Notre Dame's Conference on Polarization

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Last week, I participated in a conference at the University of Notre Dame entitled “Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.” The conference featured an array of presenters and participants and followed the “see, judge, act” model of analysis, describing the wounds, judging their sources, and looking towards a remedy or remedies.

I am ambivalent about the subject, as my comments at the opening plenary suggested. (The video of the opening plenary is at the end of this article.) On the one hand, it seems to me a certain degree of polarity exists in any group of people, and when people of conflicting views engage each other, there will be some sharp elbows every once in awhile. On the other hand, there has been precious little effort on the part of the leaders of the Church, be they bishops or theologians, to carve out a space in the center where the important conversations capable of transcending divisions can take place. Indeed, some bishops, mostly on the right, and some theologians, mostly on the left, have contributed to the climate of polarization in unhealthy ways.

Apart from the opening plenary, the sessions were on background, and so I cannot attribute remarks. But, one intervention stands out from the rest. A theologian pointed out that in the nigh to fifty percent of U.S. Catholics who are Latino, the issues most important to them are not those “hot button” issues that seem to arouse the greatest degree of polarization. Their top ten concerns are more basic issues: Do I take a second or third job to afford a better school for my kids, even though it means less time with my kids? How can I afford to pay the rent? How do I confront an exploitative employer? Is assimilation to mainstream U.S. culture something I wish to encourage in my children? These questions are a kind of wake up call for the whole Church. The presenter did not put it this sharply, but I think the case can be made that there is a kind of “privilege” – perhaps even “upper middle class, white privilege” - to many of the questions likely to be the focus of discussion at a CTSA meeting.

The Notre Dame conference did not have the feel of a CTSA meeting. Like the annual meetings of the Catholic Conversation Project, a bishop was invited to attend the conference, actually two this time, and their presence was welcomed not resented. I would add that both bishops, Bishop Michael Mulvey of Corpus Christi and Bishop Daniel Flores of Corpus Christi, made some of the best interventions at the conference. There was mercifully little chatter about “power” in the Church and insofar as authority was a hot topic, it was mostly, happily, the authority of Jesus Christ over our lives that was the focus. I do not know what these younger theologians will produce in their lives, but it is really nice to walk into a roomful of theologians who do not have a chip on their shoulders.

None of the presenters addressed an issue that nonetheless seemed to seep into the conversation because it has seeped into, actually flooded, academic discourse in recent decades, and that is the issue of identity. The theological guild has not been immune to the flood. In order to get published and to acquire tenure, it helps to publish articles on gender theory and queer theory and racial theory. It is a truly important contribution to the world of theology in the post-Vatican II era that theology is no longer the exclusive province of celibate clerics. But, theological categories should emerge from theology, no? Identity theory begins in logic, moved into psychology, and then overwhelmed politics. Regrettably, albeit inevitably, it has heavily impacted theology and it has done so in ways that will frustrate any attempt to heal the polarized divisions within the Church.

When I got back home, I re-read Leon Wieseltier’s essay, and later book, Against Identity. I encourage readers to consult the entire text for its brilliant exposition of his thesis and Leon’s expectedly pungent prose. These were the quotes that jumped out at me as pertaining to this problem of identity politics, and consequent identity theology, getting in the way of healing polarization:

Every culture has its preferred description of the human distinction. These descriptions are analytical and homiletical. We call ourselves not only what we are, but also what we seek to be. This is stirring, but it is also corrupting. It allows us to see the one in the other, to mistake what we aspire to be for what we are. A good rule of thumb is: we are never already what we should be.

In our culture, the preferred descriptions have included: the soul, the nous (and other appellations for the mind), the self, the ego, the person. In our time, the preferred description is: identity. In America, but not only in America, we are choking on identity. And not only on the identity of others; we are choking also on the identity of our own. What if the disgruntlement of America is owed to something deeper than reading lists and admissions policies and schemes of preferment? What if we are presenting ourselves to each other, and to ourselves, in a manner that simplifies, and distorts, and provokes? What if we are preferring a coarse and troublesome description?


An affiliation is not an experience. It is, in fact, a surrogate for experience. Where the faith in God is wanting, there is still religious identity. Where the bed is cold and empty, there is still sexual identity. Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity, the louder.


In America, the tribunes of identity are the tribunes of diversity, but the joke is on them. Their ends are contradictory. Diversity means complexity. Identity means simplicity. Anybody who takes diversity seriously will see that identity is an illusion. The multiculturalists will reply that there is no contradiction, that America is a complex society of differently simplified individuals, a multicultural society of monocultural people. But they misunderstand America. The American achievement is not the multicultural society, it is the multicultural individual. And the multicultural individual is what the tribalists and the traditionalists (they are not always the same people) fear. Identity is a promise of singleness, but this is a false promise. Many things are possible in America, but the singleness of identity is not one of them.

Now, you are thinking: Wait a minute? Didn’t you just say the best intervention came from someone who called attention to the different questions Latinos face? Yes. But, that was raised as a pastoral concern, a real “sign of the times,” not as an avant garde academic theory. The problem with identity theology is that it does not invite dialogue, it blocks it. When a speaker states, usually within the first couple of minutes of speaking, “Well, as a gay man…” or “Speaking as a black woman…” such phrases are usually not uttered as an invitation to share but to claim a privileged hermeneutic. I have watched this happen in countless rooms – and cringe every time. A sympathy for the person’s differentness emerges, understandable and laudable, especially in the case of people whose voices have traditionally been unheard, but it has nowhere to develop or grow. The invocation of gender or ethnic or racial identity bristles: “You can’t question what I say because my identity is different from yours.” Again, Wieseltier:

Identity is very social, but it is not very sociable. For the definition of the individual that it provides is not least a negative definition, a definition not only in terms of what one is, but also in terms of what one is not; and such a definition of the same will often be experienced by the other as a rejection. Identity is an insulation; a doctrine of aversion; an exaltation of impassability. The bad news (and for democrats, the good news) is that the insulation is never adequate. The borders are permeable, and strange gods slip across.

I do not know about strange gods but I hope the inadequacy of the insulation is seen by all sooner rather than later. 

St. Paul had something to say on this issue. He famously wrote to the Galations, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” St. Paul was half right. Our identity as Christians, as those reborn in the waters of baptism, should trump all that differentiates us at the human level. But, as even Paul allowed, the differences persist. He told slaves to be obedient to their masters, too. He spoke about the distinct duties and roles of men and women in marriage. And, sadly, some who followed Paul into the Christian Church gave the Jews the ugliest history of any people in the West.

The real value of the conference was not that it advanced any new mega-narrative for resolving the tensions in the Church. The real value was that a diverse group of Catholic thinkers were brought together and we got to talk freely amongst each other, to dine together, to pray together, to drink a little too much at Rohr’s together. There will always be differences of opinion and perspective in the Church, but the key to channeling those differences in healthy ways rather than polarizing ways, is to learn how to love each other, indeed, to remember that Christ calls us to love one another such that our love is what distinguishes us as Christians. The Church, like a healthy family, can and should understand differences of opinion within a primary relationship of love. That is the path away from polarization and last week, at the University of Notre Dame, we got a foretaste of how enriching that path can be.

Here is the video of the opening plenary.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters