Recently, on Twitter, Steve Skojec described the existence of a de facto schism in which “two different and incompatible churches are occupying the same space at the same time.” He expressed a desire to see this de facto schism declared as such “de jure” or under church law. Without really addressing the content of the comment itself, it certainly raises the question: why is it so hard for people of the same religion to agree on matters of faith, even to the point of schism?
Faith, in short, is a gift. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa summarizes the gift of faith by breaking it down into two parts: First, God must propose. Second, God must give the grace to accept what is proposed (cf. ST II-II.6.1). Assuming we’re discussing Catholics who have at least been given the grace to accept the faith in Baptism, the real question is, “What is the faith we have accepted? Are we accepting all of what has been proposed to us?”
The problem, if we can call it that, is that God rarely proposes faith directly to an individual (though it certainly does happen and has happened in history). It is a more common experience to have the faith proposed to us by preachers, that is, the Church. The Church preaches the faith based on what it has received from Jesus Christ through the Spirit, in Scripture and Tradition. The Church is trustworthy, and indeed, there is no other standard to judge what is the true faith except the Church.
We can go further. Faith is inherently a matter of God’s merciful revelation. One cannot reason to the faith in a vacuum. In this sense, we cannot empirically prove the truth of certain principles of the faith except to show that they are teachings promulgated by the Church. But, in the case of Skojec and others, it is the Church’s trustworthiness itself that has been called into question! If one cannot empirically prove that what has been proposed by the Church is true and cannot trust the Church to propose truthfully, then on what basis can rational discussion on this issue be had? In truth, very little.
We at Where Peter Is have been spending some time discussing what is that we hope to achieve by our writing. We are not ignorant of just how dangerous certain opinions are and have been. In a recent piece, Mike Lewis told a story of a former friend who was led into the bowels of sedevacantism.
In various ways, we have come to this website out of frustration with the tone and tenor of the debate, over the twisting of the Pope’s words to nefarious ends, or the prejudiced refusal to assent to the Church’s Magisterium. We are encouraged by the words of some who have expressed gratitude to Where Peter Is as they continue their own journey to the heart of the faith. We admit that we’re not experts, but, in our love for the Church, we have conviction that there needs to be some readily-accessible correction to false opinions found in mass or social media and encouragement to those who may be vulnerable to their rhetoric.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the reality that the nature of these opinions, rooted as they are in adherence to some but not all principles of the Catholic faith, makes rational debate near impossible. Therefore, we debate very little over the truly essential questions: who is the final (i.e. highest, ultimate, best) authority when it comes to the truth? Whom can we trust to tell us what is true or false? Do only we ourselves have that ability?
Any direct encounter between the “two sides” of this debate will often devolve into a derivation of the slippery slope argument, showing how the other’s beliefs will lead to heresies which there has been strong condemnation of in the past–typically, the Protestant heresy.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in a reflection on beauty in 2002, put it this way:
All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it “has a wax nose’: in other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough. Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?
Ratzinger offers a solution:
The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments.
On the one hand, God’s creation impresses itself upon us. His truth rings out in our soul via the power of beauty. We have good reason to believe that what we perceive as beautiful is true. Indeed, the very experience of beauty can become a “wound,” which in attempting to “heal” takes us beyond our mere senses and into the realm of truth itself.
On the other hand, our senses may not be enough. The Christian knows that God’s creation is good and that, in accordance with God’s design, our senses can reveal to us aspects of God’s love and truth. And yet, because of sin and our inability to always appreciate true beauty when we experience it, our senses need to be purified by the light of faith. Only in faith can the world be truly opened to us in all its grandeur.
On this point, Pope Francis reflects in Laudato Si’:
The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that “contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves”.
In the modern world, as Ratzinger said, where there are so many competing ideologies, argument and logic presented to the senses is apt to fail. We have conviction that what we believe is true, but it is all too easy to condemn our opponents under the pretext of fraternal correction, with bitterness justified by a sense of urgency. We are acutely aware, being sinners, that the virtue of faith is not necessarily equal in all; we ourselves do not have perfect understanding.
There is a better way.
Instead of “correcting,” we can propose. And what better to propose than the beauty of the faith itself. To behold beauty is to be wounded, to experience an ache for more, for perhaps even the source of beauty itself. Beauty speaks to the heart. Ratzinger said,
I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.
There is nothing more beautiful than Truth, particularly at the moment at which he gave his life for us. The cross is the most complete manifestation of God’s love for us; it is, therefore, the most beautiful image we can behold! It is precisely the beauty of that moment–in which God allowed himself to be put to death for our sake– that has converted so many to the faith. The beauty of the cross leads to faith because it is only in faith that we can look upon the cross and see not just a dead man stripped, flogged, and hung from a tree but rather Love himself in his triumph (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23). To contemplate the beauty of the cross, even as a possibility, is like cracking open the door of the soul that holds back an ocean of love and truth. Faith and beauty are inseparable.
Recently, a priest came to our parish to lead a parish-wide retreat. He told the story of a few missionaries who went to visit a pagan tribe of indigenous peoples. After some time working through the language barrier, the missionaries were met with failure. The tribe was not interested in “just another god.” After some thought and some sleep, the missionaries returned holding high the crucifix. The missionaries posed the simple question to the tribe: “Which of your gods would do this for you?” A short while later, laughter began to spread through the tribe. “Why are you laughing?” the missionaries asked. The tribe responded that none of their gods would do that for them. On that day, the tribe was converted to Christianity and was baptized.
Flowing from the beauty of the cross, the Magisterium reflects the beauty of God. We are convicted through faith that the Magisterium is the gift of God, given to us out of his generous love so that we might have a visible authority on which to rely as we continue on our Christian journey. For myself, an important aspect of my work here is to help reveal the beauty reflected by this Magisterium, both as a principle of faith and specifically in the teachings of the popes, especially Pope Francis.
Schism is not inevitable. Ultimately, we trust in the Spirit, to bring unity to division and true peace rooted in faith. As Pope Francis says, “time is greater than space.” Our zeal and sense of urgency must not give way to an inordinate desire to achieve success immediately. Through activities rooted in love and truth, we can be cooperators with God’s plan of salvation, whatever his timeline might be.
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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.