Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On Division and the Need for Openness

Fr. Ron Rolheiser on Polarization
and Bitterness in the Church

No Words by Sieger Köder

Even though I fear I may be pushing the limits of copyright infringement, I'd like to publish two short essays from Fr. Ron Rolheiser's book Forgotten Among the Lilies, A Heart with One Room, and Closed to Love, Open to Hate. Looking at the state we are in today, I'm inclined to think that he wouldn't mind my sharing them.

A Heart with One Room

OUR AGE is witnessing an erosion of Catholicism. The consequence of this, besides our drab somberness, is a polarization which, both in the world and in the church, is rendering us incapable of working together against the problems which threaten us all. Let me explain.

We are, I submit, becoming ever less Catholic. What is implied here? What is slipping? What does it mean to be Catholic?

The opposite of Catholic is not Protestant. All Christians, Protestants or Roman Catholics, characterize their faith as Catholic-as well as one, holy and apostolic.

The word Catholic means universal, wide. It speaks of a comprehensive embrace. Its opposite, therefore, is narrowness, pettiness, lack of openness, sectarianism, provincialism, factionalism, fundamentalism and ideology.

To my mind, the best definition of the word Catholic comes from Jesus himself, who tells us: "In my Father's house there are many rooms" (John 14:2).

In speaking of the Father's house, Jesus is not pointing to a mansion in the sky, but to God's heart. God's heart has many rooms. It can embrace everything. It is wide, unpetty, open and antithetical to all that is factional, fundamentalistic and ideological. It is a heart that does not divide things up according to ours and theirs.

Nikos Kazantzakis wrote: "The bosom of God is not a ghetto." That is another way of saying that God has a Catholic heart.

To affirm this, however, is not to say that, since God is open to all and embraces all, nothing makes any difference; we may do as we like, all morality is relative, all beliefs are equal, and nobody may lay claim to truth.

There is a false concept of openness which affirms that to embrace all means to render all equal. Jesus belies this. He affirms the universal embrace of God's heart without affirming, as a consequence, that everything is OK. His Father loves everyone, even as he discriminates between right and wrong.

Catholicism can be spoken of as slipping, in that, unlike God's heart, more and more it seems, our hearts have just one room.

Today we are seeing a creeping narrowness and intolerance. Fundamentalism, with its many types of ideology, has infected us. This is as true in the secular world as in the church. Fundamentalism and the narrowness and consequent polarization it spawns are everywhere. But this needs to be understood.

We tend to think of fundamentalism as a conservative view which takes Scripture so literally as to be unable to relate to the world in a realistic way. But that is just one, and a very small, kind of fundamentalism. We see fundamentalism wherever we see a heart with just one room.

The characteristic of all fundamentalism is that, precisely, it seizes onto some fundamental value, for example the wisdom of the past, the divine inspiration of Scripture or the importance of justice and equality, and makes that the sole criterion for judging goodness and authenticity.

In that sense, the fundamentalist's heart has just one room-a conservative, liberal, biblical, charismatic, feminist, anti-feminist, social justice, anti-abortion or pro-choice room. It judges you as good, acceptable, decent, sincere, Christian, loving and worth listening to only if you are in that room. If you are not ideologically committed to that fundamental, complete with all the prescribed rhetoric and accepted indignations, then you are judged as insincere or ignorant, and in need of either conversion or of having your consciousness raised.

In the end, all fundamentalism is ideology and all ideology is fundamentalism-and both are a heart with one room, a bosom that is a ghetto.

That is the real un-Catholicism.

Tragically too, at the heart of all fundamentalism and ideology, there is an absence of a healthy self-love and a healthy self-criticism. That is why fundamentalists and ideologues are all so defensive, hypersensitive and humorless.

It is because of this that the world and the church are so full of intolerance, anger, lack of openness, self-righteous condemnation, scapegoating and academic and moral intimidation. There are too few rooms in our hearts!

Given this, it is not surprising that very little genuine dialogue ever takes place. Most attempts at it are little more than name-calling and cheerleading. Given this too, it is not surprising that the working out of personal neuroses is frequently confused with genuine commitment to causes.

In God's house there are many rooms. There is an embrace for everyone; rich and poor, conservative and liberal, irrespective of whether one is wearing silks or denims. God's house is a Catholic house.

And "we must be Catholic as our heavenly Father is Catholic." We must create more Catholic hearts and more Catholic houses. And this is not a call to be wishy-washy relativists who affirm that everything is OK as long as you do it sincerely. Like Christ, we must discriminate between right and wrong and believe in a divine truth which judges the world.

But we must free ourselves from un-Catholicism, from fundamentalism and ideology which create a heart with just one room.

Closed to Love, Open to Hate

WE LIVE IN A TIME of pain and division. Daily, in the world and in the church, hatred, anger and bitterness are growing. It is ever harder to live at peace with each other, to be calm, not to alienate someone just by being. There is so much wound and division around. Women's issues, poverty and social justice, abortion, sexual morality, questions of leadership and authority, issues of war and peace, and styles of living and ministry are touching deep wounds and setting people bitterly against each other.

This is not even to mention issues such as personality conflicts, jealousy, greed and sin-which habitually divide. Our psychic temperature is on the rise and with it, as Jesus predicted, son is turning against father, daughter against mother, sister against brother. We are being divided. It is no longer possible to escape taking a stand on these issues, and to take a stand on them is to make enemies, to have someone hate you, to be accused of being narrow and to be alienated from other sincere persons. For anyone who is sensitive, this is the deepest pain of all.

Moreover none of us ever approaches these issues in complete fairness and objectivity. We are wounded, whether we admit it or not. Knowingly and unknowingly, in all these issues we have been either oppressor or oppressed and consequently we approach them either too full of wound or too defensive to see straight. In either case the temptation is to become bitter and to give in to the propensity to feel that we have the right to be angry, to hate certain people, to be self-righteous, and to dissociate sympathy and understanding from certain others.

That is a tragic mistake.

Valid, painful and imperative as these issues may be, reason, love, understanding and long-suffering may never give way to a progressive and militant bitterness which can irrevocably alienate. That is the road to hell because bitterness is hell.

Yet that is what is happening today. We are too easily giving in to the temptation to think that because we have been wounded, or because others are wounded, we have the right to hate, to withdraw our empathy, to think in terms of black and white, and to be bitter.
It is getting worse. Bitterness, like cancer, is slowly infecting more and more of Christ's body.

We need to read this, the sign of the times, and respond to it out of the Gospel. It is my submission that, given this bitterness, the Christian vocation today, for a time, will be that of letting ourselves bleed, in tears and tension, to wash out these wounds.

Let me illustrate what this means by way of an example. Just to be alive in the church today is to be caught in a painful tension. For example, the issues of women's rights and social justice are, without doubt, two of the primary challenges that the Holy Spirit is giving our age. Yet Rome refuses to raise seriously the question of the ordination of women and it silences Leonardo Boff, a voice for the poor. With that comes a wave of resentment, bitterness and hatred.

Daily I move in circles where people are bitter about these issues and I find myself increasingly reluctant to defend Rome's stance on them. On these two issues we are sitting on a powder keg and a deadly bitterness is flowing from them.

Yet no serious Catholic can be cavalier about the church as institution, as universal. Some 800 million Catholics cannot travel together without compromise, frustration, impatience, tears, rules and traditions which at times might seemingly strangle some of the life that the Holy Spirit is spawning.

When a universal church moves forward, it can only be in baby steps.

So what does the Christian who wants to be faithful today do? Ignore Rome? Consider the women's movement and social justice as fads? Grow cynical? Mind his or her own business and let be what is? Say "the hell with them all"?

Since nothing else is possible for now, save bitterness, which must be rejected, the answer lies in a fidelity which accepts suffering. To be faithful today means to live in pain, in tension, in frustration, in seeming compromise, often hated by both sides.

Our call today is to reconcile by feeling the pain of all sides and by letting our pain and helplessness be a buffer that heals, the blood that helps wash the wound. As a simple start we can test how open-minded we are on all these issues by seeing how much pain we are in. Not to be in pain is not to be open-minded.

It is a time of pain for the church, a time when we will all feel some hatred, a time when above all we must keep our peace of mind, our inner calm of spirit and our outer charity.

Most of all, it is time to resist bitterness and that hardness of spirit which dampens the Holy Spirit.


Mike McG... said...

"Our call today is to reconcile by feeling the pain of all sides and by letting our pain and helplessness be a buffer that heals, the blood that helps wash the wound."

What a prophet Rolheiser is. I resonate deeply with what he says and have attempted repeatedly to sound similar themes, in person with friends and online in blogs 'of both persuasions.' I routinely find that my comments fall flat, that they are very often conversation/thread stoppers.

Part of this, I'm sure, is that I don't articulate this sensibility even remotely as well as Rolheiser does...but I think there is more.

I'm persuaded that many people, included very deep ones, resist seeing their own positions as forged significantly by their wounds. I'm also inclined to think that exquisite pain has rained in on them from one direction or the other...from the left *or* the right, but not both. Consequently they seem to resist the implication that the experience of pain can be understood apart from the brand or source of pain experienced.

Perhaps the implication that we are as likely to inflict pain as we are to have it inflicted on us if somehow threatening.

Perhaps, with time, more people will experience their hurt as distinct from the ideology of those who inflicted it. Meanwhile, Rolheiser's perspective seems to me to be an (infrequently) acquired taste.

Jeff said...


He really has a way of putting things, doesn't he? I'm reading a book by Henri Nouwen right now, and he articulated that certain "woundedness" aspect of it even bettter. I think you're right. A lot of people don't want to hear it right now. The "wounder healer" is considered to be "soft". Everybody's got to be a tough guy. Or gal. No time for fey, mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy types anymore. In my own case, I think I try to make note of what my own biases and prejudices are based on my experiences. I think I have a good idea of what they are. It doesn't make conquering them easy, but I at least know that they are there.

I do wonder sometimes if the web contributes to the harshness and the lack of willingness to put ourselves in the other guy's shoes. As you've noted, people say things in a way that they wouldn't necessarily feel safe or comfortable saying face to face. Plus, due to the sheer size of the web, it becomes easier and easier to find a specialized subgroup that agrees with you on every single detail (at least in the short run). With that kind of group identity and re-affirmation, the price of apostasy becomes ever higher, and the need for compromise withers.

crystal said...

The more I read of his stuff, the more I like him.

To be faithful today means to live in pain, in tension, in frustration, in seeming compromise, often hated by both sides.

That's really an interesting comment, because I always see two alternatives if there's a conflict - changing things to be the way I want, or becoming depressed and very bitter. I never considered the idea that it's ok to leave an issue unresolved and live with the tension .... I want to think about this more.

Jeff said...


more I read of his stuff, the more I like him.

I enjoyed the Thomas Wolfe references and quotes you lifted from him. :-) How is that book? I haven't read that one.

Speaking of carrying that tension, who is this 'mta' person? Was that spam, do you think?

crystal said...

I followed their name back and there was no profile, no blog. Nothing wrong with their question, I was just in a bad mood :-)

The book on loneliness is pretty good - I'm about half done. My sister gave me an Amazon gift certificate, so maybe I'll buy another book of his.

Anonymous said...

jeff, mike. I'm not sure what you guys are saying the effect of the web is. At least for me it is good; a chance to tell somebody what you really need to say, rather than offend a friend in person.

Mike McG... said...


Please say more. Do you feel that the web serves as an outlet to unleash feelings that are too raw to say face to face?

Let's say I work with people of a particular demographic category; let's call "them" XYZs. XYZs really bug me for whatever reason. Strongly enforced norms prevent me from expressing these feelings in the workplace, so the anonymity of the web permits me to safely vent.

My concern is such expression of hostility doesn't serve as a catharsis but rather as a prompt for more hostility.

Anonymous said...

Mike, all I am saying is we need to keep in balance. Of course, the web can be used to express 'hostle' feelings; but it can also be used, as strange as you may think this is, for people to ask for help. And, of course,for lively exchange of ideas. A knife can be used to peel an apple but also to injure others.

I use blogs based on their comity; one reason I like this blog is that it is not , if ever, used to spew hate. Jeff knows who anon. is and what he allowed me to do.

Jeff said...

one reason I like this blog is that it is not , if ever, used to spew hate.

Thanks Anon. ;-) We’ve had a pretty good crew here. I’ve had good help from people in that regard.

If you ever see me doing it, call me on it. I’ve thrown a rant or two away before posting them. Help keep me honest.