The Catholic Herald, a British newspaper, recently debuted its U.S. edition with an overview of “America’s Catholic tribes” — a complete guide to our nation’s “noisy groups of priests and laity who disagree on pretty much everything.”
“The American Church is rife with factionalism,” declared the editors, pointing to “fault lines everywhere” that are “growing wider thanks to a deadly combination of scandals and social media.”
The piece included spot-on, pen-and-ink caricatures of the groups — “papal knights,” “militants,” “rad trads,” “Jesuiticals,” “tradinistas,” “team Francis” and (of course) conspiracy theorists (aptly represented by a bug-eyed computer user, wearing a kitchen colander on his head and glued to his laptop screen).
My inner Anglophile thrilled; satire is a British speciality, and this article did not disappoint (although only one of its two authors is actually an Englishman). Reading the witty descriptions of each faction, I laughed and then forwarded the piece to friends.
But upon reflection, I felt more like crying.
How sad that the body of Christ should so cannibalize itself — tearing its limbs one from the other through slander, suspicion, snark and self-righteousness.
I know that “cannibalize” is a harsh, even vulgar, term to use in describing the backbiting and sectionalism that have come to characterize much of our current church culture.
Yet if we are truly “in one Spirit … baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13), and if in fact we “are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor 12:27), what other word fits so well?
What else can we call the ad hominem attacks — launched by Catholics themselves against fellow Catholics — that fill newspapers, journals, inboxes, airwaves, social media, even church meeting spaces and parking lots?
What other expression sums up the verbal wounds we inflict upon each other — sometimes face to face, but more often behind each other’s backs, or in that surreal public square we call cyberspace?
Strife and division have always beset the church; at the Last Supper, the Apostles themselves argued over who was the greatest (Luke 22:24). Heresies, schisms, inquisitions, and all-around bad behavior have consistently marred the ecclesial family portrait over the centuries.
Yet neither human nature nor history are adequate defenses here. As Christians, we are called to a radically different way of living, not to a slightly enhanced status quo. Our baptism into Christ can, and should, fundamentally alter the way in which we resolve conflicts, especially with fellow believers.
Even the ongoing clerical sex abuse crisis — itself a horrific violation of Christ’s mystical body — does not give us a license to further assault one another, individually or corporately. Yes, justice must be served; mercy and healing for all must prevail. But in the process, we cannot forget that we are bound to one another in Christ. God has saved us “not as individuals without any bond or link between them,” but rather as “a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 781).
The most intolerant “tribalists” in the American Catholic Church no doubt feel that they’re doing the faith a great service by excising various cancers of thought and belief that threaten the magisterium. But if their medicine results in gashes, scars and outright amputations, how qualified are such surgeons? And how can such a hospital hope to heal a wounded world?
Rather than devour each other through sarcasm and malice, let us instead feed on the Word in Scripture and sacrament, drawing strength and wisdom to mend the rifts that threaten our oneness in the Lord.
After all, the Eucharist — “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC, 1324) — is not a polite supper among strangers, but a divine meal intended to nourish the body of Christ, that we in turn might sustain a world starving for love.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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