The new Cain and Abel

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • September 18, 2007

{mosimage}In the bad old days, Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants in Toronto did not get along. Catholics kept to themselves, Anglicans fussed over what popish dash was allowable in church and old-style Protestants hosted Belfast-style Orange Day parades. Now Catholics marry anyone who will take them, Anglicans scooped our pretty things in the post-Vatican II sales, and there are hardly any old-style Protestants left to speak of. The Orange Day parade, strangely, remains.

Ecumenical relations have improved over the years, and for that we should be grateful. As a student at the Toronto School of Theology, I met students from different Christian traditions and it was an enriching experience for us all.

“So why would a Catholic woman study for a Masters of Divinity degree?” an Anglican student asked me. “It’s not like you can be ordained.”

“Oh, you know,” I replied. “Found a job yet?”

“Well, no, not yet. There aren’t a lot of places, especially in the cities.”

{sidebar id=2}“Strange! Our priests are completely overworked. And our parishes are bursting at the seams. Have you tried Alberta?”

Yes, ecumenical relations have improved. Sadly, now that Christians are no longer supposed to pick on each other, we are in grave danger of turning inwards on our own communions. The American religious wars are so noisy, we can hear the yelling from up here. It appears that the grandchildren of old-style Protestants really have it in for new-style Protestants and their devotion to old-style Protestant ways, like going to church on Sunday and thinking Christianity applies to every aspect of life, not just civil rights parades. However, as Canadian Catholics we should not be smug, for fratricide is epidemic even among Catholics in the United States.

Recently I was walking through the beautiful grounds of a famous American Catholic college with a confused Protestant. She had fallen in love with the spirituality of Flannery O’Connor and had left the Southern Baptist world she knew to learn more about Catholics. There was a Catholic chapel to the left of us, a Catholic Church to the right of us, and a million-dollar building dedicated to a penniless Catholic saint before us. His fancy Catholic statue brought up the rear. But the Catholic collegians had said something confusing, she confessed. “They told me that at this college a Protestant would be more comfortable than (the wrong kind of) Catholics.”

The word suppressed by the brackets could be “conservative” or “liberal.” It doesn’t matter. I dislike both words equally. Nowadays they carry no meaning but “bad.” I prefer the words “traditionalist,” meaning Catholics who delight in our ancient traditions, and “progressive,” meaning Catholics who enjoy reflecting on the church through the lens of our historical circumstances. Thus, it is possible to be both traditionalist and progressive at once.

Reflecting on the approaching culture wars, the great Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan wrote, “There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development. . . . But what will endure is a perhaps not so numerous centre, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and to insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait.”

Incidentally, there is no place in the seductive culture wars for those of the not so numerous centre. Like the bat who was rejected by both the beasts and the birds in the fairy tale, you won’t belong to any army.

There is nothing more uncivil than a civil war. I am afraid that one has been declared between so-called conservative Catholics and so-called liberal Catholics in the United States. There are rumblings here in Canada, too, especially on the Internet, but it is nothing to what I have seen, heard and read in the United States.

There is something Satanic about this new Cain-and-Abel battle. For one thing, the battlefield is entirely covered with little Cains claiming to be Abel. Jesus said, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house.” Who are we to complain if Opus Dei wants to decorate their room in Spanish Baroque and Catholic Worker wants wildflowers and Adirondack chairs? It would be a boring church if every Mass featured Gregorian chant, and an unfaithful church if there was no Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to protect all of us ordinary Catholics from the tradition-or-progress excesses of battling theologians. It is so important that Catholics love one another. It is difficult. But Jesus prayed that we all may be one. Let’s not let Him down.

(Cummings, of Toronto, is on leave from her doctoral program at Boston College.)

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