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[Please note: the following expresses the views of the writer and should not be interpreted as representing the beliefs and opinions of Our Lady’s Fraternity members or the Secular Franciscan Order.]

I can’t decide whether to cringe at or merely accept the reality that my web browser tracks my activity and sends me links based upon what it “thinks” I’m interested in. Most of these are completely useless to me, but some actually catch my attention (which, I guess, is what the whole thing is about). Because I spend a lot of time looking and Catholic- and Franciscan-related websites, I get quite a few links to other Catholic sites. What I’ve begun to notice is that many of these sites come from a very focused, conservative view of Mother Church.

divisivenessI’ve always tried to be honest about my views on the various issues that the Church is dealing with. Many, I suppose, would put me in the “progressive” category, though I find such labels to be unfairly restrictive. It’s true that I agree with the opinions of many “progressive” Catholics, but I also agree with some put forth by the “conservatives.” (Sorry about the overuse of quotation marks. I use them because these are labels that others use, ones that I ultimately find shallow and divisive.) Even more, I find that many “progressive” ideas are actually conservative because they come from ancient traditions and/or a basis in the gospels.

I am not a cradle Catholic. I was raised in a high-church, Episcopalian/Anglo-Catholic household. In fact, my father was an Episcopal priest. Being a high-church Anglican is about as close to being Roman Catholic as it comes. There are no real doctrinal differences between the two traditions, said differences being mostly canonical. Vatican II removed many of those differences, though changes in Episcopal and Anglican tenets and policies (women priests and bishops, full acceptance of gays and lesbians, tolerance for abortion, and so on) have increased the separation in recent years.

How I came to become Roman Catholic is long and complex story for another time, but suffice to say that I came into communion with the Church not out of disagreement over social policies; in fact, I’ve agreed with many of the changes in the Episcopal and Anglican churches. One of the factors, however, that led me to Roman Catholic church was the divisiveness in the Episcopal church. The divisiveness, I believe, grew out the method of the canonical changes. In implementing these changes, there was little compassion for those who didn’t agree with the will of the church, and over twenty years I watched as the “conservative” side of the church was more and more marginalized. Today, the Anglican church is confronting the real possibility of schism. Entire congregations have left the church and become Roman Catholics after Pope Benedict opened the door by accepting an “Anglican Rite” in the Church.

Creating a spiritual home for people cannot become a zero-sum game. There cannot be winners and losers when individuals’ spiritual lives are at stake. With the exception of fundamental issues of belief (e.g. for Catholics, the reality of the Incarnation, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, belief in The Trinity, etc.), doctrinal and canonical issues should be—must be—decided through open and frank discussion, education, and consensus building. The Church must make space for those whose find problems with the status quo, not simply say, “my way of the highway.”

The Catholic Church is not a democracy, nor should it be. The Episcopal church governance is modeled on the US Government: a Presiding Bishop (“President”), a House of Bishops (“Senate”), and a House of Deputies (i.e. the Laity, the “House of Representatives”). As we see in the secular world, the zero-sum game of modern politics is inherently divisive, and importing the same governing model into a church leaves it as susceptible to the same problems. A spiritual tradition cannot allow itself to alienate large groups of believers who, despite differing on some issues, remain true to the core principals of the faith.

Of course, the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church is prone to factions as well, which is why it’s heartening to hear Pope Francis continually reminding the bishops that they are servants and not potentates. There is a need for the laity to have a greater say in Church governance, especially at the parish and diocesan levels. And, there is a place for those who are gifted, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, with protecting the fundamentals of the faith. Regardless, we only make it harder for the Holy Spirit to do its work through the Church when we continually hurl barbs at one-another, continually seek to triumph over those who have a different vision of the Church, continually label in order to divide the faithful.

One of the great blessings of being a Secular Franciscan is working to live “from Gospel to Life, and from Life to Gospel.” When confronted by challenges in the Church, I am called to return to the Gospel and words of Christ. While “What Would Jesus Do” has become trite, it nevertheless expresses a way of living to which all Christians are called. If I cannot justify an opinion with Christ’s teachings, then I must let go of it, no matter how much I might not want to.

None of this is to downplay the difficulty of the challenges the Church is facing. But the Catholic Church has survived periods of greater challenge in the past. It is at its best, and is most successful, when it remains Christ-centered. It is at its worst, and most scandalous, when it turns its back on Christ’s teachings and behaves as a secular, political, and dictatorial institution.

We Catholics must avoid the temptation to behave towards one-another as secular political parties, factions, and special interests do. We must take Our Lord seriously when he says,

I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13: 34-35)

To do otherwise is to turn our backs on Jesus.

I don’t know if my browser points me to the sites it does because it thinks I’m a conservative Catholic or because there are more conservative Catholic websites than middle-of-the-road or progressive ones. It really doesn’t matter. I enjoy reading what other Catholics are writing, regardless of what labels we may want to give them. They are first and foremost Catholic Christians, and they are all my brothers and sisters in Christ. My only hope—no, my prayer—is that all of us not succumb to alienating others, but instead to live out the values taught over 2000 years ago.