Moses gives the Ten Commandments to the Israelites

Can Catholics Stand United?

March 5, 2015 by Fr. Dwight Longenecker


I remember when I first converted to the Catholic faith an old Irish priest said, “Ahh, you’ll find that the Catholic Church is just as divided as the Anglicans.”

I disagreed with him for a reason I’ll come to later, but I certainly discovered that the Catholic Church was divided.

In England, where I then was, the divide was papered over in the usual way the British have of pretending nothing is wrong.

In the USA I found the divisions to be sharp and the walls between various tribes to be tall and impermeable.

It is like there are two separate Catholic Churches in the USA which might be called “The Establishment” and “The Loyal Opposition”.

I choose these terms carefully rather than “conservative” and “progressive” or “traditionalist” and “modernist”. However, those other terms have their own uses.

The two factions each have their own colleges and universities, their own publishing houses, their bloggers, their newspapers and their magazines. They have their own leaders, speakers, preachers and priests. They have their own episcopal heroes and villains. They each have their own set of priorities, agendas and liturgical styles.

The old Irish priest seems right. If there are not as many divisions in the Catholic Church there is certainly a large basic one between “The Establishment” and “the Loyal Opposition.”

If I were to paint a picture of the two sides with a broad brush I’d say “The Establishment” believe tradition is the anchor of the Catholic faith and the authority of the Church–voiced by the Pope is the fixed rock on which they stand. They are strongly pro life which means they oppose abortion. They see traditional marriage as being the cause of human happiness not its enemy. They want their worship to be God centered not people centered and they want that worship, therefore to be beautiful, reverent and transcendent. They want to be faithful, good Catholics which requires self discipline, self sacrifice and service.

The Loyal Opposition, on the other hand, feel that the voice of Catholic authority is first with, for and by the people of God and the Bishops and the Pope are rightly the servants of the people of God. Truth is consensual and shared rather than being imposed from above. They prefer the pastoral solution rather than the legalistic solution to difficult moral questions and they value individualism and the freedom to challenge church teaching where it seems harsh, hypocritical or downright unrealistic. Because their religion is more people centered they think service to the poor and vulnerable is the most important task of the church and that worship should be accessible, understandable with full participation of all God’s people.

In my opinion both sides are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.

An easy summary is to see that the two sides emphasize the two great commandments to love God and love our neighbor.

Why am I a member of “The Establishment” rather than the Loyal Opposition?
The reason I am one of “The Establishment” rather than “The Loyal Opposition” is not because I disagree with their desire to love their neighbor, but because I think the second commandment is subordinate to the first. Loving God and listening to his voice through his Church does not contradict my duty to love my neighbor, rather it enables it. The love of God is, if you like, the vertical beam of the cross through which my relationship with God is kept alive while love of neighbor is the horizontal beam of the cross through which I put my love of God into action. My disagreement with “The Loyal Opposition” is not that they emphasize peace and justice issues or even that they challenge the church with real questions, but that I feel they too often put the love of neighbor before the love of God and I think that’s back to front.

Are we as divided as the Anglicans? No, because despite our disagreements we all still agree that love it or loathe it, the authority of the Church is the rock on which we build. Even when we dissent we are dissenting against that authority and therefore proving its validity even by our rejection of it. We may kick the rock on which the church is built, but the pain in our foot proves the rock still stands.

Does today’s shared editorial mean that this divide in Catholicism is over? ‘Fraid not. Much of the division, it must be admitted, is down to personality types, personal backgrounds and the prejudices that go with them.

Is this analysis the only problem within the American Catholic divide? ‘Fraid not. The deeper problems touch on real philosophical and theological divides. It must be admitted that some of “The Loyal Opposition” hold modernist views that are irreconcilable with Catholic theology and some of the hold moral opinions on matters like same sex marriage, artificial contraception and abortion which are simply impossible to reconcile with faithful Catholicism.

While I don’t think today’s shared editorial means (as Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter has said) that we are all now sitting happily singing Kumbayah together, I hope it does mean that we might just open the gates of our little fortresses and engage in some genuine discussion. If there are fireworks, so be it.

For my part, I’d like the opportunity to challenge “the other side” on some of the things where we disagree and I’m quite happy to hear their criticisms of “The Establishment.”

If we are not exactly standing firmly together on all issues, at least we might decide together to leave our respective little self made castles and meet on the field for jousting.

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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