A House Divided, but Not Beyond Repair

Thirty years ago, it was already becoming apparent that the Church in the United States – and not only here – was terribly divided. The divisions arose from differing interpretations of Vatican II and they began to work their ways into dioceses, religious orders and congregations, and parishes.

These and the training programs for clergy and religious then began to fall into two well-defined camps, the orthodox and the heterodox. The former comprised of those who held that Vatican II, whatever new things it introduced, is part of the tradition of the Church; and the latter group held to the idea that Vatican II established a “new church,” a notion that left previous tradition behind as “outdated” and that cherry picked the teaching of Vatican II, when it did not just make things up from whole cloth.

The American ecclesiastical landscape then became the patchwork that we still see today with the intellectual divide cutting through religious houses, formation systems, diocesan administrations, national Catholic organizations and the clergy, religious, and laity, and through the episcopate itself. It’s not hard to identify the problem. Just raise any Catholic moral issue and the divide appears immediately, either actively or passively (in the sense that real Catholic teaching is downplayed or not mentioned at all).  

The group of “ageing hippies” still has its hands on the levers of power in many colleges, seminaries, and other Catholic institutions. It just takes one person in the right position to influence hiring, textbooks, and the institutional message. The effect of this patchwork on the mission of the Church has been to dilute the witness of the Catholic Church in the United States in a number of areas.

Henri de Lubac

With his customary insight, Fr. Henri de Lubac (later cardinal) wrote that in this case “each man cites one of the ‘outside’ doctrines or parties in order to secure a triumph for his own ideas over those of another – who is, in fact, his brother. When this happens, the quarrels of the Church’s own children do not merely weaken the Church; they disfigure her in the eyes of the world: ‘the sensual man does not perceive those things that are of the spirit of God.’(I Corinthians 15:4-9)”

The notion of brotherhood goes right to the heart of the matter. The assertion of outside doctrines for one’s own power has been allowed to take precedence over the real meaning of the Church as a brotherhood that holds to one faith and one Lord.

The brotherhood as one presence “should be in her members what she is in herself; she should be through us what she is for us.”(de Lubac) Such a unity allows Christ to be clearly proclaimed, not as a blurred image, not as different Christs – Christ the liberal or Christ the conservative, Christ the yuppie or Christ the homeless man. There is one Christ who should not be a mere pretext for our poor efforts at remaking the world or at establishing ourselves and our group as the power group, instead of the one true Christ.

Fortunately for us, as de Lubac saw, “all these deviations are powerless against the Church herself. Men may be lacking the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit will never be lacking to the Church. In virtue of her witness and sovereign powers, she will always be the Sacrament of Christ, and make him really and truly present to us.” This means that Christ has a way of busting through the fog created by the poorly informed, the partisans and the downright malicious. Yes, we can and ought to make sure that we are not obstacles. But somehow the Holy Spirit daily tweaks consciences and voilà – in that public statement and in what that person over there is doing – Christ becomes public and visible and challenging once more.

When Karol Wojtyła was a priest and then a bishop under Communist oppression, he realized that culture was the place in which to affirm what is right about humanity. In clandestine play readings, or meetings in his residence (public gatherings were watched), or in the celebration of Mass in a field at Nova Huta (after the district had deliberately been laid out without a church), he simply and clearly asserted the presence of Jesus Christ, and the dignity of the human being within the society that Christ had died for. With such a clear division between the oppressed and the oppressor, the mode of response – which took grace and courage – became clear.

I would submit that the division today is in fact equally clear, what we are looking for is men and women of prayer, living embodiments of grace and courage, to unleash the great torrents of the Holy Spirit upon this divided house, and make it deeply and visibly one again.