I am writing this from Saint Louis University, where I am taking part in a lecture series celebrating the 200th anniversary of this great institution. My topic is Pope Francis, U.S. politics and polarization, a subject I am often called upon to discuss. I think in five years I have taken part in at least a dozen panels, all of which were asking, “What are the causes of polarization?”
Yet in contemporary politics, the question is not “What is the cause of polarization?” The question is “Who is the cause of polarization?” And the answer is: You are. You are the cause of polarization. And I am. Together, we are the causes of polarization. Unless we are willing to admit that, then the situation will only get worse. For polarization is not something that is happening to us but something we are causing. And the temptation to think that you or I are not complicit in it and that the fault lies entirely with someone else is actually what polarization is.
Together, we are the causes of polarization. Unless we are willing to admit that, then the situation will only get worse.
After all, what does polarization require? Two poles. By that I do not mean two people or groups of people who disagree with each other. That is actually what democracy requires. What polarization requires is two people or two groups of people who disagree, each of whom believes that the other is entirely at fault and is politically, philosophically and perhaps even morally irredeemable. This is the fault line of our contemporary politics, the result of our choices.
How many of us have stopped reading opinions with which we disagree? How many of us have stopped watching news channels that feature opinions with which we disagree? How many of us complain about the content in our social media feeds while somehow forgetting that we actually chose to follow every one of those people? How many of us, deep down in places we don’t like to talk about, take some pleasure in the adrenaline rush that comes from clicking “like” and thereby instantly creating an us and a them?
The 2016 presidential election was one of the closest in U.S. history. It was weeks, in fact, before we learned the final tallies. It was that close. Yet consider this: 65 percent of Americans live in a congressional district that favored either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton by 20 points or more. We do not even live near people with whom we disagree. That is the result of our choices, yours and mine, and those of our elected representatives.
65 percent of Americans live in a congressional district that favored either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton by 20 points or more. We do not even live near people with whom we disagree.
Pope Francis sees this clearly for what it is. The phenomena involved in polarization reflect a deeper spiritual crisis in modernity, within you and within me. That is why this is the most important thing that Pope Francis has ever said about politics: “I am a sinner.” The first question he was asked in his very first interview, which we published in America, was “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” To which the pope replied: “I am a sinner.” I suggest that this is where we should start the reform of our politics, by recognizing our individual complicity in the sin of polarization, by what we have done and by what we have failed to do, and by asking for the grace to change.
I appreciate that this may not be what we want to hear. But this is our best hope. As long as you believe that the problem is someone else, then there is nothing you can do about it, and you will continue to feel helpless and at the mercy of forces beyond your control. But if we are all able to acknowledge how we are a part of the problem, then we can begin to imagine how we might be part of the solution.
We can begin the conversation by focusing on what we all have in common rather on our differences, a move that is itself subversive of polarization.
What is the issue at its heart? Pope Francis told us when he addressed the U.S. Congress: “The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization…. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
“The enemy within” is nothing more than our age-old nemesis: fear. We are afraid. All of us. And that’s good news too, because it means that we all have something else in common and an additional means of relating anew to each other, by the grace of God. To do that we simply need to do what God, through the risen Christ, is always urging us to do anyway: “Be not afraid.”
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