There is evidence that American Catholics are just as influenced, if not more so, by partisan politics than their Catholic faith on a number of hot-button issues. According to Pew Research, 56% of Catholics are in favor of legal abortion in most cases and 53% of Catholics are in favor of the death penalty. This is despite years of emphasis by church leaders on the sanctity of life from conception until natural death. This dynamic has influenced not only people’s positions on given issues but the way they treat folks on the opposing side.
In January, Fr. Casey Cole, OFM released a video titled “Fight Abortion. Don’t Lose Your Soul Doing So.” In the video, Fr. Cole adheres to Church teaching, acknowledging that abortion is wrong and must be opposed. He argues, however, that following Jesus is above any political or social issue.
He called out some on the political left who he believes “care more about immigration than the church. Care more about preserving the environment than their enemies, care more about justice in this time, in this place, than they do in trusting God’s eternal justice.” He also criticizes those who have replaced Jesus with the issue of abortion as the defining mark of the Catholic faith.
His message is simple, prophetic, and blatantly Christian: Jesus Christ is the most important thing in our lives. Everything else comes after our love for him and his love for us. Yet, Fr. Casey was attacked so much for his video that he had to release another video to respond to the hate mail and death wishes.
The critics of Fr. Cole appear not to have given him the benefit of the doubt and reacted to the video without actually watching it (Fr. Cole says that 40% of viewers didn’t make it past the first minute of the video). The vitriol commenced, but minds were not changed. The nasty comments by those attacking and, as Fr. Casey has pointed out, those defending him did not contribute to a meaningful discussion where people’s views were changed or challenged in any legitimate ways.
If these reactions are so strong over content that isn’t even against church teaching, then it would appear that there is no hope for the work of changing hearts and minds. How can we possibly evangelize non-Catholics if we spend so much time shouting at each other on social media?
We can find a model in St. Peter Faber, one of the founders of the Jesuits and, according to St. Ignatius, the best person to give the Spiritual Exercises. Faber spent a good deal of his ministry in places that were heavily Protestant. He quietly worked and converted thousands back to the faith. He was not known for his arguments or for his brilliant take-downs of Protestant theology. Yet, he was still able to convert massive amounts of people.
How did he do it? The answer is simple: he loved those he talked with.
Faber realized that people fell away from the faith not necessarily because of good arguments (though those play a role for sure). Rather, he wrote “They are led astray not so much by the teaching and seeming good of the Lutherans as by the wickedness of those very ones who should be examples of zeal.”
Why would someone want to stay or become Catholic when they saw the hypocrisy of priests living in opulence in Faber’s time? Why would someone want to become Catholic when Catholics are publicly messaging each other that they are ‘jealous of the angel that will get to throw their opponent into hell’? This display of hatred is a major reason why people run away from the faith. Faber understood that the core of our faith is the love of Jesus.
Faber understood that the anger against the Church and God came from a place of pain. There is a story of Faber meeting a priest who had become a Protestant. The priest began yelling at Faber about what was wrong with the Church’s position on married priests. Faber let the man rage before acknowledging him and then moving into a deeper spiritual conversation. After a while, the man was so moved by the fact that Faber did not return his anger with anger, that he opened up about having a mistress. The man found himself in tears. He promised to repent of this sin and came back to the church. This shows another lesson we can learn from Faber, that once an individual is able to address to God how they have made mistakes without the fear of being hated, their relationship with God begins to heal. The same can be extended to those who feel hurt either by the Church or by a perception of God’s abandonment. Once there is an outpouring of love in response, hearts become soft, and people desire to follow God more closely.
The Church is meant to be a unifying presence in the world. We are meant to encounter as many people as we can and to love as many people as possible. It is possible for us to have differences of opinion in how the Church and our society function, but let’s remind ourselves that following Jesus is the most important thing.