When Michael Ignatieff appeared before a gathering of religious leaders sponsored by the Canadian Council of Church last spring, it seemed to me that he had prepared for a question and answer session dominated by socially conservative questions---you know, about abortion and pesky issues like that. I think he might have been floored by the fact the questions from the floor were coming from way out of left field: questions about "tar sands"--like would he commit to shutting them down? or would he commit to a world without nuclear weapons?
I am reminded of this off-the-record Ignatieff event (in which I thought he performed admirably and I came away quite reassured that he respects religious freedom and genuine pluralism and the right of religious people to express themselves in the public square) when I think of the public relations difficulties the Catholic Church in North America has been facing of late.
For years and years, the bishops have braced themselves against the assaults of the mainstream media, often unfair attacks on unpopular aspects of Catholic doctrine or the often unfair focus on the sexual abuse scandals that plague other organizations as well, and to a greater degree but you'd never know it from listening to your TV news or reading your morning paper. In Canada, they've faced relentless hits on Indian Residential Schools and criticism about the so-called lack of an apology, despite the fact that apologies have been coming from bishops and religious orders for decades.
But lately, the Church has faced mounting criticism from another direction, one that with the growth of the new electronic media has found a megaphone to increase its audience. The criticism comes from within, from conservative Catholics who are dissenting from their bishops' public stands, despite the fact that bishops hold the Church's teaching authority.
The latest manifestations in Canada have come in the public criticism of Development and Peace, the Catholic development agency the bishops created more than 40 years to help the poor in the Global South. The other is in the public (and very distressing) battle among pro-life Catholics concerning the way Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley handled the funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy.
What's interesting to me in all of this is that a public relations strategy that might resolve some of the unpleasant attacks from the secularist media and "get the message out" to the vast number of Canadians, including many cradle Catholics, could have the opposite effect on the various websites and blogs run by Catholics who have publicly criticized various Church leaders.
Someone like Barry McLoughlin, who is one of the top in his field and is now a member of a news standing committee the Canadian bishops have established, could conceivably tell the bishops, the critics represent a fringe group in the Catholic Church, never mind Canadian society as a whole, and he might be right, according to the polls. (Though they might prefer to call themselves a "remnant" rather than a "fringe.) In that event, perhaps the bishops could shrug them off or perhaps ignore them and not give them credibility by responding to their criticisms.
There is a perception--fair or unfair--that many of these conservative Catholics alienate more people than they attract, including many who share the same beliefs. Catholics with the same beliefs may object to their tactics, their tone, their timing, their jumping to conclusions through guilt by association, or through caricaturing in black and white what may be a more nuanced argument. There may be a lot more sympathy for some of the genuine arguments made by the Catholic critics than those with a beseiged mentality might think--even among the bishops!
I am hoping and praying all of us will navigate a third alternative between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea: a public relations strategy that leans neither right nor left, but is inspired and driven by the Holy Spirit and bears all His fruits: love, joy, peace, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, self-control etc., and that is committed to the inseparability of Truth and Love.
Some of the latest controversies are as much about how a message is delivered: its timing, its perceived friendly fire, its unfair characterizations than about what kernels of truth it may or may not contain. What people may be reacting to is the tone, the perceived anger in its delivery or exaggerations and hyperbole. At times people from all sides may have been sloppy about facts or unfair in conclusion-jumping. And, unfortunately, there have been examples of intemperate language on all sides. Rene Girard would have a field day in pointing out how mimetic so much of the back and forth criticism is. Everyone's accusing everyone of doing the work of Satan these days. Oh my. News flash. All of us do the work of Satan when we unwittingly let our carnal selves rule and fail to live by the Spirit. In our lapses into impatience, anger or other carnal passions, we inadvertently allow Satan's fiery darts to travel through our words and hurt our Christian brothers and sisters. But I believe no one is consciously doing the work of Satan. Everyone believes himself or herself to be in the right and is eager to point out how the other is wrong.
Sometimes the Catholic critics can come across as legalistic, moralistic and harsh. Whether this is fair or not---because I have not found many of the critics I have met to be personally legalistic and moralistic--the perception still leaves a public relations problem. And some Catholic leaders, perhaps in an effort to reach out to the wider society, may have left a perception that certain doctrines are optional, even if they do not believe in cafeteria Catholicism at all.
Since his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI has been trying to reveal a Church that says Yes! to Jesus, to love, to life, to marriage, a positive face that attracts people. He has tried to overcome an impression that the Catholic Church is all about "No" to this or that--condoms, abortion, divorce, you name it.
Yet no one has been more unfairly charactertized as negative and doctrinaire than the Holy Father. One of the risks we all have if we take up the Cross is that the road leads to Gethesmane and Calvary; it does not necessarily end with the worldly popularity Jesus experienced when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I say this because some who are being perceived as divisive may be living out a calling that is prophetic and the costs might be extremely high, yet, in love they must do it.
But at the same time, anyone who thinks this about themselves must be extremely careful they are not falling into thinking they are being persecuted for righteousness sake--a very real phenomenon Jesus promised his followers would experience--when they are being criticized for self-righteousness or pride or anger. It is not always easy to discern these things, especially about ourselves!
Only the Holy Spirit can bring about the unity in the Church. And as Archbishop Raymond Burke has said, those who have been critical may be doing His work, despite the accusations of divisiveness against them:
One of the ironies of the present situation is that the person who experiences scandal at the gravely sinful public actions of a fellow Catholic is accused of a lack of charity and of causing division within the unity of the Church. In a society whose thinking is governed by the "tyranny of relativism" and in which political correctness and human respect are the ultimate criteria of what is to be done and what is to be avoided, the notion of leading someone into moral error makes little sense. What causes wonderment in such a society is the fact that someone fails to observe political correctness and, thereby, seems to be disruptive of the so-called peace of society. Lying or failing to tell the truth, however, is never a sign of charity. A unity which is not founded on the truth of the moral law is not the unity of the Church. The Church's unity is founded on speaking the truth with love. The person who experiences scandal at public actions of Catholics, which are gravely contrary to the moral law, not only does not destroy unity but invites the Church to repair what is clearly a serious breach in Her life. Were he not to experience scandal at the public support of attacks on human life and the family, his conscience would be uninformed or dulled about the most sacred realities.
As someone who floundered as a cafeteria Christian for years, I have come to see the importance of having a truly Catholic faith as handed down by the Apostles. I do not think we can truly show the evidence of the fruits of the Spirit without an obedience to the Spirit, who convicts us of sin and reveals the Son of God to us in faith. Right doctrine is a matter of life and death. It is by believing the Truth that we are both saved and sanctified, not by pulling ourselves up by our own moralistic bootstraps, to loosely paraphrase St. Paul in Galatians 3.
We need to have that right doctrine preached as well as modeled. We all could do a better job of modeling the faith we claim to hold. And here I speak especially of myself.
If we want that joy and peace, we need to experienced first the humility of a broken and a contrite heart.
Right doctrine without love is, as Paul says, a clanging cymbal. But without right doctrine, how will we know the real Jesus and how will we know His promises towards us? How will be know that in Him we are new creatures and that we can walk in the Spirit and that God, in His divine promises, has given us everything we need for life and godliness?
Love and Truth. Truth and Love. We all need to humble ourselves before God.
Then maybe we'll be qualified to speak the truth in love.
Another thing. We just all be careful we don't take it upon ourselves to do the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. We can get in the way and end up really pointing the finger of the Accuser.
The Holy Spirit convicts and convicts powerfully in circumstances where a Christian forgives on the spot, or "covers" the sin of an another with prayer and silence and lots of hidden intercessory prayer. Imagine the difference in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, if the Father had come out and said, "You squandered my inheritance, blah blah" to make sure the son got the message that he had wronged his father before he ordered the fatted calf to be killed. The elder brother might have liked that approach, no? How much more was the son's heart broken by his father's undeserved abundant love. He really got the message of how much he had wronged his loving father then.
None of us deserves Christ's love and for some of us, who know in our depths how guilty we are, it is the hardest, most humbling thing in the world to accept. Jesus' love breaks pride, every shred of it.
The biggest changes in my life have come from people who have loved me with a Christlike love, who have treated me with patience and grace when I deserved to have them come down on me like a ton of bricks. The Holy Spirit convicted me because they did not step into His way to do it themselves.
Yes, sometimes we do have to speak up. Sometimes the words might well up in us the way they did in Jeremiah, like fire in our bones, so that we must speak.
But before you do, make sure you recognize that you have been forgiven much and that you love much to the point of tears before you do.