, may be just as much a liberal, modern American as in Anglicanism. Short of the Parousia, this will always be so. God promised us the True Church, but not a pure church. No matter where you think the True Church is (and I believe her to be only in communion with the Roman Pontiff) you will always find some who are better or worse at being there. The root of the faith is always in your heart and that’s where you need to work on it. It is impossible to work on – or to judge – the faith in the heart of another person.

So, Rome.

The divisiveness of America is here too. There are those who view the movement from Pope John XXIII through Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, to Pope Francis as one of differing political regimes: some good, some bad. They view the popes of their lifetime through a lens of modern politics resulting in a hermeneutic of rupture: things change from one Pope to another. We sometimes get a Pope who does good things – and sometimes a Pope who does bad things. It is we who get to decide if the Pope is good or bad, based on our political and cultural feelings. What makes a Pope “good” is that he does things I like.

This attitude has increased in the current century to where it’s possible to create a personal ecclesial bubble: Catholics who agree (or disagree) in exactly the same way I do are “the Church” and those who disagree (or agree) in other ways are being divisive. So one must pick: is one a Pope Francis man or is one a Benedict XVI guy? Is one a trad or a modernist? Novus Ordo or TLM? Ad Orientem or Versus Populum? Are you on my side or are you wrong?

This all came to mind with the reporting of the recent meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the discussion of the teaching document on the Eucharist. The whole vote was around the question of should we draft a teaching document? Given that nearly 70% of people who say they are Catholic do not believe what the Church teaches on this topic, it seems we need more than just one teaching document. The media (both secular and some Catholic outlets of all flavors) made out that the document was to be about abortion and our Catholic president. However the document hasn’t even yet been drafted. Additionally, the USCCB has no power to tell bishops what to do or to deny (in itself) communion to anyone. So, stories about the non-existent document and the idea that it could be “enforced” are horribly distorted. The reactions to this non-existent document were like the reactions of children to monsters in the dark: silly, and would be cute except they keep the adults from getting a good night’s sleep.

And the whole thing drove us into further divisions.

Sed contra, there is a hermeneutic of continuity or, one might say, a hermeneutic of charity through which we can view the last 60 years as well, a way in which we might understand what the Church teaches about herself: the Holy Spirit guides the Church and she gets the men she needs to lead her in the way she should go. The Popes have all been on the same mission and are doing the same thing in communion with the Holy Spirit as the Vicar of Christ on earth: furthering the Kingdom of God.

A Hermeneutic of Charity claims that there is a spiritual unity in the Church, of Love in Christ. Thereby we may see the Holy Spirit guiding the mystical bride of Christ through the stormy weather of the world via the Magisterium and the faithfulness of the People of God. It’s seems very clear that this reality is contrary to the political opinions of many folks inside the church and outside the church, on social media and in traditional media. The narrative of good-versus-bad inside the Church means the Church is no longer who she says she is. She can thus be ignored as she does what I dislike. I need only follow Popes I like: everyone else is an infiltration of some outside evil. Please note that “everyone else” will change if my political alliances change. The pure Church is only where I say it is. I am now the Pope.

Love forbids this though.

The scriptures and the saints counsel us to believe sin, judgement, and hell can only be assumed in the first person: I am a sinner, under judgement, and will be condemned to Hell in God’s righteousness unless I am saved by his mercy. All others – especially strangers and enemies – should be viewed in love, should be blessed, should be welcomed as angels, and should be treated as living icons (the very presence of) God. That means they are not destroying the Church, but rather I who am in danger of departure. They are not heretics, but rather I whom am at risk of damnation (if not already under it). Anyone who is a them in this picture must be treated with more, not less, love.

Our Hermeneutic of Charity must go further, though, lest it become yet another ideology, another way to create an “us versus them” narrative in the Church.

To this point, here is one of the stories of the desert fathers:

There was a saint in Egypt who dwelt in a desert place. Far away from him there was a Manichean who was a priest (at least what they call a priest). Once, when this man was going to visit one of his confederates, night overtook him in the place where the orthodox saint was living. He was in great distress, fearing to go to him to sleep there, for he knew that he was known as a Manichean, and he was afraid he would not be received. However, finding himself compelled to do so, he knocked; and the old man opened the door to him, recognized him, received him joyfully, constrained him to pray, and after having given him refreshment, he made him sleep. Thinking this over during the night, the Manichean said, “How is it that he is without any suspicions about me? Truly, this man is of God.” And he threw himself at his feet, saying, “Henceforth, I am orthodox,” and he stayed with him.

Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward

Using the hermeneutic of charity even those not using that hermeneutic are assumed to be more-faithful followers of Christ than I am. It is impossible to love too much, if it is true love. It is impossible to be too hospitable if it is Christ we are welcoming.

So when we look at a “them” in the Church, the first question must not be “why are they on the wrong side?” but rather “Why am I on a side?” Even if it is a matter of morality and I can look at my own life and see that I am in keeping with the Church’s teaching, how can I judge someone? The very same measure I use to judge others is the one with which I will be judged. I know how imperfect a Catholic I am. It’s actually very easy to imagine you to be better at it than I.

It may be a bit late in our division to point this out. We are not at risk of destroying the Church: the Church can’t be destroyed. They can’t kill her – no matter who they are. Even we cannot kill her. She is the very body of Christ, the living and visible presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth: society, morals, politics, and culture are judged by her – not the other way around. If someone begins with a political assumption and then compares the Church to that assumption, they are living an ideology rather than a theology.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.