Opinion: Francis’ Challenge
How Gaudete et exultate addresses divisions in the Church
Catholics within the American political context are generally divided into two camps, and this divide is eminently present on campus. Members of one group feel passionately about the university’s stance on federal contraceptive mandates; lament the presentation of an honorary degree to President Obama; are more frequently involved in the programs sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture; and are more likely to be readers of the Rover. Members of the second group have focused more on the university’s response to the potential repeal of DACA; comprised the majority of Notre Dame students at the March for Our Lives; and tend to opt for the opportunities presented by the Center for Social Concerns. For the sake of simplicity, and at the risk of sacrificing precision, I will refer to the first group as “conservative,” and to the second as “progressive.”
The source of this divide is likely a mixture of two elements. The first is a difference in emphasis between the two groups, with conservative Catholics emphasizing doctrine, and progressive Catholics prioritizing social justice. The second is the general tendency of Americans to adhere too strongly to their political parties, and to view everything through a political lens. In a time where American politics is marked by deep division, it is not surprising to find deep division within the Church in America.
Unfortunately, division is not the only element of the current political atmosphere that has seeped into the Church. The antagonistic nature of public discourse has also led to an insidious enmity between the two wings of the Church. In much the same way that Republicans and Democrats accuse each other of being “un-American,” Catholics on either side of the divide too often see those on the other as not really Catholic, and maintain that true Catholicism is represented by their own worldview. It doesn’t take many logical steps for this antagonism to yield a—quite literal—demonization of the other side, for if opposing members are seen as non-Catholics claiming to be Catholic, it is easy to think of their endeavors as the efforts of the Devil to undermine the Church. This deep antagonism within the Church is much subtler than the tension in the American political climate—it is not commonly picked up on by your average attendees at Sunday Mass—but it is undoubtedly more dangerous. If the members of the Church see the Devil in each other, it then becomes impossible for them to see Christ’s image in each other. What an unfortunate victory this would be for Satan.
Luckily, the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, provides wisdom that might help us address this. For instance, he warns against the prevalence of gnosticism in today’s Church, a heresy which struck me as one that the conservative wing of the Church is particularly prone to falling into:
“Gnostics” … judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines. They think of the intellect as separate from the flesh, and thus become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopedia of abstractions.
The Pope’s clear warning against over-intellectualizing the faith is a much-needed one. Conservative Catholics tend to become prideful in their understanding of doctrine, and end up overemphasizing doctrine’s role, while forgetting that a real relationship with a real person is the core of our faith.
The Pope similarly criticizes a second heresy, pelagianism, which is more common in the progressive wing of the Church. He warns against seeing the faith as merely a “kind of life we lead” or a system of morality, separate from a “personal relationship with the Lord.” He stressed that, when that is the case, “Christianity thus becomes a sort of NGO.” The Pope here is calling us to remember to place Christ over social justice; a person over an idea.
In the midst of today’s corruptive political antagonism, Francis’s challenge to Catholics is clear: remember that our love is directed at a person, and not at His teachings. If we do that, perhaps we’ll find a renewed love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Nicolas Abouchedid is a freshman from Venezuela studying in the Program of Liberal Studies. This article is the fruit of a conversation he shared with his friend and mentor, Craig Iffland. Any particularly insightful ideas can be safely attributed to the fine weather on the occasion of their chat, the cigars they enjoyed during it, and Mr. Iffland’s characteristic thoughtfulness. Reach out to Nicolas at firstname.lastname@example.org.