Now that the election is over, the Catholic church needs to play a positive role in healing the nation's severe divisions.
Millions of people are shocked and disappointed by the results of the election, and millions of others will find that with victory comes responsibility for the country. Exit polls show that the country is divided Republican vs. Democrat, black vs. white, Hispanic vs. Anglo, rural vs. urban, old vs. young, college educated vs. those without, and even male vs. female.
Divisions over policies have been stark with candidates and parties disagreeing over taxes, minimum wage, immigration, government regulations, global warming and abortion.
The divisions are bitter not only over policy questions but also over accusations of racism, intolerance, incompetence, immorality and criminality against candidates and their supporters.
Both sides predicted disaster of apocalyptic proportions if their side lost.
Can the nation heal or are these divisions going to continue to fester into the future?
The Catholic church is uniquely placed to help in the healing of the country. Not only is the Catholic church present in almost every corner of the nation, it is one of the few organizations whose membership includes Republicans and Democrats, Hispanics and Anglos, blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor, college educated and not, as well as members of every generation.
Pope Francis says that the church should be like a field hospital that cares for the wounded. Can the church foster the reconciliation and healing that is needed by the rest of the country or will the nation's divisions split the church?
The path to healing is for the church to model the possibility of dialogue for the rest of the nation. Pope Francis pointed the way in his talk to the American bishops last year:
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. ... Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.
Ecumenical dialogue has led to greater understanding and better relations between Catholics and Protestants, who at one time thought they were doing God's work when they killed each other. If Democrats and Republicans got along as well as Catholics and Protestants do today, our nation would be in great shape.
The tools that the church developed for ecumenical dialogue could be adapted for political dialogue. In ecumenical dialogue, for example, we have learned the importance of beginning with a focus on areas of agreement rather than disagreements. The purpose of dialogue is to learn about the other, not convert him or her.
There is lots of work to do at every level of the church.
Imagine if every bishop invited to dinner four Catholic politicians, two Republicans and two Democrats, for an off-the-record conversation. The role of the bishop would be as neutral convener and listener. This is not the time to pontificate. The participants could begin by sharing their individual faith stories, including the role that faith has in his or her political vocation. The purpose of such an encounter is to increase understanding and respect, not to convert the other to a specific point of view.
Nor need this only be done by bishops. It could be done in parishes, Catholic colleges, and other Catholic organizations containing both Democrats and Republicans. Some training in the techniques of dialogue would be helpful, but this could be provided by those who have experience in ecumenical dialogues.
Political dialogue, like ecumenical dialogue, should not be limited to conversations about ideas and issues. The church also recognizes what it calls the "dialogue of life," which is "about attitude and the spirit that guides personal conduct. ... It is about witnessing to the Gospel in all facets of life while engaging and living peacefully with the religious others" — make that political others.
The church also encourages what it calls the "dialogue of common social action," where "groups of varying religious [make that "political"] backgrounds coming together to live out their faith commitments by working together to combat homelessness, hunger, the lack of workers' rights, and other social ills." If the church could bring together Republicans and Democrats to work together on dealing with social ills, this would be a great witness to the nation. Imagine a Republican and Democrat working together to find shelter and resources for a homeless family.
The church must either be part of the solution or it will be part of the problem. It will either be an agent for reconciliation and healing or it will be divided by the political environment in which it lives. The church has the people, the resources, and the tools to do this. Let's begin.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]