Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Catholic Tribalism at its Worst

Over this weekend, a couple of famous Catholic bloggers lost their jobs with a prominent Catholic newspaper. But this article is not going to be about them. I only mention it because the aftermath does involve what I want to talk about—the partisan behavior of American Catholics who judge by what they prefer and not by what is true. In such behavior, we see Catholics split into two basic camps:

  1. The faction of “I support X”
  2. The faction of “I oppose X”
There is no third side. This is a case of “You’re with us or against us!” in their minds. If you won’t accept their view, you find them placing you on the opposite side. This is how the bishops get accused of being too liberal and too conservative at the same time. 
To the partisans in these groups, their side is on the side of angels and the other side is on the side of demons. They justify or downplay whatever their side does. Whatever their opponents do gets twisted into willful malicious evil done to cause harm. Who’s in the right? In most cases, neither side. Oh sure, the conflict might start because someone did or taught wrong—but at other times it revolves around misunderstandings. Either way, that’s a side story to the mutual recriminations where each faction thinks the others are scum of the Earth. Because the other side doesn’t see it “our” way, it must mean they support the wrongdoing by the extremists on the other side.

This is the wrong way to approach this. As Catholics, our task is to be faithful to Our Lord and the teachings of His Church—under the leadership of His vicar here on Earth—the Pope, carrying them out to the best of our abilities. Sometimes there can be different ways to be faithful to Church teaching on a subject, and sometimes the faithful can disagree on the best way to carry out Church teaching. So long as a side does not try to evade Church teaching but follows the Church sincerely, these differences can exist without sin. In such cases, it is unjust to accuse others with a different idea on how to be faithful of being faithless.

At other times, sometimes individual Catholics or groups do go wrong. Either they knowingly choose something the Church teaches as wrong, or they don’t understand the Church teaching. They think the shepherds of the Church must be wrong because the bishops don’t see it their way. In that case people are choosing wrong, though I leave it to God to judge the culpability, and do not pretend to know their intentions. In that case, we must oppose people in error, though we must oppose them in charity, not with insults and wild claims.

And in both cases, Tribal Catholics get it wrong. In the first case, they take offense when someone says, “I do not think your plan is the best way to handle this.” Because they equate their position with all that is decent, whoever disagrees must not care about Church teaching, the poor, the unborn, etc. In the second case, a faction who supports something against Church teaching (for whatever motive) assumes that the Church intends harm to whoever is at odds with the teaching. In such a view, support for the Church can only be partisan or dogmatic rigidity. So they attack the Church on one side for not caring about women because she opposes abortion and contraception. On the other side, they accuse the Church of supporting illegal immigration because the bishops object to an inhumane policy on immigration.

So long as a Catholic clings to a tribe mentality, they're closed to considering anything that suggests their positions or heroes are wrong. Criticism is, ironically, considered partisan when it targets these things. What's vital to remember is both sides in a tribal war are guilty. When we put our tribal idols first, we're blind to considering whether we’ve gone wrong. It's only when we recognize our own sinfulness and turn to God, seeking His grace, that we can learn to do good. As St John Chrysostom said in a homily:

A first path of repentance is the condemnation of your own sins: Be the first to admit your sins and you will be justified. For this reason, too, the prophet wrote: I said: I will accuse myself of my sins to the Lord, and you forgave the wickedness of my heart. Therefore, you too should condemn your own sins; that will be enough reason for the Lord to forgive you, for a man who condemns his own sins is slower to commit them again. Rouse your conscience to accuse you within your own house, lest it become your accuser before the judgment seat of the Lord.

Catholic tribes can't do this because they think their sins are little compared to the "other side.” That’s what’s dangerous. Being a Christian means a constant turning towards God and away from the sins we were blind to. If we would escape the tribe (and we must strive to do so, praying for God’s grace to succeed), we must be open to considering whether we've fallen into error through ignorance, habit, or pride. We need to consider whether our heroes have gone wrong in comparison to what the Christian life demands. 

First, that means we have to make sure we know both all the facts and what the Church teaches. If we don’t do that, we risk falling into error, wrongly tolerating error, or wrongly accusing someone of error. If the Church allows leeway, we don’t condemn a person for taking it. if the Church forbids something, we don’t make excuses for going against it, claiming it is closer to the Catholic position in spirit. We look to the magisterium to guide us, and we seek to understand. We don’t make ourselves a judge of the “plain sense” when the Pope and bishops make this decision on how to apply the timeless teachings in a certain time.

Second, even when someone errs (for whatever reason or motive), that is not a signal that all moral obligations of justice and charity get tossed out the window. We need to speak truthfully and accurately. For example, being in error is not the same thing as being a heretic. The heretic knows and obstinately refuses to accept Church teaching. The person in error may sincerely think they are being faithful to Church teaching. If we respond in harshness, we may drive a person into the error we want to pull him out of.

Escaping Catholic tribalism means recognizing we can be wrong, and that we must look to the Church for guidance, and respond to others with love and mercy. Sometimes our ideals are false idols. Sometimes our heroes can go wrong. In these cases we must choose: Do we sacrifice mercy and justice to our tribal feuds? Or do we sacrifice our tribal feuds to mercy and justice as God commands? We should consider that carefully the next time a fellow Catholic behaves badly or the next time someone opposes our heroes. We should consider carefully whether our tribal loyalties put us at odds with Our Lord and His Church.


  1. This is really nothing new. Msgr. Ronald Knox addressed it in his 1950 magnum opus, "Enthusiasm." It's a rather enlightening read.

    1. I like Msgr. Knox but have not heard of that one previously. Sadly no Kindle version, but I'll throw the print version on my wishlist and hope for the price to come down. Thanks for the tip.