My twin brother and I are no longer communicating, though we live not far away from each other. The falling-out began a few years ago. Each family member (three brothers, two sisters) used to write a family letter on a regular basis, sending it to all the others. Having a very religious background, we began discussing the Church’s teaching, especially in the area of morals. My twin brother and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the contemporary conflict in the Catholic Church. He is quite conservative and I am quite progressive. (Our other brother is progressive, and our sisters also are similarly divided.)
Neither of us could agree with the other’s viewpoint. I stated my ideas and reasons, drawing on mainstream theologians such as Charles Curran, whose books I have read and found convincing. My brother refused to read anything I recommended, condemned my ideas, and maintained I was going against the pope and the true Catholic Church. I countered that I believe members of the Church can dissent on particular moral questions and remain good Catholics.
I also argued that people could remain good friends while disagreeing on many topics, including religion, so that there was no need for our differences of opinion to divide us. He said people have to agree about important things to remain friends. He asked me a number of times to quit telling him about my “heretical” ideas but I insisted that our divergent views shouldn’t ruin our friendship.
Eventually he stopped writing family letters almost completely. His last letter came about a year ago; he had been writing almost monthly until then. In that last letter, he said that he wished to be left alone. I wrote another letter or two—and also talked with the sister who was on his side—trying to revive the friendship. But with no success.
The moral question is: What do I do to revive and build up friendship with my brother? Christ’s law of love says: “Go and be reconciled.” But how can I when he doesn’t want to communicate any more? I can think of only two solutions:
(1) Continue to write, but avoid any topic that might be controversial. Since I consider religion a very important area of life, I think such a solution would be practically impossible. As my other brother says, it’s almost impossible to write without giving some opinion that could be considered controversial.
(2) Quit sending family letters to him. This is the solution I have chosen for now, and it seems to comply with our Lord’s advice: “Shake the dust from your sandals and go elsewhere.” My brother’s statement that he wants to be left alone also seems to point to it as the right solution. Still, the hurt of a lost friendship remains.
What would be your solution?
This question concerns the duty to maintain familial bonds, insofar as possible, despite conflicts. The questioner is perplexed because, having adopted dissenting opinions, he has repeatedly and unreasonably pressed his brother, by words and deeds, to approve or condone what he has done. A sound response to the question cannot support dissent. But one can advise the questioner to take into account that his brother cannot consistently regard dissenting opinions as acceptable, stop pressing for the approval his brother cannot rightly give, reexamine his own position, and try to engage in the communication appropriate between brothers who disagree about important matters.
In your letter, you do not specify the issues about which you and your brother disagree. However, you make it clear that you share the views of theologians such as Charles Curran, while your twin brother rejects such views, regarding them as heresies. Perhaps he goes too far in so characterizing the particular positions that you have drawn from Curran. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with papal endorsement, has deprived Curran of the right to call himself a “Catholic theologian.”4 Moreover, John Paul II, in his encyclical, Veritatis splendor, not only asserts but cogently argues that important elements of the outlook of theologians who dissent from the Church’s moral teachings are incompatible with divine revelation.5
Since the tone of your letter suggests that you are not aware of where I stand on these matters, let me put my cards on the table. In Christian Moral Principles, I make the case against theological dissent, including Curran’s, especially in chapters one, three, six, sixteen, twenty-three, and thirty-six. In Living a Christian Life, I explain in chapter one the responsibilities of Catholics with respect to Church teaching, and provide reasons in other chapters, especially eight and nine, supporting most of the moral norms from which dissent is widespread. So, my advice to you is: Examine your conscience, repent of your dissent, and then go and be reconciled with your brother.
You might say: “I am as sincerely convinced of my progressive views as you and my brother are of your conservative views, and I must follow my own conscience. It is outrageous for you to offer advice from your point of view rather than consider my situation and problem from mine. You are just like my brother in refusing to admit that my view, as genuinely Catholic as yours, is an entirely legitimate option in today’s Church.”
Such a reply sounds reasonable. Assuming you are sincere, your brother and I must concede that you should follow your own conscience.6 But consider what else that reply would demand of your brother and me. The precise issue is whether dissenting views are legitimate. If we concede that they are, we abandon what we believe true. Of course, while we can continue to think what we always have believed, we no longer would be able to regard it as the sacred and certain belief and teaching of the Church. Instead, it would be nothing more than one of various “opinions” that Catholics are free to hold, and so would be possibly false. Some of those “opinions” must be false, after all, since they are incompatible with one another.
Of course, friends can disagree about fundamental questions that are very central to their identities. For instance, I have friends who are believing Jews. But there are three obstacles to your carrying on this sort of friendship with your brother.
One of them is nobody’s fault. Since your family, like mine, regarded Catholic faith as a divine gift of the greatest importance, it was central to the family’s very being; so, conflict about what faith is and what it requires profoundly divides your family. Jesus predicted such division when he said: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Lk 12.51–52). Jesus certainly did not desire such division, but he knew it would result from the fact that the gospel, including the moral truth belonging to it, is transcendently important, and that some would accept the gospel, while others would reject it.
A second obstacle is of your brother’s making. Finding his relationship with you unsatisfactory and burdensome, he has simply withdrawn from it. I understand and sympathize with him, and perhaps would do no better myself. Still, I am afraid his preference to be left alone falls short of our Lord’s teachings, which call for endless patience and forgiveness (see Mt 18.21–35; cf. 6.12–15).
Your brother’s shortcomings, however, do not relieve you of responsibility, and the third obstacle is of your making. Like many dissenters I have known, you feel obliged to thrust the fact of your dissent on others while at the same time demanding that they accept you as a friend, and in this way you subtly demand that they affirm you as dissenting—that is, treat your dissent as an acceptable difference of opinion and so provide you with a sense of being justified. This they are bound in conscience not to do. Love for you as well as for the truth requires others to challenge your dissent as often as you confront them with it.
You might say: “You misrepresent my attitude. You are not Jesus, able to read hearts! Without evidence, you outrageously project unworthy intentions upon me.”
I do not presume to read your heart. But there is evidence about your intentions. You write: “He asked me a number of times to quit telling him about my ‘heretical’ ideas but I insisted that our divergent views shouldn’t ruin our friendship.” One friend, however, does not persist in professing his or her views to the other after being asked to stop.
Again, you exclude the possibility of continuing to write without including in your letters the matters that have proved controversial. In writing, however, you need not avoid every “opinion that could be considered controversial,” as you exaggeratedly suggest in stating your first proposed “solution,” for surely your brother would be happy to argue with you about many things.
Finally, and most tellingly, you support your present course by citing our Lord’s advice: “Shake the dust from your sandals and go elsewhere.” But he gave that advice to disciples as he sent them out to preach the good news of the kingdom; it concerned towns where people simply refused to hear the gospel (see Lk 9.1–5). The implication: Since your brother is not open to the “gospel” of dissent, you rightly leave him behind as you proceed to spread that message to others more receptive to it.
You might reply: “For heaven’s sake, quit begging the question and challenging my motives. Suppose my brothers, sisters, and I belonged to liberal and conservative Protestant groups, both of which you consider to be in error. If a progressive Christian in such a situation asked for your advice, surely you would have something better to offer than what you have given me. What would be your solution?”
As a matter of fact, I consider both liberal and conservative Protestants to be partly right and partly wrong about the issues that divide them. So, I would say something along the following lines to a Protestant belonging to either camp. It seems that at this moment you are firmly convinced of your view, but I implore you to consider the possibility that in some respects you may be mistaken. Have you really examined the arguments against your view? Tell your brothers and sisters that while you still think you are right, you now see that you should carefully reconsider your view. Sincerely ask their help in carrying on that inquiry.
Still, while I would suggest that course of action to separated Christians, I do not think it sufficient for you, insofar as you are separated, not merely from a fellow Christian and erstwhile friend, but from your very own twin brother. Brothers certainly ought to be friends, but even if that is impossible, they remain inseparably joined, of the same flesh and blood, parts of each other. You seem to overlook this familial bond while focusing exclusively on the question of friendship.
Consequently, I urge you: Setting aside your false dilemma between cutting yourself off from your brother and communicating with him only about things entirely noncontroversial, write to him! But stop badgering him with your dissenting opinions, as he repeatedly asked you to do. Instead, begin to communicate again about other things, not least the many things family members still have in common, even when they are divided two against three and three against two.
4. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to Father Charles Curran,” AAS 79 (1987) 116–18, OR, 25 Aug. 1986, 3.
5. See Germain Grisez, “Veritatis Splendor: Revealed Truth vs. Dissent,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 94:6 (Mar. 1994): 8–17.
6. Of course, if conscience errs culpably, following it is not guiltless. See John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 32–34, 62–64, AAS 85 (1993) 1159–61, 1182–84, OR, 6 Oct. 1993, v–vi, ix–x; CMP, 78–80, 86–87.