Coping With Polarity

At a conference at Notre Dame in late April, speakers explored the issue of polarization in today’s church under the heading “Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.” From a variety of backgrounds, they drew a picture of today’s Catholic Church in the United States with its polarities, tensions and different ways of thinking.

Polarization is not new in the church. The Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 15) tell of an early conflict in the church. Some were teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to consult about this issue. When they arrived, the text says, “They were welcomed by the church, as well as by the apostles and the presbyters…. But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.’” Paul said no, they do not have to observe all Jewish laws to be Christians. Very early in its history, the church experienced polarization.


That was just the beginning. Sadly, differences of opinion, bitter fights, heresies and schisms have occasionally wounded the church. In the late 1800s in the United States, the Catholic Church included some who wanted to strengthen the international dimension, favoring a worldwide church with a leader in Rome from whom authority flowed. Others sought to find distinctive American features in the church, like freedom, representation and a voice in how things worked. Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulists, reaching out to Protestants, found favor with French liberals but disfavor from Pope Leo XIII. Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul had to be very cautious expressing his beliefs about church life in the United States. Leo did not like some American fundamental principles, like separation of church and state. French journalists described a new heresy, calling it Americanism.

Today, statistics present a troubling picture to those who knew a church that was once unified and growing stronger. Older Catholics, who went through the social changes of the 1960s, reflect the polarization of society that took place afterward, from those who let go of many conventions and formalities to those who applauded President Ronald Reagan’s economics. The findings of Mark M. Gray reported in a recent issue of America (“Your Average American Catholic,” 5/18) draw a full statistical picture of how things are, and he finds encouraging signs among otherwise dark numbers.

In South Bend, Ind., John Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, citing Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace, described two aftershocks of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. One was the Reagan movement that contributed energy to political divisiveness or polarity. The other was the movement of young people fed up with the controversies that divided religious people, leading to the explosion of the so-called nones—those who mark “none” on surveys that ask about religious affiliation. The sociologist Christian Smith told the conference that the millennials are not polarized; they are unconnected.

Catholics of different political stripes do agree on important things and can transcend polarities. The church’s strong tradition on social issues has much to contribute to the larger American society. Catholics of conflicting political stances still face issues of immigration together, perhaps because the face of Catholicism has long been that of immigrants. They still care for the poor and the outsiders, even if they have different views on how the political realm should address them. On life issues, from abortion to the death penalty, bishops of otherwise varying political views have been leaders in efforts to get together to work for what they believe.

Opportunities for addressing major issues do occur. The next meeting of the Synod of Bishops to consider the challenges of the family could introduce a new appreciation and attention to family issues. Perhaps Pope Francis’ promised encyclical will prompt serious reflection rather than reflexive dismissal of environmental issues. Later in the year, Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and in particular his address to Congress will put Catholic values and principles into public discourse in a powerful, personal way. And given the pope’s willingness to let people speak their minds without the need for everyone to agree on everything before we can all get along, perhaps when the bishops meet after the pope’s visit, they could express their varying opinions without danger of offending the faithful.

At the level of personal response, after naming the wounds, we can begin to heal by toning down fiery words and divisive stances, by admitting differences with our friends and colleagues without alienating them or blaming them. And we could, as Father Jenkins suggests, each do an examination of conscience that focuses on our rhetoric. That would start the healing in earnest.

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Juanita Oppermann
3 years 8 months ago
First of all, anything that comes out of Notre Dame is not very Catholic. Notre Dame stopped being a Catholic University years ago when they stopped taking young Catholics and started focusing on prestige and started filling the spaces with the elite. The only polarity I see in the church comes from people who call themselves Catholic but do not know or practice the faith as they should and are trying to secularize the church. Jesus preached love, but he called a sin a sin. He preached that sinners would go to hell. Jesus preached love. Love does not approve killing the unborn in the womb. If people living in a sinful marriage are approved to go to communion then why not all people living in sin? What is the difference? God created them male and female and instructed them to increase and multiply. He did not creat them male and male, female and female and instruct them to adopt or seek in vitro fertilization. The act of sex between male and male and female and female is against not only the natural law, but against the church law. It has held for 2000 years and was recognized for thousands of years before Christ as abnormal. We do not treat homosexuals and lesbians in a non loving way, but we also should not validate sinful acts.
Raymond Marey
3 years 8 months ago
The sacraments are for sinners. With remorse for our sins, wouldn't God want us to make use of the sacraments? We are like the woman who was being stoned, in need of connecting with Jesus.. In response to God creating us and instructing us to go forth and multiply, how do we as a church reconcile priests being required not to marry in direct opposition to God's will for all to multiply? The truth is there is no nobility in refusing to marry to join an elite group. We need to get back to living with "love God first, love others as we love ourselves" foremost in all our actions and thoughts, and leave the judging for Jesus. With respect for all, thank you allowing me to express my opinions.
Robert Helfman
3 years 6 months ago
Robert Helfman
3 years 6 months ago
I defer to my reply below.
Nancy Walton-House
3 years 8 months ago
YES to your suggestion "At the level of personal response, after naming the wounds, we can begin to heal by toning down fiery words and divisive stances, by admitting differences with our friends and colleagues without alienating them or blaming them. And we could, as Father Jenkins suggests, each do an examination of conscience that focuses on our rhetoric. That would start the healing in earnest." Let us learn also from the wise women of the LCWR who wrote about the recently concluded reform process. Statement of the LCWR Officers on the CDF Doctrinal Assessment and Conclusion of the Mandate. Retrieved 5/15/15 from "We brought this desire for deep listening and respectful dialogue to our work with the CDF officials and found they held a similar desire.....We were encouraged, however, to remain in the process by the manner in which Archbishop Sartain journeyed with us. His presence to us as the LCWR officers, as well as to our members at the LCWR assemblies and board of director meetings he attended, spoke clearly of his sincerity and integrity. His capacity to listen to us from a stance of respect and genuine care strengthened our confidence that honest dialogue would eventually help us all to recognize our commonalities and gain clearer understanding of and appreciation for our differences…..Our hope is that the positive outcome of the assessment and mandate will lead to the creation of additional spaces within the Catholic Church where the church leadership and membership can speak together regularly about the critical matters before all of us. The collective exploration of the meaning and application of key theological, spiritual, social, moral, and ethical concepts must be an ongoing effort for all of us in the world today. Admittedly, entering into a commitment to regular and consistent dialogue about core matters that have the potential to divide us can be arduous, demanding work, but work that is ultimately transformative.” I am currently dealing with differences and, in some cases, polarities on personal, religious, economic, political and social issues within my extended family and social networks. I will use these wise teachings to maintain positive relationships whenever possible while acknowledging our differences, right and responsibility to make up our own minds on issues important to us. These suggestions help me and others to live the Great Commandment.
Robert Helfman
3 years 6 months ago
This is a thoughtful and well-written response that gives one pause for reflection and a reason to believe that signs of spiritual health and vitality exist in the Church today.


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