Christians Fighting Christians


This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

Cynics, but not only cynics, like to observe, not always inaccurately, that Christians are never happy unless they are fighting -- each other. Certainly, their scriptures have notes of militancy. Most of these signal fighting -- evils at a distance or evils within the self.

Still, they reflect signs that almost from Day One, or at least during Century One, they were busiest attacking each other. To historians who take the long view, each epoch tends to reveal a focus on a unifying theme, albeit one with numberless ramifications.

Thus, during the early years of the church, the desperately urgent theme was the Divine Trinity-and-Christology. A millennium later, East and West fought and split over icons and corollary administrative issues. A half-millennium later, the West split over sin-and-grace, in the Protestant reformation and its kin reformations.

The vortex topic, it appears from today's perspective, is race. But, picture historians looking back another five hundred years from now. At two for the price of one, sex, in all its ramifications, is linked with our time.

Think of issues of our day: conflicts over gender, marriage, divorce, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and more. Can one escape the conflicts by transcending local "culture wars" and "going global?" That does not work: there are no refuges.

Thus the agenda for the forthcoming synod of Roman Catholic bishops is wide and open in its scope, including care of creation and environmental issues. But the tensest issues have to do with homosexuality (etc.), above all.

Francis X. Rocca, in the Wall Street Journal (October 15), joined other observers in reporting on last year's "midterm report" from the Synod of Bishops which was released after the first week of a two-week Family Issues summit held at the Vatican.

The report's authors tried to soften things by celebrating the "gifts and qualities" of gays, and also found some gentler things to say about same-sex marriages. No luck -- Rocca notes -- such language has disappeared from the final advance document. Why is this so?

Certainly some European and North American bishops had protested, but mainly "the bishops from Africa, where some countries have strong anti-homosexuality laws," rose up in protest. (Only South Africa allows some different patterns.) Meanwhile, Western European Catholic leaders also wanted to go easier on divorced-remarried Catholics.

European Cardinal Walter Kasper complained that African cultures and mores forced silence on such subjects, but his complaint -- here comes a racial undertone -- evoked a protesting comment from a South African cardinal who charged that Kasper was disrespectful of African Church leaders.

Some North American conservatives had teamed with Philadelphia's Archbishop Charles Chaput and pointed out that it was the anti-liberal African churches that were growing, while northern ones were declining. Still, the civil-war lines are not strictly North-Versus South, as evidenced by other trends in the Catholic Church in the southern world.

Last year Chris Lewis (see sources below) did a nation-by-nation roundup of Latin American nations where "gay rights" were expanding. Even some advancing Pentecostal churches, booming in South America as in southern Africa, show signs of change. Jenny Barchfield headlined a story: "Brazil Pentecostal Church Welcomes Gays Spurned Elsewhere."

It is not the business of bystanders in Sightings to say how these conflicts will finally be resolved or to predict whether they can be moderated "globally." It is on our agenda to observe "religion-in-public-life," a safe place from which to observe that there seems to be "no place to hide" from this century's conflict-of-choice in the global church.


Willoughby, Karen L. "Conservative bishops say midpoint report distorted actual talks & proposes unacceptable doctrinal changes." Christian Examiner, October 15, 2014, World.

Barchfield, Jenny. "Brazil Pentecostal church welcomes gays spurned elsewhere." AP The Big Story, September 9, 2015.

Image: Morning Mass at Atrium Hall, World Meeting of Families, Philadelphia (Sept. 23, 2015); Credit: Antoine Mekary/Aplink / flickr.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at