Preaching and Division

Having been previously scheduled for the 5:00 PM anticipated Mass for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I was faced with having to say something about what transpired in Washington on January 6. I did not want to have those events overtake the liturgical feast being celebrated, but neither did I think that important and unprecedented events could go unremarked. I also did not think that I should simply make passing, anodyne, uncontroversial reference to “division”; I felt it was important to be specific and to integrate the events of the week with the mystery of Christ’s baptism. I suspected that I was going to make some people unhappy.

My suspicions proved warranted. Two parishioners confronted me after Mass, accusing me of being a “hypocrite.” I finally persuaded one of them that what they were really accusing me of was not hypocrisy but of being a liar–though the other still insisted I was hypocritical for criticizing the president and pretending that I had no flaws. You can read my homily and see if you think that is true; I’m pretty sure that the whole point of my homily was that the President’s problem is a problem we all share and from which Christ comes to save us. But I suspect my critic had stopped listening by that point.

Though I was able to persuade the other of my critics to switch his accusation from “hypocrite” to “liar,” I was not able to persuade him of anything else. Nor did I expect to. I did say that it made me profoundly sad that fellow members of Christ’s body could not discuss difference in a civil way.

I also received a much more civil email telling me that it was inappropriate to preach a partisan homily. I responded that I tried to make clear that both sides in our political divisions can be guilty of deceit and delusion (again, you can see whether you think this is true), though I did feel compelled to make special mention of President Trump, in light of the events of the past week. I also pointed out that it is important that homilies address everyday life, and that this sometimes includes politics. The next morning I served at the Archbishop’s Mass, and he also addressed the week’s events in his homily. I heard similar criticism of “politicizing” the homily from a couple of parishioners, who thought it might be disrespectful to criticize the Archbishop to his face so they came to me. The perks of being a deacon.

These events have prompted a few thoughts in me:

  • We are in a very bad place in our nation and in our Church with regard to productive dialogue. People have their talking points and are unwilling to deviate from them, in part because they have imbibed (on the the left and the right) catastrophist accounts of what anything less than total victory would mean. Opponents must be crushed rather than listened to.
  • The internet is not helping things. It provides people with access to ideas and information, but little to help them filter and evaluate those ideas and information. So we construct narratives and join tribes to help us filter things. It leads us to silo ourselves with like-minded people and shut out information and ideas that might be unwelcome. For example, one of my critics, very involved in the pro-life movement, claimed to have no knowledge of the re-employment of the federal death penalty by the Trump administration, nor of the rush to execute as many people as possible before Mr. Trump leaves office. Not only was he unaware of this information, he seemed incapable of taking it in, because it did not fit with his tribe’s narrative.
  • In almost all of my conversations with critics, race came up, even though I did not mention it in my homily. One in particular said some shockingly racist things concerning the Cathedral parish. Our Archbishop has been very forthright, though hardly radical, about the question of racism, and this has clearly rankled some people. This leads me to suspect that somehow race really is at the heart of our divisions and that they cannot be healed without somehow healing the primal wound that slavery inflicted, not only on Black people, but on our nation.
  • American Catholics are extremely confused on the relation of religion and politics. On the one hand, there are those who completely collapse religion into politics, with an almost idolatrous worship of particular leaders. On the other hand, there are those who think church should be a sanctuary where the ugly political realities of our times should never be mentioned. The Church, however, knows that things cannot be this simple. We must steer between becoming identified with any political group on the one side, and consigning ourselves to ultimate irrelevance on the other. If we are content to simply be a haven from politics, to be what Marx called “the heart of a heartless world,” then we risk becoming, as Marx himself pointed out, “the opium of the people.”
  • Divisiveness and partisanship in preaching is a genuine concern. Particularly when mentioning anything happening today in the political realm, you are likely to make people angry. Perhaps the best path to take is 1) make sure that you have tried as hard as you can to understand what is being said on both sides of the issue, 2) make sure that you have interpreted what is being said by those you disagree with as charitably as reason and reality will allow, and 3) make sure that what you say is solidly in accord with Church teachings. These things will not prevent your preaching from dividing people, in part because as soon as you say certain words, one faction will more or less tune out anything you say afterward. But they might help in cleaning up the aftermath, or at least give you some sense of maintaining your own integrity.
  • Some people liked my homily very much, and some have even called it “brave.” While I appreciate the support, I’m not so sure how brave I was being. While I’d rather be called “brave” than “liar” or “hypocrite,” if the worst thing that happens to me is being called names, then I don’t really need much courage. But I do think preaching needs to summon the people of God to be courageous. The response to my homily has made me aware of how brave all of us, across all our divisions, must be in order to listen to each other in genuine openness. It has made me even more aware of how much we will need the grace of God to find that courage. As I have taken to saying at the end of all my homilies, may God have mercy on us all.

    1. All insightful bullet points – thank you. Suggest we have an on-going issue because Trump and Trumpism are two different things and your critics may fall into the Trumpism side??? Strongly agree with your bullet point about catholics and politics – unfortunately, guess we have decades or years of poor adult education development. But, you also have the reality that even the USCCB is divided – there have been/are bishops who have spoken exactly like Trump on Jan. 6th. In your media bullet point, you have the issue of a few bishops that have done very little in confronting or limiting fake news from right wing catholic media e.g. EWTN, LifeSiteNews, Fr. Z, Church Militant, etc.

    2. Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to preach yesterday (online). His point (starting at the 3:55 mark) about “a servant’s heart” (which I believe in the original German might have been more idiomatically a single word: Dienerherz) that he learned during Catholic catechism in his boyhood was the spiritual gem of my Sunday, in the context of his painful boyhood memories of the wake of World War II:

    3. Fritz, Thank you for this post and for your thoughtful spelling out of the issues at stake for us divided, even blinded members of the faithful. I think your note about race being at the heart of divisions in the United States is shockingly and sadly true.

    4. I thought your homily was fair, measured and truthful. Your thoughts above are helpful. I am preaching at our parish this weekend and am struggling with similar issues. I will bear these thoughts in mind.

    5. Even calling what happened in the Capitol “insurrection” seems to be construed as partisan. We are in a bad, bad place. Lord, have mercy.

    6. I greatly appreciated your homily and am grateful for these further reflections as we navigate tumultuous waters.

    7. Fritz,

      Not only was your homily exemplary, but your commentary in this blog is also an object lesson in how we should be trying to look at and face the difficult issues of our time.

      Thank you.

    8. If the truth will set us free, then the non truth will enslave us. What you address is same truth of that Genesis serpent. If one lives, practices, or promotes a non truth, it will not end peacefully. Your words were challenging as we all stood there on the feast of the Epiphany, where a historical king may not have a been truthful in his intent, and we in the US asked “what just happened?”

      It is tough to preach against alternative facts.

      Preach Fritz preach, and…what Inwood said.

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