Pope Francis is often criticized for his pronouncements, including on reconcilation with Canada’s Indigenous. It’s a polarization in the Church that must come to an end. CNS photo/Vatican Media

We have to hit the brakes on division

  • September 22, 2022

Do not judge so that you will not be judged.

-- Matthew 7:1

There is a wonderful cartoon that shows a driving instructor testing his young charge.

“Ahead of you is an old man and a young kid right in your path,” he says. “What do you hit?”

The young student replies instantly, “The old man!” and then sensing that he needs to justify himself adds, “after all, the old man has lived a long life. The kid is just starting out.”

The driving instructor shakes his head in frustration. “The brakes! You’d hit the brakes!”

This comic story brings to mind the famous trolley car paradox that is so popular in philosophy and ethics classes. It has many variations, but the gist of the story is that a trolley is heading down the tracks, out of control, towards a group of old men. The conductor has the choice to switch tracks, but if he does so, he will certainly run over a young child. Which would you choose and why? The exercise, over the years, has been modified so that the stakes are raised continuously. Does new information change the decision? Is it morally better to choose the life of one over the many?

There’s no doubt that we are in a world of polarized communities. Answers to complex questions meet black and white answers, with little room to negotiate, compromise or understand. This leads to divided communities separated not by concrete walls, but ideological ones. Sadly, this division appears increasingly within Christian communities where the greatest understanding should exist. And Pope Francis very much appears to be a figure around whom these divisions are emerging.

We have seen this polarization over the Pope’s pronouncements on everything from migration to First Nations reconciliation. Commentators have chided his decision to empower women more centrally in Church affairs; for being too accommodating to the divorced or to the gay community. He has been criticized for opposing the Latin Mass, and even for being too jocular when some insist on gravity as a condition of the role.

Some years back I visited the Sistine Chapel while it was closed to the public. Because there were only a few of us, the priest giving us the tour opened the Room of Tears (Sala de Lacrima), a small, separate antechamber at the back of the Chapel into which the newly elected Pope is taken after a conclave.

There he is vested, first with a white cassock, and then with more colourful red mozzetta. “After I had robed the Holy Father, I led him to the mozzetta,” the priest told us, “but the Holy Father refused. I looked at my fellow priest and then back to the Pope. I told him, ‘someone must wear it,’ ” to which the Holy Father replied, “One of you decide who will wear it, because I will not.” He then famously appeared before the crowds robed in plain white. Shortly thereafter he eschewed the papal palace, the luxury vehicle and the private dining. For many this was a refreshing sign of the humility of the Pope, one intent on returning the Church to its origins as a gathering of the people. I was surprised to hear significant criticism of the pontiff for this decision. Some felt it diminished the role and potentially undermined the gravitas the head of the Church must show.

In the end, I have always wondered why this display of humility proved threatening. True leadership does not need the trappings of office to be taken seriously. And Christ’s message was one of acceptance and forgiveness. He came among us to remind us to embrace humility, kindness and tolerance. His parables specifically invite us to connect with those who oppose us, indeed those who may have deep antipathy for our beliefs and practices. Christ was especially scathing about those who followed the rules and trappings of tradition but were devoid of the empathy at the heart of God’s message and love.

I don’t know how Jesus would answer the trolley car conundrum, except to know, for certain, that he would swap places with any potential victim. I have a similar feeling about our Pope. Either way, wherever we stand on the question, we should hit the brakes on division. Unity within difference is a gift that we cannot take lightly, and that will prove our saving grace.

(Turcotte is President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia.)

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