Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
by Bishop William S. Skylstad
(From the Oct. 5, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
As we preach, teach, and reach out to the rest of the world with the Good News of the Gospel, we have to wonder, every so often, if anyone is really listening to what we’re trying to say. Whether a bishop, a preacher, a catechist, or a parent, sometimes it feels as though we’re just talking into the void, and the only response we’re likely to encounter is a dim echo of our own voice bouncing back out of the stillness.
That has not been the case recently for Pope Benedict XVI.
On Sept. 12, he gave a speech at Regensburg, Germany, making remarks which have since caused considerable concern throughout the world, particularly among Muslims.
The point of Pope Benedict’s speech was the intersection of faith, reason, and persuasion. He quoted harsh words of a Byzantine emperor, who criticized Islam for spreading faith by force. While emphasizing the one-sided nature of the emperor’s comment, Pope Benedict used it to make the point that “Violence is incompatible with the nature of god and the nature of the soul.”
The Holy Father’s speech has become a stepping-off point for discussion about human interaction around the world, including our own Catholic culture.
It’s easy to come up with examples of groups who have tried to persuade others, change others, using any means necessary – “the end justifying the means.” Over the course of history, Catholics and other Christians have been guilty of using physical violence in a misguided attempt to bring others into right relationship with God. Volumes are full of the painful histories of religious wars, persecutions, and betrayals of what the late Pope John Paul II called “The Gospel of Life.” We continue to grieve these violations of human dignity and freedom from our past, and pray that they will never again be committed by anyone in the name of God.
Pope Benedict is quite right: Violence is incompatible with the nature of God. The end does not justify the means. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, taught us eloquently that no religious faith can possibly force anyone to undergo sincere conversion of heart by the use of violence, of torture, of threat of any kind.
I would suggest, however, that Pope Benedict’s observation goes much farther than a rejection of “conversion by the sword.” For violence, ultimately, is not simply a physical act. Violence as an act of aggression can be physical, or emotional, or verbal. It can be intellectual.
As a society, we Americans seem to have bestowed some sort of blessing on the mistaken idea that might makes right. We experience it acutely in political discourse; whoever can shout the loudest, and the longest, gets heard. Truth, honor, and the common good have fallen by the wayside. Instead of running for political office by explaining plans for the future and discussing pertinent qualifications, candidates are somehow required to compete by belittling and denigrating their opponents, sometimes by twisting the facts, sometimes by lying outright, through omission, or commission, or deliberately misleading innuendo.
I fear that it is a style of debate – and I use that word loosely – that sometimes infiltrates our Catholic life as well. One of the great blessings of Catholicism, especially in the United States, is that there are so very many ways to express our faith – and do so faithfully. Good Catholics can gather to pray the rosary, or study Scripture, or in prayer meetings shaped by the Charismatic Renewal; for effusive, joyous liturgies, or more quiet, solemn celebrations of Eucharist. Yet we are all Catholics, all united by so very much more than that which might possibly divide us.
There is so much we share in common as the Body of Christ. There is so much to celebrate that we agree upon wholeheartedly, mysteries that we ponder and explore, truths that we proclaim to a world desperately in need of the Good News. There can be no room for violence of any kind as we interact as Church.
We can build each other up and support one another. We can listen to one another, and learn from one another, without feeling we have to persuade everyone to our particular point of view. Yes, we can even disagree with one another – but we can do so without being disagreeable. For tolerance is not weakness; it is not surrender. Ultimately, tolerance is a sign of respect for another person’s dignity as a unique creation by a loving God. Each of us is a gift. Ultimately, aggressive violence, whether physical or in some other form, is a denial of that dignity, and despoils God’s generous gift.
Each year, we Catholics mark October as Respect Life Month. I would encourage the entire Catholic community to spend extra time in prayer this month, examining our lives as individual believers and as communities of faith. Let’s resolve to find and uproot the violence we may inflict on ourselves and on one another. Let’s resolve to listen to one another, and embrace one another, with tolerance and acceptance. If we are faithful to the Gospel, we will be far too busy building up one another to have time to pull one another down.
God’s peace and blessings to all.
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