The Catholic blogosphere, which is frequently uplifting and inspiring, can also be dreadfully depressing. If you’re lucky, you will run across tips for enriching your spiritual practice, putting your faith into action, and learning about the splendid tapestry of the church we have inherited. Unfortunately, to get to the good stuff, you may have to cut through a clutter of Catholic-on-Catholic vitriol, who’s up/who’s down, traditionalists vs. progressives, even “Gnostics” vs. “Pelagians.” All the wrangling can make you wish that Ronald Reagan’s “Eleventh Commandment” (“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”) applied to Catholic discourse.
The language of war can be instructive. Imagine that we were engaged in a great conflict, Catholics versus a hostile outside world, in which the stakes were nothing short of the survival of our religion. In other words: look out the window. The slow encroachment of secularism and the growing civil hostility to religion make that scenario far from hypothetical. Because the conflict is attenuated and nuanced, it is easy to forget it’s real.
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador did not have the luxury of forgetting, because he lived through a powerful flare-up of this conflict. Squeezed between an atheist Marxist insurrection and the godless extremism of the right, Romero articulated a principle that applies to us: “Denunciation made with love, even within the Church, is necessary.” I.e., it is OK to criticize. It is even OK to criticize within the Church. Here’s the kicker: “But we should never give our hand to the enemy and put in the hands of our enemies weapons” that will be used against the Church (June 21, 1979 homily ).
Romero analyzed the question with insightful clarity in his second pastoral letter . Romero believed that diversity of viewpoints is a gift of the Holy Spirit. “Let us remember that what divides us is not the Church’s actions but the world’s sin,” he said. “When the Church enters into the world of sin to liberate and save it, the sin of the world enters into the Church and divides her,” he explained. “The lack of unity within the church is nothing else than an echo of the division that exists all about it—the division within the society in which it lives and works.” He added that, “Church members, not excluding the hierarchy, are forced to operate in this environment and they run the risk of siding with one or other polarization if they fail to keep their vocation in mind.”
You likely have seen a Catholic blog or publication that consistently criticizes only Liberal figures or initiatives (or only Conservative ones), and may even use the words Liberal or Conservative as pejorative terms, all while purporting to speak with a Catholic voice. A Catholic blog criticizing only one end of the spectrum will be indistinguishable from a secular partisan blog; and both its readers and the blogger run the risk of forgetting whose water they carry. The name and “brand” of the Church are thus rendered servile to worldly, political ends and are debased. It is a common and thus lamentable evil.
Romero offered a solution: keep your preference out of it, and submit to the judgment of the Church. Often, Catholics play favorites with the clergy: “if it is not Father so and so, then we will not work” with him. “This is not the Church,” Romero warned; the true Church is one in which the faithful submit to the judgments of the hierarchy (September 11, 1977 sermon ). If a priest is in communion with his bishop, if a bishop is in communion with the Pope, there is no griping. You can pray for errant clergymen, you can raise points of dissent directly with them, or you can report them to the competent Church authorities. Beyond that, you’re not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “No one apart from the hierarchy has the right to say whether this priest preaches or does not preach the Gospel,” Romero admonished (May 29, 1977 sermon ).
Archbishop Romero practiced what he preached. He lived in a time of division, criticism, personal attack and thick layers of intrigue, but he stayed above the fray. While he criticized the government, economic interests, and the army, Romero nurtured relations with the Church, making four visits to the Vatican in just three years. He courted and obtained support from Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenal Way, the Carmelites, and others. When priests criticized a bishop who had publicly opposed Romero, Romero defended him: “I want to repudiate the attacks against my brother bishop,” he declared (May 28, 1978 sermon ). When another bishop turned against Romero, Romero stood up for him: “Even when there are differences we are able to speak openly about these because in substance we are servants of this Church that does not want to betray either the people or the gospel,” he told the faithful (November 27, 1977 sermon ). Romero requested that the bishop be appointed as his auxiliary, despite their differences. And when, despite his best efforts, tensions boiled over, Romero apologized to the faithful. “I, for my part, ask pardon of the Church and will try to explain this to you in a way that perhaps you will understand and that will help us to find its causes and ways to resolve it,” he said (August 6, 1979 sermon ).
Archbishop Romero’s example suggests a few guidelines we would do well to observe in our admittedly less dramatic circumstances. 1. Don’t air Catholic dirty laundry. The world won’t understand and will use it against us. 2. Do not play favorites with the clergy. 3. Do not make ad hominem attack against members of the clergy. 4. Do not attack or belittle valid Catholic beliefs or devotional practices. 5. Leave the finding of doctrinal errors to the professionals. 6. Do not pass off political tirades as doctrinal commentary. 7. Reach out to rival camps. 8. Try to see the good in others. 9. Talk up your favorite aspects of the faith without talking down somebody else’s. 10. Pray for those who oppose you.
And don’t look to validate worldly views inside the Church. Instead, “Look for the humiliated Lord at the time of the crucifixion and the glorious and victorious Lord at the time of the resurrection. If people want to manipulate the Church for their own political interests, then they are looking for something evil and they will not find it here” (May 20, 1979 sermon ).