By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Debate is a part of every healthy society. When we refuse to create space for charitable and spirited discussion, violence or indifference is sure to follow. Debate is good, both in our country and in the church. But it is disturbing to see the character of our political debates today. At least I find alarming the continuing descent on all sides into vulgar and personal attacks, empty slogans and appeals to voters as to a mob.
But I am more sensitive to debates that go on in the church. For it is above all here that we are to learn to speak in a God-fearing and fruitful way. Our debates as Catholics are supposed to leaven the world. Christ willed that our union – our one Body – should be a sign to the world of his identity as the Son of God (Jn 17:21). By our love and synergy we are called to be the light and salt of the earth. If we lose our taste, Christ will no doubt hold us responsible for what happens in our country as a consequence (Mt 5:13-16).
We live and die by the spiritual environment created by our words: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue; those who make it a friend shall eat its fruit” (Prv 18:21). Again, “A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse one crushes the spirit.” (Prv 15:4). Whether we look at history or our own lives, we see that words can be the finest tools, the greatest medicines and also the deadliest weapons. We should choose our words carefully.
In that regard, I would like to suggest a change in vocabulary. In my opinion, there are two words, which we appear to have taken from politics, that are not helping us in the church – the words “liberal” and “conservative” (and their synonyms). These words express very little concretely, and we tend to use them precisely when our thoughts become vague and emotionally charged, or when we only want to vent. When we speak about liberal and conservative Catholics, we tend only to drive a wedge between ourselves along an abstract spectrum. We do not express the real issues that divide us – just that we are divided.
When we debate as Catholics, we need words that express reality rather than a desire for distance. Lately, I tried to come up with a more helpful vocabulary. The words “engaged” and “provincial” suggested themselves to me. I think they are helpful because they name real tendencies in all of us, wherever we might want to place ourselves on the abstract spectrum of liberal and conservative.
I think “engaged” Catholics are those passionately interested in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church – that visible community which by a miracle of God reaches through 2,000 years of history and whose life and teaching never cease to surprise by their newness and coherence. Engaged Catholics are unwilling to cast off any council or pope, saint or pilgrim, no matter how difficult they may find it, at least initially, to sympathize with his or her teaching and journey. They are not insulted when asked to keep the Catechism, nor are they offended by a pope who sometimes sounds strange to them. This is because they open themselves to what they do not yet understand, rather than wall themselves within what they think they already do.
By contrast, “provincial” Catholics tend to isolate themselves. They do not strive to overcome social or ideological borders in order to engage those beyond their own province, whether it be the poor, the un-evangelized, the Magisterium, Catholics of previous generations or contemporaries in different countries and cultures, or those in morally difficult situations and who therefore cry out for compassion rather than indignation. Provincial Catholics tend to sterilize thought by setting up superficial oppositions between dogma and life, mercy and justice, progress and tradition. Ultimately, they put into crisis our faith in the son and spirit, the unconquerable presence of God among his people yesterday, today and forever.
I hope I do not offend. Ultimately, I only want to help us by pointing out that we all, wherever we see ourselves on the abstract spectrum of liberal and conservative, can manifest the concrete tendencies of either engaged or provincial Catholics. It is obvious which tendencies we should promote in ourselves. Let us engage. Let us listen in order to understand. Let us show that we are faithful to the teaching of the church, and precisely for that reason open to our neighbor. Let us break down the walls of sterile, divisive thought. Then we will release into our country healing waves of faith, hope and love like waters from a broken dam.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.