Thursday, May 27, 2021

When Factionalism Masquerades as Piety

11 For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. 12 I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:11-13)

27 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. 28 A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. 31 If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment; 32 but since we are judged by [the] Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)

The USCCB is planning to discuss the Eucharist and the deficiencies in proper understanding among American Catholics. This is reasonable. When a majority of the faithful do not realize that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, or if they think everybody should be allowed to receive regardless of the state of their souls, that is a clear sign that we need remedial education. The bishops are—regrettably—divided over what the best response should be. As a result, Cardinal Ladaria has issued a statement urging the bishops to reach a unified approach.

This is understandable. The USCCB is not a mini-Vatican where a majority vote can impose policy on all dioceses. The individual bishop is responsible for teaching and enforcement in his own diocese. So, a USCCB resolution is only “binding” on the whole Church in America only if all the bishops implement it. But, at the same time, different levels of enforcement are causing a scandal among the faithful. When some, like Cardinals Gregory and Cupich, openly disagree with others, like Archbishops Gomez and Cordileone over how to handle Catholic politicians who openly work to expand abortion in this country, confusion will erupt, and factional Catholics will seize on this to push for their own agendas.

And the title of this article is aimed at these Catholics, not the bishops. I might prefer one approach over the other among the bishops, but I do not believe either approach intends to undercut the Church teaching. The same cannot be said about Catholics on the internet calling one group of bishops “heretical” or the other “legalistic.” They have picked a side, focusing on the sins of the other while ignoring those of their own side. These factions “cherry pick” what the Pope and his predecessors have taught in a way that justifies what they say while ignoring the full message.

As a result, we see some Catholics point to the words of St. John Paul II and contrast them with the words of Pope Francis. One will be portrayed as championing the true meaning of Catholicism. The other will be portrayed as causing harm to the real meaning. For example, in Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II pointed out that divorce and remarriage while the other spouse still lives is grave matter. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis points out that we cannot assume that all the conditions of mortal sin are present in that remarriage without the confessor investigating the case. When understood in context, neither Pope contradicts the other. But when partisan Catholics pick sides, we are presented with “heroes” and “villains” among the bishops that line up with our partisan views of what should be done. Bishops speaking out against sins we think are worse are praised. Those who speak out against sins we think merit less concern wind up attacked as heretics or legalists. Ironically, the same bishop can be attacked by both sides when he points out the Church teaching on two different issues where one is seen as “conservative” and one as “liberal.”

When we do this, we are guilty of the factionalism, even if we think this is piety. The Catholic who says, “I am for Francis” or “I am for John Paul II” and contrasts them as opposed is guilty of what St. Paul condemns. If we want to be for Christ, we need to be for Pope Francis… and Benedict XVI, and St. John Paul II, and St. Paul VI, and St. John XXIII… all the way back to the beginning of the Church. Yes, some of the successors of St. Peter were unworthy of the office. But the teachings of the Popes remain true, although future Popes can make adjustments and clarifications to fit the needs of the current time.

If you are opposed to rigorism, remember laxity is also an evil. If you are opposed to laxity, remember rigorism is also an evil. The Church navigates between the two seeking to reflect both Our Lord’s mercy and justice. If we sacrifice one in favor of the other, we are not doing God’s will.

Bringing this back to the discussion of the Bishops, the Eucharist, and our response, we need to be aware that this is not a case of “good bishops vs. bad bishops.” Their discussion is about what is the proper response to the fact that so many Catholics have gone wrong about what the Eucharist means and what proper disposition to receive means. But, if we turn this into a fight where we say the bishops should focus on X instead of Y, we are not helping. We are part of the problem. We see this happen all the time when someone says the Church should stay out of politics and focus on saving souls… forgetting that our sins can involve political behavior and not just personal.

Let us not forget that during the 2020 elections, Catholics on both sides of the political divide placed the bishops on the other side of that divide, using the same arguments. Bishops of the various committees spoke about issues that fell under the purview of that committee. But critics criticized them for ignoring other issues… issues that were addressed by the bishops of the relevant committee.

If we want to escape this factionalism, we need to stop looking at it from a partisan perspective. We need to look at it from the perspective that the Church teaches. We have an obligation to live according to His commandments (see Matthew 7:21-23, John 14:15), and we can break His commandments in public ways as well as personal. No faction is free from guilt on this matter. So, yes. We must call out the intrinsic evil of abortion. We must call out the evil intent some promote in issues like immigration. We cannot ignore either one. But, if we are angry that a specific Church statement condemns one specific idea without mentioning the other, we have missed the point, because the Church does issue separate statements dealing with that issue as well.

We should be honest and acknowledge we prefer that the Church spend 100% of their time speaking on the sins of others and resent it when she speaks on sins our preferred faction is guilty of. But the Church does not only need to speak to them. She also needs to speak to us. If we will not do that, our piety is simply a masquerade for factionalism and we are harming the Church by dividing her.

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