Last Sunday, I read an editorial about the political wrangling that has become popular in the Catholic Church since the beginning of the nineteenth century. * In the editorial, the author revisited some opinions he had expressed several years earlier. Previously, he had issued an urgent warning based on his conviction that some of Pope Francis’ statements were so distressing to Catholic conservatives in America that the Church was being driven inexorably toward another schism. In last Sunday’s editorial, he tempered his previous views with the admission that a schism would require a precipitating event and a significant number of supporters. Both of these conditions were present in schisms in the past, but are absent from the current bickering in the Church.
The possibility of a Church schism makes for good editorial content because it addresses American culture’s needs for intrigue, drama, and self-righteousness. When the editorialist wrote about the growing unrest on the part of some minority groups in the Church, he pointed out correctly that the cause of their dissatisfactions was that they felt their opinions were not respected by a sufficient number of significant people in the Church. The editorialist mentioned some of the issues that spawned these contested opinions, but he failed to mention that these issues were about policy and practice rather than belief; the distinction between these is critical. In Catholicism, belief is of primary importance; morality is derivative and dependent on belief. (CCC 1785) Law, policy, and practice are further derivatives that are based on morality. (CCC 1899, 1902)
Mandatory clerical celibacy, for example, was one of the issues mentioned in the editorial. From time to time, the western Church revisits its policy of requiring priests and bishops to embrace lifelong celibacy as a precondition for exercising ordained ministry. While mandatory clerical celibacy is our current practice, it was not always thus. It wasn’t until the eleventh century that priests in the western Church were required to practice celibacy. The practice wasn’t embraced widely until the sixteenth century and, quite obviously, wasn’t embraced completely; the on-going sexual misconduct scandals in the Church are sufficient proof that celibacy is both unenforced and unenforceable. Mandatory clerical celibacy is made all the more a contingent practice when one looks at the twenty-three Catholic communities in union with Rome but distinct from the Latin Rite, that is, western Christianity; the oriental uniate churches have never required clerical celibacy and do not require it today. Those groups are as Catholic as the western Church; if they maintain a Catholic identity without clerical celibacy, then clerical celibacy is a policy rather than a belief.
Another issue mentioned by the editorialist is the reception of Holy Communion by divorced Catholics who are in an irregular marriage. Again, there has been a diversity of practice with regard to this issue throughout Catholic history. A diversity of practice was recognized and accepted by the Vatican throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and remains so today. Therefore, this is a policy matter rather than a matter of faith.
These, and other “trigger” issues, are issues of policy and practice. Some of them touch on moral issues, but none of them are about Catholic beliefs. Furthermore, these policy issues are given inordinate attention at the expense of abandoning a central belief in Catholicism. It is our belief that union with God depends on unity with fellow believers; this belief is expressed in the Creeds, unlike the policy issues that have become campaign slogans in ecclesiastical politics. The obvious truth that the editorialist avoids is that anyone who entertains the thought of fomenting or participating in a Church schism has already abandoned the Catholic Faith by placing policy issues above belief.
All of this previous discussion is a circuitous route to reflection on this Sunday’s Gospel reading. The teachings in today’s Gospel are about the faithful practice of religion. One might ask how Jesus made such an abrupt transition from talking about himself and his ministry (the parables we read last Sunday), to talking about his disciples and the manner in which he expected them to practice their religion. The connection is subtle but commonsensical.
In the three parables we read last Sunday, Jesus described himself as the one sent by God to seek and find God’s lost people. In the teachings we read this Sunday, Jesus describes some of the errant paths taken by those people on their journey to becoming lost. Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” (Lk. 16:13)
“Mammon” is an Aramaic word that made its way into the Greek-language Christian Scriptures because it came directly from Jesus’ usage and had connotations that did not translate easily into Greek. “Mammon” is commonly translated as “money,” but it has a much wider meaning; it can refer to any ephemeral object, whether tangible or intangible. “Mammon” can refer to money, possessions, social status, achievement, or anything that is a cause for pride or self-satisfaction. A common denomination of “mammon” in our contentious, fragmented society is the “mammon” of personal opinion. As with money, possessions, or social status, one can worship one’s opinions as one’s god. Jesus’ teaching about the various paths that lead away from God is simple: everyone worships something, but worship not directed to the God revealed in the Scriptures is idolatry.
The popularity of worship of opinion does not diminish its profanity. Dressing one’s opinions in the appearances of religion makes one’s opinions into a religion; it does not, however, make opinion into faithful religion. There are many paths that lead away from God, but all of them begin at the same starting point. The people lost to the Catholic Church today followed the same wayward direction trod by the lost sheep of Jesus’ day: they failed to give God the worship that God deserves. Jesus pointed out repeatedly that loss of union with God is never the result of someone else’s failure; rather, it is always the result of one’s own failure to worship God appropriately. (Lk. 6:41) The obvious flaw in the arguments put forth by those who seem to relish the possibility of another schism is that it is their own flaws that will lead to their downfall rather than the flaws of others (even if one of those flawed others is a pope).
The disaccord that afflicts Catholics nationwide in America has local effects, as well. Here, at All Saints, there is rancorous disagreement about many significant issues. Based on my observations, one of the most hotly contested issues is about the requirements for valid attendance at Sunday Liturgy. There is a very strident faction here that appears to believe that Sunday Mass attendance begins legitimately only when five minutes have elapsed after the published Mass time; another group is equally convinced that valid Mass attendance can be performed only until five minutes before the Final Blessing and Dismissal. A third group, despised by the other two classes of adversaries, makes up for being late to Mass by leaving early. Like the factions that fret over the policies and practices mentioned in the editorial, the opposing factions here have developed elaborate arguments to demonstrate the exclusive validity of their opinions. Jesus’ teaching obviates the need for logical argument based on little more than personal opinion. Jesus says that worship can be directed only to one recipient at time and that all of one’s worship should be directed exclusively to the God who sent him to seek and save the lost. The resolution to both the national and local disputes in the Church is simple: be here fully and for the entire time. If being fully present in the community of the Church requires one to forgive one’s presumed enemies, then one is assured of having learned and followed Jesus’ teachings.
* Douthat, Ross. “The Slow Road to Catholic Schism.” The New York Times, September 15, 2019.