How can we respond to rampant polarization? Look to Catholic social teaching.

Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich and Helen Alvare, a law professor at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Va., participate in a June 4 public dialogue about "Overcoming Polarization in a Divided Nation Through Catholic Social Thought." The event was held at Georgetown University in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Pope Francis' repeated invitations to practice mercy and charity have become the focus of efforts to defuse the widespread polarization that has wracked society and has crossed into Catholic circles.

The basic message behind such efforts during the last year is simple: come to see perceived "enemies" as real people, deserving of respect and dignity.

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While such efforts have not been a coordinated campaign, diverse Catholic voices have expressed concern that rampant polarization poses a threat to the common good.

Diverse Catholic voices have expressed concern that rampant polarization poses a threat to the common good.

"The danger in our current political climate is that the people of the United States will come to accept the current political division, nihilism, hypocrisy and anger in our culture as normal," Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego said in delivering the Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause Lecture at Loyola University Chicago in April.

The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University has addressed polarization in the church and society several times throughout 2018. And there have been other efforts that have sought to limit, if not stop, the vitriolic fear mongering, anger and name calling that has emerged in the hope of creating space for respectful dialogue.

John Carr, director of the Georgetown initiative, recently described the current state of affairs as one guided by "fear, cynicism and anger" that leads to "alienation, loneliness and hopelessness."

"This feeds tribal identities in politics, where we often define ourselves for who or what we are against" instead of working to anger, he said Dec. 4 at the start of a panel discussion that included four young emerging leaders addressing polarization in the church and the nation.

Carr's observation about tribal identities taking precedence even among Catholics who angrily have debated church teaching when it comes to challenging public policy issues -- such as immigration or climate change -- seems to be illustrated in a Pew Research poll. A survey released in March showed that U.S. Catholics' regard of the pope is colored by their political leanings.

Pew said the results revealed "signs of growing discontent with Francis among Catholic on the political right, with increasing shares of Catholic Republicans saying they view Francis unfavorably, and they think he is too liberal and naive."

The poll found that favorable support for the pope among Catholic Republicans dropped from 90 percent in 2014 to 79 percent early this year. Catholic Democrats saw no discernible shift in favorable views of the pope over the same period, rising from 87 percent to 89 percent.

Such findings concern Catholics who care about the church. They have called for dialogue among people with differing points of view with a focus on the principles of Catholic social teaching.

Speaking at the Georgetown forum in December, John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, acknowledged that the church is experiencing infighting among Catholics on the left and the right.

"I think one of the dangers in these days right now in terms of the infighting is that the credibility of the church in the public square is at its lowest point in many, many years," he said. "My point is, if you're a Catholic progressive or a Catholic conservative, if you think the church has nothing important to say in politics or relative to the public square, now is not the time to hunker down. ... We have to find a way to navigate through legitimate differences in a prudent way."

Another panelist, Elise Italiano, founding executive director of The Given Institute, which provides leadership training for young women seeking a greater role in the church, said polarization and the church's loss of credibility threatens to turn away young people.

Italiano described a retreat by young people from established institution as they search for identity, community and purpose. "The church should be able to provide that and yet we've seen the effect of polarization on their hope and commitment," she said.

We have to find a way to navigate through legitimate differences in a prudent way.

Gehring and Italiano also were among 100 Catholics representing different perspectives invited to a three-day conference in June at the Georgetown institute to share ideas on overcoming the deepening polarization in church and society.

The gathering led to commitments to further conversations across the perceived liberal/conservative divide to better serve the church and begin to heal society.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, called on the church, including his fellow bishops, to take steps to reverse polarization.

"We must acknowledge it's there," he told Catholic News Service Dec. 11. "That's the starting point. We see it and I think we have to call it out."

Bishop Coyne, who until November was the chairman of Committee on Communications of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church must guard against letting the small percentage of people on the left and the right "drive the bus."

"The saddest thing is when you encounter the person who is so convinced of their righteousness that they've lost all sense of charity," he said.

"Their message is 'I'm doing what I'm doing to save these people from hell,'" the bishop continued. "It's almost like, sadly, there's a kind of lower level magisterium that's developed where people are convinced they have the truth in a way the church doesn't and they operate out of that.

The saddest thing is when you encounter the person who is so convinced of their righteousness that they've lost all sense of charity.

"When they operate out of that they often leave out the most important teaching of mercy and charity."

The church's tradition of respect for human dignity must be part of the discussion on the road to overcoming deep differences, Bishop Coyne added.

"Those of us in the moderate middle either way," he said, "have to be willing to be bold and say exactly what the church's teaching is and not allow the extremes to say who we are."

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JR Cosgrove
1 year 4 months ago

No, a lot of Catholic Social Teaching is itself polarizing because it is political. The Church has a very poor record on political issues over the last 1500 years and none is more obvious than what is being preached in this article. To say "where people are convinced they have the truth in a way the church doesn't and they operate out of that" is an indication of eliteness and arrogance by many in the Church. The most Catholic area in the world, Latin America, is one of the most violent areas in the world with large areas of poverty. The Church is ignoring the "Render unto Caesar" directive and should stay out of political issues such as climate change and immigration.

Nancy D.
1 year 4 months ago

No doubt, to deny Genesis, and the fact that it is God, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Who Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, and Of Marriage, is what has led to polarization; just as every element of truth will serve to complement and thus enhance the fullness of Truth, so too, will every element of Love, serve to complement and thus enhance, the fullness of Love. It is the denial of The Truth Of Love, that leads to polarization.

Although it is true that with Time, God’s Created Universe is expanding, The Truth Of Love, remains the same, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, The Eternal Love Between The Father And The Son, That Was In The Beginning, Is Now, And Forever Will Be. (Filioque)

Although, at the end of The Day, it may still remain a Great Mystery, it is no Mystery, that it is Perfect Love that set God’s Created Universe in motion.

Everything is passing; only Love remains the same, which is why, at the end of the day, to deny Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy, is the unforgiveable sin.

Phillip Stone
1 year 4 months ago

Medically, pain is a good thing. Very good, Excellent.
How would we know if something was amiss and it did not hurt and was not clearly visible?

We learn as emergency physicians NOT to give any pain relief until we have made the decision to look for the dread reasons for unexpected pain. THEN, we give pain relief and lots of it until it is almost gone. while we prepare to operate or otherwise intervene to set things right or prevent more damage or death.

Lepers lose fingers and toes and tips of ears and nose because they do not feel the pain early enough, until gangrene sets in.

In like manner, the thoroughly unpleasant experiences of guilt and shame are supposed to operate in the same way.

Loving communication will include soundly condemning evil words and deeds to the perpetrators and the witness of several agreeing in public to a persistent offender that they have brought shame on themselves has been part of Christian life the whole time.

Punishing, shaming and shunning are proper loving actions when appropriate.

Thus opines one of the "inferior magisterium".

Amongst the baptised, there has never been a time of peace and unity and harmony up until now, why would we expect it to ever happen? Is not the universal peace going to occur under the anti-Christ?

petter son
1 year 4 months ago

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Charles Erlinger
1 year 4 months ago

What the Church has to say about political matters could be relevant, under certain conditions. However, there are questions about that assertion that should be explored before anyone should take the assertion seriously. The first question that comes to mind is, what claim of authority is the speaker making regarding the political matter that is spoken about.

When the Pope, for example, speaks about politics, he could assume that he is giving an authoritative utterance insofar as his speech concerns the end or objective of human life that he is reminding us about. But in favoring a particular course of action, he could be giving the better of several possible suggestions regarding particular means that are politically feasible and morally acceptable to progress toward achieving that end.

If a listener disagrees with the Pope about the end of human life that the Pope is espousing, then of course there is no rational basis for a listener to consider the Pope’s utterance relevant. If, on the other hand, the listener generally agrees with the Pope on the end of human life, then the listener might very rationally consider whether the Pope’s favored course of concrete action in a particular situation is worth evaluating more closely. The evaluation might well be based on the comparative morality of competing courses of action, as well as their comparative probabilities of effectiveness.

To me the most important sentence in the article at hand is the quote from John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. He said:

“…If you think the church has nothing important to say in politics or relative to the public square, now is not the time to hunker down…. We have to find a way to navigate through legitimate differences in a prudent way.”

Gehring’s mention of prudence, assuming he is thinking of Prudence, the moral virtue, as distinct from prudence, the act of seeking safety in politeness, is exactly the right thing to be advocating, in my opinion.

Prudence is wisdom about human affairs, about human good. It is the application of right reason in matters wherein there is no fixed way of obtaining the end, but in matters where the end and its goodness are known through reason and faith, and the bounds of morality about the means derive from the goodness of the end. As Thomas Aquinas says, Prudence

“…Applies universal principles to the particular conclusions of practical matters. Consequently it does not belong to prudence to appoint the end to moral virtues, but only to regulate the means.”

There is, then, every reason to be interested in the Church’s opinion on political matters, so long as neither the spokesperson nor the listener harbors any misplaced claims of authority. Prudence, if practiced, operates on matters of action which are contingent, and about which certainty cannot be absolute. But the action that prudence commands must regard not only the good of the individual, but also the common good. It is, after all, a virtue.

Christopher Lowery
1 year 4 months ago

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.”

Controversy is not something to be feared, as long as it stays in the form of dialogue and avoids becoming personal, vindictive and violent.

On the other hand, the institutional Church has squandered much of its moral authority through the hypocritical actions of many of its leaders, particularly (though certainly not exclusively) with regard to sexual matters. Until the Church’s leaders hold themselves to the same standards they preach to others, and assume the more humble and less regal posture of its founder, it will be difficult for others to take their pronouncements seriously.

Sujoy Joshi
1 year 4 months ago

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