A few weeks ago I was at the Rectory on a Saturday morning when there was a knock at the front door. I answered the door – my mistake. Two young women were standing there with Bibles and stacks of pamphlets. They asked me, “If you die today, are you certain that you will go to heaven?”
I told them that I was a Catholic priest, and didn’t share their beliefs. Apparently, in that moment, I grew horns and a forked tail. I could tell from the looks on their faces that they couldn’t decide whether they should run for cover, or try for the biggest conversion of their careers. I saved them the trouble of deciding by letting them know I had pressing work to do, and that I couldn’t continue the conversation with them.
Non-Catholics have a number of complaints about the Catholic Church. All of the complaints can be reduced to the single assertion that, somewhere between biblical times and the present, the Catholic Church strayed away from biblical teaching. While it is true that many aspects of Church life have changed in the past twenty centuries, the most important things have not. The Catholic Faith is a belief in the Baptismal Covenant with God; having died with Jesus through our Baptism, we believe that we will live with Him in His resurrection. The Gospel reading today illustrates another aspect of Church life that remains unchanged since the time of the Apostles.
Matthew’s church community was a divided community; the division was due, in part, to a persecution of church leaders that was supported by some of the members of the community. Today’s Gospel passage is a set of instructions about how to manage the daily life of a church community. It speaks about how to handle personal disputes and public conflict. The fact that the consequences of dissension and disagreements figure prominently in Matthew’s Gospel is sufficient proof of that community’s Catholicity and our living connection with them.
Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am present with them.” (Matthew 18:20) There is a well-known corollary to this Gospel teaching, “Put two Catholics together, and you’ll get three opinions.” Catholics have been disagreeing, and even fighting, with one another at least since the time of Matthew’s church community.
It has always been a hallmark of the Church that believers hold their personal opinions in the highest regard. We argue about the best parish to belong to, the best type of liturgical music and the best forms of popular devotion. A few months ago, when I proposed rearranging the Altar, Ambo and congregational seating in this church building, someone facetiously made the suggestion that I do what is often done in Confessionals: make one entrance for those who like to face the priest and one entrance for those who wish to remain anonymous.
In part, this arguing is a commonplace result of the limitations of our human nature. There is, however, another contributing factor: Catholicism has for too long been taught and practiced as little more than an ethics. When matters of faith are reduced to mere ethical imperatives, everything becomes a potential infraction and a reason to disagree.
Many years ago, when I was a seminarian, I had a summer internship at a parish in which the pastor would not allow lay people to distribute Holy Communion; he expected all of the priests to show up at each Mass for the Communion Rite. On one Sunday, the pastor and an associate got into an argument about liturgical correctness. One of them asserted that it was liturgically incorrect to wear a cassock and surplice in order the distribute Communion; the other one disagreed. The argument was suspended when they had to go out to distribute Holy Communion. I don’t think they ever resolved their difference of opinion. One thing became apparent to me: it’s liturgically incorrect when people in the Sacristy shout loud enough to be heard throughout the church building.
Each of us have complaints about other people, institutions, political parties, etc.; the list goes on and on. Oftentimes, these complaints turn into heated conflict; sometimes, they disrupt our lives, our families and our friendships. This Sunday’s passage of Matthew’s Gospel portrays a process that believers were to follow in order to resolve such differences. (Matthew 18:15-17) Members of Matthew’s church community were instructed to begin with a private confrontation. If that didn’t work, they were to organize an intervention with two or three others. Finally, if that didn’t work, they were to enlist the whole community in order to discern a resolution.
While these instructions can still be helpful today, there is something else present in this passage of the Gospel. Those instructions about how to handle disagreement and conflict presupposed a background of a shared faith. While we, today, cannot assume the presence of a shared faith with all of those who disagree with us, we should nonetheless keep in mind the importance of faith as the background for all of our actions.
When our lives and our interactions with others are reduced to being founded on nothing more than an ethics, conflict becomes impossible to avoid. When our decision-making is founded on nothing more than our personal definitions of right and wrong, the conflicts that inevitably will arise between individuals have little chance of being resolved. There is an irreducibly subjective aspect to all ethical systems; ethical viewpoints are conditioned by time, place, culture and past experience. Ethics does not provide a sufficiently firm foundation on which to base one’s life.
I’m not suggesting the kind of antinomianism that is often associated with the 1960’s; anarchism, hippy-style “free love” self-obsession, anti-establishment adolescent rebelliousness, and the like, are merely the most eccentric forms of subjective ethics. Rather, I am suggesting that the ethics one adopts must be grounded in something else: something less changeable and less influenced by personal opinion. While there are many arguments against the possibility and/or virtue of revealed religious truth, there is one irreplaceable benefit to acknowledging a truth beyond oneself: it provides an escape from the closed-in world of one’s personal opinions.
The set of conflict resolution instructions in Matthew’s Gospel offers us a way to deal with our disagreements and dissatisfactions that keeps our minds focused on faith even while we complain. It is not possible to get everyone to agree with all we say or believe. If our perspective on the normal conflicts of life is one based solely on our personal ethics, those conflicts will remain an either/or, win/lose game. The Gospel instructs us not to make life and relationships a matter of winning or losing, but rather a matter of remaining faithful to God and one another. The next time you find yourself complaining, disagreeing or being disagreed with, ask yourself whether you want to make it a matter of winning and losing or a matter of being faithful. Attempting always and everywhere to win is, in actual fact, a losing battle; keeping the Faith, on the other hand, is always the right thing to do.