Pope Francis has invited all people to reflect on the important work of building peace. In this month’s Contemplations on Peace & Justice, Fr. David Poirier, SA, Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Promoter (JPIC) for the Friars of the Atonement offers an ecumenical perspective on American politics.

Learn more about Fr. David Poirier, SA here.

An Ecumenical Perspective on US Politics

Colossians 3:13-14 — “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

February 8 marks the 81st anniversary of the death of Servant of God, Fr. Paul James Francis Wattson, SA, in 1940.  Fr. Paul is a co-founder with Mother Lurana Mary White of the Society of the Atonement, a religious community of men and women whose principal purpose was and is to pray and work for unity among Christians as well people of other faiths.  At the time of his death, relationships between the Catholic Church and the Churches of the Reformation were at a low ebb. Since the establishment of the World Council of Churches early in the twentieth century, inter-church relationships among non-Catholic churches were beginning to warm, but the attitude held toward them by the Roman Catholics (and vice versa) was that of enemies.  Fr. Paul’s insistence that both Roman Primacy and the validity of Anglican Orders endeared him to neither side of the divide.

Readers of a certain age will remember a time when Catholic schools taught the children entrusted to their care that Protestants could not go to heaven. Despite Pope Pius XII’s condemnation and excommunication of Fr. Leonard Feeney in 1953, his doctrine of no Protestants in heaven was still taught in Catholic schools up until after the decrees of Vatican II, and in some circles is still propounded today. Each side of the church divide was convinced that they and only they had the truth, that the other was a traitor to Christ, and was displeasing to God. Such mutual demonization made any kind of dialogue difficult at best, although even in those fraught circumstances inter-church dialogues were carried on, mostly in secret, because those in the forefront of any movement of rapprochement were more likely, in the words of one Irish ecumenist, to be shot in the back than anywhere else. In other words, anyone attempting to bridge the divide with a view to making peace was condemned and excoriated by his or her own community more than by the other.

Following Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism the frigid atmosphere began to thaw a bit. Commissions were set up to study and understand what exactly were the differences in doctrine that had kept the churches apart for so long. As scholars met at regular intervals to sit down and talk with each other face to face as partners in conversation they got acquainted with each other and learned about the faith and traditions of those across the table from them. Thereby they began to accept each other as friends and collaborators. Their dialogue allowed them to understand that the differences between them were minuscule compared to the truth that united them.

As they got down to the nitty-gritty of discussing what is essential to Christian faith, they began to recognize that many of the most dearly held practices and devotions were, in fact, secondary or tangential. They were very much like the differences between people of different cultures or geographical locales, which are often glaring and even off-putting, but do not depreciate the other’s humanity in any way. What we are learning in dialogue is that there is room in the church for many opinions, understandings, or points of view, just as there is room for many ritualistic differences or spiritualities.

Of course, dialogue between scholars and experts can often become so rarified that the “people in the pews” get lost in trying to follow the arguments and disagreements resolved “at the top” so to speak. Old habits and attitudes die hard and it is only with the cooperation between congregations on this or that project that a grass-roots level mutual respect and belonging can be established. Both levels are required for true unity to be reached.

In the US political arena, these days much the same kind of divide has separated people from one another. Liberals and Conservatives focus so intently on the ideas that divide them that they lose sight of the other’s goodwill, love of country, and desire for the common good. Just as in the bad old days when denominations created caricatures of each other, based mostly on lies or misunderstandings, political factions of late have demonized each other with misrepresentations and outright falsehoods. Neither side of the political divide is intent on destroying the rule of law or the social contract that keeps us from becoming a failed nation.  The fact that two points of view clash does not require that either side destroy the other, but rather requires each to discover the goodness and value that the other brings to the table. Our country is bigger than either side, and there is room enough to accommodate different approaches and points of view.

All too often, though, people grow intellectually lazy and can’t be bothered to learn the other’s view and reasons for it, opting instead simply to write the other off as crazy, stupid, or simply evil. For many, it is impossible to learn that for me to be right you don’t have to be wrong, or that unity and uniformity are not the same things. Rapprochement doesn’t just happen, it takes time, it takes effort, it takes a decision and commitment to learn and perhaps change in the learning.

 As in the ecumenical enterprise, it is important to let go of one’s own arrogance in believing he or she has the whole truth if one is ever going to get to the point of recognizing the value that another brings to the conversation. So too in the search for political unity each side will need to let go of their arrogance and listen to what the other has to say from a different point of view. Insisting each side as the only way is not only childish but dangerous when used as an excuse to demonize and dehumanize the other.