Another long drive last week gave me a chance to listen to an excellent lecture on the tradition of Catholic social encyclicals. The lecturer, Kishore Jayabalan (director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office) made a distinction between a Catholic and a sectarian approach to the surrounding culture.
While it is important for us as Christian to distinguish truth from error, Jayabalan argues that a sectarian approach limits itself to what is wrong with others. Whether from the right or the left, sectarianism is an ideology masquerading as Christian theology. Again this is not to say that Christians ought should refrain from pointing out where we disagree with the culture–we should but a purely negative approach is not only insufficient it contradicts the very tradition that we would defend. Let me explain.
Life as a disciple of Christ necessarily places us in a tension with not only the fallen world, but also with ourselves. As the late Fr Alexander Schmemmann never tired of repeating, it is this fallen world that God loves and for which His Son suffered and died on the Cross. And it is this fallen world that rises with Christ and will at the end of time not be obliterated but transfigured into the New Heaven and the New Earth.
Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem
, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is
with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be
their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful” (Rev 21:1-5
To be sure, Jesus condemns “the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” to “the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” and so to “the second death” (v.8 j) but this does not undo the eschatological fulfillment of creation that is described at length in subsequent verses (vv. 9-27; 22:1-5). Indeed it is those who, because of their works (see, Rev 22:12) are unwilling to say Maranatha! “Come Lord Jesus!” and so will not “take the water of life freely” that are condemned (see, Rev 22:17). To borrow from one of the more obscure writers of the early Church the sixth century Latin father, Apringius of Beja, “The Holy Spirit and the Church call all to come to salvation” (Tractate on the Apocalypse, 22:17 quoted on ACCS, NT vol XII: Revelation, p. 406).
The pastoral–and spiritual–failure of sectarianism is that, unlike Christ, it fails to balance “harsh sayings…with the easy and appealing words so that watchfulness is encouraged” (Venerable Bede, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 21.8 quoted on ACCS, NT vol XII: Revelation, p. 361). Underneath this, indeed underneath all my willingness to judge, to condemn, to withhold forgiveness, is a watchfulness that is not encouraging but suspicious and distrustful. If in the immediate this is directed toward my neighbor it ultimately finds its roots in my own lack of faith in God and trust in the providential working of His grace in your life and mine.
We can, as Jayabalan did, contrast the sectarian approach with a catholic one. While sectarianism often takes a negative tone, what is central is not negativity as such. The sectarian Christian seeks to limit God’s grace to an elite group. That this elite group is eventually a group of one person–the sectarian himself–is ignored or overlooked.
A catholic approach, on the other hand, does not simply criticize what is wrong, it affirms what is good, and true, and just, and beautiful. If sectarianism seeks to tear down, a catholic approach seeks to build up. Sectarianism seeks an ever narrow “purity,” the catholic an ever more expansive wholeness. Again, this doesn’t mean that a catholic approach refrains from pointing out error, but it does so in a way that is both charitable and fearless.
For the sectarian mind, life presents no real dilemmas–only an unending series of enemies, of dragons who can never, quite, be slain. Put another way, sectarianism is a mode of despair.