There is no civil war in the Catholic Church
There is no civil war in the Catholic Church, there is only Almighty God sifting us like wheat. There is no schism ahead, only the proper ordering of us into the right places for the salvation of our souls. There is only God’s “harsh and dreadful” work of purifying us into the children of God we are truly meant to be.
Everything hard and sad and painful in the church—or anywhere in our lives really—is merely a chance to align our wills with God’s will. It is all an opportunity to reframe our view of human problems as merely seeds planted in the vineyard by God. Pushing through the soil of human angst, something good is on its way. It always is.
In an interview with Slate in early February, the journalist David Gibson gave a sort of gossip-sheet assessment of the state of the church’s internal politics, in particular as it related to Pope Francis and especially after the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. “When you’ve had a church of 2,000 years, there’s almost a precedent for everything,” Mr. Gibson said. “You go back a millennium and you can find anything. But this level of opposition, this low level of backbiting, this level of maneuvering, manipulating is really extraordinary in the history of the Catholic Church….There have always been divisions and differences, that kind of thing. But it’s really amped up.”
There is no civil war in the Catholic Church, there is only Almighty God sifting us like wheat.
The concerns that whirl about in some corners regarding Francis? On issues of sexual morality and the reception of Communion, he is accused of being a less than stalwart defender of church doctrine and tradition. Some feel he has taken away authority from the bishops and handed over the running of the church to a sort of consulting firm known as a “synod.” Others see an authoritarian streak in his restrictions on the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass.
One of the statements that seemed to crystallize the critique around Francis came from Cardinal George Pell, who said, in a memorandum that came out after he died, “this pontificate is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe.”
It can be so disheartening, this church infighting. The leaders at war with each other. The dads are having it out in the backyard, and the world suddenly feels unsafe! What about the tradition, what about the unity, what about the magnificent barque of Peter? And yet it seems to be catching fire!
Or is it?
Every challenge, every destructive act, every moment of outrage, in the church or anywhere, can be turned on its head. They can all be reframed as one more chance for God to show us that he is more mysterious and powerful than anything we can comprehend. God is at work, God is always at work.
I may be writing this mostly for those of us in Catholic media, immersed in the politics of the church, with our eyes ever on the internal workings of the Roman project. Maybe I am writing it just for myself. I don’t love conflict, and I don’t like seeing someone I admire attacked like the pope has been.
And yet. “My good souls! nothing is wanting to you,” the 18th-century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade once wrote. “If you only knew what these events really are that you call misfortunes...you would be deeply ashamed and excuse yourselves of your complainings of blasphemies.”
Indeed, are things as bad as they seem? Is there really such angst and division within the rank and file of the Catholic Church? In 2018, I wrote that I didn’t think there was. In 2023, in the wake of the Cardinal Pell memo, the journalist John Allen Jr. said that most of the people in the pews do not obsess over church politics. Most Catholics, I would imagine, do not center their lives on all the debates we in the Catholic media pour a lot of ink into. (In a 2021 poll, for instance, when asked about the new restrictions on the Latin Mass, 65 percent of Catholics polled said they “had not even heard of the controversy.”)
Indeed, are things as bad as they seem? Is there really such angst and division within the rank and file of the Catholic Church?
As for Catholic Twitter, which has been described as a horror show, only 20 percent of Americans use Twitter at all, and only half of those users drive 80 percent of the content. Which means that it is quite possible that the opinions of Catholics on Twitter represent a thin slice of the Catholic population at large. The American church may not be as angry and vituperative as Twitter use would make it out to be.
Most of us are simply looking for spiritual sustenance. We want better homilies. We want a church that sees us and cares about us.
Be that as it may: As journalists, thinkers, leaders in the Catholic media and church, it is our particular job to explore, defend, research, examine and report. And yet, when we put our eyes primarily on what is miserable, we think the world is miserable. It is our larger project to keep our eyes on the prize.
And what is the prize here? The prize is finding the will of God.
It would be easy if the much-used Ignatian phrase “finding God in all things” was limited to spotting the fingerprints of the divine in the dusty petals of a yellow daffodil waving outside a stone chapel in a dewey forest glade.
In fact, “finding God in all things” can be hard and humbling work. And not even hard work in ways that can be self-satisfying: i.e, putting on the armor of Christ’s mercy for one of Sister Helen Prejean’s death row inmates, someone who, though they have committed unspeakable acts of violence, usually resides far enough away that it can be a somewhat easy lift to gin up compassion for him or her.
“Finding God in all things” can be hard and humbling work. And not even hard work in ways that can be self-satisfying.
No, seeking out God is not merely for those people and places. We are called to “find God” everywhere. To have compassion and understanding even for the bishop who sets policies that restrict trans kids from using their preferred pronouns at a Catholic school. Maybe he does not have it out for trans students. Maybe he is just doing his best. Maybe he is even right.
We are called to have an interior heart of mercy and peace toward the bishop who restricts Latin Mass at our parishes.
This is where it gets real. This is where “aligning our will with God’s will” cuts close to the bone: when it comes to theological questions we have a deep heartfelt stake in; when it involves those issues that will upend us into vehement distress should there be any outcome other than the one we demand from God.
Searching for the solace of God in difficult circumstances does not mean we are running for the downy realm of “spirituality” as a way to deftly skirt hard ecclesial problems. Being docile before the spirit of God is not embracing a passive naïveté that would like to wish away all political arguments, to resign oneself to injustice.
In fact it means pretty much the opposite. It is rather looking at these troubles square in the eye and then going to a strength—Strength Itself—that can help us more powerfully address the very problems that bedevil us. “Going to God” is not about denying or glossing over pain and hurt. Rather it is bringing into our hurt and pain the Eternal Healer of pain and hurt himself.
Being docile before the spirit of God is not embracing a passive naïveté that would like to wish away all political arguments, to resign oneself to injustice.
Running parallel to the attacks on the pope is a pleading hope by his supporters that he will remain in the chair of Peter for a few years more: long enough to be able to appoint a majority of cardinals who want a “Francis like” church. Those who love Francis, who find in him tremendous hope and solidarity and who also think about such things want Francis to “pack the conclave” with his guys. Surely such a group will elect a pope who thinks like Francis.
And if this fails? If the next pope—even as elected by the “Francis cardinals”—is unlike Francis? Is less focused on the unrelenting love and mercy of Christ and more so on the doctrinaire sides of the faith? If the next conclave elects someone like that?
Well, good news. Because those Catholics will yet again have to lean into, rely on and throw all their cares and worries unto the King himself, rather than any number of popes who serve the King. We will have to trust Christ more deeply as our model and salvation, instead of a pontiff we insist be fashioned in our own image.
“God never tires of forgiving us,” said Francis in the first Angelus prayer of his pontificate. “but we sometimes tire of asking Him to forgive us.” It is not that God tires of or despairs of the church. It is we who are tired, or just fearful, of giving all the problems of the church over to the hands of God.
We are the church of the simplistic theology you find on T-shirts and plaques in Christian homes: “Nothing is going to happen today that together you and God can’t handle.” We are the religion of chirpy exhortations like: “God’s got this!”
People who actually believe those mottos are able to pivot every problem in their lives and trust that God actually can handle it. Saying things like “God’s got this” creates the belief, the lived belief, that, you know, God’s got this. It is in fact 1,000 miles from simplistic. It siphons away resentment, that most poisonous of human states, and liberates us.
Saying things like “God’s got this” creates the belief, the lived belief, that, you know, God’s got this.
The most wrenching moment of Pope Francis’ visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo in early February came when he heard from men and women who had endured unspeakable acts of violence during that country’s civil wars. “[The pope] heard a young man tell how he had watched his father being cut to pieces and his mother raped,” Gerard O’Connell wrote in America. “He listened to a young woman recount how at the age of 16 she and others were raped many times a day by groups of armed men who forced her and them to eat the bodies of people the armed men had killed. He heard how young women were mutilated and saw what remained of their hands.”
I want to repeat that, if only to let it sink into myself: These women had been raped over and over and over and then forced to eat human flesh.
And, as they sat with the pope, this happened next: “He listened in silence as they laid the instruments of their torturers at the foot of the cross and said they forgave those who had done such evil to them.”
We are this church, too: People who lay the instruments of their torturers at the foot of the cross.
If these men and women could forgive their attackers of these appalling crimes, if they can “find God” in such impossible places, who are we to do anything less? If horrifically brutalized Congolese women could embody so dramatically the radical mercy of Christ, who are we to hold on to any kind of anger and rage? For anyone, over anything?
This is not to say to those who squabble over church politics: “Get over it. Behold the victims of torture and reconsider your own problems.”
At the same time, it kind of is saying that. Things really could be far, far worse. Look at what Christ has done in the lives of these Congolese men and women, the mercy he has incited. Can we take even one half of one step in the direction they have gone?
Within the contrails of every pain and division and rage in our lives is a burning memo: God is at work. The church will be fine, and we will be fine. We are precisely where we need to be. The words of Teresa of Ávila need not ride sidecar in our spiritual lives, relegated only to the pursuit of personal serenity. They are a guidebook for the politics of religion, too: “Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”