Undivided Loyalties

At the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says:

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ I appeal to all of you, my friends, to agree in what you say, so that there will be no divisions among you. Be completely united, with only one thought and one purpose. For some people from Chloe’s family have told me quite plainly, my friends, that there are quarrels among you….One says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Peter”; and another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Cor 1:10-12) 

He spends several chapters railing against how messed up this line of thinking is.

The passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI brought this passage to mind today. There is a degree to which the lines of Catholic division can be identified with our most recent popes. There are a lot of Catholics who might be tempted to say “I follow St. John Paul II,” or “I follow Benedict XVI,” or “I follow Francis,” based on the pope whose approach to the Church inspired their faith. You have tended to see, here in the US, more traditionalist Catholics citing Benedict XVI and John Paul II a lot, and mostly glossing over what Francis has had to say, while more progressive Catholics lean heavily on Francis’ words and then mostly skip back to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and, to a lesser degree, John XXIII. 

A couple of points on this:

First, all of these popes would echo what Paul said to the church in Corinth: this is ultimately nonsense. The point at which our loyalties to a particular leader pull us away from unity in faith and into division is the point at which we are choosing our version of God over God Himself. If the Church is the Body of Christ, it is the Body of Christ, and not the body of Francis or Benedict or John Paul II (or Rick Warren or John Wesley or any other leader you happen to admire).

Second, within that boundary, it’s natural and, I think, helpful to have heroes and influences. For some, it may be popes. For others, it may be saints. For others, it’s pastors, authors, theologians. For others, it’s parents, extended family and friends. Humans are social creations, which means in part that we influence each other, for better and worse, and it can be helpful to remember the good influences in your life and seek out others who will inspire you to be better than you are today. We do well to honor those heroes within the larger context of why we’re all here.

Third, one way we can love someone is to honor those who made them who they are. I don’t know most of my friends’ parents, but I appreciate the ways that they made my friends the awesome people that they are today. As more of my friends have lost their parents, I’ve mourned with them, even if I didn’t know the parents myself, because of the legacy they leave.

Benedict’s papacy happened while I was mostly not paying attention to all this “pope stuff.” I got to know the Catholic Church during John Paul II’s long papacy, and my graduate studies on Catholic political thought included a lot of his work. When I dropped out of graduate school, I focused on other stuff until the election of Francis, when I started to tune back in to what popes had to say. That’s not a knock on Benedict (I just read his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which is exceptional); that’s all on me. When Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope and took the name Benedict XVI, Betsy was one. That hopefully explains where my limited attention was focused.

But I know and love a number of Catholics who came to faith during Benedict’s papacy or have been otherwise influenced in their faith by his remarkable theological intellect. So I join them in mourning his passing and rejoice in his homecoming to the God he served with everything he had.

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