Division has always wounded the Body of Christ, but the Catholic Church in the United States today finds itself at a unique crossroads: continue on a path of self-mutilation, or decide to work for unity?
Our internecine strife has been building for years, but a couple of recent examples highlight its stranglehold. For one, note the furor in some circles over the burial of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Catholic whose embrace of his faith failed to blunt his advocacy for abortion and same-sex marriage. Some extreme rhetoric even described the fact of Kennedy's Church funeral, asking for God's mercy, as "spitting on Christ."
Divisiveness comes in other forms as well. Recently, some publicly identified Catholics participated in the production of what Catholic League president Bill Donahue this month called the most "defamatory, obscene and vicious show" he's seen in his 16 years as a watchdog against anti-Catholicism. It is no surprise that notoriously anti-religion Penn Gillette would go after the Church with lies and distortions, but in crafting his Showtime program he found willing accomplices in spokesmen for Catholics for Choice, The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and Dignity-USA. Anti-Catholicism is nothing new, but perhaps our times are the first to witness the willingness of Catholics themselves to provide support to those who would like to obliterate the Church.
Ironically, the ascendancy of the laity following the Second Vatican Council may explain why some Catholics feel comfortable setting themselves up as mini-popes sitting in judgment of Church authorities and fellow Catholics.
Yet not so long ago in our history, the ex-communist Dorothy Day, facing some opposition from her skeptical bishop, told followers: "If our dear, sweet cardinal, who is the vicar of Christ in New York City, told me to shut down the Catholic Worker, I would close it down immediately." Today, however, we even see self-styled traditionalist Catholics, who view Vatican II's emphasis on laity as a dangerous mistake, publicly bucking episcopal authority.
But unity is not just a second-place ideal for Catholics; it is one of the four essential marks of the Church. Especially for Catholics, being right counts for little if we take a "unity be damned" attitude toward those we consider in the wrong.
"Holding everyone and everything together in unity is another way of saying 'Catholic,'" Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, pointed out last month in a speech to the national convention of the Knights of Columbus.
He offered a basic self test on unity: "A Catholic way of life is unified as a way of life when it is based on assent to revealed truth and on obedience to appointed pastors, both of which together create the unity of faith and of community that Jesus himself wishes us to enjoy."
Cardinal George said the Church's unity today was "severely strained," and cited the failings of bishops and priests, the "self-righteousness of some on both the right and the left," and the emergence of lay groups who are trying to create "a Church in their image and likeness rather than Christ's."
He predicted that the U.S. bishops would be making Church unity an explicit joint project.
But the task is not the bishops alone. Working for unity is an essential Catholic call, starting in families and parishes. Are we uniters or dividers?
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