Catholic leaders confront polarization but skirt polarizing issues at Georgetown forum
On Monday morning, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on a much-anticipated case that involved the often polarizing issues of religious liberty and L.G.B.T. rights. At the same time, more than 150 Catholic leaders were gathered across town at Georgetown University’s Riggs Library for a three-day conference on how Catholics might resist polarization within their church and, perhaps, in the political arena.
The timing of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision seemed almost providential, providing more fodder for discussion among Catholics split over religious liberty, L.G.B.T. rights, the role of courts and more. But the myriad issues that polarize Catholics were largely set aside at the conference in an effort, perhaps, to focus on dialogue about dialogue.
The organizers—John Carr, who directed the Catholic bishops’ social justice office for decades before launching the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown in 2013, and Kim Daniels, a lawyer who has focused on religious liberty issues and served as a spokeswoman for Cardinal Timothy Dolan—succeeded in bringing together Catholic leaders from across the political and ecclesial spectrums. The idea was to discuss how to heal divisions that have plagued both the church and the country for many decades.
The idea was to discuss how to heal divisions that have plagued both the church and the country for many decades.
Participants shared stories about how polarization had affected their work and their lives, digested data on what Catholics think about various social and political questions (they are often in the middle), and talked about political polarization. Many participants told me they enjoyed meeting in person the people they follow, and sometimes spar with, on Twitter. Personal contact alone, some suggested, could reduce some of the polarization in the church.
The conference, called “Though Many One: Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought,” was hosted by Mr. Carr’s Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and included an address from the archbishop of Washington. Cardinal Donald Wuerl navigates differences in both the highest echelons of the church (he was one of the most loyal supporters of Pope Benedict XVI before emerging more recently as a staunch advocate for some of Pope Francis’ more controversial ideas) and in U.S. politics, working with the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations on issues important to the church. He used his time to make a plea for more conciliatory dialogue.
“All of us have the responsibility to encourage a far more civil discourse,” he said. “In the church, this should be a given,” he added, perhaps in recognition that this is not always the case.
“All of us have the responsibility to encourage a far more civil discourse. In the church, this should be a given.”
Though organizers never said so explicitly, the choice of Cardinal Blase Cupich and Archbishop José Gomez to serve as co-panelists was a nod to real divisions in priorities that exist among the U.S. hierarchy. Cardinal Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, is known for his advocacy of stricter gun laws and openness to pastoralism that includes Catholics in nontraditional relationships. Archbishop Gomez, the Mexican-born prelate who leads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a fierce defender of immigrants, but his passion for defending the unborn appears as strong.
Some highlights of the presentations included a passionate talk from Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and executive director of Pax Christi USA, who reminded participants that Catholicism “is not exempt” from the sin of racism and called racism “the seed at the root of what divides us.”
Norma Pimentel, M.J., recounted her work with migrant children along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying political battles are put aside when confronting a crisis in real time. “When you see life before you, you do what you can to help,” Sister Pimentel said.
Norma Pimentel, M.J., recounted her work with migrant children along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying political battles are put aside when confronting a crisis in real time.
Bishop Christopher Coyne, the head of the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., said during a homily on the second day of the conference that part of his mission is bridging the divide between older and younger priests, whose pastoral visions are sometimes at odds. “There is so much more that unites us than divides us,” Bishop Coyne said.
Still, as Greg Smith, a researcher at the Pew Research Center, put it during the conference, “Catholics are deeply politically divided.”
There were a few mentions of L.G.B.T. issues, among the most polarizing issues in the church today, including a statement from Cardinal Cupich about his decision to stand up for James Martin, S.J., who has been insulted online because of his L.G.B.T. ministry. “If we’re in a position to say something is wrong, I think we should do it,” the cardinal said to much applause.
And there were passing references to climate change and health care, but abortion and, to a lesser extent, immigration, got most of the attention at the conference.
There were passing references to climate change and health care, but abortion and, to a lesser extent, immigration, got most of the attention at the conference.
During his address, Cardinal Cupich noted that the Catholic leaders had lobbied political leaders in Illinois not to expand state funding for abortion, and even though the church failed, they continue to work with those leaders on other issues important to the church. Archbishop Gomez, meanwhile, called abortion the most important social justice issue facing the church. (Though he noted, with a smile, “there are no single-issue saints.”)
At times, the message seemed to be that overcoming polarization required Catholics who identify as politically liberal or progressive to care as much about abortion as those who identify as conservative, though movement in the other direction did not seem as pressing.
Take a talk from Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University. “If we are Catholics, we must be fervent pro-lifers,” Mr. George said. He added that Catholics must also be fervently against racism, but he did not extend his rule to other complicated questions with which Catholics wrestle in the political arena.
Some speakers suggested laying claim to the political center, which is where U.S. Catholics as a group find themselves today, as the best way to resist polarization.
Cherie Harder, a former adviser to Laura Bush who now heads the Trinity Forum, said during a panel that “Catholic Social Teaching doesn’t easily fit into one party—and I think that’s a strength that should be protected.”
“Catholic Social Teaching doesn’t easily fit into one party—and I think that’s a strength that should be protected.”
Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, said Catholics on the political left and right can serve as models for better engagement by being unafraid to “call out your own team” in order to “make sure we’re not captive to the sides we find ourselves on.” The result, he suggested, “may put you into the middle in really healthy, uncompromised ways.”
I was invited to the event as a member of the Catholic media, invited to participate and ask questions. I sought out a few participants and asked if they thought events like this one could help bridge the divide that exists in the church and in society.
Simone Campbell, S.S.S., whose group Network Lobby launched Nuns on the Bus in 2012 to bring attention to what they described as threats to the social safety net, said she thought it was a “half-step” forward. For real progress, she said, people with different beliefs on difficult issues need to engage one another and “talk together in small groups with a variety of perspectives and ask, ‘How’d you get there? What are your roots? What brought you to this moment? What’s your history?’ It’s about care and engagement.”
Elise Italiano, who helped facilitate a breakout group discussing millennial Catholics, agreed.
“We were asked to set aside a big chunk of time and logged long hours on dense topics,” she said. “But in the end, it was clear that we wanted and needed more time to set things aright. I’m hopeful that even if there’s not a second event of the same scale, participants might gather in smaller groups, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.”
“I’m hopeful that even if there’s not a second event of the same scale, participants might gather in smaller groups, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.”
And Stephen White, a Catholic studies fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, called the event “an important first step toward tackling polarization,” adding, “that first step is often the hardest to take.” But he wanted more diversity, especially among the conservative participants. “So far as I could tell, the half of American Catholics who actually voted for Donald Trump had very little representation, and that absence marked many of the discussions and panels,” he said.
Even if consensus on divisive issues was elusive—and to be fair, finding common ground was not necessarily the goal of the conference—there were some pragmatic next steps offered.
Ms. Daniels, one of the co-conveners, presented perhaps one of the most realistic approaches for Catholics to participate in the public square, dismissing notions that ending polarization means searching for “least common denominator Catholicism” or “the mushy middle.”
“We don’t want to want to compromise on human dignity. We never want to. It doesn’t mean we’re in the middle on principles. It means we’re in the middle in the broader cultural and political contexts we live in today,” Ms. Daniels said. “We surely can stay in our own lanes. We need to stay in our own lanes. But we also let our Catholic brothers and sisters work in their own lanes without undercutting them, and we support them and stand up for them when we can. It means we’re Catholic first. We don’t focus on us and them. We focus on the people we’re helping.”
One of the most powerful moments of unity during the conference was a noon-time Mass inside Georgetown’s Dahlgren Chapel. Some people gathered there, I know, believe that abortion is murder and that contraception is immoral. Others were openly gay and support marriage rights for themselves and others. For some, immigration is the great moral question of our day, whereas for others, it is religious liberty.
But a profound point of agreement was on display.
When it came time to distribute Communion, Cardinal Wuerl stepped back. In front of the altar, Cardinal Cupich stood on the right and Archbishop Gomez on the left. One by one, worshippers made their way to the altar. Some, including women in veils, genuflected before receiving the host on their tongues. Others bowed almost imperceptibly before offering their hands to receive the host.
But all, when presented with the radical claim “The Body of Christ,” responded in the same way.