Those first-century Christians of Corinth must certainly have been a boisterous, troublesome lot. But maybe we should be glad that they were. After all, their acting up and acting out were the occasion for two remarkable New Testament documents — St. Paul’s first and second letters to the Corinthians — that get to the heart of a current problem in the Church.
The problem is factionalism. We find it described right at the start of Paul’s first letter: “Each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’” — these being the names of evangelizers with whom various quarreling factions within the Christian community of Corinth chose to identify.
Paul is having no part of that. “Is Christ divided?” he angrily demands. On the contrary, Christ is one and so is his church (cf. 1 Cor 1:12-13).
Looking back on those days, it’s tempting for us now to strike a self-congratulating pose. “How foolish of those Corinthians — thank goodness we aren’t like them!”
Except we are.
Leaving aside the gaping divisions that persist within the worldwide Christian body, factionalism is a real and arguably growing problem among Catholics themselves. Unfortunately, an event later this month may be an unintended reminder of that.
On April 27, Pope Francis will canonize two remarkable men: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.
A huge crowd in Rome and millions watching worldwide will witness a joy-filled ceremony formally attesting to the sanctity of two great leaders of the Church.
Unfortunately, some people can’t leave it at that. How often in recent years has someone been heard to say, “I’m a John XXIII Catholic” or “I’m a John Paul Catholic”?
The names have changed, but otherwise it’s like the bad old days in first-century Corinth.
Note, too, that pundits are wont to hold forth about the politics of canonizations. Canonizing both John XXIII and John Paul II, it is said, represents the Vatican version of a balanced ticket — something for both liberals and conservatives. It would be naïve to imagine there’s nothing to that. But political calculations inspired by factionalism obscure a more important fact: Both of these popes are models of holiness for our times.
The problem doesn’t end with Pope John and Pope John Paul. Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have gone out of their way to stress the unity and continuity between them, but the factionalists won’t settle for that.
Instead, these days you’re all too likely to hear “I’m a Pope Francis Catholic” and “I’m a Pope Benedict Catholic.”
As St. Paul might have said: Cut it out, guys!
Yes, every pope is different in some ways from every other pope. Noting the differences is reasonable. Moreover, it’s natural to find some popes more congenial than others to one’s personal preferences.
But it is crass, church-dividing factionalism to declare allegiance to one at the expense of another.
In the end, says the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the Church has but one faith, one sacramental life, one apostolic succession, one common hope, and one and the same charity” (No. 161). Period.
But let St. Paul have the last word. After chiding the Corinthians, he goes on to underline a profound truth: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:12-13).
It’s called the Church.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.