One of the more demanding and absorbing conversations I have been part of was a recent discussion of polarization in the American Catholic Church. Held at the University of Notre Dame, our gathering included sociologists, ethicists, theologians, bishops, students and others. Causes of polarization, various forms of polarization and effects of polarization had all been considered when one participant posed a question with which we perhaps should have begun: “What exactly is polarization, anyway?” It was a helpful question at that moment, especially, because we had fallen into using the term “polarization” in a way that was indistinguishable from “sharp conflict” or even just “serious disagreement.” It is a conflation that happens easily, and I’ve seen it in other conversations, as well. If we recognize polarization as a challenge especially characterizing American Catholicism at present, though, of course this definition can’t be right.
Conflict and disagreement have been part of the church’s experience from the first. Not only disagreement between individuals but also factions and competing schools of thought have been present from the beginning. Indeed, mutually incompatible positions on important matters have appeared. Bishops, councils, creeds, sacred Scripture and, over time, an identifiable magisterium have sought to resolve these painful divides, but none of it has been easy. The church’s unity has always been lived out as a slow, lumbering process. Polarization, though, is something else.
In the conversation I mentioned above, we were reminded that the notion of polarization has its origin in physics. Many of us can recall an elementary school science experiment that serves as a helpful guide. A strong bar magnet is lowered into a field of iron shavings, and as a result the metal shavings cluster in a circle around each pole. By analogy, social situations in which people, organizations and commitments of various kinds cluster around two poles are described as “polarized.” And so it is with the church. If the church is a field of iron shavings, including both conflicts and tools for resolution, then polarization is a bar magnet that reshapes that field by introducing its own powerful influence.
Keeping in mind this simple image of magnet and iron shavings allows us also to understand the effects of polarization intuitively. A powerful, fundamental force pulls people, theological concepts and commitments, organizations—everything, really—to pole or the other. And once identified with a pole, each of these then tends to remains fixed there. Polarization then treats all elements at each pole as if they bear a deep, intrinsic relation to one another. Connection to any one of those elements demands a commitment to all. Any turn in the direction of the other pole—including any questioning or doubt regarding that pole’s constellation—is read as weakness or betrayal. Bringing together things that “properly” belong to one pole or the other is interpreted as confusion, or simply as a lapse into the “mushy middle.” As with the magnetic experiment, this commitment to the extremes involves two, and only two, options, and each is defined precisely by its opposition to the other.
It is not hard to see polarization currently at work in U.S. politics. We exist in a two-party system, one in which powerful forces demand ever purer and more total commitment to respective party platforms. A Republican who attempts to reach across the aisle will quickly be labeled a “RINO.” A Democrat who questions big labor or considers any restriction to abortion access will not be in office for long.
Nor is it difficult to see how these dynamics have been replicated in the church. Theological emphases, political and social commitments, texts and schools, liturgical practices, bishops (including popes), religious orders, even individual lay people: under the rule of polarization, all are divvied up into either the “liberal” or “conservative” camp. Concern for the unborn is conservative; concern for the undocumented is liberal. A family rosary is conservative; a ministry among the homeless is liberal. As a constellation of elements becomes fixed at each pole, commitment to the Catholic faith simply becomes commitment to that pole for those who call it home.
Perhaps one word of clarification is in order here. None of this is to say every pattern and connection present in a situation of polarization is simply pernicious. We should not rule out the possibility that some Catholics simply do, after careful reflection, find themselves most comfortably inhabiting the labels “conservative Catholic” or “liberal Catholic.” We should not rule out the possibility that certain intellectual and social commitments are, in fact, logically linked. (The editor in chief of America, Matt Malone, S.J., made the case against using the labels "liberal" and "conversative" to describe Catholics in his editorial mission statement, "Pursuing the Truth in Love.")
The problem with polarization, though, is a kind of hardening into these positions that has a number of serious and damaging effects. No possibility other than these two can be imagined. What is held in common quietly fades into the background, and antagonism takes center stage. Because questioning within either camp is taken as a form of defection, each pole only hardens further and further in antipathy to the other. Mutual opposition becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
The most damaging effect of polarization, though, is one that supersedes all of these. Polarization, it turns out, is demanding and self-important. It diverts attention away from anything but itself. The American Catholic Church actually is not divided up perfectly according to polarization’s magnetic pull. There are people and questions and concerns other than those that polarization emphasizes. Often, though, narratives that would reflect this reality are overlooked. Those who have questions about polarization’s slicing-and-dicing effects, those who themselves do not identify easily with one pole or the other, those who find that their primary commitments and concerns lie elsewhere entirely, find it difficult to gain a voice amidst the shouting.
What can we do, then? That is a question that will require a much larger conversation to answer. What many of us gathered at Notre Dame concluded, though, was this: we can do better.
Holly Taylor Coolman is an assistant professor of theology at Providence College in Providence, R.I.