For the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Fr. Bill McCormick, SJ, discusses our current times and the need for reconciliation among Christians.

The Reformation and Our Thirst for Reconciliation

By Bill McCormick, SJ

It seems that our age has an exceptional thirst for reconciliation. President Donald Trump’s cancellation of DACA, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s comments about Catholicism during the confirmation hearings of a judicial appointment, Brexit, the reaction to Jesuit Father James Martin’s book on welcoming LGBT Catholics within the Church, North Korea, the continuing controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia, the Charlottesville tragedy, protests for racial justice in St. Louis, even some of the responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma: all are painful reminders that not only are we in desperate need of reconciliation, but that there seem to be precious little hope for it.

But this year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation reminds us that we have always been in need of reconciliation, that we have always lived with an ache for peace and unity. By some estimates, as many as 20 million people died in the European “Wars of Religion,” pitting Catholic against Protestant, Catholic against Catholic, Protestant against Protestant, and even Christian and Muslim against Christian. This conflict burned across Europe for more than a century, leading to deep political divisions that fed the machines of war through the 19th century. Exacerbating pre-existing enmities and creating new ones, the effects of the Reformation remain visible scars today: the Christian community’s many wounds continue to impede its prophetic witness to the Kingdom of God. 

This history could be read as evidence of the human proclivity for violence and division. Yet as strong as our desire is to pull apart, there is an equally strong desire to pull back together. 

This desire echoes in the ancient Roman hope for an empire that would bring peace to all lands; in the medieval image of the “Great Chain of Being”; in the early modern desire to secure peace against religious violence; in the 19th-century dream of uniting the world through peaceful commerce; in the post-World War II project to bring about peace through the promotion of human rights; and, in our day, in the hope of uniting the whole world through communications technology. Even in the most divisive and hate-filled movements, which often violently pit one group against another, there often lurks the perverted hope that unifying a people will bring about peace. 

These examples make it clear: humans have a deep and natural desire for unity, a desire for unity that requires reconciliation. Yet even though we often experience this ache, we rarely name it. Why do we experience it? Where does it come from? Is it always a good force? When, in other words, are our efforts at unity and reconciliation useless - or worse? 

Father Provincial Ronald Mercier, SJ, (left) joined leaders of different faiths
in praying for justice when a court verdict resulted in unrest in St. Louis.

A Desire for Peace – or for Mastery

Saint Augustine of Hippo argues that the deep human desire for unity can arise from two sources: from a desire for peace, or from a desire for mastery. Ultimately these sources are inclinations toward and away from God. The desire for unity through peace, in other words, comes from God. The other does not.

Augustine’s insight prompts us to ask: in our efforts at reconciliation, are we drawing others toward God, or drawing them under our control? When are calls for unity in fact masked grabs for power? 

Augustine also invites us to ask what accounts for this desire for mastery. Many secular thinkers, for instance Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, talk about power, greed, and the desire for those in power to structure society to maintain their power. And there is some truth to those claims. But Christianity says this desire for mastery arises from a separation from God that is ultimately mysterious: the mystery of evil.

If Augustine is right, then our desire to control others finally arises from our desire to separate ourselves from God, a desire that is ultimately as mysterious as evil itself. As ministries of reconciliation in our time become more urgent, then discovering the roots of reconciliation in seeking right relationship with God becomes equally more urgent, as well. 

In the Society of Jesus, the decrees of General Congregations 35 and 36 have urged that reconciliation take three forms - reconciliation with God, with humanity and with creation - and that they are indivisible. But there can be no true reconciliation that does not finally recognize its grounding in reconciliation with God. Decree 1 of General Congregation 36, for instance, emphasizes the faith that must characterize each Jesuit: “Reconciliation with God is first and foremost a call to profound conversion, for each Jesuit, and for all of us,” (GC 36, d. 1, no. 17). Moreover, “the heart of Ignatian spirituality is the transforming encounter with the mercy of God in Christ that moves us to a generous response,” (GC 36, d. 1, no. 19). 

All efforts at reconciliation, in other words, must be judged by their fruits in reconciling humans to God. Here there can be no substitute for discernment of spirits, which help ensure we are engaged in a genuine search for God’s will rather than a confirmation of our own desires. 

Many people today, for instance, are frustrated with calls for dialogue and bridge-building, and desire immediate action. Then, too, dialogue can at times seem an end in itself, often failing to lead beyond itself to action. But, to state the obvious, reconciliation requires both word and deed, and both in their season. When is God calling us to speak? When are we called to listen? To act? And when is God calling us to patience? 

Perhaps, at times, resistance to action is a resistance to God’s will for justice. Perhaps at other times resistance to words is a resistance to God’s wisdom. There are no shortcuts to discerning such matters. 

False consolation

Since the rise of the ecumenical movements, Christians of all stripes have attempted to bridge the differences between different Christian denominations in full love, without sacrificing truth. As these intrepid pioneers of ecumenism know all too well, to act without such love or truth would be a serious obstacle to genuine reconciliation.

But the intense desire for reconciliation often leads to false consolation, to the illusion that the path to peace and unity is simple, and has only to be realized here and now. This false consolation can take two forms. 

There is first the allure of false consensus. False consensus is the illusion that we have formed a critical mass of unity, and can proceed to action. It often arises out of fear: the fear that we must act now or never, the fear that we must fall in with a group or risk being frozen out; or even in evasion of the fear that there is no real solution to our problems. The false consolation of false consensus can help us evade such fears. 

Catholics are particularly prey to false consensus. We have worked hard to integrate into modern American culture, and we like our place there. We also value our long-standing traditions of reason and humanism, and so can be too quick to endorse uncritically movements or actions that seem to enjoy widespread support. 

After World War II, for instance, there was widespread support among Catholic intellectuals and policy-makers for promoting human rights. Human rights, it was argued, dovetail naturally with Catholic traditions of natural law. Fast forward to 2017, however, and we see that we do not agree on what rights are and what they are for. Instead we find ourselves forever “balancing” one right against another. Rights also exist in very uneasy tension with solidarity and the common good, at times seeming downright anti-social. How can we balance the “right” to health care with the “right” to economic personal freedom? 

Rights language has a universalistic appeal, especially for Catholics, but the often-false consensus around rights has split Catholics more than it has united us.

Secondly, there is the allure of false prophecy. The prophet speaks truths in the name of God, but the false prophet speaks lies. False prophecy most often arises out of anger at injustice. Anger is a powerful tool in politics, because it can motivate us to action like little else. But anger is not fully rational. We can become angry at the wrong things based on false or partial information. Or anger can feed off love and our desire to protect others. And, inevitably, anger taps into our desires for power: to be angry at someone is to exert a claim against them, to hold a permission to judge and punish. 

The Catholic willingness to speak truth to power, and to suffer any and all ensuing consequences, makes us susceptible to false prophecy. In U.S. politics, for example, Catholics are often their own worst enemies. There are no greater political foes than "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics. Why? In large part, Catholics have assimilated into the Right/Left divide in the United States. As a result, the bishops have struggled to bring Catholics together around issues that should be of common concern for all Christians, issues like immigration and religious freedom. Where there should be consensus, angry false prophecy drives us apart.

False consensus and false prophecy are strategies for division, not reform. In both cases, we have put our own desires ahead of God’s. We may very well be seeking reconciliation with other people, but we do so in ways that fall short of full truth and love. 

To be sure, God is not asking us to sacrifice our desires. Or, rather, God is not asking us to sacrifice our good desires. God is asking us to set aside all the ways that we push God away, all the ways that we refuse to recognize the divine presence in the world and in other persons. God wants us to cultivate the wonderful gifts he has put in us, gifts that allow us to cooperate with him. 

Saint Ignatius of Loyola understood this well when he founded the Society of Jesus. At the foundation of Ignatius’ “practical mysticism” is a firm belief in the vision of the whole world as a vineyard: a hopeful attitude about the fruitful power of human cooperation with the divine. 

That hope in cooperation ought to inspire and cultivate the age-old human desire for unity. It is often said, for instance, that Martin Luther sought not division but reform. Yet so many efforts at reconciliation in our time lead not to reform, but to further division. 

Indeed, we in the West sometimes congratulate ourselves that we no longer shed blood over religious differences. And we should rejoice at that. But we ought not mistake the limited successes of the Enlightenment for a cure for the mystery of evil. Our political divisions show the profound wounds that yet cut us, wounds that will not heal without God’s grace.

It is ultimately hope in this grace that will reunite Christians and all peoples in God’s love. Christians are as complicit in our brokenness and fragmentation as anyone, yet we can share that gift of hope with the world. It is hope in God’s providence that quells the fear leading us to false consensus, and soothes the anger that leads to false prophecy. Hope nurtures and cultivates our deepest desires for unity and peace, desires that God places in us to bring us closer to Him. 

We need examples of peace and unity today more than ever. How will Christians - whether Catholics, Protestant, Orthodox - come together to be the sign of that peace? 

Bill McCormick, SJ, is a regent at Saint Louis University, where he teaches political science and philosophy. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of Texas.

This story was first published in the Fall 2017 issue of the USA Central and Southern Jesuits Magazine.


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