Biden, masks and the false idol of unity

Clement Harrold

Student Government Vice President

In a recent video, Bishop Robert Barron described the word “divisive” as “comically ineffectual,” an alienating sentiment with which I am in full agreement. As Barron rightly noted, any time in life that you make a “decision” (from the Latin “de caedere”), you are deliberately choosing to “cut off” one option in favor of another. Making decisions — and being “ipso facto” divisive — is part of what it means to be a human, and even more so to be a Christian. But first, perhaps some background is in order.

It was in the final phase of his life, in the famous high-priestly prayer of John 17, that Jesus prayed for his followers with the explicit intention that “all of them may be one.” For Catholics, with our keen understanding of the universality of the Church, this prayer resonates especially strongly. Going further, we might also point to Jesus’ injunction in John 10:16 that there ought to be “one fold and one shepherd,” a verse many Evangelical Protestants might find perplexing.

On the biblical account, clearly there is an important sense in which unity stands as something not just desirable but morally necessary. At the same time, this noble ideal of unity must be afforded its proper telos, otherwise it risks becoming a mere idol. After all, unity for unity’s sake is about as vacuous a notion as freedom for freedom’s sake.

In itself, unity is neither good nor bad, and its moral worth may only ever be evaluated in light of its final end. George Orwell’s Oceania and President Snow’s Capitol are both remarkably unified places, but that hardly makes them praiseworthy.

The Second Vatican Council’s document “Gaudium et Spes” helps us to understand this important point with its commentary on the high-priestly prayer of the fourth Gospel: “Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when he prayed to the Father, ‘that all may be one … as we are one’ (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for he implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity.”

This passage is helpful for two reasons. First, it clarifies the essential value of unity as properly understood. We all share in a profound commonality by virtue of our status as sons and daughters created in the image of the Triune Godhead.

But secondly — and just as crucially — the proper understanding of this unity is that of a unity grounded “in truth and charity.” Therein lies the decisive point. The purpose of community is to image the inner unity of God, but by its very nature, this demands an adherence to particular principles, and it necessarily excludes that which is evil or false.

All of the foregoing is, of course, highly topical in the present climate. President Biden, for example, has been hailed by the mainstream media and establishment elites as the great harbinger of unity, even as he has cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline (slashing 11,000 jobs with the stroke of a pen) and revoked the Mexico City policy (forcing American taxpayers to fund abortions abroad).

On our own Franciscan campus, the debates around COVID-19 rage no less violently than the virus itself. A deplorable state of affairs, perhaps, but not one I would wish to see ended in the name of some false ideal of human fraternity.

Even if Biden does have a unifying effect in the long run, that does not excuse his evil works. And even if Franciscan’s campus is not as unified as it could be, I much prefer this over a state of affairs where we are all united in error.

Whether the issue be Biden’s policy decisions or Franciscan’s approach to COVID-19, our criteria of judgement should never be based on an idolisation of unity per se. Rather, let truth and charity be our goal, with our unity always subservient to those ends. As Jesus Himself attests, many times the mission of the Christian in this life will be one not of peace but of division (see Luke 12:51).

As such, I can only agree with Barron as to the general unhelpfulness — not to mention, intellectual laziness — which inevitably arises from the use of “divisive” as a popular pejorative in our public discourse. Far better, I would suggest, to stand divided than to fall united.

2 Comments

  1. Exceptionally well stated ! Thank you!

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