In the Gospel Commentary translated and published by the Old-Rite Church of the Nativity, which contains sermons attributed to St. John Chrysostom that are appointed to be read at Matins throughout the Russo-Byzantine liturgical year, one can find this arresting reflection on Matt. 10:34-36 for the Sunday of All Saints:
Unity is not always good; it sometimes happens that division is good. Nor is every sort of peace worthy of praise; it often happens that peace is harmful, and drives out men far from divine love. If we made peace with the destruction of truth, it is most sinful and inappropriate. Christ did not come to bring such a peace, but rather its opposite. He wishes us to separate from one another when it is for the sake of a good cause. Not all peace and unity is good; there are occasions when contention and separation are great and divine deeds. Thus, one should not be joined in love with the wicked or be at peace with them. Even if father or mother, child or brother be found in opposition to the law of Christ, we should resist them as enemies of truth.
It is almost impossible to read these words without reflecting on the present situation in the Catholic Church where unity is encouraged perpetually, even with “enemies of truth.” Indeed, to even say that there are today “enemies of truth” within the Catholic fold is looked upon as not simply intolerant, but quasi-heretical. For there is a line of thought—quite pernicious—that holds that priests, bishops, and even the head of the Universal Church are unwavering founts of orthodoxy; to suspect otherwise places oneself under suspicion of being “crypto-Protestant” or “quasi-schismatic.” Those twin charges (and others) have often been directed at traditional Latin Catholics by both liberals and conservatives alike. And though some conservatives today may acknowledge that “enemies of truth” are actively attempting to rot the Mystical Body of Christ from the inside out, their first instinct is not to separate themselves from such enemies, but rather to pen long apologias for why such persons are not “true enemies” but only “apparent enemies.” Truth, as a general matter, is often not considered at all.
But let’s not forget that the message of St. John’s message can be abused. Consider, for instance, the relative ease with which autonomous Eastern Orthodox churches will break communion with one another over perceived ecclesiastical slights. Among the Latins, sedevacantists, too, feel justified in rupturing unity with the Universal Church on the grounds that they have privately judged popes, bishops, and priests to be formal heretics. To their credit, they see that there are “enemies of truth” within the Church; to their discredit, they rely on archaic manuals twisted into novel theories in order to justify themselves without much in the way of self-criticism. It is not that they are wrong in seeing certain figures and ideas within the Church as dangerous, but perhaps the choice for separation ought to be made with greater care.
Still, is it not possible to separate oneself from those “enemies of truth” without undertaking a formal act of breaking communion? Arguably, Catholics do so all of the time when they choose to go to Parish X rather than Parish Y; X houses orthodox sermons, sound catechesis, and a solemn liturgy whereas Y is completely off the rails, as they say. On a slightly grander scale, traditional Catholics have sought refuge in traditional chapels and churches run by institutes such as the Society of Saint Pius X or those fraternities that fall under the guardianship of Ecclesia Dei. These Catholics, too, have separated themselves from the “enemies of truth,” though without exiting the Catholic Church (despite what their detractors may say). Some of these folks worry that drawing too close to the institutional Church in the name will lead to a “sort of peace [not] worthy of praise.” It will be a peace predicated on compromise. Are they correct? It’s impossible to say in advance, though the fear and pessimism which sometimes animates such genuine concerns are not Christian virtues.
Of course, when speaking of “enemies of truth” it is, sadly, not possible to limit the list to just those high-ranking officials who, for instance, seek to subvert the Church’s moral and doctrinal teachings related to marriage and the sacraments. There are those “everyday Catholics,” both clerical and lay, who subvert the Church’s social magisterium regularly by offering up selective readings of key papal documents and ignoring altogether the precepts of the natural law when they purportedly conflict with infallible “economic science.” These “enemies of truth,” by internalizing the tenets of social, political, and economic liberalism, are happy to trade worldly success for fidelity to the law of Christ. In ages past, there was still a risk that such promoters of injustice would find themselves separated from the Church; today it may behoove Catholics to separate themselves from these “enemies of the truth,” these individuals and the institutions or businesses they operate which are carried out in service to mammon, not God.
Christ, as St. John reminds us, did not come to bring peace with this world, particularly a world beholden to the ideology of liberalism. Separation therefore is not always evil, just as unity is not always good. Fraternal correction, given in charity and truth, remains above all else necessary. However, when the corrections have been made, when the arguments and evidence have been presented, and still many persist in error, then what must come next? Suspend the final decision forever or make the hard choice, not in the name of pride or emptyheaded judgmentalism, but in the Name of Jesus our King?