Those first century Christians of Corinth must certainly have been a
boisterous, troublesome lot. But maybe we should be glad that they were.
After all, their acting up and acting out were the occasion for two
remarkable New Testament documentsSt. Paul’s first and second letters
to the Corinthiansthat get the heart of a current problem in the
The problem is factionalism. We find it described right at
the start of Paul’s first letter: “Each one of you says, ‘I belong to
Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’”these being
the names of evangelizers with whom various quarreling factions within
the Christian community of Corinth chose to identify.
having no part of that. “Is Christ divided?” he angrily demands. On the
contrary, Christ is one and so is his church. (Cf. 1 Cor 1.12-13)
back on those days, it’s tempting for us now to strike a
self-congratulating pose. “How foolish of those Corinthiansthank
goodness we aren’t like them!”
Except that we are.
aside the gaping divisions that persist within the worldwide Christian
body, factionalism is a real and arguably growing problem among
Catholics themselves. Unfortunately, an event later this month may be an
unintended reminder of that.
On April 27 Pope Francis will
canonize two remarkable menPope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. A
huge crowd in Rome and millions watching worldwide will witness a
joy-filled ceremony formally attesting to the sanctity of two great
leaders of the Church.
Unfortunately, some people can’t leave it
at that. How often in recent years has someone been heard to say, “I’m a
John XXIII Catholic” or “I’m a John Paul Catholic”?
The names have changed, but otherwise it’s like the bad old days in first century Corinth.
too, that pundits are wont to hold forth about the politics of
canonizations. Canonizing both John XXIII and John Paul II, it is said,
represents the Vatican version of a balanced ticketsomething for both
liberals and conservatives. It would be naïve to imagine there’s nothing
to that. But political calculations inspired by factionalism obscure a
more important fact: both of these popes are models of holiness for our
The problem doesn’t end with Pope John and Pope John Paul.
Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have gone out of their way to stress the
unity and continuity between them, but the factionalists won’t settle
for that. Instead, these days you’re all too likely to hear “I’m Pope
Francis Catholic” and “I’m a Pope Benedict Catholic.”
As St. Paul might have said: Cut it out, guys!
every pope is different in some ways from every other pope. Noting the
differences is reasonable. Moreover, it’s natural to find some popes
more congenial than others to one’s personal preferences. But it is
crass, church-dividing factionalism to declare allegiance to one at the
expense of another.
In the end, says the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
“the Church has but one faith, one sacramental life, one apostolic
succession, one common hope, and one and the same charity” (no. 161).
But let St. Paul have the last word. After chiding the
Corinthians, he goes on to underline a profound truth: “Just as the body
is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though
many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all
baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12.12-13). It’s called the Church.