“Divisive” is a loaded word. Like the adjective “prejudiced,” calling someone “divisive” automatically puts him on the defensive. And so, being the first to call someone else “prejudiced” or “divisive” is to gain the upper hand in any argument. This has been happening lately with the issues of the Latin Mass and the COVID-19 vaccines. It seems only fair, though, that, before calling one side or the other divisive, we should first define what we mean by that term.
Not to put too fine a point on it, to be divisive means to be the agent of division. It means to force what was “one” into being “more than one.” It presupposes, first, that something is already there. An axe is divisive; the preexisting tree is not. Second, it presupposes the authority—or force —to make the division. Again, the axe divides the tree, not the other way around.
In this respect, we see many misunderstandings regarding “divisiveness.” For example, the Catholic Church has been called authoritarian or divisive—dare I say “rigid”—because she has not changed in matters such as divorce, birth control, and homosexuality. This only shows, though, that the Catholic Church is the least authoritarian—or divisive—of all Christian denominations; she doesn’t change because she believes she doesn’t have the authority to do so. This was the reasoning behind Pope St. John Paul’s reiteration of the male-only priesthood. Our Lord established the precedent, and it wasn’t up to us to second-guess Him.
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Another name for a division would be an innovation, for to divide is to make something new. There are three consequences, though, that usually accompany innovations, and they are almost always problematic. The first is that, because they are new, they are untested. They look good and sound good; they may seem to work for a while. This almost must be so, otherwise they wouldn’t happen. But what will happen over time…well, who knows?
The whole point of unintended and unforeseen consequences is that they are unintended and unforeseen. That’s why you shouldn’t go there unless you have excellent reasons and have deliberated for a long, long time. As Chesterton said, you shouldn’t be allowed to move the fence until you can explain why it was put there in the first place. In truth, most innovations—whether it be “new math” or communism—are, at best, questionable, and, at worst, evil.
Innovations also often lack a fixed end, a point at which we say, “thus far, and no farther.” If there is an end, it is easily fudged. The very logic of innovation (or “change” or “division”) almost demands this. If new is good, newer must be better. If some is good, more must be better. No speed is fast enough, no amount of diversity is diverse enough. As a teacher of Latin and grammar, I am bombarded every year by advertisements for new books (always heavier and more expensive) with “new” ways to teach these subjects, though, at least with Latin, it’s safe to say the substance hasn’t changed much in two thousand years.
Finally, innovations create vested interests. The “new normal” becomes just plain normal and people have a stake in it, whether it be moral, monetary, or political. “Updates” are inevitable; no one likes to say “I was wrong,” and no one wants to lose an investment. On the social level, abortion is a clear example. One of Justice O’Connor’s main arguments in upholding Roe in her 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision was that women (just women?) had become dependent on abortion. And it is laughable to see liberals now so concerned about precedent and stare decisis.
Now, some innovations, particularly technological, can be good. I enjoy air conditioning. Many medical procedures that were major surgeries a generation ago have become mere “oil changes” today. Even here, though, these changes can lead to unfortunate side effects. Installing air conditioning in Congress allows its members to stay in D.C. an extra three months during the summer—passing dubious laws instead of being with their constituents.
If anyone, though, is being “divisive,” it is almost always the innovator. He is the one breaking from what is known for the sake of what is speculated and who lets loose he knows not what. He is the one with no fixed destination, who simply wants to sail on, over a waterfall if necessary. And he is the one who, usually from selfish interest or pride, will not back down; his response to those who question him being, “Shut up, he explained.” This is especially true when the change or innovation occurs by force or coercion.
With the Mass and the vaccine, this tag of “divisiveness” has been wielded with a heavy hand. Pope Francis, in his comments and with his motu proprio Custodes Traditionis, has said that those preferring the Latin Mass “expose [the Church] to the peril of division.” The issue of the vaccine has resulted, both within the Church and within our nation, in those favoring vaccination calling those declining it as being “divisive.” In both instances, I believe the label of “divisive” is misapplied.
The “divisiveness” regarding the Mass began with the Novus Ordo. It was untested. It let loose a host of innovations that are still going on despite not bearing much fruit. It has created almost an industry of vested interests from publishers and liturgists to lay “ministries” and clerical prestige.
The vaccine has done the same. It was not tested as other vaccines have been. We know it is not fool-proof and has shown harmful side effects in some. There are already calls for “updates” (i.e., “booster shots”); and I would be much mistaken if we don’t soon have more “necessary” vaccines for different strains of the virus. And when will the pandemic “end”? Already I can hear the slogan “one death is one too many.” Finally, it definitely has bred vested interests in already overly-powerful politicians and pharmaceutical companies as well as unelected bureaucrats and local school boards.
There has also been much coercion and force in both instances. With the Novus Ordo, it was imposed on the laity by fiat. With few exceptions, it—with all its variations—has been kept there with the full force of the Church establishment. With the vaccine, the entire weight of federal, state, and local government, the military, schools, and most employers is pressing down. It seems to me unfair to call someone else “divisive” when the power and authority are all on your side. I also find it regrettable that some bishops, who bend over backwards with regards to “conscience” in other instances, are offering no help to their flock in this regard.
I have to be clear here that I am NOT saying that those preferring the Novus Ordo or those electing to get vaccinated are “wrong” or “divisive.” If those are your choices, fine. I’m only asking that we be clear as to where the “divisiveness” is. I wouldn’t use that label myself, but I do ask that you think twice before calling someone else “divisive.”
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