First, Communion

The first time I read G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 work Orthodoxy, I leaned repeatedly across the aisle of an airplane to share passages with my adult son. Chesterton recalled his days as a rationalist and described how puzzling Catholicism seemed when reading others’ critiques. He concluded that it was an unreasonable religion, being at the same time too pessimistic and too optimistic; timid and crusading. It somehow doomed women to cloisters and to families. It was meager in its ashes and pompous in its ritual. It eventually struck him that these accusations revealed more about its critics than about Catholicism itself. His curiosity about actual Church teaching led to his ultimate conversion.

Chesterton’s experience mirrors the growing skepticism I see among Catholic friends and leaders today. I recall a friend teasing me with a “Heil Hitler” salute when Pope Benedict XVI resigned. For him, Pope Benedict epitomized the nickname, God’s Rottweiler, from his days leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Another friend commented early in Pope Francis’ papacy, “I think his Jesuit is showing.” For him, Jesuit equated with political liberalism, which led to suspicion of Pope Francis’ leadership. Both comments aimed at humor, but with a definitive judgment on the topic. Neither invited discussion. Whether the topic is liturgy, Vatican II, social justice, or moral fidelity, this hand-grenade-style of communication—toss out the sarcasm and run—causes me to wonder how Catholics will overcome this divisive time. It becomes all too easy to think cynically of the other as lesser Catholic, or altogether unfaithful.

To magnify some aspect of the faith while minimizing another is to ignore the lesson that Chesterton learned. The critiques of his time reflected the both-and nature of Catholic Christianity. The Church (and the human heart for that matter) is always big enough for piety and for zeal, for work and for worship; though at a given moment, an individual’s faith might magnify one element of Christianity more than another. A Catholic who has not reconciled some Church teaching, while straining daily to address human suffering, is a sinner and a Christian. A Catholic who adheres to doctrine and worships well, but does not “smell like the sheep,” as Pope Francis has urged, is a sinner and a Christian. Ministering to the suffering is a way to love God. Reverent liturgy and humble obedience are ways to love God. If two Catholics journey toward Christ from differing starting points, does it aid either person—or the larger Church—to dismiss the other’s perspective? We Catholics ignore Christ’s warning when we succumb to the temptation to judge one another: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged…” (Mt 7:1-2).

To avoid judgment, learning to “live and let live” seems a safe choice. Such tolerance might suffice as step one for the intolerant, but it falls far short of Christ’s example of speaking the truth in love. Whereas judging reveals a narrow focus on the splinter in another’s eye (Mt 7:3), pretending that the well-meaning person never has need of conversion is equally narrow. Christ taught that to love Him is to keep His commandments (Jn 14:15). He met people on their journeys and spoke in ways that awakened them to His message—whether by forgiveness, healing, invitation, discussion, or cold hard confrontation—always that they might turn their lives toward the Father. When rooted in mutual trust, correcting another’s error is a gift of sorts, and the Church would be stronger if her children could give and receive correction in the way Christ taught.

To be fair, Christ’s words can seem paradoxical. He taught his followers to avoid judgment while teaching a means of correcting one another. He willingly forgave sins while He urged repentance. Christ’s intention to draw others to Himself is the key to this apparent paradox. Christ forgives the sinner who turns toward Him. Christ urges repentance when the sinner has not yet turned toward Him. He expects the same of His followers—that we would take seriously the mission to draw others to Him. Calling another to conversion, then, should always have a primary goal: communion in Christ. Afterall, Christ prayed earnestly for communion among His followers on Holy Thursday (Jn 17:21). He chastised leaders who set themselves apart from sinners (Lk 18:10-14). In response to her complaint, Christ preferred that Martha join Mary in communion with Him (Lk 10:38-42). When asked about divorce, Jesus restored the Father’s intention for husband and wife to be inseparable (Mt 19:3-9). At Pentecost, Peter urged Jesus’ persecutors to repent and join their community (Acts 2:37-39). Paul warned against the division caused by choosing one apostle over another (1 Cor 1:12-13).

Again, one might question this emphasis on communion by recalling Jesus’ words that He came to cause division (Lk 12:51-53); but notice that this division occurs because some would refuse Jesus while others would cling to Him. When responding to the son who would first go and bury his father, Jesus uses hyperbole, “Let the dead bury their dead,” to emphasize that nothing in this world should supersede Him (Lk 9:59-60). One follower of Christ might become divided from another, but only because one remains with Christ and the other walks away. Christ could predict such division without preferring it. In truth, scripture resounds with messages to invite, heal, serve, and preach, so that every person might adhere to the Body of Christ.

In this age of divisiveness, most know of an acquaintance or leader who appears hypocritical from a certain vantage point. Should we not assume that Jesus still desires communion with that person? Facing beliefs contrary to Jesus’ teachings, the role of a Christian remains the same—to draw his opponent closer to Christ. Mere accusation will likely push him away from the truth rather than draw him nearer; and yet, our soundbite culture thrives on cynicism, not understanding. When important differences arise, the truth must prevail, but should conviction prevent an effort to understand another’s perspective? Competition at the expense of dialogue divides Catholics and undermines our ability to attract others to Christ.

Of course, not all communication is trustworthy—half-truths and manipulation that aim to gain supporters should give us pause. At the same time, not all differences of opinion reveal hypocrisy. Perhaps our suspicion of one another stems from differing moral priorities—that another’s focus of activity within Catholicism diverges from mine. In other words, equating an idea (e.g., faithful Catholic) with my particular understanding of that idea, could leave me skeptical when I encounter something different. If I then judge that divergent viewpoint as hypocrisy, I will likely tune it out or criticize it as a threat. If committed to preserving communion, however, I might begin with humble curiosity when I encounter a Catholic who makes me uncomfortable, in the same way that a challenging homily might prompt me to wonder if this message is one I particularly need to hear. Such curiosity could lead to relationship—a more hopeful starting point for conversion than an accusing finger.

When focused on shortcomings, one might overlook a valuable contribution the other makes to the faith. Might two Catholics preserve communion by expressing appreciation for the goodwill and the gifts of the other, even when one or both fall short of a full life in Christ? I am grateful for the Catholics currently serving at the U.S. border with Mexico, though I am not one of them. I am grateful there are Catholics who deeply understand the beauty and value of traditional liturgy, though I am a long way from such deep understanding. I hope when someone notices my shortcomings, he can appreciate my vocation as husband and father.

By noticing the complementary nature of such roles, the Church lives out Paul’s teaching that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’” (1 Cor 12:21). Paul illustrates how to attain the unity Christ prayed for by acknowledging different roles in the one Body. If we aim to appreciate the gifts another uses in service of God, rather than training our eyes on shortcomings, the Church might experience another kind of appreciation—an increase in value, each sinner growing in virtue by way of relationship to another.

This perspective is not meant to ignore the differences. For instance, conversion is needed when a worker at the border considers the sacraments unnecessary as compared to his service; when a daily Mass attendee ignores the needs of the suffering; and when a good father fails to participate in his parish because he is “too busy.” Shortcomings demand honest discussion, but without respect and understanding, the likelihood for conversion shrinks. In curious dialogue, however, each might find attractive the gifts found in the other, providing a much greater chance for true communion, and perhaps even growth in virtue.

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

Chesterton, G. K. (1908). Orthodoxy. Ignatius Press.

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Chris Ebberwein is a husband of nearly 30 years to Katie and a father of five. A practicing psychologist in the Diocese of Wichita, Chris attended Notre Dame and Kent State before earning a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Kansas. He has published articles on topics in vocational psychology and family medicine, and he loves to write for local diocesan publications. Chris self-published a prayer book for Catholic couples, entitled The Cana Rosary: A Couple’s Prayer.

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