One Catholic position or many legitimate Catholic responses?

GOD’S WORD TODAY - Manoling V, Francisco, S.J. (The Philippine Star) - May 5, 2013 - 12:00am

Many of us tend to caricaturize the Early Church.  Reading that all the members were “of one heart and mind” and that “there was no needy person among them” because resources were gathered and “distributed to each according to need” (Acts 4:32-35), we imagine the Early Church to be a perfectly egalitarian community.  While possibly true for a certain period, this does not present the whole picture.

From its inception, the Christian community has been wracked by internal conflict stemming from competing moral and doctrinal perspectives.  In our First Reading today, we read of division and dissent, of demoralization and, to some extent, demonization of one another.  The issue?  On the one hand, Peter, James and the elders of the Christian community in Jerusalem insisted that gentiles (non-Jews) who wanted to be baptized first needed to go through Jewish initiation rites — circumcision for the men, and to practice the Mosaic dietary customs — refraining from eating pork, among others. 

Paul, on the other hand, who proselytized among non-Jewish communities across the Mediterranean, argued that undergoing the Jewish rites of initiation was not a requisite for becoming a Christian. 

Peter and Paul, the two greatest apostles, clashed, causing division and distrust within and among the widespread fledging Christian communities.  And yet their conflicting positions were both rooted in their ardent love for Jesus.  Bottom line: they shared the same religious motive — commitment to Jesus, yet had different takes regarding the requirements for incorporation into the Church.

There is an important lesson here for all of us, which Paul VI succinctly articulates: “In concrete situations one must recognize a legitimate variety of possible options.  The Christian Faith can lead to different commitments” (Octogesima Adveniens, 1971).

This means that with regard political, economic and cultural issues, all of which have underlying moral implications, despite having assiduously studied and intently prayed over the matter, we can arrive at conflicting positions — with each claiming to be faithful to the Church’s teachings, each professing love for and commitment to Jesus.

As the world becomes more complex, the multiplicity of voices made present in real time by social media, can become a discomfiting cacophony for many.  Even within Church circles, many become confused and disoriented by the multiplicity of Christian perspectives. “Why can’t the Church simply teach us unequivocally what is right and wrong,” many have complained to me.  And when I respond, “Because there is no black and white answer to such complex issues.”  “There lies the problem,” some retort.  “Because the Church is unclear about many things, we no longer know what or whom to believe?”

No wonder fundamentalist communities, Christian or otherwise, are growing exponentially.  Many of us prefer clear-cut answers to complex issues and cannot withstand ambiguity.  Absolutely clear dogmatic teachings and moral positions provide both mooring and direction as we navigate the treacherous waters of our complex world.

But today, we might ask ourselves: to what extent are we willing to make room for a variety of Catholic perspectives within the Church and within our hearts and conscience?  Why is it so easy for us, clerics and laity alike, to judge those who do not hold our view as un-Catholic?  Certainly not all positions claiming to be grounded on the Christian Faith are to be tolerated.  On the other hand, do we expect to have only one legitimate Catholic position with regard the RH Bill, large-scale mining, and the choice of senatorial candidates in the forthcoming national elections?  Do we have room for others to claim to be equally Catholic, to claim to be equally committed as we are to Jesus and his Gospel values, despite our contrary positions?

Isn’t it myopic and autocratic to claim that faithful Catholics ought to vote for senatorial candidates in this list and certainly not for those on this other list?  But isn’t it also self-righteous to claim that all those against the RH Bill are medieval in their thinking and indifferent to the plight of poor women?  Perhaps we each possess kernels of the Truth.  Perhaps, despite our conflicting positions, there is room in the Catholic Church for several competing voices. 

Paul VI’s assertion that there may be a “legitimate variety of possible options” implies that there is a range of acceptable positions to a political or moral issue, just as there is a range of acceptable interpretations of a sonnet by Shakespeare and a range of valid interpretations of the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ.   However, further complicating the matter, we also realize that the boundary of orthodoxy might not always be absolutely fixed, but rather historically fluid, as we discover and learn more and more.  We also now recognize that whose voices are heard in determining the boundary of orthodoxy is another issue. 

And thus the call to respectful dialogue not only with non-Christians, but also among ourselves. As a Church we have made great strides in fostering Ecumenism; that is, inter-Christian dialogue, and inter-religious dialogue, but ironically, have difficulty dialoguing among ourselves as Catholics.  We vilify and “excommunicate” the other as soon as the other expresses disagreement with us.

Going back to the Early Church, the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem invited Paul and Barnabas to discuss with them their differences.  Thus was convened the first unofficial Church Council.  They argued and listened to one another; they reflected and prayed over the matter.  Until they reached a consensus.  After seeing a vision, Peter relented and affirmed Paul’s position that gentiles could be welcomed into the Church without first observing the Mosaic dietary customs.

Perhaps growing in the faith entails committing oneself wholly to one’s Faith convictions while accepting some level of ambiguity, communicating one’s convictions zealously, while learning to tolerate a multiplicity of legitimate Catholic responses, respectfully dialoguing with others and celebrating common ground, especially the shared love for and commitment to Jesus Christ.

Fr. Manoling Francisco, SJ is a prolific composer of liturgical music and serves on the faculty of the Loyola School of Theology. For feedback on this column, email tinigloyola@yahoo.com.


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