Polarization in the U.S. Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal

“Pride of being first leads you to want to kill others; humility, even humiliation, leads you to become like Jesus. And this is one thing that we don’t think. In this moment in which so many of our brothers and sisters are being martyred for the sake of Jesus’ Name, they are in this state, they have, in this moment, the joy of having suffered dishonour, and even death, for the Name of Jesus. To fly from the pride of being first, there is only the path of opening the heart to humility, to humility that never arrives without humiliation. This is one thing that is not naturally understood. It is a grace we must ask for.”

Pope Francis spoke those words this morning, and they give every journalist pause. “Pride of being first” is part of our DNA. It is our job to break news. But, the verb “break” has a double meaning, and when that news can “break” the unity of the Church, how do the obligations we have as Christians reconcile themselves with the obligations we have as journalists?

Here at NCR, there is nothing theoretical about such questions. We were pilloried for breaking stories about the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy. People said we were assaulting the Church’s hierarchy, violating the Christian call to unity, airing our Catholic family’s dirty laundry. All those charges were true – and thanks be to God, Tom Fox and others had the courage to run those stories anyway. Can anyone doubt that the cover-up of the sex abuse would have continued had we not shown the light of day, which is often the light of justice, on the situation?

Yesterday I wrote about the mess in San Francisco. It is hard not to lay the divisiveness in that archdiocese at the feet of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. This open fighting on the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and Twitter did not occur during the tenures of the previous archbishops, one of whom, now-Cardinal William Levada. is not anyone’s idea of a doctrinal patsy. A bishop has a special responsibility to build up the unity of the flock, and in this case, it appears that Archbishop Cordileone has placed other objectives first. In the case of NCR and reporting on clergy sex abuse, the demands of truth and justice trumped the potential harm to unity. I do not perceive in +Cordileone’s statements anything that warrants inviting the kind of divisiveness his leadership has occasioned. The polarization that now characterizes the Church in San Francisco is a thing to be regretted, and it is far from clear how it will be healed. Having the chancery denounce concerned Catholics is hardly the solution.

Issues of polarization in the Church in the U.S. will be the subject of a conference to be held at the University of Notre Dame at the end of this month. It is fitting that Notre Dame is hosting the event seeing as the most ugly instance of polarization occurred as a result of that university’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak at graduation in 2009. I do not fault the university. I was not scandalized at the thought that the nation’s leading Catholic university would invite the President of the United States, who in this case was also a man of historical significance, the first black president in our history. Besides, back then, we all still liked Obama. The response to Notre Dame’s decision was the scandal, a demonstrable lack of charity on the part even of bishops that was deplorable.

The April 27 opening plenary session at the conference on polarization will be live-streamed. Among the panelists are Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, Professor Christian Smith of Notre Dame, Professor Julie Hanlon Rubio of St. Louis University, and yours truly. You will be able to watch it by clicking here.

I do not want to give away what I shall say: You will need to tune in for that. For now, I shall only say that I am glad that Notre Dame is hosting this event and bringing together a diverse group of Church leaders to discuss the issue of polarization and how all of us can work to heal the divisions that exist. I will also note that I think polarization is at its worst among the commentariat and the leaders of the Church: The people in the pews are far less polarized than those of us who work full-time in the Church. At the very least, it is a good thing to always look for areas of collaboration, as we saw in the recent joint editorial by NCR, the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor and America, arguing for an end to the death penalty. I suspect there are other areas where these four leading Catholic journals could make common cause. Even more do I suspect that it is really important to have the conversations on issues where, in the end, the disagreements are too great to be resolved in a joint editorial. Too often, on both the left and the right, we see a caricature of others’ opinions instead of an honest discussion of those differences. I confess sometimes I lead with a sharp elbow rather than an open heart, and those times are always at the beginning of my visits to the confessional.

One of the most important ways to limit polarization, or at least to direct differences of opinion and outlook down more fruitful, less painful paths, is to get people into the same room instead of in the ideological steel cage that is the blogosphere, to break bread together, to see with our own eyes that our sparring partners do not have horns, to worship together. (All smokers are welcome to join Bishop Flores and I outside at coffee breaks as, together, we search for the few-and-far-between ashtrays on that otherwise lovely campus!) I am grateful Notre Dame will provide this opportunity to discuss these issues and I am doing my best to leave my sharp elbows inside the Beltway as I make my way to the heartland.  


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