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Maurice Timothy ReidyMarch 16, 2023
Photo: iStockPhoto: iStock

What is the way out of polarization?

This is the question our editor in chief, Sam Sawyer, S.J., poses at the opening of his essay in the April 2023 issue of America. If you haven’t already read it, I urge you to do so, for it is a question we all have to face as Catholics. As Pope Francis reminded us in his interview with America in November, “Polarization is not Catholic.”

As it happens, this is also a question that a group of theologians, bishops and other church leaders wrestled with at a recent colloquium at Boston College called “The Way Forward: Pope Francis, Vatican II and Synodality.” The gathering, which was sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University Chicago, and the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University, was the second meeting of this distinguished group, and I was invited to join as a representative of America Media. Michael J. O’Loughlin, our national correspondent, attended the first meeting in Chicago last year.

The Chicago meeting drew some criticism at the time. The fact that most of the representatives were seen as sympathetic to Pope Francis, and that it operated according to the Chatham House rule (which limits reporting in order to foster open discussion) led some to wonder what the group was up to.

The concept of synodality is a bit confusing, even to seasoned Catholics, and the global synod process has struck me as unwieldy and ultimately not as representative of Catholic opinion as it is sometimes argued.

And I admit, I did wonder what I would discover when I arrived at the hotel where we all stayed for the gathering. Who would be there, and what would they talk about?

Over the next two days, we listened to a series of keynote reflections from Rafael Luciani, Robin Darling Young, Hosffman Ospino and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Tex. (These talks will be made available to the public. Other conversations at the conference, according to the Chatham House rule, may be reported, but without attribution.) The lectures were edifying, to be sure, but perhaps not as rewarding as the informal interactions that took place between meetings and during meals. There is no substitute for meeting your fellow Catholics face to face.

You will not be surprised to learn that the word synodality was mentioned many times and was held up as a possibly groundbreaking way to combat the polarization that plagues the church. I confess that I was not as enthusiastic about the synod process as some of the participants when I first arrived. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a very good thing that the church is asking to hear more from Catholics about the issues that matter most to them. But the concept of synodality is a bit confusing, even to seasoned Catholics, and the global synod process has struck me as unwieldy and ultimately not as representative of Catholic opinion as it is sometimes argued. One fact: Only 1 percent of Catholics in the United States took part in the process.

At a time when polarization runs deep in all levels of society, the church is one of the few places where people of all backgrounds gather under one roof.

But here are some equally important observations and takeaways from our gathering. “Our communion is unsure of itself.” We must “recover a sense of what holds us together.” We have to find a way to “walk and work together.” “In listening, I make myself accountable to real communities.” In short, the stakes are very high for our church, and listening to one another is the first step on a much longer journey.

Once I began to see the synod as less of a discrete event, but rather a new way of being church, the more I felt open to it. I also realized that I am the product of a church that has not placed a high value on listening and conversation, so it’s a muscle I need to exercise. One criticism made about Catholics today is that they don’t see themselves as part of the church they criticize. But as one participant noted, can you really blame them? Have we done the hard work necessary to make everyone feel co-responsible for this church we love?

The only way to be a listening church is to learn by doing—and by doing again and again. This, several participants argued, is part of Pope Francis’ “long game.” He is trying to teach us a new way of relating to one another, one that is embraced in much of Latin America but is foreign to the church in most of the world.

Does the global synod process represent the best way out of polarization? That very much remains to be seen. The synod process itself has become another thing to argue over. It will take many more gatherings, at all levels of the church, for the process to start to work. And that will mean including people with whom we disagree and who may have serious questions about the course set by Pope Francis.

But at a time when polarization runs deep in all levels of society, the church is one of the few places where people of all backgrounds gather under one roof. That represents a rich opportunity. And in the end, we don’t all have to agree with one another. As one panelist noted, Jesus prayed that “that they all may be one”—not that they all may be the same.

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