ROME — I’m often accused of selectively playing my “I’m from Argentina” card. I do so to justify typos when writing in English, to wash my hands of responsibility when someone talks to me about American politics, or when my friends question why I don’t like American sports such as baseball.
Never, however, am I happier to play it than when the “culture wars” come into a conversation.
The concept of “left v. right” Catholicism was a new one to me when I began writing for Crux.
Of course, I knew that there were some bishops, priests, and laity who had liberal ideas, and others who missed the pre-conciliar times. But the idea of people getting at each other’s throats, accusing one another of being Catholic or not in newspaper columns, was a revelation.
Commentators today often speak about the need for this culture war inside the Church to end. However, their style doesn’t seem to follow Francis’s call for dialogue and bridge-building. It often takes more of a “we’ve won, the other side should admit defeat” tone.
I worry that the left and right in the United States is missing two key points of Francis’s magisterium.
On Saturday, during a busy one-day trip to the Italian port city of Genoa, the Argentine pontiff described the Church as a river. He did so as he was giving a set of mostly off-the-cuff remarks to the local religious community, including nuns, bishops, priests and seminarians.
“The Church is like a river: the important thing is to be in the river,” Francis said. “If you are in the center or more to the right or to the left, but within the river, this is a legitimate variety … So many times we want the river to narrow only on our side and condemn others … this is not fraternity. Everyone inside the river. All. This is what you learn in seminary.”
One has to wonder, are the culture warriors conscious of the fact that when they do the victory dance — claiming that the time for the Catholic left or right has arrived, and that those on the other side should remain quiet and accept defeat — they are actually ignoring Francis’s call for a more welcoming church?
Many times, it’s been said that Francis leads by example. He does so by welcoming migrants in the Vatican, hugging people living with Huntington’s disease, and so on. He also did so on Saturday, by publicly showing camaraderie with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa.
Until last week, and for a decade, Bagnasco was the head of the Italian bishop’s conference, allegedly the conservative ally of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in the ever-powerful Italian church. Most ideologues promoting the left v. right divide would argue that these two are on different sides of the river. The Italian secular press had a field day emphasizing the contrast.
But on Saturday, it was clear for anyone with eyes to see that Francis and Bagnasco are in the same river, even if they occupy slightly different spots. Or, as G.K. Chesterton put it, they’re on the same playground.
The constant need to use “culture warrior” as an adjective defining a member of the hierarchy also shows that some remain tone-deaf to Francis’s vision. He’s spoken about the damage of ill-spirited words, name-calling, petty public fights and ideologues taking over doctrine.
He made that point earlier this month, when he said that Christians who turn doctrine into ideology commit a grave mistake that upsets souls and divides the church.
Spend two minutes on social media, and you’ll find that ideologues come both from the right and the left. They’re easy to find, since both have one thing in common: They go after not only ideas, but the people behind them.
In truth, there’s little more frustrating for a reporter trying to get the Catholic story correct than someone who wants to drive a wedge — either positively or negatively — between Pope Francis and, say, Pope Benedict.
“Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: It’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer.”
Benedict XVI said that, and Francis would heartily agree.
Commentators, observers and opinion-makers perpetually describe the Church as at war with itself, saying they follow one pope or the other- as if following all those from the last century was in contradiction, or as if the Catholic Church might be at the gates of a civil war between those who side with Francis and John XXIII and those who side with Benedict XVI and Pius IX.
Both sides, I believe, are fundamentally thinking about what they perceive to be the best for the church, but both often forget that many islands can be contained in a single river.
Allow me to play the Argentine card one more time and quote Martin Fierro, one of my country’s most famous books, written by José Hernández. Francis quoted this same passage during his address to the United Nations’ general assembly back in 2015.
“May the brothers be united, that is the first law. [May they have] a true union, whatever the times. Because that for which brothers fight, outsiders will devour.”