This week was my son Luke’s annual comprehensive clinic at Rush Hospital. It’s an occasion for meeting with his hematologist and other specialists about every conceivable issue pertaining to hemophilia. Among the various medical team members is a social worker with whom I usually discuss topics relating to health insurance. This time, however, we found ourselves talking about the work of counseling, broadly conceived, and pastoral counseling in particular. Because this person is not a Christian, it was illuminating to get her perspective on the church and its ministers. In this vein, one of her comments seized my attention. She said, “It’s incredible how little ‘peace’ there is among pastors who supposedly stand for peace.” While there is undoubtedly more realized eschatology in this statement than is warranted, nevertheless, it’s an interesting point to consider. Why do we who represent the Prince of Peace often appear irritable?
Dutch-born Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536), described by British historian Lord Acton as “the greatest figure of the Renaissance,” was not just a fine Christian scholar, he was also a best-selling author and pamphleteer who corresponded with bishops, diplomats, popes, and kings. His writings were read and discussed by educated people in every corner of Europe, for he was a witty, eloquent, and relentless foe of the evils of his time. He was particularly critical of the worldliness and hypocrisy of the clergy. This extract from his book A Complaint of Peace (1517), which went through more than thirty editions during the 16th century, criticizes the clergy of his time for their failure to live up to their Christian calling to be brothers and peacemakers. The narrator in the passage is “Peace.” Of course, there are worthy grounds for disagreement within the Church, but the Church must never stoop to petty disputes and pointlessly divisive causes, which dishonor Christ.
All Christians are one in the profession of their faith, but some have special ways of showing it in their title, dress, and ceremonies, and these are generally distinguished by the name of priest. At first sight everything makes me hope that there is a haven awaiting me with them. Their white garments are my own colour, so they encourage me; I can see crosses, symbols of peace, and the name of brother, a sure indication of close affection, sounds sweet in my ears; I hear the welcome greeting ‘Peace,’ a happy omen, and I note that all property is held in common, that there is a united college of clergy, and a single church, the same rules for all and daily assemblies. Who would not be confident that there will be a place for Peace here? But, for shame, scarcely anywhere does a college agree with the bishop, though this would not matter much if its members were not also divided into factions amongst themselves. Is there a single priest who is not involved in a dispute with some fellow priest? …
There remains one class of men who are so closely bound to religion that they cannot cast it off even if they wish, any more than a tortoise can its shell. I should expect there would be a place for me among them, if my hopes had not been belied so often and disillusionment had not taught me to despair altogether. Still, I don’t want to leave any stone unturned, and I shall try. What happened, you ask. I was never more glad to jump back! For what could I hope for, when the religious orders are at loggerheads amongst themselves? There are as many factions as communities, Dominicans wrangling with Franciscans, Benedictines with Bernardines, and in addition innumerable names and rites and ceremonies with different aims which are designed to prevent any agreement at all; everyone delights in his own practices and damns and hates everyone else’s…
After this I lost confidence in everything, as was to be expected, and all I wanted was to bury myself in one humble monastery of any order, so long as it should be truly peaceful. What I have to say is spoken with reluctance, and I wish it were not true, but I have not yet found a single one which has not fallen a victim to internal feuds and quarrels. I am ashamed to recount what furious battles about silly trifles, with nothing to be gained, are provoked by old men who expect reverence for their beards and habit, and in their own eyes are paragons of wisdom and piety.1
1 Erasmus, “A Complaint of Peace,” in The Erasmus Reader, ed. Erika Rummel (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1990), 294-295.