Polarization in the US Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.
Edited by Mary Ellen Konieczny, Charles C. Camosy and Tricia C. Bruce
Liturgical Press, 2016
Universality – that is, small ¨c¨ catholicity – and, therefore, unity amid diversity are fundamental to Roman Catholicism. But in recent years, divisions around issues that are by now all too familiar – perhaps most notably, issues of gender, sexuality and authority – have rent the Catholic Church in the United States.
– Mary Ellen Konieczny, from the Introduction, page ix
Few Americans would dispute that we currently live in a polarized sociopolitical climate. Almost anyone who has suffered through watching the 2016 US presidential debates would probably agree that divisions between the ¨red tribe¨ and ¨blue tribe¨ are starker than ever. This book, Polarization in the US Catholic Church, poses a question to this divided society we live in. How can the US Catholic Church – whose teachings do not at all split neatly along political party lines – transcend these ideological differences? How can we respond with faith, humility and mercy to the divisions in our country and our world?
Coming out of the Polarization in the US Catholic Church conference held at the University of Notre Dame in April 2015, this volume contains articles by some of the foremost Catholic leaders, writers and scholars in the US today, like Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins, National Catholic Reporter journalist Michael Sean Winters, Christian ethics professor Julie Hanlon Rubio and religion professor Nichole M. Flores. The book begins with an introductory section that asks a question: is the US Catholic Church as polarized as it seems?
For some of the contributors, both in this introductory section and the book as a whole, the answer is ¨no.¨ Mary Ellen Konieczny, the volume´s editor, argues that 80 to 90% of Americans actually hold moderate positions on most ¨culture war¨ issues; however, because these ¨wars¨ are generally fought by elites in the public sphere, we can come to feel like we inhabit a more polarized world than we actually do. Hosffman Ospino describes the growing number of Hispanic Catholics as an ¨unheeded middle¨ whose (generally moderate) voices go unheard in debates about polarization. Speaking of millennial young Catholics and their current 50% attrition rate, Christian Smith argues that the problem is not polarization, but indifference and disengagement.
On the other hand, many of the contributors argue that we do indeed struggle with division. ¨I am a casualty of two Catholic culture war skirmishes – one in the ´60s, the other in the ´80s – and I have the scars to prove it,¨ says social worker Michael McGillicuddy. Likewise, Fr. Jenkins admits that at times, the language of the Church mimics the language of broader US culture in binding like-minded people together in opposition to a perceived threat or enemy: ¨The issue may be abortion, the plight of the poor, the nature of marriage, or the centrality of the family. In these and other cases, religion generally, and Catholicism in particular, gives a rich, moral framework to motivate te like-minded and to portray opponents as misguided people, threatening all we hold dear¨ (9). While Jenkins believes that religious leaders should be engaged in the world and speak to political issues, they must be cautious about how they do so: ¨Religious leaders…should think in terms of the cycle of salvation history and be concerned with building a church that witnesses to Christ as we wait for his return.¨
The second part of the volume, ¨Naming the Wounds,¨ includes four essays that seek to examine the roots of this polarization – whether real of perceived. In ¨Polarized Preferences, Polarized Pews,¨ Tricia C. Bruce examines the rise of ¨personal¨ or ¨ideological parishes. In the past, parishes were determined by geographical boundaries; one was expected to attend the parish in his or her area. Today, however, many parishes represent ¨elective affinities¨; they are formed by people who have come together due to a common liturgical preference, like the traditional Latin Mass, or an ideological stance, like liberation theology.
For Bruce, this is not necessarily a negative thing; she suggests that these parishes provide a home for Catholics who might otherwise be marginalized and add to the ¨rich mosaic¨ of the Church. At the same time, she does raise the point – which Michael Peppard echoes at the end of the volume – that by binding like-minded Catholics together, such parishes foster the same kind of divisions that Internet news ¨echo chambers¨ do: instead of forcing us to encounter those who are different, they allow us to isolate ourselves among the like-minded.
Similarly, in another essay in this section, Holly Taylor Coolman suggests that a lack of encounter with ¨the other¨ leads to a ¨loss of certain practices and skills: precise, measured debate; hearing and weighing the concern of the other; considering carefully arguments against one´s own position; imaginatively and creatively seeking strategies that break through a perceived impasse¨ (71). She insists that these skills are needed now more than ever: ¨We…lose the ability to argue with one another well…Our engagements become superficial and compative. Good conflict, after all, requires at leastwo things: that we are present to one anoher, and that we know that what unites us is greater than what divides us¨ (73).
The next section, ¨Assessing the Problem,¨ suggests some possible solutions for the issue of polarization. For me, the most interesting essay here is Nichole M. Flores´ ¨When Discourse Breaks Down,¨ which examines an issue that is often left out of the culture war debates in the Catholic Church: race and racism. Reminding us that ¨racism is latent in human hearts and social structures¨ and that ¨eradicating it thus requires confronting painful histories,¨(102) Flores calls for the creation of inclusive communities through what she calls ¨aesthetic solidarity¨: ¨engagement with aesthetic forms – broadly defined as symbols, art, narratives and performance – as a means of fostering communities committed to practical action in pursuit of justice and the common good (103).
Flores sees a link between liturgy and social protest as spaces where aesthetic solidarity can occur – not to ¨solve¨ racism but rather to increase empathy and build inclusive communities. This focus on aesthetics struck me as particularly original and rare in debates about polarization, and it reminded me of celebrated Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim in his collaboration with Palestinian-American cultural theorist Edward Said to build peace in the Middle East through the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings young Arab and Israeli musicians together. Perhaps this article appeals to my personal bias that beauty, more than truth or goodness, is what holds the most power to change the world for the better.
The final section, ¨Looking to the Future,¨ examines ways in which we might strive for greater unity in the Church. An essay by Elizabeth Tenety takes up an issue that is a running thread throughout the volume: the place of millennials in this polarized Church. Several authors comment that millennials largely demonstrated a lack of trust or interest in organized religion, a lack of knowledge of Church teachings, and a moral relativism that prevents them from taking a firm stance on issues. However, what millennials do respond to is Pope Francis´s call to show mercy. Earlier in the volume, Amy Uelmen remarks,
The pressure that young adults feel to keep a tight sense of control over all the elements of their lives seems to leave very little space for recognizing and processing the reality of suffering – illness, death, fears about violence in the world, or even more daily and mundane disappointments and failures. But in many ways, the capacity to look to this face of Christ can provide a deep source of perspective, hope, and deep connection with others (95).
Similarly, Tenety looks at millennials with compassion, tracing their skepticism of religion, distrust of authority, and reluctance to take a strong moral stance to a variety of phenomena the experienced growing up: the breakdown of families (they are children of peak divorce rates in the early 1980s), the trauma of 9-11, the priest sexual abuse scandal, and the era of mass shootings. Pope Francis has been well received by millennials because he sees the brokenness of the world and urges us to respond with mercy. According to Tenety, ¨The church can move forward when it learns from the life experience of Millennials instead of blaming them for not living up to some pristine ideal. They inherited a broken world, and they´ve learned to deal with complexities with compassion. For this generation, nonjudgmental solidarity is a way of life¨ (118).
Building on this issue of millennials in the Church, another great essay in this section tackles one of the most contentious issues: the pro-life causet. Many authors in this volume suggest that polarization in the Church will be transcended when we see parish respect life committees and social justice committees frequented by the same people, when concern for the undocumented meets concern for the unborn. In ¨Polarization and Abortion: Living Out Our Pro-Life Beliefs,¨ Erin Stoyell-Mulholland argues that the pro-life cause must be pursued not with judgment, anger and fear, but with mercy and kindness. ¨When speaking out against abortion turns into an ´us versus them´ mentality, you lose the interest of young people…But when we talk about supporting and loving a pregnant woman and her child, young people want to get involved. When the message is a message of love, not a message of judgment, people are drawn to the pro-life movement¨(124).
On the whole, this is a very insightful and hopeful volume, truly relevant to the concerns facing the Church today. It calls us to remember that our similarities are greater than our differences, that as Catholics we truly are a big-tent organization in which, as James Joyce put it, ¨Here comes everybody.¨ I commend the conference organizers for starting this dialogue, and as a reader, I hope to see it continue.
If this work is to be taken further – and I hope it will be – I could see it going in two directions. For me, as comprehensive and thought-provoking as this volume is, it still seems to be a book by and for elites – nearly all the contributors are high-profile clergy, priests or journalists. I would love to hear some voices from the pews – voices of parish trustees, for example, or church musicians, or parishioners who devote their time to serving on parish councils and leading committees. Moreover, I would like more exploration as to ways in which the Catholic Church can respond not only to the polarization within its own membership, but in the wider world. I would truly appreciate a follow-up volume on such issues as interfaith dialogue, or the Church´s response to a greater ¨culture war¨ that seems to be developing between religiosity as a whole and secularism.
As an older millennial, I found the discussion about those Catholics in my age group to be quite accurate. I have often felt discouraged when faced with the absence of Catholics in my age group, but the discussions in this book give me hope that the Church does have a future renewal ahead. Meanwhile, as the political polarization in the US continues to divide so many, I take comfort in these words by David P. Gushee, a scholar who was raised Catholic, became a Southern Baptist, and then eventually found his way back to Catholicism:
Scanning the entire Christian landscape, I find in the Roman Catholic Church one of my only sources of hope. Catholicism has a long historical memory, so it knows better than to identify current circumstances with eternal truth. It is international, so it has resources for getting beyond parochially American categories and patterns. It has resources in Catholic theology and ethics that challenge simple left/right binaries. And it appears impervious to a full-blown institutional left/right split as might happen with a Protestant congregation or denomination. This means that those American Catholics leaning left, leaning right, and leaning center must continue to relate to each other, as sisters and brothers in Christ, like it or not. As they do, they have the broader resources of the Catholic tradition available to point them to a path of Christian integrity and unity (87).
Yesterday, in fear and trembling, I released a podcast telling Catholics how to vote.
You can listen to it here:
Vox Nova is pleased to welcome a guest contribution from Marcus Gaddy.
I will be moderating the comments—DCU.
I’m a convert to Catholicism, only received in 2015, after growing up in the historically Black church. That heritage taught me early on that Black spirituality emphasizes Christ as liberator, both from sin and from those who sin against us. That freedom is not just spiritual and it is not just for us–it is at once personal and social. It is a freedom that is present here and now in the depths of hardship and it is a freedom that promises to carry us home to our God. That is something I see present in Catholic teaching, in the sacraments, and in the Mass; it is woven into our faith and how that faith should have us engage with the world. But our witness to that freedom is threatened far less by outside forces than it is by our own actions and inactions, and I grow increasingly impatient with the reluctance to affirm the dignity of Black people in the United States.
I became acutely aware of this after no charges were filed in the State killings of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice, when friends of mine posted pictures that proclaimed: “You deserve to parent your child without fear that he or she will be hurt or killed.” This was followed by: “Freedom from violence is reproductive justice.” I searched for a pro-life response, a message that these Black children were valuable, only to find that it seemed none of the usual suspects noticed or very much cared. The mantle of proclaiming the dignity of Black children was being claimed by the same actors who deny them that same dignity in the womb. This chance to show life as a seamless garment ended up showing that its greatest promoters were naked. Read more…
When my Mom died a couple years ago, as we were sorting out her stuff to give to charity, I went through her boxes of books and pulled out some for my own library. My mother was a great reader, and she helped nourish my own love of books. We never read many of the same things: she was a big fan of mysteries and (later in life) romance novels, and I am pretty much a fantasy and science fiction reader when I am not plowing through some weightier tome on philosophy or theology. But I did grab some of her mysteries that she had shared with me. I got a complete set of Harry Kemelman‘s Rabbi mysteries. They are great stories and I learned a lot of things about American Judaism from them. (I would not call him definitive, but especially in his earlier books he captures a lot of nuance about conservative Judaism.)
I also picked up a few of the Reverend Randollph mysteries by Charles Merrill Smith. Smith was a Methodist minister and later bishop, and his satirical critique of mainline Protestantism, How to Become a Bishop without being Religious is quite funny in parts. The Reverend Randollph mysteries are about a minister in an unidentified Protestant denomination (though I suspect from some details it is intended to be Methodist), a former pro football quarterback and professor of church history at a seminary. He is recruited to run a socially prominent congregation in Chicago by his bishop. The stories are interesting, though all in all I do not think they are as good as the Rabbi novels. But worth a read, I think.
However, as I started re-reading them recently I was somewhat taken aback by a passage that was rather surprising in its anti-Catholicism. The setting is the funeral of the murder victim, and while leading the service he notes that the police detective in charge of the investigation is in the back. This leads to the following internal monologue:
And Lieutenant Michael Casey, barely noticeable in a shadowed corner, here not as a mourner but as an observant bloodhound, did he believe in God? Was it a conventional Catholic God who granted special favors to Catholics, especially Catholics who were faithful at mass and confession and refrained from practicing artificial birth control? No. Casey would be more likely to reflect Teilhard de Chardin or Maritain or Hans Kung or even Paul Tillich on God, Randollph guessed. Casey was a college man, as he had so carefully informed Randollph. He might go through the prescribed Catholic motions out of habit or to please aged and devout Irish parents or prompted by his knowledge of Chicago police politics (a good word from his pastor dropped in the right place could make all the difference in a policeman’s career). But Casey wouldn’t be taken in by the hocus pocus. Case would know that you can’t tickle God’s fancy by devout posturing or wheedle His cooperation with candles and novenas. Casey was sharp.
Now to be fair, the author also has a low opinion of traditional Protestant piety: the hero and the various Protestant divines who appear favorably in the story are all much too sophisticated for that sort of thing and they readily voice their (i.e., the author’s) opinions on the subject. But this passage really stood out to me for the rather casual way it repeated one of the classic anti-Catholic tropes of post-Enlightenment Protestantism: that Catholics are trapped by superstitious mummery and that they lacked the knowledge and education to realize this. The novel was written in 1974, well past Vatican II, but it clearly reflects a pre-Vatican II Protestant sensibility in its contempt for Catholicism.
I do not mean to cast any particular opprobrium on the author: originally, I only wanted to share it as a relic of a different age. But as I was trying to wrap up this post, I realized that it was also a useful reminder to us that this sort of thing was considered quite acceptable not that long ago. Anti-Catholicism has changed in America, but it has not gone away. There are probably lots of liberal Protestants today who do not like Catholics, but the reasons behind their dislike have changed considerably, and are more in tune with the secular left/liberal critiques of Catholicism. But I think it would be worth examining the evolution of anti-Catholicism since the 1950s to see in what ways historic Protestant fears have been incorporated into the secular rhetoric. La plus ca change….I don’t have any particular thoughts at the moment, but would be happy to bat this idea around in the comments.
As I sat down to watch Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, knowing that much has already been made of both candidates’ self-professed Christian faith, what I dreaded most was the possibility of the name of Jesus Christ being taken up as a political weapon on both sides. In fact, they almost made it through the debate without doing so – until moderator Elaine Quijano raised a question about how they balance their faith with public policy. We can’t know for sure whether the question was intended as a veiled reference to life issues, but the candidates appeared to interpret it as such, unquestioningly accepting (and further perpetuating) the problematic stereotype that the only grounds for respecting life are religious ones.
At mass this morning, one of our deacons preached. In the middle of a somewhat disjointed sermon, following a thinly veiled attack on the Democrats (he named no names but castigated one party platform for violating the fifth and sixth commandments and for advancing the “transgender agenda”) he asked the question: are things worse now than they were 2000 years ago? He immediately answered his own question: absolutely, yes. He gave no explanation and moved on to some other point.
I was more than a bit dumbfounded by the question and answer. Discussing it with my son Francisco (a classics major) on the drive home, we quickly listed a number of things that were both legal and commonplace in the Roman world 2000 years ago that rival or surpass the evils of today: infanticide, slavery, torture. By what moral calculus could our present day (even if you think we are “Slouching towards Gomorrah“) be considered worse than the early Roman empire?
This led to a broader question: is there a calculus for comparing evils, in general? How does one decide if one thing or period of time is “more evil” than another? We can say some things: the abolition of slavery made America better; the legalization of abortion or the untrammeled us of torture during the Iraq War made it worse. Catholic moral theology has some specific categories that can help: is it an intrinsic evil? Is it a grave matter? On the other hand, the recent abuse of the category “intrinsic evil” in American political discourse shows that there are limits. Beyond a certain point, however, my feeling is that evils become either incommensurable or so grave that attempts to rank them become pointless. The second category includes attempts to decide whether Hitler or Stalin (and perhaps Mao and Pol Pot) was the most evil. Simply counting up the bodies quickly yields numbers that are so vast that they have no real meaning any more. In the end, I resort to an old cliche I first read in the novel Seven Days in May: if you put both of them in a barrel and roll it down hill, there will always be an evil bastard on top.
I place any attempt to compare Rome and America in the first category: there were evils in ancient Rome, and there are evils in modern America, but at the end of the day I am not sure if they are comparable: the contexts in which these evils occurred were so different, that I feel we need to be very cautious in weighing one against the other. It seems more productive to simply note the presence (or absence) of various evils without comparison If you disagree, I would be interested in hearing how you would frame the argument.
A more interesting question, and where I initially thought my deacon was going to go, is attempting to compare the US now with the US at some point in the past, say the “golden age” of the 1950s. Even here, given times that are only one or two generations apart, is it possible to compare them, and determine which era is worse than the other? On the one hand, there is a greater basis for comparison: we can look at specific things and see if they have gotten better or worse. The problem is that some have gotten better, and some have gotten worse and some have both gotten better and gotten worse at the same time. Which measures do you privilege, and which do you ignore? Race and racism? Class and economic inequality? Gay rights? The environment? Again, if you think you can construct an argument for saying which is better and which is worse, I would be interested in hearing it.
Hi Vox Nova friends!
I’m happy to announce that I now have a podcast with my friend and colleague Eric Gurash. Eric and I work together for the Archdiocese of Regina. One of the reasons I am not able to post here as often as I’d like is that my job takes a lot of the same time and energy that blogging takes.
This podcast is something I get to do at work that might also be of interest to those who follow me here. It is also a warning to those generous few who have said “I could listen to you for hours!” Be careful what you wish for! The first two episodes are currently available with more to follow weekly.