Cardinal Francis George hit the nail on the head in his speech to the Knights of Columbus convention yesterday, calling for renewed efforts at binding up the unity of the faithful.
"A Catholic way of life is based on assent to revealed truth and obedience to appointed pastors, both of which create the unity Christ wishes us to enjoy. The Church’s unity today is severely strained, as we all know," the cardinal said. "Bishops and priests have sometimes been less than worthy of their calling, and lay groups have sometimes come together to create a Church in their image and likeness rather than Christ’s. Political interference and the hostility of some in the media and entertainment industries, the self-righteousness of some on both the right and the left, have created a dangerous situation, one the bishops now want to explicitly address. How to stitch up the Church where her unity is torn, how to use the authority given by Christ to the apostles without wounding the faithful who are already hurting is a project that begins with the bishops’ own submission to Christ and our own self-examination in the light of God’s word."
Cardinal George deserves credit for acknowledging something that social scientists have been discussing for some time, that Americans’ attitudes today do not break down along confessional lines so much as they do along liberal v. conservative lines which run through the various denominations. We Catholics have begun to blend into the broader American fabric and lost any distinctive attitudes. We line up with our ideological, not our ecclesiastic, fellows. Alas, this appears to be the case with the Bishops’ Conference as well, which one of their number told me is as polarized as it has even been in the past twenty years. Cardinal George especially deserves credit for acknowledging that the process of binding up the unity of the Church must begin with the bishops’ self-examination.
Part of the challenge, but only part, is for all bishops to avoid the appearance of partisanship (so long as neither political party fully embraces the Gospel) while not withdrawing from the public arena. The bishops and all the faithful must, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate, see the Church’s teaching as integral but the bishops must also allow for the possibility that well-informed consciences can reach different conclusions, especially in the realm of politics where the question of how to affect change is always complicated even if there is agreement on the kind of change to affect.
The direction that the bishops must take, and that I believe is being indicated by Cardinal George, is to say that it is no longer enough to be a Catholic and a banker, or a Catholic and a politician. We must be Catholic bankers and Catholic politicians. Even better, I prefer that Catholic be the noun, the thing that defines us not the adjective that qualifies us. Bank-managing Catholic. A Catholic who politics. I do not think this will mean that all politicians or bankers who are Catholics will suddenly become univocal. That is not the point. Instead the goal is, I believe, to show to the culture that the most important event in our own, oh-so busy twenty-first century lives happened on a hillside in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and that together, as one Church, we continue to tease out the meaning of that event. There are no ready-made "answers" or the Virgin Mary would have given birth to a summa. There is communion with Christ and through him with each other, so that we can search for answers together.
The challenge for the two sides in the Church today is for the side that is usually called "the left" to recognize the priority of faith and the requirement of obedience in finding the truth and for the "conservatives" to recognize the fact that we are all still searching and that nostalgia is not an answer. Cardinal George gets credit, lots of credit, for demonstrating the truth found in last Sunday’s Gospel – only those who admit they are hungry can be fed.