This essay by Paul Fahey is one of two duelling takes on Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa’s Good Friday sermon. The other is Larry Chapp’s “Cantalamessa Should Have Preached to the Pope” and is available here.
Divisions in the Church are tearing “Christ’s tunic to shreds,” Raniero Cantalamessa said in his homily during the Good Friday service in Rome. These conflicts, said the Capuchin Friar and Preacher to the Papal Household, are not about dogma or sacraments. They “stem from political opinions that grow into ideologies after being given priority over religious and ecclesial considerations.” Put simply, “The kingdom of this world becomes more important, in the person’s heart than the Kingdom of God.”
I don’t know if there is a more true, or more obvious, assessment of the Church at this moment.
Pope Francis has used similar imagery describing ideology and division in the Church, how Christian “ideologues” strike Christ whenever they lash out against a brother. But I don’t think Cantalamessa is simply Francis’s mouthpiece here.
This explicit warning about mixing politics and faith certainly goes back further than the current pontiff. One noteworthy example is Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous homily describing the prioritization of ideology over Christianity as the “dictatorship of relativism.”
To be clear, this is not a conservative or liberal problem. Cantalamessa is not chastising any particular political agenda. He is criticizing the subjugation of the Gospel to any ideology.
Political ideologies are concerned with occupying spaces of power while the Church is concerned with proclaiming the liberating message of God’s love. This means credibility, not coercion, is our goal. But too often Christians make Christianity just another ideology vying for influence in the public square.
After the January 6th riot at the Capitol, a professor at a Catholic university defended the former president and his administration on a public Facebook post saying, “to be welcomed in the halls of power and protected by the people in them is something I will forever be grateful for, not repent of.
The base desire to maintain spaces of power and cultural relevance can mask itself as a spirit of evangelization, but there may be few things more toxic to evangelization than subjugating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our political agendas precisely because jockeying for privilege undermines the credibility of our witness.
When we confuse our faith with a political agenda we live in constant fear of losing our social privileges, fear that tempts us to see non-believers as opponents rather than fellow men and women in need of God’s grace and mercy.
When we twist the message of God’s unrelenting desire to save us into defeating ideological enemies, we become counter-witnesses, anti-martyrs of the Good News. The scandal is worse when the enemies we seek to destroy are our own sisters and brothers in Christ. These kinds of political divisions in the Body of Christ ruin our integrity and sabotage our
This is especially true when the ideologues are religious leaders. Cantalamessa pointed his finger directly at pastors and insisted they “be the first to make a serious examination of conscience.” They must “ask themselves where it is that they are leading their flocks — to their position or Jesus’s.”
Examples of religious leaders abusing their authority for the sake of political ideology are legion. There’s the priest (one of several) who said someone can’t be a Catholic and a Democrat and the bishop who supported him. The religious sister who insisted “Catholics cannot be true to their faith and vote for Donald Trump.” Or the archbishop who praised the Catholic Attorney General who reinstated federal executions on an unprecedented level because “he’s disliked by all the right people.” And that’s just from the past year.
Every time a pastor tells his flock that voting for a particular politician is a mortal sin they abuse the consciences of the faithful to advance their personal politics. Every time a Catholic apologist brings up the tired lie of the “Five Non-Negotiables,” they undermine the credibility of the Church’s teaching for the sake of an ideological agenda.
It would be easy to continue this list of offenders, but the papal preacher is clear that if we want to build fraternity we must begin with ourselves. He states, “I believe that we all need to make a serious examination of conscience in this regard and be converted.” And that is what struck me most about this homily.
I live in a community that has been draped in Trump flags and peppered with “thin blue line” signs for most of the past year. Despite sharing a pro-life conviction with my neighbors, it is not easy being a left-of-center millennial in a thoroughly red town. The tension hadn’t stopped me from freely sharing my opinions. I did not mind being the lone house with an American Solidarity Party yard sign.
That was, until this past year. My political preferences have alienated me from my community, and that division isn’t without consequences when I am a lay minister in my local parish. For the past few months I have been truly considering how my politics may be harming my witness to the community I share responsibility for.
This is not because I think my political views are inconsistent with Church teaching — I am a pro-life progressive precisely because of the Church’s social doctrines — but because I know my outspoken political rhetoric, even if it’s true, can undermine my ability to win the trust of others. So Cantalamessa’s warning to pastors struck home. It forced me to ask myself if I’m truly prioritizing the credibility of my witness over and above my politics.
Further, after watching so many Catholics I respect and care about abandon their principles by promoting conspiracy theories and proclaiming “my body, my choice” when confronted with mask mandates to help protect the common good, I have been tempted to retreat and quietly cut them off. But that would only cement these divisions.
In contrast, in his new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the pope proposed a path toward unity. We “should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone.” He describes “a culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions.” This “culture of encounter” rests on the belief that every person has infinite value and a right to opinions different from my own. We are called to acknowledge “the possibility that others have, at
least in part, a legitimate point of view, something worthwhile to contribute, even if they were in error or acted badly.”
To be clear, this doesn’t mean passively allowing those who abuse their authority, religious or otherwise, to continue harming others. “On the contrary,” the pope said, “true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use, and that diminishes his own humanity and that of others.”
Unity does not mean ignoring the dangers of division, erasing all differences, or not holding people accountable. It means doing the very real work of listening to others, of not retreating to like-minded enclaves, of truly seeing the people in our community as brothers and sisters — as family. “If only we could view our political opponents or neighbours in the same way that we view our children or our spouse, mother or father! How good would this be!” How good this would be.
For a more critical alternative, see Larry Chapp’s Cantalamessa Should Have Preached to the Pope.
Co-founder of Where Peter Is, Paul Fahey is a director of religious education, as well as a speaker and retreat leader. His website is Rejoice and Be Glad. His previous article was The Anti-Pelagian Queen’s Gambit.
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