Holy Hubbub: Lessons from Squabbling Saints

When contention is unavoidable, we must contend prayerfully, peaceably and virtuously, regardless who wins.

LEFT: Jacob van Oost the Younger (1639-1713), “Saint Charles Borromeo.” RIGHT: Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), “St. Philip Neri.”
LEFT: Jacob van Oost the Younger (1639-1713), “Saint Charles Borromeo.” RIGHT: Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), “St. Philip Neri.” (photo: Public Domain)

To live above with the Saints we love,
Ah, that is the purest glory.
To live below with the Saints we know,
Ah, that is another story!

Irish toast


When I was a kid, Mad Magazine was pretty much contraband at my house, but I managed to get my hands on it from time to time. The irreverent humor, the movie parodies, the cynical ad send-ups – I loved it all, and I couldn’t help gravitating to its skewed appreciation of the absurd.

One of the magazine’s regular staples was “Spy vs. Spy.” It starred two unnamed secret agents –one in white, the other in black, hat brims low over the eyes – who tried to outsmart each other by means of complicated, James-Bondsy stratagems. Almost always there was a twist at the end: It might look all along like the white spy was going to get the upper hand, but a sudden reversal would put the black spy on top – or vice versa.

Plus, it never really mattered who won because neither agent was associated with nation or ideology, and there were no clear long-term objectives in any case. Even during the Cold War era of my youth, Mad lightly skipped over politics and foreign policy in favor of MacGuffins, stereotypes, and sheer lunacy. Unlike, say, Looney Tunes’ Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, who matched wits over survival and the latter’s carnivorous appetite, the spies in Mad sparred for sport. It didn’t seem to matter to them (and it definitely didn’t matter to me!) what their ultimate goal was. World domination? Economic hegemony? Who was with the good guys? The bad guys? Who cares? What mattered was the espionage slapstick mêlées that got me chuckling. It was a totally myopic and juvenile comic environment, but it served its adolescent market (i.e., me) very well.

That undercover shtick from Mad came to mind recently as I read through Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation (1962). “It is not unusual, in the lives of the saints, to find that saints did not always agree with saints,” Merton writes at one point. “Peter did not always agree with Paul, or Philip Neri with Charles Borromeo.”

“Saint versus Saint – like the old Spy versus Spy,” I thought to myself, “but without as much slapstick…usually.” True enough. Peter and Paul, I knew, disputed publicly over the question of circumcision for Gentile converts. Paul rejected the Judaizers’ insistence on continued observance of Levitical Law, while Peter waffled on the issue until the Council of Jerusalem reached a clear consensus. “It is my judgment,” proclaimed St. James in the end, speaking for the apostolic majority, “that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19), and thenceforth circumcision was abandoned in favor of baptism alone as the primordial sign of church membership.

It stands to reason that there would’ve been plenty of this kind of debate in the Church’s earliest days as the Apostles – all of them saints – and the growing body of believers worked out lines of authority and decision-making procedures. After all, Jesus left no schematic before he ascended to the Father, but left it to his followers, inspired by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to basically make up the Church as they went along. Flaps and fuss between saints would’ve been commonplace, even expected, as they muddled their way forward.

Yet what kind of disagreement could saints have had with each other during the Reformation – the time when, according to Merton, Philip Neri and Charles Borromeo apparently were at loggerheads? I’d have guessed that any disagreement would’ve been directed at the era's rebellious schismatics and heretics. Neri and Borromeo themselves, being holy and all, and eager to defend the Church, I would’ve expected to be in concert regarding anything of significance.

Turns out, they weren’t – here’s the scoop. In 1575, St. Philip established his Congregation of the Oratory in Rome to great success. Composed of secular priests bound together by a common ecclesial vision, the Oratory’s vigorous spirituality and evangelistic zeal inspired Archbishop Borromeo to establish something similar in Milan: The Oblates of St. Ambrose. However, when Charles sought approval for the group’s draft rule, Neri gave it a thumbs-down. The sticking point was Charles’s inclusion of a vow of poverty for the Milanese Oblates. Based on his positive experience with the vow-less Oratory, Neri strongly resisted the idea, yet Charles insisted.

Two heavy-weight saints, two diametrically opposed points of view, one big impasse – now what?

With hindsight, we have a ringside seat for observing how Saint versus Saint quarrels are navigated. Did Philip and Charles duke it out under cover of prayer and fasting? How about focus groups, marketing campaigns, and canvassing door to door? Nope. In fact, the two ducked the conflict altogether by kicking it up to another saint, Felix of Cantalice. St. Felix was a Capuchin lay brother well-known throughout Rome for his piety, humility and candor. When Philip and Charles together approached Felix with the disputed rule, the Franciscan was blunt. “He put his finger on the article dealing with the vow of poverty,” reads the Catholic Encyclopedia, “and said, ‘This is what should be effaced.’” Philip Neri gloried in his triumph, while St. Charles, cowed and humiliated, trotted back up to Milan with his tail between his legs, grumbling all the way about Capuchin conspiracies and injustice.

Naah, I’m just kidding! There was no glorying on Neri’s part, and no grumbling or cowering on Borromeo’s. St. Charles accepted the evident veto of the Holy Spirit and went ahead with a slightly emended version of his Ambrosian society, which itself went on to play an important role in the spiritual renewal of the Milanese Church and the reform of its clergy.

So what can we make of this obscure hagiographic skirmish? For one thing, it’s a vivid reminder that those deemed, after death, saints were works in progress while they were alive. This is so easy to forget, especially when our prayer books are packed with holy cards featuring nimbus-crowned, placid-looking paragons.

But saints-in-the-making are like you and me. Saints-to-be are real people with real shortcomings, failings and sins – a fact thrown into relief when they are at odds with each other. “Even saints cannot live with saints on the earth without some anguish,” Merton comments, “without some pain at the differences that come between them.”

In the case under consideration, Archbishop Charles (not yet St. Charles) might well have resented Fr. Neri’s critique of his rule, and Fr. Neri (also pre-St.) might well have resented that resentment in turn. In any case, neither was willing to back down, which is why they had to submit the matter to pre-canonized Br. Felix. In human terms, we can envision no little bitterness, backbiting, and pique in this mix – like Spy versus Spy – but in heavenly terms, we can see the fruits of real conversion borne of the conflict itself. “It is principally in the suffering and sacrifice that are demanded for men to live together in peace and harmony,” Merton observes, “that love is perfected in us.”

This is where I think there’s a bit of saintly overlap (and contrast) with Spy versus Spy. The overlap is the focus on immediate moral aims over enduring goals. Those Mad spies, detached from ultimate objectives, seemed to be utterly fixated on pummeling each other into submission, true enough. But saints-in-the-making? Us, that is? Our human wrangling might be directed toward good, temporal ends, but achieving those ends is much less important than how we go about the wrangling – how we treat those with whom we disagree, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. When contention is unavoidable, we must contend prayerfully, peaceably and virtuously, regardless who wins.

And it’s no use to avoid contention. As in the early Church, we’re bound to have disagreements – they’re inevitable because we’re, well, not saints yet. Besides, there’s nothing particularly holy about acquiescence for its own sake, and a case can be made for disagreement being in fact desirable. “Going along just to get along” isn’t a sound approach to building the Kingdom of God – or anything, really. Psychology professor Charlan Nemeth notes that disagreement “stimulates thought that is more divergent and less biased” and “motivates us to seek more information and to consider more alternatives than we would otherwise” — a progression that, for example, led to St. Felix’s decisive, and seemingly providential, intervention on behalf of Charles’s Ambrosians.

But that’s beside the point. Even if St. Felix had been wrong, and his advice had led to the implosion of the Milanese Oblates, God’s superintendence of history’s unfolding wouldn’t have been thwarted. The Father’s plan cannot be frustrated (cf. CCC 756); the Our Father’s “Thy will be done” doesn’t depend on us. As Merton writes, “Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs” – that we have to proclaim, defend, and propagate according to our finite, human timetable and plans – “it is Christ living in us and uniting men to one another in His own Life and unity.” We do well to remember that such uniting can be especially efficacious – and sanctifying – when it transcends our mundane differences.