The National Catholic Review

St. Ignatius Loyola suggests that in any exchange, “it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” To this call for charity, St. Ignatius added that if correction is necessary, it ought to be delivered with respect and kindness. Those qualities of respect and kindness have at times been hard to find in many of the heated arguments in which American Catholics have found themselves embroiled over the past 12 tumultuous months.

Can a Catholic in good conscience vote for Barack Obama? For John McCain? May pro-choice politicians be given Communion? Should the legal fight to overturn Roe v. Wade bear the full weight of Catholic political energy; or are there other, more effective strategies for combating the culture of death? Should the University of Notre Dame award an honorary degree to President Obama, or even invite him at all? Should there be more frequent celebrations of the liturgy in Latin; and if so, what version of the Mass texts should be used? Issues like these have always sparked much discussion in the Catholic community, but they are now often dominated by a tone that is decidedly dangerous—harsh and often lacking in respect or courtesy.

This rhetoric has threatened the credibility of the church, as the Catholic tradition of trust and toleration has been de-emphasized. Even a few bishops have made statements like “We are at war” and “Tolerance is not a Christian virtue,” suggesting that any notion of the common good has given way to a sharply defined “us versus them” mentality. Such rhetoric also subtly undermines the Catholic principle of subsidiarity first put forth by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, according to which a pluralistic social structure allows and encourages constructive input from a variety of groups on the grass-roots level.

This polarization must stop; otherwise our identity as a faith community will be torn asunder and Catholicism will cease to be an elevating force for change. How can we decrease the polarization? A vital first step is to seek out our common ground in the major civic areas where almost all Catholics agree: religious liberty; the sacredness of all human life; the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating abortion; support for social programs that provide a safety net for the poor; the elimination of segregation, racism and discrimination; and respect for differing religious and social traditions and diverse cultures. Few are the Catholics who do not share these principles, which provide a ready-made common ground.

We also need to find a way to foster civil debate and dialogue on how to incorporate and share our values in a pluralistic society. Recognizing the distinction between moral principles and their application, we can disagree in good conscience on the way such principles are prudentially applied in the public sphere. Even when disagreeing over the concrete applications of moral principles, we also must respect the good will of those with whom we disagree. Tolerance, charity and respect are not “weasel words,” nor are they excuses to paper over legitimate differences among Catholics. Rather, they are essential elements for a church in which members work together toward common goals, by supposing, as St. Ignatius wrote, that everyone is striving to act for the greater good.

Our bishops must take the lead in this conversation in the Catholic community. As the Second Vatican Council noted: “Bishops should make it their special care to approach men and initiate and promote dialogue with them. These discussions on religious matters should be marked by charity of expression as well as by humility and courtesy, so that truth may be combined with charity, and understanding with love.” As many have noted, our bishops also need to be careful that they do not overstep their bounds when they prescribe specific policy recommendations, lest they sacrifice their spiritual authority by appearing to be partisan political figures.

In his book Models of the Church, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., highlighted the image of the church as a “community of disciples.” This image from the early church (Acts 6:1-2) sees every Christian united in learning from and following Christ. Here the church is always a learning church led by the Spirit, not yet in full possession of the truth. A disciple is by definition one who has not yet arrived, but is on the way to full conversion. This more humble view of a pilgrim church always in need of purification and improvement may help to tone down the rhetoric and encourage Catholics to work together in addressing the great issues of our day, especially those involving the culture of life. True dialogue, as Cardinal Dulles noted, enables the church “to understand its teaching better, to present it more persuasively and to implement it in a pastoral way.”

Show Comments (68)

Comments (hide)

Charlene Ozanick | 6/15/2009 - 9:05pm
Truly excellent article. I hope that somehow the US Bishops who are having their meeting in San Antonio this week would get this. They really need to discuss and ponder upon these points.
Ilse Wefers | 6/15/2009 - 7:15pm
Perhaps Mr. Obama read the book "Models of Church" and many of us, including some of our bishops, have not. There is still hope...
Patrick | 6/15/2009 - 7:02pm
The solidification of the American rightwing since the early 1980s and its political coalition with religious fundamentalism, is the source of the racist, xenophobic, mostly Protestant, mostly southern, bickering groups that pay the bills for Fox News. These have infected the American Catholic Church as well as American culture at-large. While I certainly agree with the article, I am not hopeful that very many of these people will see the light of reason. They thrive in an atmosphere where they are not opposed. Yes, let's keep the dialog as civil as possible, but when we're debating the likes of Bill O'Reilly, it serves no purpose to shrink from the fight in the name of courtesy.
Roberet Nugent | 6/15/2009 - 6:48pm
I hope someone sends this editorial to Archbishop Burke in Rome whose combatative rhetoric is a major contributor to the current battle lines being drawn. The next victim of the orthodox vigilantes is the National Catholc News Service. It will be interesting to see how the Bishops respond not to attacks on individuals like Richard McBrien and Douglas Kimic but on the very news organ of the Conference itself!
Bill Fox | 6/15/2009 - 6:41pm
America Response Your article reminds me of the question I have about our catholic church which is the Roman Catholic Church. My question is how can I support and be active in a church that professes to follow Jesus Christ and has: Denied women full participation in their ordained ministry: Christ was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, died as a Jew. In 1973 the Jewish tradition began to allow women to be rabbis. To my knowledge, the only other major religion which denies women full participation in their ordained ministry is Islam. Both Jesus and St. Paul showed great respect for women. I do not read St. Paul’s comments in his letters regarding women and men as a put down of women. I read them as an attempt by a frustrated disciple to resolve an argument that he has learned of through letters from the community that we do not have. A modern example would be a working mother trying to settle a bitter argument between her children over the telephone while she is at work. She reads them both out. Covered up the pedophilia scandal Does not give the local members a voice in the selection of their bishop: I believe the early Christians and many Christian traditions do this. Considered other Christian traditions and Catholic disciples who criticize church positions (as I have ) as second or third class disciples in need of reform. So why am I still Catholic? There are three reasons: One is that the story of God dwelling with mankind began in Israel and was continued by Jesus Christ. The Jewish tradition did not accept these clarifications of Jesus, so Jews that followed Christ became Christians, not Christian Jews. Second is that I believe the Catholic Church practices have often blocked a person’s spiritual growth and God therefore provided other churches that would minister to His people. If I had a child who had been abused by a relocated Catholic pedophile priest, could the Catholic Church continue to be a path to the kingdom of God for me? I think not. Third; we all need reform. I need reform. Other disciples need reform. The Catholic Church hierarchy needs reform. So I strive for reform and spiritual growth of myself and my church as a Christian Jew in the Roman Catholic tradition. God, as God of the Hebrew Scriptures, as Jesus of the Christian Scriptures and as the Holy Spirit of today is kind, compassionate, slow to anger and ready to forgive. Let us as disciples heed the words of St. Peter, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” ( Pet. 1:15,16) Bill Fox Chester Virginia June 15, 2009
Anna | 6/15/2009 - 6:14pm
As a convert of ten years, it continues to surprise and shock me the level of acrimony that is often directed against "outsiders" by "good" Catholics. Outsiders seem to be anyone who is not a cradle Catholic and orthodox, whatever that phrase means. I thought it was all about loving our Lord and loving and serving each other and the greater world, God's creation.
JOHNPAUL LENNON | 6/15/2009 - 6:00pm
I could not agree more. Since coming to the USA in 1985 from Mexico, and especially since becoming active in the Fr. Maciel, Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi controversy I have been struck by the polarization of the American Catholic Church. I personally believe that POLARIZATION is the main problem of the Church, even greater than the hot button issues we "Conservatives and Liberals" are constantly and heatedly debating. Catholics, like most other Americans, seem to place pundits above thinkers. Truth appears to consist, not in the veracity of our statements but on how heatedly and passionately we express our opinions and personally attack each other. I have discovered that the Legion of Christ and its Regnum Christi lay movement contributes to this polarity by apparently siding with the most conservative and "orthodox" groups of Catholics. Only later do these families realize that they are simply pawns in a competetive game of recruiting and raising funds alient to the Universal and Unifying Church founded by Our Lord. He came "that they all may be one" and not that we all may be constantly divided, bickering and fighting among ourselves like a pack of jackals. Each enclave speaks of Charity and attributes it to themselves and accusers their "enemies" of laking it so much that the word now lacks meaning. Maybe we will have to abondon "Charity" as a dirty word, used by the angry self-righteous, until we find our Christian senses. A well written article, America. Insist, in a timely and untimely way. May St. Paul and his Letters guide us.
John Giovanni | 6/15/2009 - 5:40pm
The question that every believer is ultimately confronted with is: Why do so many good,open prayerful people come to so many different conclusions? Those who ignore this question do great damange to many. Our bishops all too often have failed to set the example and show us how to behave in the public arena when we are debating an issue. When the bishops are in agreement with a particular stand, there remains too much tolerance for those who bear false witness against the other side. Where have our leaders been? I hope they can read this article and do some honest reflection. It is a begining. I will continue to pray for a willingness to honor and respect those whose prayerful discernment have brought them to a different conclusion.
Christine | 6/15/2009 - 5:19pm
Thank you for this excellent editorial. What you call for is very challengin; even as we comment here, the temptation is to speak in terms of "us" (we, the tolerant) and "them" (those intolerant others). To cultivate and practice charity amid debate and disagreement is a spiritual, moral, even ascetic practice that we find modeled too little in our culture. I agree that it is particularly difficult to be charitable in situations wherein one's very desire to practice charity and respectful inclusion is deemed grounds for condemnation or exclusion! But might such cases be invitations and challenges to even greater charity? I pray for charity and justice in our church and in our world.
Michael R Saso | 6/15/2009 - 5:19pm
Wonderful article! Let all pulpits hear or read this on Sunday. "By their love you wll know them" is the sign of a Catholic christian.
John Wren | 6/15/2009 - 5:09pm
Outwitted by Edwin Markham He drew a circle that shut me out - Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout But love and I had the will to win We drew a circle and drew him in.
Robert O'Connell | 6/15/2009 - 4:58pm
In May of 2008, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., Director of the Holy See Press Office, spoke to the Catholic Media Convention in Toronto. He suggested a few specific tools for effective Catholic communications: (1) A positive attitude towards the other, towards those different from us; (2) Highlight first and foremost the beauty of the Christian life; (3) Trust in reason and have patience in communicating strong messages; and (4) Do not avoid difficult problems but have the courage to tell the truth. He also noted that after each voyage to a foreign country, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI would have an informal review about how the trip was communicated in the media. So let me add the idea of looking back ourselves to see how we did after we "exchange" views.
Paul Bradford | 6/15/2009 - 4:51pm
“Bishops should make it their special care to approach men and initiate and promote dialogue with them. These discussions on religious matters should be marked by charity of expression as well as by humility and courtesy, so that truth may be combined with charity, and understanding with love.” These days everyone seems to imagine himself or herself competent to speak for the Church; but, sadly, not enough seem to want to be bound by the counsel offered above. How can anyone be expected to learn Church doctrine in the midst of a cacophony of half-truths, zingers and 'gotchas'?
Blaise | 6/15/2009 - 4:33pm
Thank you. This essay should be read in nearly every parish of my home Diocese (San Diego) and twice weekly during election years.
Dory C. | 6/15/2009 - 4:27pm
This division and some of the rhetoric that attends it are sickening. The self-proclaimed "orthodox" in my parish have gone so far as to tear down notices of speakers that they disagree with. The local Catholic bookstore refuses to carry the books of a respected Catholic scriptural scholar who has a column in the diocesan paper. There is complete intolerance for anyone who deviates one iota from their own conservative beliefs.
John Chuchman | 6/15/2009 - 4:18pm
It troubles me not that their idea of Church excludes me, only because my notion of Church INCLUDES them. The polarization cannot stop as long as some inhabitants strive for exclusivity.
Charles Fahey | 6/15/2009 - 4:14pm
Nicholas Clifford | 6/15/2009 - 3:56pm
A splendid editorial, if indeed frightening its views of our possible futures if we, who constitute the Church, don't start behaving like Christians. It's similar, of course, to the piece you did some weeks ago on "sectarian Catholicism," and should help us to stop and realize that the phrase is a profound oxymoron; you can't pretend on the one hand to a Catholic universality and on the other establish narrow, man-made bounds. Certainly the history of the Church gives ample evidence of the disasters that follow a sectarian approach (whether from the right or the left).


Recently by The Editors

Fear Not! (December 6, 2016)
The Right to Data (December 6, 2016)
Signs of Change (November 22, 2016)
Spotlight on Refugees (November 22, 2016)
Death Watch (November 15, 2016)

Recently in Editorials