Yesterday, the Pope spoke about the need for unity among Christians. According to CNA, he said,
In a Christian community division is one of the most serious sins, because it does not allow God to act. What God wants is that we be welcoming, that we forgive and love each other so as to become more and more like Him, who is communion and love.
This quote is being used like a giant, wet fish to fraternally correct people right in the face. Smack! Unity! The Pope says so! Whack!
Let's put that fishie down for a minute, and let's think about what kind of things the Pope was actually talking about, when he admonished us to avoid division. He clearly didn't mean "Don't disagree with anyone" or "Never criticize bad ideas." He has, in fact, himself been criticized for being the Pope who scolds, the one who's always wagging his fingers and telling us to behave ourselves. So no, Francis obviously does not think it's a sin against unity to say, "Such-and-such behavior is not right."
Then what did he mean? From the CNA article:
“Sins against unity are not only schisms,” he said, “but also the most common weeds of our communities: envies, jealousies, antipathies...talking bad about others. This is human, but it is not Christian.”
Hard to hear, but indisputable. Dorothy Day said that we only love God as much as we love the person we love the least. This means that it doesn't matter if we happen to enjoy being with a certain person, or if even the thought of him makes us break out in angry blotches: we are to treat him with love -- to behave generously with him, and to leave the personal judgments of his soul up to God, and to do right by him, even if it makes us unpopular.
But note -- note well, o fish slappers! -- that the Pope is talking about how we treat people, how we talk about people, how we behave toward people. He is not talking about how we treat ideas, how we talk about ideas, how we behave in the face of ideas. When we come across an idea which is wrongheaded, dangerous, false, or misleading, then it is our duty to criticize it, to speak openly about what is wrong with it, and to do what we can do to combat the harm that it has done.
This is a thousand times more important when the wrongheaded, dangerous, false or misleading idea presents itself as Christian.
Think of it this way: Ideas are like houses, and other people are like . . . well, like people who live in those houses. If I lived next to a house with a huge, gaping crack in the foundation, and I discovered that a lovely young family was innocently planning to move into that house, what should I do? Should I keep quiet, in the name of peace and unity?
What about if, with some research, I discovered that the original builder had deliberately built the house with flaws -- that, for his personal benefit, he had mixed the concrete with Ritz cracker crumbs? And what if I discovered that the current owners of the bad house plastered over the crack and called it fixed -- and that they had done this several times in the past, and had used their influence to cover up the stories of other people who had lived in the house, and had been injured by falling masonry?
Should I, the neighbor who knows the danger, keep quiet, because the current owners are doing their best, and just trying to provide a nice house? (And it is a very, very pretty house.) Shouldn't I just keep my mouth shut, in the name of unity? Should I fear discord and division so much that I pretend not to know what I know?
Of course not. Because I love the nice young family looking for a home, I should warn them, point out the flaw, and beg them to forget the deposit they made, run away, move in somewhere else,where the foundation is secure. If they want their family to grow and flourish in safety and peace, they need to find a place that is well-built and sound, not maliciously and disastrously flawed in its very design. Even if it looks nice on the outside.
Sometimes, a bad structure simply needs to be torn down and rebuilt on a different design. This is especially urgent if the blueprint for flawed houses, designed with malice, is still being used to build other houses, to make a thriving community that bills itself as a model for all communities. Sometimes, the only answer is to tear it all down.
This may not look like peace or unity while the bulldozers are doing their thing; but to the nice young family that needs a place to live, the unity that comes after demolition is the only kind of unity that matters.
The Pope said that “the holiness of the Church [is] to recognize the image of God in one another.”
Yes indeed. And if we recognize the image of God in other people, we will warn them away from danger, we will help them find better places to live, and we will condemn the people whose plan deliberately put them in harm's way in the first place. This is what unity looks like. This is how Christian love works. This is how we look out for each other. And if we have to take a wet fish to the face from time to time, it's more than worth it.