Scorched earth Catholics

Earlier this month The Southern Cross took the difficult decision to suspend the comments facility on its website. The comments section was intended to serve as a forum in which readers could exchange ideas on topics within the Church. Perhaps invariably, these discussions frequently became marked by intolerable levels of hectoring polemic; sometimes accompanied by calumny and distortion. This stood in direct breach of the eleventh commandment given to us by Our Lord.

“Conversations that lack in basic human decency cannot be facilitated by a forum that is truly Catholic.” (c) IWM (Imperial War Museums)

The Southern Cross has for many decades encouraged robust debate on questions of our faith, but such discourse must be rooted in a spirit of mutual respect, even when the positions of disagreement are in conflict. When this quality is lacking, fruitful dialogue – a necessary condition for effective evangelisation – is impossible. Conversations that lack in basic human decency cannot be facilitated by a forum that is truly Catholic.

It is deplorable that the quality of discourse in the Catholic Church, at least in its Anglophone regions, has become increasingly nasty. Debates within the Church tend to resemble more the scorched earth partisanship of US politics than discussions between fellow disciples of Our Lord.

Often those with whom we disagree are regarded as enemies whose arguments must be mercilessly vanquished – all this predicated on a burning love for Jesus and his Church!

But belligerence was not Christ’s way. Jesus did not bully those who did not believe him; he persuaded and healed, and had compassion even for those who crucified him.

Some Catholics, it seems, are prone to ascribe the least charitable interpretation to the positions taken by those with whom they disagree, ascribing to them agendas that may not exist.

Let us be clear, however, about this: Those who oppose the sacerdotal ordination of women are not, specifically, exercising gender discrimination. Those who advocate more traditional elements in the liturgy do not, specifically, seek to reverse the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Those who are tolerant of the legalisation of same-sex unions do not, specifically, propagate a reform of the Church’s teachings on sexuality.

It is an act of injustice to heedlessly ascribe hostile agendas to others, be it by the (often self-appointed) guardians of orthodoxy or by the advocates of reform.

In discourse on the faith with fellow Catholics, our default position always must be that we all act in love for the Church. We are served well to ascribe the most generous interpretation to other Catholics’ motives.

The sense of mutual suspicion is eroding our Christian mission. How can we spread the message of Christ’s love when we so readily show hostility towards others? How can we defend Christ crucified when we place an inordinate value on the Church’s laws above the definitive Christian virtues of love, compassion and humility.

The magisterium is a living, constantly evolving entity. There were times when the Church taught definitively that the sun rotates around the earth, outlawed usury, imposed extensive days of fast, and sold indulgences to finance building operations.

Today, the Church affirms scientific inquiry, accepts the world of banking, allows the consumption of meat on most days of the year, and has mostly disowned the sale of indulgences.

These reforms were the result of ongoing dialogue, deliberation and prayer.

The teachings of the Church require perpetual reflection and contemplation, in charity and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in whom we must invest our full trust. There is no disloyalty in examining the doctrines and disciplines of the Church and how they are exercised, provided one persists in submitting to these teachings to the best of one’s capacity and informed conscience.

In debate, we should be guided by the words often (though inaccurately) attributed to St Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”

It is a sin to use one’s faith as a weapon with which to hurt others. It is a sin to show hatred in the name of Christ. And it is a sin when love for the law or one’s own opinions of it prevail over Christ’s command to be gentle and compassionate.

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