Fighting Polarization Within the Church

Yesterday, I looked at the issue of polarization in our nation’s politics. Today, I should like to consider the equally challenging issue of polarization within the Church.

Let’s start with the most frightening finding from the Pew study released last week. The authors of the report state:

“Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.

Sadly, this phenomenon is all-too present in the Church as well. I note that at this week’s mis-named “Acton University,” a four-day confab of Catholics dedicated to defending free market principles, they are offering Mass each morning in both the ordinary and extraordinary form. I am guessing that when the LCWR has its next meeting, there will not be much demand for the extraordinary form. And, I am guessing that very few people check out both our website here at NCR and that at EWTN on a daily basis, unless they are doing opposition research.

You see the divisions not only in rival parts of the Catholic blogosphere, but even where people attend Mass. It has been a long time since people felt bound to their territorial parish. Now, they shop around for a place that is congenial. One of my best friends drives 25 minutes each way on Sunday to attend a multi-cultural, progressive parish. I myself usually drive twenty-five minutes each way to attend the Latin Mass (novus ordo) at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, although I hasten to add that I attend that our Latin Mass attracts a broad cross section ideologically, from the leader of the parish’s pro-life efforts to the leader of the parishes LGBT outreach. I think we all like the music and the chance to brush up our Latin.

If our political life now seems incapable of finding within its own traditions any remedy to the polarization of the moment, the Catholic Church does have multiple remedies at hand. First, there is the pope who is the person principally charged with promoting the unity of the churches throughout the world. Some of my friends on the left could not be bothered trying to engage the very profound thought of Pope Benedict XVI. Some of my friends on the right, today, seem similarly unwilling to be challenged by what Pope Francis is saying. Shame on both tendencies. I do not believe that the Holy Spirit selects each Roman pontiff, but I do believe that the Spirit is at work in the Church and each pope in my lifetime has brought something of unique importance to the life of the Church. I confess I am more than a little giddy about Pope Francis. But, I benefited, my faith benefited, from reading the pre-papal writings of Joseph Ratzinger and from reading his trilogy on Jesus and, not least, from reading his encyclicals.

Second, there is a normative tradition in the Church. I know, I know – as discussed on Monday, there is a whole debate about how we are to engage the tradition. And, I know that there is a rich diversity within the tradition that will allow those who treat it like a service station, seeking only proof texts for their previously arrived at positions, to empty it of that richness in pursuit of an ideological agenda. How much more interesting our theological conversations would be if we all treated the tradition as the rich source of wisdom that it is! How much more honest our conversations would be if we did not cherry pick from the tradition, highlighting only those parts with which we agree and, just so, declining to be challenged by the parts that trouble us! No more red and gold pens when reading encyclicals.

Third, and most importantly, the Church is not beholden to an ideology because it does not worship an idea, we worship a person. For those who dismiss dogmatic theology as “medieval hair-splitting,” the proverbial “counting angels on the head of a pin,” I would remind them that the great early Councils, not any medieval Councils, rejected the various heretical understandings of who Jesus is and that the consequences of those rejections remain important, even vital. There may not be any genuine Gnostics around any more, but there remains a gnostic sensibility in certain varieties of spirituality. There may not be any Arians around any more, but there remains the tendency to reduce Jesus to a great ethical teacher and not as the son of God. There may not be any Pelagians around any more, but there remains a pelagian tendency to think if we follow Jesus’ teachings we can earn our way to heaven. There may not be any Jansenists – oops, there are plenty of Jansenists around. My point is that these heretical tendencies are ideological invitations and they are perennial in the life of the Church. We all have our Pelagian or Gnostic moments. The antidote to those moments is the person of Jesus Christ. In Him, all was created, contra the Gnostics. In Him, we discern the Son of God, contra the Arians. In Him, we are saved, contra the Pelagians. Instead of hurling epithets at one another, perhaps we need to create the space for people to answer the question, “Tell me how much you love Jesus” and then see where those conversations lead.

The first step in preventing further polarization in the Church is to actively seek out those who are capable of engaging and sustaining a conversation in the center. For example, in these pages, I frequently link to articles by Notre Dame Law Professor Rick Garnett. Rick is definitely right-of-center and our views on particular issues are usually quite different. Indeed, he has a suspicion of big government that I do not share and I have a suspicion of the market that he does not share. But, it has become clear to me by reading him and engaging him in debate and discussion that Rick is a “Catholic first” kind of thinker. He may hold a certain view but if that view was shown to be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church, I am quite confident he would re-think and, if necessary abandon, his prior view. Kim Daniels, who served as a spokesperson for Cardinal Dolan at the USCCB and is now back at Catholic Voices is another such person, decidedly on the right, but a “Catholic first.” She took a lot of flak from some fellow conservatives when she wrote about immigration, backing the position taken by the Holy Father and by our bishops, but she took it and she did not flinch or back down. I get a similar treatment at times here in the pages of NCR. But, this is critical: Those who try to be “Catholic first” must call out those on their own side of the ideological divisions, and not just those on the opposite side, for determined deviations from Catholic teaching.

The Catholic Conversation Project, now in its fifth year, is an attempt by some young theologians to get past the ideological divides. They meet every summer for a couple of days and there are no ideological litmus tests needed to pass in order to be invited: You have to be a young theologian (I think the cut-off is age 40) teaching at a Catholic college or university. They are kind enough to invite me each year, although I missed last year because of Ambrose’s recovery from surgery. The group has not found a magic bullet to overcome the divisions. There is no magic bullet. But, they have learned to like and respect each other, they have recognized the fruitfulness of sincere disagreement over screeching and finger-pointing. They are a blessing to the future of the Church.

The tribalism of the Catholic Church was formerly based on ethnicity. Today it is based on ideology. It is time to put the small “c” back into Catholic and recognize there is room for everybody, although not for every idea. I am not saying that there is no place for episcopal oversight, still less am I willing to join the chorus calling for the CDF to close shop. I am not saying that certain positions on certain issues cannot, in any way, be reconciled with Catholic belief. Nor do I believe we should all sit around and sing Kumbaya and reciting platitudes to one another: As a blogger, I am not allergic to an occasional sharp elbow thrown by me or at me. I am saying that we need to focus on the life we share in the Church as much as we focus on our differences, and that we desperately need to create a conversation of the center, of those who aspire to be Catholics first, and nourish it or else we, too, will find ourselves in the sad situation that our nation’s politics finds itself in, a polarized, fractious, ineffectual climate that is not conducive to any kind of progress and betrays the Master’s prayer that all may be one.






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