Water Is Thicker Than Blood
COMMENTARY: Our baptism into Christ’s passion and death purifies our political passions and saves us from deadly idolatry.
Those interested in resisting polarization and other division in the Church must first recapture the central idea of our baptism.
U.S. Catholics, when hearing about such a suggestion, might go immediately to baptism as a kind of washing away of original sin that is necessary for personal salvation. And while this is indeed an essential aspect of the sacrament, understood in isolation it can betray our American bias in favor of a religion of the individual. This phenomenon, already so culturally and historically powerful, has been supercharged by individuals living much of their isolated lives online.
But a genuinely Catholic approach to baptism sees salvation as something communal and embodied. Indeed, in the sacraments of baptism (and confirmation) we die to our old selves and become new creatures with a new family. We gain countless new brothers and sisters in Christ: those alive and with us today, those who have gone before, and many who will come after.
These are not just our siblings “in a sense” or by analogy. Indeed, without diminishing the goods of our other families, this new family is to have priority in our lives. For Catholics, water is thicker than blood.
My new book, titled One Church: How to Rekindle Trust, Negotiate Difference, and Reclaim Catholic Unity has a particular focus on how, if we were serious about the new family our baptism created, this might impact the primary source of division within the Church today: political idolatry. It is so obvious and has been observed by so many now that it has almost become a cliché to note that — as Christian faith has waned in the U.S. — a zealous obsession with national politics has at least tried to fill a faith-shaped hole in so many American hearts.
This has led many within the Church to see fellow Catholics not as family, but as the enemy. To see them not as siblings, but as people so “other” that one defines oneself in opposition to them. Rather than putting forth a positive vision of what they are for, many U.S. Christians today define themselves primarily by what they are against. And what they are against is seen primarily in secular political terms.
Now, on the one hand, the ask of my handbook for resisting division within the Church couldn’t come at a better time. We are in the midst of a profound political realignment in which there is powerful ferment and even creative destruction. Sen. Josh Hawley, after the recent midterm elections, suggested that the Republican Party as we knew it is dead. Indeed, there is now a clear shift underway to think of U.S. politics in a way that contrasts not the political right with the political left but the views and lifestyles of the elite and privileged with those of the poor and working classes.
This has little or nothing with how we have thought about Democrats and Republicans for the last several decades. A hoodie-and-shorts-wearing Democratic candidate beat the rich-and-famous Dr. Oz for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania — while at the same time Republican candidates cleaned house with working-class Latinos in Florida. This new dynamic provides a huge opportunity for Catholics, in a more consistent way, to live out a preferential option for the needs and voices of those on the margins: those who do not have a voice in our culture; those who need someone to speak up for them. The current political realignment, which has been even more energized by the midterms, is actually very hopeful for those of us who want to pursue Catholic unity by replacing political idolatry with the Gospel.
On the other hand, though, the midterms posed some very serious challenges for Catholic unity. Millions of Catholics, for instance, voted directly against prenatal justice (and even neonatal justice) in various referenda across the country. Michigan and California voted to become some of the more extreme abortion-supporting polities in the world. Montana couldn’t even bring itself to vote to legally protect the lives of children who had been born.
How should Catholics think about fellow Christians who voted for such referenda? Or even organized support in favor of them? Here, with the stakes and emotions running so high, it is maybe easier to see how one can be lured into defining oneself by opposition to another. How could it be otherwise, when the issues of justice are just so dramatic and evil just so horrific?
But here is where Christianity turns the wisdom of the world upside down. We are called to see our fellow Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if they led the local push to vote for wildly extreme and evil abortion laws. We are called to love them, to pray for them, and to welcome them into our communities and even our homes.
Even our blood-based families, rightly understood, get that this is the way of things. Indeed, we gather on Thanksgiving with lots of people who do not share our views about a host of important matters, including prenatal justice. But we prioritize our familial connection first. We welcome. We encounter and engage. We eat and drink. We let our family know that we love them first. We do the opposite of defining by opposition.
That doesn’t mean we punt or acquiesce on our moral or political concerns. Indeed, the healthiest families are able to have the most productive arguments — precisely because they allow a kind of safe space in which to have the evidence and arguments be presented. Again, understood correctly (and there are lots of dysfunctional families out there, to be sure), someone arguing about politics with family knows that they are welcomed and loved first and that their disagreement will not and indeed cannot break those foundational bonds. This is a space where true dialogue can develop.
So must it be with our Catholic family. We must start with the fact that our bonds of baptism take priority. Even when our siblings are engaged in supporting and even living in what is very clearly manifest evil. This, after all, is what it means to follow Jesus — Jesus who made it a common practice to welcome some of the very worst and reviled exploiters and sinners of his day. And he welcomed them not only to his table, but into his inner circle of followers — his family!
Of course, this wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Not only did Jesus get lots of scorn from those who couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t marginalize and hate right along with them, he, of course, ended up on the cross.
One Church, in some ways, ends up being a love letter to the Focolare Movement, an important Catholic lay apostolate dedicated to working toward the goal of Christ’s prayer that “all may be one” through very intentional methods of dialogue. The Focolare are not naïve, however, about the fact that really going after this kind of dialogue may lead us to embrace the pain of “Jesus Forsaken” on the cross. Indeed, many of the conversations we will have with family members, if they are authentic, will be painful ones. And that pain may persist over time, for years — even decades.
But in the midst of it all, let us fiercely protect and support our primary commitment to our families. Let us resist with all our might the temptation to slouch toward faction and division. Let us gird ourselves in preparation for the suffering which comes with a commitment to hospitality and unity.
Especially as so many (even this early) now turn their attention to the 2024 general election — one that promises to be a unique threat to unity on so many levels — a commitment to be one Church is one of the most important commitments we can make.
Charles Camosy is professor of medical humanities at Creighton University School of Medicine. In addition, he holds the Msgr. Curran Fellowship in Moral Theology at St. Joseph Seminary in New York.
Editor’s Note: Charles Camosy’s latest book, One Church: How to Rekindle Trust, Negotiate Difference, and Reclaim Catholic Unity (Ave Maria Press), was published Nov. 11.