At an event in Washington last night reexamining the race for the White House and looking forward to the next four years hosted by NPR, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page discussed the fractured cultural climate in which we find ourselves, citing the hyper-partisan programming on both Fox News and MSNBC as drivers of this new reality. He noted the truism that in the 1950s, each family had access to three networks, a couple of newspapers, and that as a result, there was a common culture that united most people and, at the very least, facts were facts.
Today, he said, we choose what we want to watch, which facts we want to believe, who we want to live around, where we want to socialize, and as a result, that we are “re-tribalizing” in a way that we haven’t faced since the height of immigration in the late 19th Century. (He contrasted this with the current efforts of Hispanics and African-Americans to assimilate into a dominant culture that is quickly segmenting itself away).
Page’s comments compelled me to think about where the Catholic Church in the US finds itself today. By nearly all accounts, we’re a divided church. We fight over our politics, the ways we worship, the dress our priests choose, the music we sing, who can serve in which roles, and various other issues that divide our communities.
As Catholics try to heal these divisions, I wonder, how will these external forces impact the efforts? That is, is the church immune to these powerful societal changes, or is it shaped by them? Or, is there another choice?
I remember as a child hearing about the Irish parish and the Italian parish and the Polish parish and so on, and while they were all Catholic, one did not cross ethnic divides. So in a way, the church in America was once incredibly divided, as our forebears brought their geographic prejudices from one shore to another. Vatican II, many hoped, would usher in an age of Christian unity. Perhaps it did, for a few decades, but today we find ourselves today again besieged by discord. Continually I wonder, why is this?
Perhaps the Trib columnist is on to something about our culture, something that applies to our church as well. The staggering amount of choice and customization we encounter in daily life allows us to construct a reality that can be quite different from the realities of our neighbors. And when that combines with the ability to surround ourselves, whether virtually or in reality, with others who think and believe just as we do, we form our own tribes that, naturally, view the others with contempt and suspicion.
Has this spilled into the church?
I suspect it has, and, if left unabated, will continue to corrode our community. But rather than lament this reality, imagine a church that was able to come together, move past the divisiveness, and work together to help usher in even just a piece of God’s reign. Our divisions run deep, and because we are so often concerned with the ultimate things in life, they stir up powerful emotions. But imagine if the church were able to work through this together. Imagine the lessons we might offer the wider culture. We could lead by example. A key to this will be forgiveness, on both sides, but if Catholic Christians can’t achieve this, what hope is there for society as a whole?
Michael J. O'Loughlin