Unity, Dissent, Division

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

The subject of unity has been on my mind a lot lately.

A well-formed, 100% orthodox Catholic friend shared an editorial addressing the danger of the organized dissidence against Pope Francis. It’s from NCR, which conservative Catholics often don’t trust, so I didn’t share. But I’ve been troubled for a long time by this as well as other signs of division in the Church. How can I make a difference? How can I foster unity in the Church–and, for that matter, in the world?

Wrestling with those questions brings me back to this:

Dang it.

This is hard to swallow. I mean, I know I am flawed and weak. The rush to judgment I excoriate others for is my greatest sin, too. But I’m trying so hard to think around the issues that divide us. To form myself, educate myself, and discern whether the good in one side outweighs the good in the other. And to share whatever good there is with others. My hope is that taking a measured approach can help bridge the gaps between us. Am I really powerless?

I was contemplating this question with great angst when my laptop unexpectedly switched documents. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that (unfortunately); being an old computer with a first-generation touch screen, it does random things like that pretty regularly. What was remarkable was the document it flipped over to—a nugget carved off another post that wandered too far from its original topic:

For years, I’ve wanted to pull my hair out as our society—both within the Church and outside it—makes a run for the all-or-nothing extremes. If one dares challenge trickle down economic theory, one must, by definition, be against capitalism. If one says “America should be better than this,” one must, by definition, hate America.

Of course, it happens the other direction, too. Words like “racist” are getting thrown around pretty freely these days. Now, I’m a big believer that white privilege and unexamined bias are real problems. I see them manifest in myself daily, and the struggle to conquer them is part of my spiritual journey. But it also seems perfectly self-evident that well-intentioned people suffering from white privilege and unexamined bias are not going to be convinced to confront said privilege by being called racists for it. How we talk about things matters.


I had to stop and chuckle at the Holy Spirit’s timing. It was like a little Divine nudge saying, “Yeah, unity is my problem–but I have a job for you, don’t worry.”

As for the division in the Church: I’ve now read two of Pope Francis’ documents in full, and I am baffled by the voices raised so loudly against him. Everything I see is so clearly, authentically Catholic. He’s called out people for getting too focused on a sliver of the Kingdom to the exclusion of the rest; he’s called out legalism and extremism; he’s called out the misidentification of things of the world as things of God. But there’s nothing threatening to the faith in any of that. So my best (most charitable) guess is that people get defensive when challenged to grow beyond the comfortable and familiar.

There’s a lot of demonizing going on within the Church, and it’s got to stop. There’s got to be room in the Church both for people who are passionately committed to annihilating abortion and people who believe we can’t sacrifice every other Gospel command in pursuit of that worthy goal.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the negative chatter about Pope Francis is a reaction to him being outspoken on social justice rather than abortion. I have to keep reminding myself of this:

Both in our Church and in the larger world, our habit is to do exactly the opposite—and to cling so tightly to our assumptions that we end up not even seeing there could be another interpretation.

When we do that, the Devil is the only winner. When we do that, we’re giving the Church and the world to Satan.

One Reply to “Unity, Dissent, Division”

  1. As with so many things, so here I think there are two extremes to avoid. One extreme is to say that only the Holy Spirit can bring unity, and so there is nothing we can do. And then we don’t do anything. The other extreme is to think we are powerful or influential or smart enough to fix the whole thing ourselves and to neglect the fact that while God can use us, only he can manage the whole thing.

    I totally agree with your thoughts about not demonizing various people involved in these disputes. It is too easy to oversimplify other people’s points of view because we don’t have the intellectual or emotional empathy to see around our own perspectives. With regard to Pope Francis dissenters, I think there is a lot of legitimate confusion among people who are trying to do the right thing.

    With regard to that confusion, I think that this is an area where we see the great value of what God has given the Catholic Church. One of the main points of the papacy is to preserve the orthodoxy and the unity of the people of God. When we differ over biblical interpretations, when we differ over interpretations of Catholic Tradition, when bishops disagree, the role of the papacy is to guide us through these disagreements. It’s a light shining in the fog, showing us how to go forward in the right way. That is why I think it is particularly damaging when Catholics find themselves opposing the Chair of St. Peter. I’m not talking about the sort of legitimate and reasonable and respectful criticism the Church permits, but the refusal to abide by the judgments of the Apostolic See as it seeks to define the boundaries of our orthodoxy and our unity. Doing this is like a ship trying to come into the harbor but refusing to accept the help provided by the lighthouse. It can only lead to trouble. As a former Protestant, I am grateful for the lighthouse. I lived without one for a long time, and I’m not interested in going back!

    I think the fact the gift of the papacy also means that even when Catholics do get into disputes, those disputes don’t have to be as dominating as they would be without that gift. I have no problem arguing against the dissenting viewpoints, but I don’t have to be consumed by that debate. We don’t have to have church splits, or form factions. I am delighted that it is not my job to be the ultimate police of the Church. I can say what I think, promote what the Church teaches, and leave it at that. If further clarification is needed, God will guide the Church so that it is provided at the appropriate time. I can help, but I don’t have to be in control.

    Liked by 1 person

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