Polarization in the Church – The Kingdom Rent Assunder?
“A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mt 12:25) Many of the sayings of Jesus are hard to understand or accept. This one seems only obvious.
It is often said that the lack of Christian unity is a major hazard or stumbling block – scandolos or “scandal” in Greek – for those trying to enter the Kingdom or the Reign of God. The good news is that various groups have begun to treat each other as Christians and not as minions of the anti-Christ. The bad news is that major denominations are split over the existence of the brontosaurus in the sanctuary.
Some people say the beast is an elephant because people experience it differently – like the blind men in the fable. For some it is a rope, for others tree stumps, for a few it feels like a snake. The “elephant” school says that issues like same sex marriage, women’s issues, and diversity are actually the result of a single problem – the need to update Christian ethics and not to take the Bible literally. Christian behavioral norms, according to this school, should be influenced by more enlightened cultural norms and follow the primary mandate of compassionate love.
Others say that the beast is the “Beast” of the Book of Revelation and these challenges to traditional Christian behavioral norms are the beginning of the test of the faithful. According to the “Armageddon” school, the Beast will consume the compromisers like so much buttered popcorn. Those who have not “compromised” will be caught up in the rapture and spared the thousand year reign of the anti-Christ.
Between these two extremes there is a complete spectrum of different intellectual and emotional responses to these issues. Many people are inclined to think that all of this started in the 1960s, when the world got turned upside down. For many Catholics, the secular cultural upheaval of the 1960s was nothing compared to the tsunami of the Second Vatican Council. A few think that Pope Paul VI, in ratifying the declaration on religious liberty and changes to the liturgy, committed apostasy and left the Chair of Peter vacant – Sede Vacante. According to the sedevacantists, the bishops appointed by Paul VI and the popes elected by those bishops have no legitimate authority.
At the other end of the Catholic spectrum, there are those who see Vatican II as limiting and redefining the centrality of rule from Rome. Local churches, governed by lay people, with lay presiders at the Eucharist, are seen as an authentic restoration of the Church. In response, Restorationists – including many young people – think that all these problems will go away if we return to the Golden Age of the Catholic Mass in Latin, with everyone praying their rosaries while the sacred mysteries are performed.
The beast in question is actually a “brontosaurus”(or Apatosaurus), because it is a much older and more intractable species than the elephant. It is not the Beast of the Book of Revelation because it is all too confused and political – and it doesn’t have the gaping maw. The “brontosaurus” is the challenge of living the Christian life and being church in a rapidly changing and unstable world. This challenge actually dates back to the Enlightenment in the 1700’s. However, the major denominations could contain it until the industrial revolution. The urbanization of rural agrarian populations, the revolution in transportation and communication, as well as the emergence of history and the social sciences as academic fields of study, raised major questions that divided church thinkers – the theologians and philosophers. One of the most unsettling discoveries was that Christian philosophy and theology – like all human endeavors – have changed over the centuries.
The Catholic church responded by not only condemning the modern world, but also by rehabilitating the logical approach of Aquinas and Aristotle (See Arraj Chapter 2) as a means of presenting and logically defending the faith against any thought or political action that challenged it. Instead of the medieval spirit of inquiry, students got summaries of pre-digested questions and answers. Not all thinkers went along with this, but they were marginalized or condemned. This gave the appearance of well-being, but like a person with emphysema, the overuse of steroids provides comfort while it destroys the bones. On the positive side, Pope Leo XIII and other Christian leaders, led a social gospel movement to protect the interests of industrial workers. This movement continues today, with the “preferential option for the poor.”
When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, the Curia had prepared draft agendas and documents for the bishops. No one foresaw that the octogenerian pope, who had been elected as a caretaker, would encourage the bishops to take matters into their own hands in his opening address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia.
Having chafed under the control of the Curia, the bishops set their own course. Theologians and philosophers who had been silenced or put to the side were chosen to fill the intellectual vacuum. One of the young superstars was Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. The major problem was that this new school of thinking had never been tested in the open forum of discussion and debate. Conservatives did what they could to stem the tide, but the winds of Aggiornamento (updating) filled the sails of the bishops, the clergy, and more importantly, the people in the pews who now became the “laity.”
In the United States today there are approximately 3,300 men in seminary programs studying for the priesthood. There are also 33,000 men and women in graduate ministry and theological programs who are not studying for the priesthood. The vast majority of them share the same classrooms with the students for the priesthood. However, the newly ordained priests tend be in their 30’s and 50’s and are already formed as people. Many of them are more conservative and many bring with them an entrenched clericalism from their Philippine and Vietnamese cultures.
The growth of the Anglican Communion, the Catholic Church, and other denominations in Africa and Asia – the global south – has already created substantial tensions due to the immense cultural and economic differences which support more traditional behavioral codes and religious perspectives.
So the brontosaurus is alive and well – or at least it will be until we deal with these tensions so that others once again can come to know us as Jesus’ disciples by our love (Jn 13:34-35).