Every group has its code words. These words serve an important social function — they enable the members of the group to deliver a harsh judgment on others without accountability. In the Catholic world, when someone is called “divisive,” it means he is too conservative to be trusted. Those who are “divisive” threaten the “unity of the Church” by raising questions about the loyalty of its leaders to its teachings.
Strange, isn’t it?
Not everyone understands the code, but not everyone is supposed to. The code serves to protect those who don’t want to be troubled by troubling questions. The code kept Church leaders from answering questions about the influence of active homosexuals in the priesthood. In the past, when Catholic publications such as Crisis raised this question, they were labeled “divisive.”
If Church unity must be protected from the Church’s teaching, then what kind of unity do we have? It is the kind of unity that keeps priests from reminding their parishioners of the Church’s position on birth control or homosexuality, the kind that allows a college to call itself Catholic while its faculty consistently misrepresent the Church’s teachings.
This arrangement may be appropriate for a big-tent political coalition. Parties form coalitions in order to achieve a majority vote; if they excluded everyone who doesn’t affirm every plank in the platform, they’d lose. But is this the kind of unity the Church should be seeking — a unity preoccupied with numbers? Such is the pseudo unity of those leaders who don’t want the “divisive” influence of sound Church teaching to embarrass cafeteria Catholics.
Some will say, quite rightly, that the unity of the Church is first of all a unity in Christ — a person, not a principle. They will argue that faith is a personal journey rather than the intellectual acceptance of a creed and moral teachings. “Pastoral care” thus requires that Catholics should not be made to feel less Catholic for the rejection of this or that teaching.
Some, in fact, may use pastoral care as an excuse to ignore the content of the faith, but the moral dimension of the spiritual life cannot be dismissed. The question remains whether we will continue calling all Catholics to a full recognition of Catholic teaching. This type of evangelism — an evangelism directed to those already in the Church — risks the very divisiveness that most of the leadership abhors. Dissent is so often encountered and so rarely challenged that is has been normalized. It begins to look imprudent — that is, divisive — even to remark on it. At least those who dissent within a political coalition are more honest about it. And political leadership rarely fears invoking the platform to pull coalition members into line.
Still looming large for our bishops is the subject of active homosexuality in the priesthood. Whether they are ready to meditate seriously on the intersection of homosexual orientation as an “objective disorder,” homosexual acts as morally evil, and the vocation of the celibate priesthood remains to be seen.
Given the obvious state of affairs in our priesthood, anyone who pushes these questions will likely be shoved aside as a divider. To borrow a phrase from St. Thomas Aquinas, now is the time to distinguish in order to unite. There is no real unity in the Church as long as its people are deceived and its teaching ignored.
This column originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.