Ideological Struggle in the Church:


Look around in just about any direction these days and you will be confronted with commentary about divisions within the Catholic church. Most often people will describe it in terms like “the conservatives vs. the liberals;’ Sometimes the political language of “left” and “right” is used. The word “polarization” is frequently heard. And Rom time to time the rhetoric is even ratcheted way up and the fearsome specter of-gasp!-schism is flashed on the screen. The list of subjects around which the divisions are revealed comes easily to mind: norms of sexual morality, whether for straights or gays; liturgy and sacraments and the way they” are to be celebrated; ordination of women or re-admission to ministry of married priests; church involvement in social justice issues; etc., etc.

Serious business all this, not to be sprinkled away with. a quick shake of holy water and two Hail Marys.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that a lot of the commentary could be misplaced, focusing on the surface phenomena and missing what is really going on. The ideological wars just might be diverting our attention from a more profound struggle, one centering neither on die policies the church is seen to be espousing nor even on the fundamental beliefs that purport to anchor those policies. I would suggest that the real arena of the struggle is not policy or doctrine but spirituality.

Re-framing the issue in that way will not diminish the reality and pain of the clash, of course – the differences are real, and placing the issue in the realm of the spirit does not take away the babble of confusing voices. In fact, seeing the issue as one of spirituality raises the stakes considerably. What is going on is a campaign for the very spirit or soul of every member of the faithful and of the church itself.

But a new look, may serve to untie energies presently tangled in ideological knots, and free them for better purposes.




If the issue is not ideological polarization, then where else might the struggle have its origins? Two spiritualities are at war within the Christian commuriity today. It is not a new struggle. They were locked in combat in the Judaism of Jesus’ day and have been ever since. From contemporary evidence, however, it is safe to say that the intensity has increased in recent years.

In what follows, I will be presenting two typologies. As such, they are not found in pure form in any given individual. We are all mixtures of the two orientations I describe. But if we hold them apart in black-white fashion, it can be a helpful heuristic device for framing our situation. That, in turn, may guide us to more effective approaches toward healing in our church.

One of these spiritualities I will call utopianism. It arises out of the attractiveness of purity and clarity, of univocality and light, of resolution and definition. By way of a kind of short-hand let’s designate people whose approach to life is governed predominantly by this attitude as utopians. Such individuals are repelled by the remotest chance that absolute standards (their standards, to be sure) might be fudged. It’s black or it’s white; angel or demon; it is or it ain’t. Gray is the worst of all options (the possibility of a rainbow does not even come up for consideration). In the epistemological realm, analogy becomes anathema; to suggest that

‘there could be reasonable distinctions to be made is treated as betrayal. In the political arena, compromise becomes a four-letter word. In its extreme form the person becomes an ideologue. More on that later.

       That kind of spirituality is seductive. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t have the. adherents it does. Purity attracts us as light draws a moth. It is a kind of grail that has led to many a children’s crusade. We are all drawn to the infinite.

The trouble with such a spirituality, though, is that we humans have to live in a world of the finite, of mixed goods, of truths that do not stand alone but are interwoven with a complexity not easy to untangle. Very few questions with real choices among alternatives are matters of either-or principles. Most are matters for prudential weighing and costly responsibility. While we sojourn on this earth, infinity – for all its attractiveness – equals utopia. No place. Illusion. The most attractive gods are the most simple and, as the long history of discernment of spirits warns us, the most deceptive.




One of the present-day manifestations of utopianism is the clash of the ideologues. For them there is no quarter to be given, not an inch to be ceded. They are the contemporary Manichees, as black-and-white as ever they were in Augustine’s day – and how completely that neat world-view held him in its thrall, for years!

When does a garden-variety utopian morph into a full-blown ideologue? When the need for purity becomes so strong that the person blots out, not just the conflicting positions of others, but parts of the ideologue’s own experience. True ideologues become incapable of registering any reality that might threaten the security of their pure position. As my colleague Roger Ridgway puts it, “Ideology is a passionate commitment to half the truth.” In colloquial speech we pin the phenomenon quite well: “Don’t bother me with facts, my mind is made up!”

Once we begin to explore the spiritual ground of the ideo.logue, however, there is an interesting discovery awaiting us: the content of the ideologue’s position is quite unimportant. Ideology, it turns out, is no.t a matter of content. It’s an attitude – which can clothe itself in either of two extreme content positions.

Ideologue of the left o.r ideologue of the right? It matters little; they’re really just mirror images of one another. In fact, it becames clear that the ideologue holding one black-and-white answer to. the issue is actually kept in existence by the one holding its opposite. The ideological left and right need each other desperately. They are a single attitudinal system. Without the opposing ideology ideologues are frustrated; they have no. place to deposit their anxieties. Two. to. tango. and all that. No opposite, no tango; being left on the dance floor alone is the worst of humiliations. In U.S. politics, take away a Ted Kennedy and a Tom DeLay fulminates in. a vacuum. In the church, the Francis Kisslings and Mather Angelicas simply co-create one another. (In using these specific names to. make my point, I intend no judgment of the personal integrity of any of these individuals. I know none of them personally, and it would be arrogance for me to judge them even if I did. I use their names as pointers only, referring to the public personae presented to us by the media, which is the only way most of us know their existence anyway.) To use a less personal example: why else does The Wanderer cruise from one setting to another looking far yet ane mare spook to take aim at, except that without a target its ammunition would implode? And, lest this appear to be an attack on the right, Mother Jones and Sojourners are not altogether free of the same tendency either: is it heresy to. suggest that a multinational corporation might have some redeeming value?

The subject matter, the position espoused, is not what constitutes the ideologue. People become ideologues by virtue of a basic attitude they bring to the subject – and to anyone else who. would dare to. risk jousting with them. Disagree with the ideologue, or even attempt a distinction, and the best response to be hoped for is scorn; much more likely comes tired dismissal. The issue and the answer are clear; why engage in self-criticism when it is only unsettling?

It is not my aim here to try to discover the psychological dynamics that give rise to the attitudinal stance of the ideologues. People more skilled in psychology than I can help us all by exploring that territory. My focus is rather the significance that we frequently give to. the ideologues in our understanding of the so.cial situatian of the church (or civil society for that matter).




If it is characteristic of utopian purity that it has no home in a wo.rld of finite reality, a spirituality af incarnation is very much placed. “Incarnatian” bespeaks body, and that involves engagement with limitatio.n. Flesh is, after all,.inherently bumpy and opaque (not to. mention utterly transient). The world of incarnatio.n is the ro.ugh-edged and the pro.blematic, the tentative and inchoate and flawed. Here there is little that is closed and once-far-all settled. Experience, unlike abstract farmulation, is never adequately captured in concepts; the residue of what cannot be articulated nags at us, demanding expression. It is Oliver Twist tugging at the sleeve and asking “Please, more porridge?” Even the deed once placednever fully discloses its meaning but remains always subject to fresh wonder and re-interpretation. (Witness our two-thousand-year old search far who Jesus really was – and the kaleidoscope of answers the search has produced.)

Incarnationalists (remember, there are no pure specimens in our world; we are using short-hand to designate persons whose predominant orientation compels them to hold onto all the facets of what they are experiencing) are not uninterested in the subjects aro.und which the ideologues buzz. But their predominant concern is the full concrete reality to be confronted and responded to, the life to be lived, rather than the generic question to be unmuddied. For peo.ple guided by such an incarnatianal spirituality the “question” is not in the fIrst instance the principle proscribing abortion; they are pre-occupied.with the enfleshed form of the unmarried pregnant woman standing in front of them looking for support while facing pressures scarcely to be imagined by someone not standing in her shoes. Incarnationalists focus on the parish community aching for lack of a Eucharistic presider, not the principle which precludes change in the rule of celibacy.They are wrenched by the story of the young gay man who just committed suicide as his final response to intolerable social stigma, not some debate over disordered nature.

Incarnationalists live immersed in the intractable specifics of the present, where the limpid answer of unqualified principle is lost in the babble of a thousand variables – and yet decision, and with it responsibility, is unavoidable. I suspect that fhe burden of jury duty, with its responsibility to correlate clear laws with facts that don’t ‘fit,’ must feel like a cold shower for utopians. A murder case is not a disputation in Salamanca.

Because the utopian attraction, if left undisciplined, can lead us to hardened ideologies at either the left or the right end of the spectrum of possible responses to issues, it could be an easy trap to identify incarnationalism as the adopting of a middle-of-the-road position between competing extreme answers. That would be to fall back into the very perspective I am suggesting we need to challenge. It would make incarnationalism, which is a prevailing attitude toward rea1!ty, into one more content position, merely adding a few more positions along the spectrum between the extremes.

Nor is it right to conclude that for the incarnationalist there are no fixed principles. In fact for the incarnationalist there just may be too many principles, all reliable and each equally clamoring for hegemony – hiding within a forest of facts that stubbornly avoid the glare that might come from full exposure to a single se1f:-evident principle. The incarnationalist knows that wheat is wheat and weeds are weeds, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy – or even wise – to assume we know which is which and actually start pulling things up too soon. Too many harvests have been aborted, too much good thwarted by utopians operating out of that kind of clarity.

Nor does the existence of an incarnational spirit imply the absence of passion. Incarnation is not bloodless ambivalence. The incarnationalist may have strong convictions about particular answers to difficult questions and may voice them in public forums, but those convictions are only one component within a wider matrix of concerns. The convictions are important, to be sure, but they yield in importance to preoccupation with the day-by-day demands of love (which Ignatius reminds us is always embodied) and the uncomfortable discernment of what love might require in the present moment.




But even if it be agreed that the perspective I am suggesting has some validity, what help does it offer? We seem to be no better off in this scenario than in the prevailing image of a left-right war presented as gospel by our media. In either case there is a struggle going on. “Church” remains an arena of tension, not comfort.

Three responses come to mind.

The first concerns the accuracy of the two presentations. Which corresponds to the experience of most of our church communities? My own sense is that thousands of local faith communities, stressed as they may be by the turmoil surrounding these pointed issues of church policy and belief, are not nearly so much obsessed by them as the left-right descriptors would suggest. They are quite aware that the ideologues are up there doing star wars on the big screen – they may even cheer as one side or the other scores a point from time to time – but it’s not the main show for them. For most, I would suspect that Terri Schiavo was probably an occasion for sinall-talk; much more pressing was the issue of haw to interpret the signs of Uncle Fred’s increasing dementia. They have a life. Apart from an occasional local tragedy occasioned by local actions by local players, church schism remains a very remote possibility, scarcely contemplated. Not that obedience to church authority is so thoroughly accepted or the possihility of rejecting it so repugnant. My guess is that for most of these good people, wrestling daily with the competing attractions of utopia and incarnation, institutional authority itself just does not occupy a very high rung on the ladder of what is important to their understanding of the life of the spirit. How much sleep are you losing over the evolution-vs.-intelligent design brouhaha?

The picture of a left-right polarization on the hot-button issues in our church is a distortion because it is so incomplete. It leaves about – let’s pick a number – 80% of the church’s life off the screen. It’s as if one were to describe our U.S. political scene for a visiting Martian while including in the picture only the members of the Republican and Democratic national or local committees. Open up the lens on the camera and include the multitudes who live their daily spiritual journey and have to make most of their choices among shades of gray, and the picture becomes very different indeed. If focus on the left-right struggle is the dominant ‘problem’ to be confronted, we could easily expend our energies on misguided strategies, not because we came up with the wrong answers but because we focused on the wrong questions in the first place.

Beyond that, if the ideologues of the left and the right, in spite of their differences on the issues, are actually a single co-constituting system, then the division in the church assumes a very different character, and a different prognosis emerges. There is a divide. But it is not where the left-right polarity situates it. On one side of this re-aligned divide stand the entrenched utopian ideologues – of both the left and the right – who (for whatever motives) raise the cry that the sky is falling, because church leadership isn’t siding with their absolute truth and rejecting the other guy’s truth. Across from them on the other side of the divide are the great body of the faithful for whom the Fox News version of church life is only pop-corn on the carnival midway. They may indeed feel pain or elation at the answers the leadership of the church seems to be giving in any particular instance. They may even, on occasion, join a public outcry in support or opposition. But basically they have made their peace with an all-too human and sinful church-on-pilgrimage and are willing to inch along slowly with few absolute trail-markers, believing that the will of the Spirit will prevail over time. They are in touch with the parables of the kingdom: seeds and weeds for now, harvests only later. The tension remains, but the ability to live within it comes from a very different source.

Re-aligning the picture in that way can also alert us to the kind of power we may be wantonly throwing overboard by accepting at face value the now almost stereotypical left-right analysis. By casting the ideologues as the major players in the ecclesiastical and social dramas we give them a degree of influence that is not warranted by their non-contribution to the reasonable discourse that searches for wisdom. Half the truth never frees; it only perpetuates unfreedom.

From such a re-casting another implication becomes clearer. If the spotlight is to be turned away horn the ideologues, then regular, on-going vehicles of discussion are needed in which the wisdom of a people not locked into ideological simplicities, a genuine sensus fidelium, has a chance of coalescing and becoming a public voice. Whether that takes the form of a diocesan synod or forums of various kinds at which the shouting can be contained and a genuine – humbling – search for wisdom can take place among the people of our parishes and dioceses, it needs to happen. The aim is not the resolution of questions of absolute principles but the discovery of prudentially wise courses of action to respond to concrete situations where single absolute principles prove too ethereal for effective guidance. In the absence of such forums the tabloids will continue to reinforce the picture of heated ideological conflict because that’s what sells.




The re-framing of the issue that confronts us as a church has one final consequence. It is sobering, because it cuts more closely to our spiritual nerves.

As long as the issue is cast in terms of right-left responses to questions the media chooses to focus on, it remains for each of us personally something “out there.” Oh, I may well have my position on the issue, leaning toward one answer or the other. But nothing in that scenario compels criticism or disturbing soul-searching, much less action. It is about as engaging as reading a public opinion poll. “62% believe X, 35% believe non-X, and the rest don’t have an opinion.” So?

Re-frame the picture (re-align the divide) and the fault-line becomes more troubling. Now the more telling chasm runs not between left-right content positions on questions “out there”; it runs rather within each of us as believers. The gap is between two very different attitudinal stances. One is the temptation to hold onto an ideological purity closed to any consideration that might undercut its passionately held answer; the other calls for confrontation with the humbling possibility that my supposedly objective response is really masking self-interests I would rather not want held up to the light. The issue is that most demanding of imperatives, intellectual integrity. The courage to face our own comfort-seeking demons. The challenge to stand naked before the whole truth. It is too easy for us to use a religiously positive term like “incarnationalist” – it’s so Christian! – and thereby place myself on the side of the angels. Much more difficult to be willing to be corrected by facts, especially when voiced by the mouths of people we might be inclined to treat as babies. More difficult for each of us, more difficult still for our church.


Father George B. Wilson, SJ, is an ecelesiologist who does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute, based in Cincinnati, Ohio; e-mail: