Professor Anne Carpenter of the Theology and Religious Studies Department of Saint Mary’s College responds in an open letter to recent campus unrest over lack of diverse faculty and staff, instances of incivility, and social microaggressions towards minorities and marginalized individuals.
A Note on Catholic Pluralism
Dr. Anne M. Carpenter, Ph.D
“Just as goodness tends to spread,” Pope Francis writes, “the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death” (Evangelii gaudium, 59).
Students have protested on campus, written demands, held walkouts, organized events. While they raised many different concerns, diversity served as the driving theme. Pain surfaced the problem, and conviction would not let it fade. I know that I do not understand all of it, and I know that I have tears on my hands as much as anyone. My first and most important task, then, is to listen. “Listen carefully, my child…and incline the ear of your heart,” says The Rule of Benedict, which is one of the oldest and most influential monastic rules in the Catholic Church.
The Rule tells us to listen for God, and the Christian Brothers remind us that God is present in all things, present in other people. When I listen to someone, I am in some way listening to God. Even if I cannot understand or cannot agree, even then, God is speaking. Jean Baptiste de La Salle reminds his teachers that students “are a letter that Jesus Christ dictates to you, which you write each day in their heart, not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God” (Meditations for the Time of Retreat, 3). I do not only speak; I am also spoken to. No one really speaks unless they are also heard, as with teachers, so also with students.
Every single person that I meet is different, and every person has value. This word, “person,” was literally invented by Christians. There was no word to say what needed to be said, and so a new word was made out of an old one. Christians wanted to say that God is Trinity: God is three divine Persons in one divinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “Person” in this context means that each divine Person is unique, each Person is not the other ones. And yet God is entirely one, without divisions or parts, and all three Persons are entirely God. As Hilary of Poitiers wrote centuries ago: “We confess neither a solitary nor a communal God.” The Trinity is a divine paradox. “Person” then came to be applied to human beings, and it means something analogous: everyone stands in a relationship with the infinite God as someone loved and created by God. Person means this: no matter who someone is, they will never be repeated in the world. They will always be valuable. No person is exchangeable for another. As with the Trinity, so also with human beings.
Catherine of Siena writes that God says the following to each of us: “I ask you to love me with the same love with which I love you. … This love must be sincere, because it is with the same love with which you love me” (The Dialogue, 64). For Catherine, love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably bound to one another.
And who is my neighbor? Christ says that I must love even my enemy. That means that I must love absolutely everyone, without exception, especially the people nearest to me. I do not mean nearest to my heart; I mean before my very eyes. How much I have not seen that is in the people before my very eyes, in the classrooms filled with students, walking down the halls of St. Mary’s. God has been speaking, and I did not listen; I saw God, but I did not really see. As the scales fall from my eyes, I see suffering that all of us—even those who point it out—can barely name.
The Church calls itself “Catholic,” and this is an old Latin word (catholicus) that means universal. This word is unusual. The Church uses catholic to describe all of the difference and variety within itself. The Church cannot be universal, after all, if it does not include people, and people are so very different from each other. So, the Church is plural. These pluralities – this catholicity – are (and is) what make the Church one, which means united. All the differences are also one. It is completely counter-intuitive, since it means that difference needs unity, and unity needs difference. Yet this has been the usage for thousands of years. All of us are different, together. We cannot have one without the other: unity and difference. At St. Mary’s, we must be both catholic and one.
It is a delicate balance, so against typical expectations. So I cling to the dignity of each person, my neighbors, whom God loves. I must acknowledge their history, their background, their sufferings, their victories. Everything. And yet the dignity of a person can never be any one of – or even all of – these things. Their dignity is that they are. That they exist at all. There can be no ultimate analysis of a person, as if we really understood. Each person is a holy mystery from God. We are made to be different together. To be together differently. To be one and catholic.
We are made in the image of God, and God is Trinity. For Christians, even God contains both unity and difference. Three Persons in one divinity: the paradox of the Christian God. Thérèse of Lisieux has said it much better, and with her I leave us: “Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. … And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden” (Autobiography, chapter 1).
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