Unity has been on my mind for a long time, but particularly in the past few months. The divisions in our country and among Catholics are profound. What I have come to realize is that nothing I do or say is going to change that. I don’t see a way out of this. Since, oh, October sometime, I have been praying for God to navigate a path none of us can see–a path that will get us out of this toxic sludge pit we’ve dug for ourselves. The one that is drowning us.
Last week, after chewing over all this with a devout Catholic friend, I decided to pray a St. Jude novena. It seems appropriate, doesn’t it? St. Jude, the patron of desperate cases and lost causes (Wiki’s phraseology) or “patron saint of the impossible” (St. Jude Shrine’s phraseology). If ever there were a lost cause, a desperate case, or an impossible situation, it would be the search for unity in our time.
And when Pope Francis’ daily email yesterday sounded the same call–prayer, because unity is actually beyond us–I knew it was a divine nudge.
Today I embark on this prayer and I invite you all to join me. My intention is: “for a path to unity in God’s will for our Church and our nation, and for the conversion of all our hearts to make that possible.”
Yesterday I rode out to the spot by the river I call my Breakfast Cafe. It was unseasonably warm (a lot of that this November) but very, very windy.
The wind sounds different in the winter. I once said, “In the winter you hear the wind itself instead of the rustle of leaves.” But I realized yesterday that’s not true. Wind has no sound of its own. What you hear is the way the wind plays the earth like a musical instrument. It vibrates differently depending on what it touches. The wind sounds different on soft grasses than it does on deciduous trees, or the whisper-sigh it makes running over pine needles. The bamboo-like reeds, dry now, but still green, create something more like a rattle. But the bare treetops of wintertime give a low, round, rich, smooth sound, heavy on bass, absent almost all treble.
Sitting there reflecting on the way the wind can only be perceived in the way it interacts with other forces and objects brought to mind this meme.
We like to pull things apart, to examine them in isolation–because it is easier to process, I think. The complexity of the world often overwhelms. But the danger in focusing on things in isolation is that we risk believing they actually exist in isolation. In reality, every object, every person, every issue, is constantly being pushed and pulled, and thus reshaped, by other factors.
I think this desire to simplify and isolate issues into separate boxes is the cause of our American “culture wars.” The foundation of our polarization. The world is too complicated, so we pick the thing that seems most obvious to us–the thing that seems, to us, to have the most obvious answer.
But in doing that, we miss the reality that every problem we face, every issue we have to address as a nation, has multiple causes and multiple ripple effects, and each of those exerts a pull on issues all around it.
I don’t have a pat answer for why the problem of oversimplification and polarization seems so much more severe now than it used to. It’s always been there. What made it explode as it has in recent years?
Truthfully, I think there are a lot of factors. It’s easy to point fingers, but to do that risks proving the larger point: trying to isolate ONE cause, as if it happened without a host of other factors pushing and pulling and shaping that one factor into the form and influence we know, can’t possibly reflect reality.
The problem with being the center of world culture is that we tend to be really myopic–so focused on ourselves, we tune out the rest of the world. Every time I’m out and about at 2p.m., I butt up against this reality in myself. While I really enjoy listening to NPR news programs, to dig deeper into big questions, it’s excruciating to listen to the BBC News Hour. Unless, of course, they’re talking about the USA.
Three quarters of what is talked about on that program is talking about situations that are so off my radar, I can’t summon any desire to pay attention.
This is what comes to mind while reading today’s section of Fratelli Tutti (#22-28). Pope Francis points out in reality, all human rights are NOT given equal time. Some of us live in opulence and others’ rights are totally discarded. We pay lip service to women having equal dignity to men, but reality paints a different picture. Human trafficking, organ harvesting, etc. further illustrate the divide.
Where he really hits his stride, though, is in #25, where he skewers the habit of defending or dismissing assaults on human dignity, “depending on how convenient it proves.”
This feels very, very familiar. The difference in how we perceive the dignity of the unborn versus that of the refugee fleeing Central America (with or without going through “proper channels”) springs instantly to mind. If it doesn’t cost ME anything, of course I’m going to uphold human dignity. But if it has the potential, however remote, to inconvenience ME, well, then I can find all kinds of reasons why it’s not my problem, it’s theirs.
Next, he points out the tendency to build walls, both figurative and literal, separating humanity into “us” and “them.” It’s so beautiful, it’s nearly poetry. Just go read #27. And he rounds out this section by pointing out that the disenfranchisement caused by these sinful behaviors is precisely what leads to “mafias,” which I would suggest is a blanket term that includes terrorism.
So many Christian teachings have an incredibly practical element. Yes, we should treat each other as “brothers” (in the non-gender-specific meaning of the word) just because that’s God’s will. But the reality is that the failure to follow that teaching has all kinds of real-world ripple effects.
The way those ripple effects bang into each other and intensify is what made me start Intentional Catholic in the first place. Because I think an awful lot of us spend our lives totally unaware of them. That certainly was true of me until the arrival of my daughter set me on a small boat in the middle of all those ripples, and I had no choice but to recognize them because of the bumpiness of the ride.
Until then, I had compartmentalized life, thinking, “Sure, THESE issues are connected to my faith, but all THESE have nothing to do with it.” I was totally wrong. All issues are connected to faith.
As Catholics, I think we’re often in danger of putting ourselves in a bubble. The thing that strikes me most in Gaudium et Spes is the implicit idea that we’re supposed to be in the world, not isolated from it. It seems so obvious. Of course–how can we leaven the world if we don’t interact with it?
But another danger of the bubble is that we develop a combative, competitive view of ourselves vs. the world. THE WORLD is bad, nothing good can possibly come of it, all secular movements are inherently contrary to the Gospel, etc. We do this all the time.
Here, the bishops and Pope Paul VI urge the faithful to remember that even when the world doesn’t get it all right, the heart is often in the right place. To me, the lesson is: Rather than battling everything that comes out of the secular realm, we should look for what is of value, and find how to work in cooperation for the betterment of all. To me, that seems the best chance for true evangelization.
My husband and I have been natural family planning users since day one of our marriage. NFP saw us through infertility (the data from the charts facilitated treatment), four babies conceived without medical intervention, and another eight years of charting.
I bring this up because Church teaching on birth control probably represents the biggest sticking point for many people in the modern world–the biggest perceived encroachment on “personal rights.”
I used to be a lot judgier on this issue than I am now. NFP is hard for some people, and often the reasons are not as easily dismissed as many NFP devotees would like them to be. Sometimes it’s physical (tough charts, long abstinence), and sometimes it’s emotional–when practicing NFP causes people to excavate deep, long-standing wounds, wounds with ripple effects that make marital intimacy a point of contention rather than an opportunity for intimacy.
Also, none of us are perfect at the way we use our sexuality. None of us. So I’m less, well, judgy these days.
Nonetheless, I still believe passionately that NFP is a great thing. The self-knowledge that comes from charting has been liberating and empowering to me as a woman, and I see the practice of NFP as a source of healing for a world where relationships between men and women are suffering the wounds caused by dominance. Where sex is used as a bludgeon, mostly by men against women. To use NFP successfully requires two people to respect each other in all their God-given dignity, to hold in honor and awe the total gift of the way the other is made. Not to try to turn off an entire healthy, functioning system of the body.
It’s also a no-brainer for environmental stewardship. Pharmaceuticals go back into the water, and not all chemicals are filtered out. Lawn & agricultural chemicals in the water supply were half of our infertility issues.
And I see the fruits of NFP in my relationship with my husband. The openness, honesty, and mutuality of communication surrounding this most sensitive topic has helped me understand what total security in a relationship means. What true intimacy means.
Which is not to say we’re a happy-happy couple. Those who know us know we pick at each other all.the.time. And sometimes the conversations are hard–it’s not just “do we try for a child or do we try to avoid?” It’s “I don’t feel close to you” and “I don’t want to be close to you when you do X or Y.” It’s “I feel resentful because of Z.”
But we always grow in love because of them.
So this quote strikes great resonance for me. NFP is a big limit, but it’s also freeing–in many ways, but I’ll focus on one: it’s a limit forces the issue of dignity and mutual respect. It’s not that you can’t have mutual respect and treat each other with dignity if you don’t use NFP, because clearly you can. But being successful with NFP–by which I mean “We are equal members of the team,” not just “we didn’t get pregnant”–REQUIRES us to pay attention to issues of dignity and mutual respect.
Look! It’s another one of those “no duh” quotes that we all think applies to someone else.
This is a sentiment that conservatives aim at liberals, with the assumption that only people who haven’t studied the faith properly could possibly hold such nonsensical ideas about redistribution of wealth, about mercy and tolerance; could possibly fail to see that things are either right or wrong, and any attempt to say otherwise equals relativism. (I know this, because that was me not that many years ago.)
But it’s also a sentiment that liberals aim at conservatives, with a hair-pulling level of frustration that people can’t see that Jesus was all about justice, and that money as an idol is behind many of the ideas held up as “traditional values” by conservatives. (And yes, I have to admit, this better represents where I stand now.)
Yesterday, I was reading a passage from Philippians, in which Paul took for granted that Christians living the faith would be united in thought and idea about how to view the world.
I don’t even know to deal with that. I know the Christian community was probably never as uniform as some Scripture passages make it sound, that division is an inescapable part of fallen humanity.
But where we are now–I started to try to lay it out, but the causes are too complex. There’s Steve Bannon going after the Pope, and confusing political ends with Godly ones. There’s the mishandling of the abuse crisis, which hits liberal and conservative bishops & priests alike. There’s clericalism and an inability to see outside “the way it’s always been done,” even though the world has changed around it and that model no longer works (i.e., we don’t have a glut of priests to do all the jobs in a parish, so you actually have to hire people to do work). There’s a passive laity, still thinking that our primary job is to show up and be done to, even though the mega churches have taught us that churches flourish best when everyone is involved.
All of these are examples of ways in which we, as believers, contribute to the flourishing of atheism. And it doesn’t fall on one side of the political spectrum–or of the left-right divide in the Church.
When we are nasty on Facebook, when we share emotion-heavy, but fact-questionable memes;
when we buy into stereotypes that Trump supporters are all uneducated rednecks or that people demanding just wages and just racial treatment are essentially lazy and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps;
when we fail to recognize the ways in which our own privilege shapes our prejudices;
when we fail to recognize that we have prejudices at all;
when we make assumptions or pass judgment or don’t fact-check (or fallacy-check) whatever inflammatory argument suits our purposes–
In all these moments, we, as Christians, are part of what causes people to doubt the existence of God altogether.
When I opened my copy of Evangelii Gaudium on Friday to find the day’s sharable, these words leaped off the screen. Almost immediately, two more quotes on the same topic followed, and I realized I needed to wait and post them in a row, as a series. That’s what we’ll be doing this week.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’d encourage you to take the time to ponder these words. How else can we describe what has happened in our country and in our Church in the past twenty years, besides loss of perspective and shrinking horizons resulting from being trapped in conflict?
All of us who have wanted to pull our hair out over the proliferation of conspiracy sites and “fake news”–to say nothing of the subsequent perversions of the concept (it’s not “fake news” just because you don’t like it)–surely find resonance in the idea that getting trapped in conflict leads to a sense of reality falling apart. By which I mean: when people are so committed to always being right, and the other side wrong, that they choose to ignore any and all realities that might force them to self-reflect, then yes, reality itself starts coming apart. We can’t find common ground, because we’re not even operating in the same reality.
I’m thinking of America’s political reality in the above reflections, but it largely transfers into the conflicts within the Church as well. Much food for thought here.
And of course, there’s the ongoing stain of the sex abuse scandal.
Given all this, it was pretty demoralizing when that Pew research survey came out a few months ago. The one suggesting that Catholics don’t even really understand the one thing that, above all others, defines us: the Eucharist.
Today I want to offer two points as words of hope. First, this article. Words matter, and the way the Pew questions were written, many of us would hesitate, caught between our faith and the way certain words are used in the modern secular world. I mentioned this at choir practice shortly after the survey came out, when people were expressing their dismay about the survey, and a recent convert, who had to navigate those waters on the way into the Church, nodded vigorously in agreement. The authors of this analysis suggest a more hopeful picture, and their argument resonates with me.
Which brings me to the second point: part of the reason for that resonance is an experience I had when I was working as a full-time liturgy director. I was jaded even then about the view and understanding of the Eucharist among the average Catholic Mass-goer. Convinced that most people really didn’t “get” it.
Then one day, when we had a no-show, I substituted as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister.
It was an amazing experience. One after another, people raised their eyes and their hands. The looks on their faces remain with me to this day: raw, naked, vulnerable, longing, hopeful, reverent, transfigured. Those people knew they were receiving Jesus. Knew it at a visceral level that tells a truth far deeper than any survey can illuminate. By the end of Communion, I was nearly in tears.
So when the division in the Church seem ready to rip us apart at the seams—when despair tries to get a hold on my heart—I choose to hope. To believe that what I was taught as a child remains true now: the Spirit is in control, that we are led at this point in time by the person the Spirit knows we need, and that nothing can destroy the Church. Not even us.
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:
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.