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Michael O’BrienMay 17, 2024
Gloria Purvis of America Media moderates the conversation during "Civilize It: Unifying a Divided Church," a virtual event sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops May 14, 2024. Participants include Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, top right; Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, bottom left; and Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minn., bottom right. (OSV News screenshot/USCCB)

Gloria Purvis, the host of America Media’s “The Gloria Purvis Podcast,” moderated a roundtable online discussion joined by Cardinal Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego, Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville on May 14. The discussion, “Civilize It: Unifying a Divided Church,” focused on ways polarization is affecting the U.S. church. 

Polling data shows that  U.S. Catholics today are perhaps more polarized than ever on a range of topics, disagreeing on Pope Francis, their respective political parties, global warming and more.

The panelists discussed the different ideologies they encountered in their own dioceses, how the synodal way could be a tool to help mitigate polarization and best practices for recognizing when to disengage from a toxic exchange.

During a question-and-answer session with the audience, the bishops were asked if they experienced polarization and tribalism in their own dioceses. 

Bishop Flores said that polarization is not just an issue parish to parish but can even be a problem “Mass to Mass.” Churchgoers often “settle into different strata” in the celebration of the Mass, he said, choosing priests that they best align with ideologically. The goal of a parish, he said, should be to “create wider circles,” reflecting that the church is one body with diverse perspectives.

All  three  bishops have written or spoken about countering the rise of polarization in the church. Ms. Purvis asked what best characterized “toxic polarization” and why Catholics should care about it.

Bishop Flores said a common practice within toxic dialogues is making caricatures of those one may disagree with. Bishop Barron was quick to point out that there have been disagreements among Christ’s followers “since day one,” but those disagreements did not lead to the ostracization of the other side—something that feels commonplace today.

Bishop Barron called for a return to conversations of opposing viewpoints that remain “spirited” and “intelligent” without succumbing to “tribalism” and “invective smear tactics.” Bishop Barron did not discuss an ongoing dispute between his Word on Fire ministry and Commonweal magazine over an article published in the national monthly that linked the bishop to former President Donald J. Trump.

Ms. Purvis recalled Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” which explores the challenges of encounter among people. Ms. Purvis pointed out how the encyclical’s insistence on relationship especially feels missing in social media, now a primary source of news and analysis for many Catholics. 

A Pew Research Center survey found that 64 percent of Americans believe social media has “a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. today.”

Bishop Barron, who is active on social media platforms, said that Catholics should seek to “stress truth and beauty” online. He suggested that before contemporary Catholics join an online discussion they should ask: “Is this comment an act of love?”

Noting that social media exchanges can often quickly turn fiery and uncharitable, Bishop Flores said that when confirming members of the church, he does not ask the young people of his diocese “What would Jesus do?” but challenges them to answer “What would Jesus not do?,” suggesting that Jesus would not commit an injustice in an online dialogue even to promote a greater good.

To the point that empathy is often missing from online exchanges, Cardinal McElroy recalled that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops conducted a poll 12 years ago in which participants were asked what was the best practice for uniting Catholics. The overwhelming answer was “compassion,” a value that Cardinal McElroy referred to as a “bridging virtue” that can “build solidarity amongst people.” 

Ms. Purvis asked how the Synod on Synodality, which aims to learn how the church can be a body that listens better, could help to mitigate polarization. Ms. Purvis suggested the synodal way could be an example of “self-mastery of our passions,” a way to practice tolerance when engaging with others we may not agree with. 

Bishop Flores said the synodal process has been an effective “diagnosis of the culture” of both the church and society at large. By seeing ideological disagreements on both church issues and society at large firsthand at the synod, Bishop Flores and other participants have been further informed on issues that play a direct role in their respective dioceses. 

Cardinal McElroy noted that the synod’s sessions helped to identify the “joys, sorrows and hopes” of all participants. Most importantly, he said, participants were able to “encounter each other as disciples,” which gave them an appreciation of the full humanity of a dialogue partner that proved helpful when discussions got heated.

Ms. Purvis noted that conversations like the ones experienced at the synod could indeed be fruitful and inspiring but wondered if there were times when it was best to disengage from someone who may be purely seeking to be antagonistic.

Cardinal McElroy agreed that there are encounters that are “meant to be confrontational” from the start, when anger overshadows the humanity of the disputants.

Bishop Flores noted that one person who knew when it was best to not engage in pointless dialogue was Jesus, who “was able to detect when people were not sincere in their approach,” recalling how Jesus was asked by Pilate if he were the King of the Jews, to which Jesus responds, “You say I am king.” 

Jesus knew of his impending condemnation before his exchange with Pilate and instead of railing against him, reminded Pilate of his own preconceived notion of Christ. Perhaps engaging in a hostile disagreement in a similar way is the most prudent course, Bishop Flores suggested.

Bishop Barron likened exchanges of differing opinions to sporting games that are driven by competition. Sometimes it is “best if we stop playing for a while,” he said, suggesting taking a moment for one partner or the other in a dialogue to sit in a penalty box if a debate crosses the line.

He described those hostile exchanges that seem doomed from the start as “evangelically disedifying”—dialogues based not on compassionate persuasion but on rhetorical brute force.

You can watch the full conversation here.

Correction (May 20): A previous version of this story included misspellings of Cardinal Robert McElroy's name. The story has been updated to reflect these corrections.

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