Four days in May reveal one deadly but unifying factor in the Catholic Church

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Let’s tally it up:

May 11: A football player gives a commencement address at a Catholic college and his inexpert pronouncements on several hot topics are taken as read by many and cherry-picked by others who were poorly taught the faith to begin with.

Social media explodes: “More women in kitchens!” versus “Dude, your mother is a physicist!” His jerseys sell out.

May 14: There occurs a live-streamed “dialogue” focused on “unifying a divided church,” and featuring a perceived centrist bishop, a perceived right-wing bishop and a perceived progressive cardinal. The dynamite premise fizzles out, despite being moderated by a bright Catholic laywoman capable of bringing fire when she wants to.

Social media sighs and shrugs: “Bishops. Feh.” vs “That…could have perhaps been bolder.” Nobody wants jerseys.

May 16: The CBS News program “60 Minutes” shares a clip of its forthcoming interview with Pope Francis in which he (probably inadvertently) tosses an old “bitter clinger” football that originated in American politics and was never expected to be lobbed within church walls.

The full interview yet unseen, social media nevertheless explodes again: “The pope hates us!” versus “Stop whining, bitter clingers!”

May 17: The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith updates norms on how the church discerns supernatural phenomena, saying. “As a rule, these potential conclusions do not include the possibility of declaring that the phenomenon under discernment is of supernatural origin — that is, affirming with moral certainty that it originates from a decision willed by God in a direct way.” So, while a pope may decide to make such a declaration, Catholics shouldn’t expect it.

Social media — having anticipated something spookily juicy or even UFO-flavored — yawns and falls back on old tapes: “The pope is Protestant!” versus “The pope is prudent!”

Christian infighting on display

Thanks to both social and mainstream media, these four days exposed a striking, ungodly amount of noisy Christian infighting to the rest of the world. In each case, save the last, even quieter voices jumped in to add and over-add their two cents, with Catholics too often name-calling their co-religionists and even non-Catholics joining the spittle-fray.

Those who like to characterize Catholicism as dying and whispering its own last rites might be disappointed by clear evidence that there’s life in the Body of Christ, after all.

In an age of endless insta-commentary, eventually every thought is covered by someone, and over the years I’ve weaned myself of the need to jump on every headline. Throughout the cacophony of angry or caustic or condescending opinions, I kept a contented silence until someone messaged me, challenging me to bare my thoughts.

I only had one: that boisterous Catholic polarization will continue — no matter who is pope, or what layperson shakes the cherry trees for picking, or how daintily the bishops tell us to look to Christ and love each other — until we are united through the acceptance of one outrageous indictment against all of us, and by an event we’ve stopped thinking of as supernatural.

Outrageous indictment first: We, the entire church — from those just past the age of reason to our venerable old leadership — have given our fixations and absolute certainties a primacy of place, and become infused with idolatry.

Oh, we still display the “I love Jesus” certificate on the mantel, but now the burnished calves of our fervent ideas stand before it, reflecting what truly enthralls us — our politics, our celebrity obsessions (be they priests or entertainers), our outsized liturgical scruples (“he’s not holding the paten correctly!”) or our need to deconstruct (“a clown at a Woman-preached Liturgy of the Word!”), our focus on our climate or sexuality or gender, our gadgets and — most destructively — the chaotic black mirror of our smartphones. Their addictive invitation to fall ever-more deeply down the echoing well of thought-narrowing self-reflection draws us away from silence and the natural world, where we may so readily find something greater than ourselves.

A call for reflection and unity

We may have our best shot at unifying as church if we can place ourselves at the feet of Christ and admit to this grave missing of the mark — this soul-deadening sin of permitting everything else, even our vision of church, to come before him.

I’m an idolator; you’re an idolator; this whole body is sick with idolatry. If we can start there, admitting our shared portions of this collective sin of idol-worship, asking the Lord’s pardon and resolving to be more aware, there may be hope for unity.

Then, we can come together and find our healing at the undeniable, no-need-to-discern-it supernatural event of the Mass — liturgies of Word and Eucharist that precipitate the thinning of the veil between heaven and earth, bringing us the flesh and blood of the man-god who saves.

In his biography of Moses, St. Gregory of Nyssa observed that “ideas lead to idolatry, only wonder leads to knowing.” If we would know God, we must permit ourselves to wonder at God in myriad ways. Imbuing ourselves in the supernatural foundation of the church, which we can do every single day, is how we keep the wonder going. Unity flows from that.

Elizabeth Scalia

Elizabeth Scalia is editor-at-large for OSV. Follow her on X (formerly known as Twitter) @theanchoress.