On January 21st, 1990, the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached a sermon at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. (The English version of the sermon can be found in The Catholic Priest as Moral Teacher and Guide, and an expanded German version in Zur Gemeinschaft gerufen). It was, like today, the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle A in the ordinary form. And he preached on the following words from the Epistle:
Still, I entreat you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, all to agree with each other, so that there will be no schisms among you, but you will be united in the same mind and the same understanding. For, my brothers, I have been told about you by Chloe and her people; that there are rivalries among you. I mean this: each of you says: I am for Paul; or else: I am for Apollos; or: I am for Cephas; or: I am for Christ. Christ is partitioned! (1 Cor 1:11-13)
Ratzinger asks what exactly was wrong with the parties in Corinth. What could be wrong with saying: “I am for Apollos”? Was not Apollos a great teacher “very helpful to those who, through grace, had become believers” (Acts 18:27). What could be wrong with saying: “I am for Paul”? Must we not be for the great apostle of the Gentiles? What could be wrong with saying: “I am for Cephas”? Must we not be for Cephas, for Peter, the Rock on whom our Lord built the Church? And above all what is wrong with saying “I am for Christ”? Is not that what it means to be a Christian?
And Ratzinger answers that the problem with the parties is that they are parties. A party is a group that grows out of a common understanding of the good and how to achieve it. A party is therefore a human work, and we form parties according to our own conceptions of the good, our own preferences and tastes. As Ratzinger puts it:
If I stand up for a party it becomes my party. The Church of Jesus Christ, however, is never my Church; it is always his Church. The essence of conversion consists in the fact that I no longer seek for myself a party looking after my interests and corresponding to my likes, but that I place myself in his hands and become his, a member of his Body, the Church. […] Faith is not the choice of whatever program appeals to me; nor is it the joining of some fraternal club where I feel I am understood. Faith means conversion that transforms me and my preferences or at least allows my desires and wishes to become secondary.
A party is a work of human hands, and its members have to do the best job they can in building it. But the Church of Christ is not a work of human hands, it is work of God: “not from blood or from the will of the flesh or from the will of man, but from God” (John 1:13).
I have been thinking a lot about that sermon of Ratzinger’s recently, because of the controversies about Amoris Laetitia, which have made the ever present danger of dividing the Church through a party spirit apparent. I have to ask myself: am I being faithful to Christ, or am I dividing Him. Is my position an “I am for tradition” in the way in which a Corinthian party might say “I am for Paul” and look down on the naïve party of Cephas? Conversely, of course, certain others should ask themselves whether they are really being faithful to Peter, or whether they are saying “I am for Cephas” because the opinions of the current pope fit their preferences. Now, I do not think that I have been motivated by a party spirit in what I have said and written about Amoris Laetitia. But then, as Nietzsche says, “we are unknown to us, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves.”
St. Paul gives a sort of criterion for discerning whether one is really following Christ or dividing Him with party spirit by appealing to the cross. Partisans follow clever arguments, but Christians follow the folly of the cross:
Christ did not send me forth to baptize, but to preach the gospel; not in accomplished oratory, but so that the cross of the Christ might not be made meaningless. For the word of the cross is folly to those who go the way of perdition, but to us who go the way of salvation it is the power of God. Since it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will make void the intelligence of the intelligent. Where is the sage? Where is the scholar? Where is the student of this age? Did not God tum the wisdom of the world to folly? For since by the wisdom of God the world did not, because of its wisdom, know God, God saw fit to save the believers through the folly of what was preached to them. For the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the heathens, but to us who are chosen, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Since the folly of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: that not many of you are wise in the way of the flesh, not many are strong, not many are well born. But God chose out the fools of the world, to shame the wise, and God chose out the weak of the world, to shame the strong, and God chose out the humble and despised of the world; and what is not, to abolish what is; so that no flesh may take pride before God. (1 Cor 1:17-29)
In the first reading for today we here how the land of Zabulon and the Nephthalim, the first part of Israel to fall to the heathens, the land of darkness, that seemed despised of God, will be the very place where salvation begins. And in the Gospel we see this prophecy fulfilled; our Lord begins preaching the Kingdom in Galilee. This will be a great obstacle to the inhabitants of Judah— can anything good come from Nazareth? If I imagine myself as a Judaean at the time of Christ I think I would probably have belonged to the party of the Sadducees, or at best the Pharisees, and would have looked with scorn on the Savior of the world because he came from the land of Zabulon and the Nephthalim. God preserve me and all of us from falling into a similar trap today.