Authority reform – talk to opponents: synodal reflection

Jesus must have been appalled by Church practices in previous centuries: Inquisition persecution, the burning of ‘heretics’

Simple enough! I’ll have him for dinner

“Simple enough! I’ll have him for dinner!” (Illustration Tom Adcock)

Updated: May 29, 2023 03:26 AM

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5,43-45)

This story recounts my clash with a Polish bishop and a surprising outcome. Let me paint the setting.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, while teaching in the Missionary Institute London and going for lecture trips to India, I also ran an adult faith formation center called ‘Housetop’.

The archbishop of Westminster had also asked me to provide spiritual support to individuals caught up in the so-called "Sects & Cults." This was because of my experience in the Far East from which those cults originated.

Well, the Council of European Bishops Conferences convoked a consultation on "Sects and Fringe Religious Groups in Europe" in March 1998. The event took place in Vienna. I had been asked to be part of the delegation flown in from England. There were 120 participants. On March 7, I presented to the assembly a paper entitled "God and our new Selves. Why there is the need of a new Catechesis."

In my paper I set out the background of the attraction of cults and fringe groups to teenagers. I pointed out that sociology showed an enormous transformation affecting educated Europeans. God was disappearing from everyday life. Societies has become mixed, pluriform and fragmented. People’s personal autonomy was taking over from traditional morality. And most of all, from having been ‘security-seekers’ depending on others, people were growing into ‘fulfilment-seekers’: persons intent to realise their own potential to the full. I pleaded for the Church to take the new Europeans seriously and treat them in a supportive pastoral way.

The reaction to my paper was explosive. Some participants agreed, but many were scandalised by it. In particular one young Polish bishop whose name I have forgotten, was furious. He shouted at me that I was surrendering Catholic doctrine and morality to the corroding current pagan mentality of modern times. The chairman of the session stopped the debate . . .

Then the big surprise. Late in the afternoon, after all the business sessions, we ended the day by celebrating Mass. I had been randomly chosen to be one of the two concelebrants on that day. I went to the sacristy, put on the vestments and waited for the main celebrant to show up. Well, lo and behold, it turned out to be the same Polish bishop! He too was a little taken aback seeing me, but then got on with the job. I stood at his side at the altar. When the ‘peace-giving’ ritual came along, we looked each other in the face and did just that: gave peace.

Afterwards at supper we sat together. Like myself he too had studied in Rome. We could communicate in Italian and we chatted about all kind of things. Somehow it broke the ice. We did not agree on our assessment of the situation in the Church, but we belonged to the same family.

Divisions in the Church

Two wings dominate our present Church community. Conservatives on the right fiercely defend what they see as established Church tradition. They have been strongly bolstered by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI in previous decades. Progressives on the left demand reforms, based on new theological insights and pastoral needs.

The alarming thing is that the two wings rarely communicate with each other. They talk to themselves. Both the left and the right wing have their own circles of communication: associations, websites and social media. Both wings have even conquered intellectual control of a number of universities, colleges and seminaries. 

Of course, the two wings clash online. But there is no real sitting down together to listen to the other person’s concerns and to explain one’s own reasons for thinking differently. Trustful person-to-person contact is rare.

Jesus’ thinking about real dialogue

Jesus revealed precious new truths about God. Truth is important and should not be tampered with. Jesus’ teaching should be defended at all costs. We may not tolerate it being diminished or dented by anyone.

That may be so. But how should we treat a person who we think is not faithful to Jesus’ teaching? Strike him or her down? How would Jesus treat such an opponent.

It is useful here to turn to some remarkable passages in the Sermon on the Mount. What about criminals? Amazingly, Jesus tells us not to retaliate with force. “I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile [to carry a burden], go with them another mile” (Matthew 5,38-42). Although we may need police to protect our safety, we should still treat a criminal as a friend.

And what about people who oppose us directly, who want to harm us, our enemies? Here too Jesus’ attitude is revolutionary.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5,43-47). In other words: we should treat our opponents with kindness and understanding.

Jesus must have been appalled by Church practices in previous centuries: persecution and torture by the Inquisition; the burning at the stake of ‘heretics’.


When Church leaders in our time believe they have to condemn certain views as erroneous, how do they at the same time provide pastoral support to the persons who hold those views?

What do Church leaders do to bring members of the two opposing wings together in a friendly and fruitful exchange of views?

Published by arrangement with the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia