Confusion Within the Church: Satan’s Work or God’s?

Last week, the National Catholic Reporter ran a story about the upcoming elections for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The author of the story paints a picture of the elections as presenting a choice between “Francis bishops” and bishops who might be seen as being more at odds with the pastoral inclinations and priorities of the current Pontiff. As an example of the latter, the article mentions Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., of Philadelphia, who publicly stated he was “very disturbed” by the debate over Church teachings on gay people and remarried Catholics at the 2014 Synod on the Family. In his opinion, the Synod sent a confusing message, and “confusion is of the devil.”

These are indeed confusing times for many, and many people share Archbishop Chaput’s frustration. Recent years have seen a major shift in public opinion (including the opinion of large numbers of Catholics) on the matter of same-sex marriage. Until recently, not only Catholic teaching but also the majority Catholic opinion was firmly against such unions. Now more than half of US Catholics favor same-sex marriage. Another divisive issue, admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, took center stage in last month’s Synod on the Family. Many Catholics were hoping that the Synod would produce a clear response to this question, but the resulting documents essentially left it an open issue. Meanwhile the fight over Obamacare-mandated contraception rages on in the US court system. These are topics of passionate concern for a great many Catholics, and at present it is anything but clear how the Church as a whole will respond going forward.

Some, like Chaput and Cardinal Raymond Burke, clearly favor policies that hold to traditional Church teaching and view the present debates around these issues as seeds of discord planted by Satan, “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). There is no doubt that confusion can be an evil, destructive force, at least in some situations. When Peter misunderstood Jesus’ mission, Jesus strongly rebuked him, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (Mt 16:23). The intentions of Church leaders like Chaput and Burke would seem to be consistent with Jesus’ intentions to the extent that they are acting out of a desire to preserve the unity of the Church and reassure members of the faithful. (And only God and these individuals know the true intentions in their hearts.) Such intentions reflect the instincts of a pastor concerned for his flock.

However, Chaput, Burke, and all of us must also acknowledge that, at least in some situations, Jesus himself was the source of confusion. For example, biblical scholars tell us that Jesus told parables, those enigmatic and sometimes disturbing stories, with the express purpose of challenging what people thought they knew. At one point Jesus tells his apostles that he speaks in parables “in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand’” (Mk 4:12; cf. Mt 13:14; Lk 8:10). It is difficult to maintain the assertion that all confusion is from the devil in light of passages such as these. Read More


Will There Be Civil War in the Church?

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Is civil war coming to the Catholic Church over the possible creation of a penitential path back to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics? On its face, this claim seems preposterous, a half-baked fantasy cooked up by a small group of Catholic traditionalists and reactionaries whose enmity toward Pope Francis has reached new heights. I asked Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, perhaps the most influential cardinal in Francis’ papacy, if he thought this was a realistic possibility. He responded, “This is a lack of faith.”

This may seem harsh. But it is important to remember that faith is about trust, not just belief. Those raising the specter of civil war quite clearly do not trust the Holy Father and the Church (and implicitly the Holy Spirit, as well). They have more faith in their own judgement.

At the same time, let’s not forget that Francis has called for a revolution. Ideally that would only lead to conflict between Christian principles and the false idols of the world that tear down human dignity and obstruct the flourishing of persons. But realistically, it was always bound to incite intra-Church conflict. Legalism was present in Jesus’ time, and it remains so today. This mentality will always conflict with the radicalism of Christ’s teaching, even for those aiming to uphold Christ’s teachings. And given the depth and richness of Church teaching, along with our imperfect human nature, virtually all Catholics are capable of slipping into a legalistic mindset. So legalistic opposition to Francis’ revolution of mercy was always likely. And given the importance of tradition for the Church, many were likely to favor the status quo rather than wanting the Church to become a field hospital of people who go forth to the peripheries.

But Cardinal Rodriguez also talked about seeing the visible presence of the Holy Spirit at the Synod. There was disagreement, but it most often led to dialogue, not threats of war or schism. Even those Church leaders who believe that altering the Church’s approach to those who are divorced and remarried would do more harm than good by undermining the clarity of Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage certainly understand why this is up for discussion. They understand what the Church is asking if it requires an abandoned spouse to be celibate for 60 years while raising kids on her own in order to receive communion and how difficult that road is. Since they are orthodox Catholics, they understand the need to comprehend the context of Christ’s words (both as a response to a question about divorce for any reason and within the larger context of the Gospel), rather than endorsing a narrow, literalist reading of just one or two passages. These Church leaders know that our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters are not just a bunch of liberal heretics with no regard for the words of Christ and no commitment to one flesh marriage. Cardinal Rodriguez may be right: the biggest difference may be that these leaders have faith that the Spirit will guide the Church to the right response on this difficult matter.

Pope Francis is bringing a revolution. We need one. We are too distant from the radical commitment to love demanded by Christ. And there will be opposition, even threats of civil war. But it seems most likely that it will be limited to a small group of Americans who are caught up in their own social media world of like-minded hysteria than among the broader Church and its hierarchy. Hopefully some of these will break away from their bubble, clear their minds from the cacophony of bitterness and hyperbole, and choose to trust the Church rather than plot a civil war that seems unlikely to ever materialize.