With the Holy Triduum forthcoming, the prayer of Jesus prior to his arrest is timely for our contemplation:
“I pray…that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:20-21).
In the past, I always considered this prayer of Jesus for healing of divisions between different groups of Christians, an ecumenical call for unity between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox.
The events of 2020-2021, however, opened my eyes to the deep divisions within the Catholic Church, especially expressed in the US Church.
As a result, I believe that in this prayer Jesus is also calling Catholics to unity.
And not just calling—pleading.
I see Jesus’s prayer not only to the Father in union with the Holy Spirit, but beseeching us directly to choose to work towards unity. This prayer of Christ, prior to his crucifixion, is an invocation from deep within his Sacred Heart.
While not a comprehensive list, there are three areas of disunity within the Church that I would like to focus on, especially since these are evident among US Catholics:
There is a contingent of Catholics—including priests and bishops—along with media outlets such as EWTN, who oppose Pope Francis and the majority of his initiatives. In his book The Outsider, veteran Vatican journalist Christopher Lamb chronicles a series of more than 100 well-publicized “guerilla” attacks on Francis and his pontificate since 2013—consisting of manifestos, open letters, released “at regular interviews, seeking to normalize the idea that Francis is a heretic or has allowed the spread of heresy” (p. 43). A survey of the list reveals a disproportionate level of American influence on these well-coordinated and financed attempts to publicly undermine the pope.
Part of the mission of Where Peter Is is to combat this opposition, which ultimately confuses faithful Catholics and leads them astray. Pope Francis is the Successor of Peter, to whom Christ entrusted his Church (cf. Mt 16:18). To this point—reflecting on the writings of Saint Francis De Sales—Mark Hausam connects this Doctor of the Church’s teaching to the principle that the pope is the guarantor of orthodoxy and unity. In this lengthy excerpt from the saint’s writing, Hausam notes that De Sales affirms the Church’s long-held tradition “that the Popes as guarantors of orthodoxy and unity cannot, by their teaching, lead the Church into error or schism.” Opposing Francis’s leadership, therefore, opposes Christ and his Church.
In a panel discussion hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, Cardinal Wilton Gregory stated, “Opposition to the pope is not new, but what is new is the level and intensity that is there…It’s the insidiousness of the opposition movement that I think is scandalous for us.”
Theologian Massimo Faggioli commented on the opposition to Pope Francis as baseless and fringe in nature: “There is overwhelming support for Francis in the global Church on one side, and a tiny fringe of extremists trying to paint Francis as a pope who is heretic. The problem is that there is very little legitimate, constructive critique of Francis’ pontificate and his theology.”
Division aimed at the visible head of the Church ultimately weakens and undermines her, since a house divided against itself cannot stand (cf. Mk 3:25).
Therefore, mindful of the suffering Christ praying to the Father in Gethsemane, let us work toward unity with Pope Francis, and actively work against any voices seeking to promote this destructive division in the Church.
Catholics are sadly also divided regarding the sin of racism. While the Catechism clearly opposes inequity (CCC 1935), US bishops offered contradictory responses following the murder of George Floyd, ranging from denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement to kneeling in solidarity with the movement.
Racism harms the Church in multiple ways. Most fundamentally, it denies that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have equal dignity. Secondly, racism promotes disunity among members of the Body of Christ and the entire human race. Additionally, racism inhibits the apostolic mission of Christ to spread the Gospel to all peoples (cf. Mt 28:19). Finally, racism discredits the multicultural characteristic of the Church, denoted in it being called Catholic.
Hence, racism denies the four marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
Without uniting to fight against racism, the Church invites the pandemic of racism, which dismembers the Body of Christ. For the Church to truly be Catholic and live up to Christ’s mission, the members, from the laity to the hierarchy, must stand together against racism, an injustice that agonizes the Body of Christ.
US politics in 2020 highlighted Catholic partisan activity, from priests and bishops who promoted that one cannot be Catholic and vote Democrat, to a message to newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden from the USCCB that contrasted significantly in tone to the one from Pope Francis. Moreover, researchers from Creighton University demonstrated a disparity in how the US bishops criticized Presidents Obama and Trump.
As I stated in an article prior to the 2020 election, neither political party fully embraces the teachings of the Church. Catholics have both the right and the obligation to make voting decisions with consciences that are well-formed in light of Catholic social teaching.
Partisan rivalry among members of the Catholic Church creates a toxic form of tribalism that prevents unity as the Body of Christ. Moreover, it distracts from the mission of the Church to prioritize the Gospel in both teaching and practice. In light of the Triduum, let us not conflate partisan politics and the faith, but place Christ and his mission first.
The Trinity as a Model for Unity
Jesus calls us to remove the obstacles that prevent us from becoming united members of the Body of Christ. When we allow these areas to become divisive points, they prove to be idols diverting our attention away from Jesus.
In contrast, the Trinity models the unity Christ calls us to. The Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity demonstrate a unity through a communion of love as total gift. Division prevents us from giving our whole selves to God. Instead, we hold ourselves back, since the outward division denotes the division in our hearts, and reduces our capacity to accept the love the Trinity offers to us.
Following his prayer in John 17, Jesus holds nothing back, as he freely gives himself to die for us.
In gratitude for Christ’s gift to us, can we not at least honor his plea for unity and work towards this in our Church?
Disunity in the Body of Christ ultimately harms us all. It prevents us from the communion the Lord desires for us, exhibited by the Holy Trinity. If we can choose to put aside our differences and work toward unity with the present pope, solidarity with the racially marginalized, and a lived expression of faith that is not swayed by partisan politics, among so many other areas, we can begin to honor Christ’s desire for unity in his Body that also allows us to share in the Trinitarian communion of love. Let us allow the pierced Heart of Christ, from which his blood and water flowed at the crucifixion, be our aim in putting aside these needless differences so that we may work towards unity in Christ’s Church.
Image: Exterior of the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. By Andrzej Harassek, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53136302