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OPEN THREAD…Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal

April 27, 2015

Vox Nova is pleased to welcome the following guest post by reader Mike McG…

At 4:30 Eastern today, April 27th, Notre Dame is opening a conference entitled Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal. A full explanation is available at http://csrs.nd.edu/events/polarization/ Also, the conference has a Twitter feed:  #UnaEcclesia.

This thread serves as a forum for Vox Nova readers to watch the plenary presentations by live stream, and to comment on these plenary speeches given.

Please plan to watch to the conference’s plenary addresses live streamed at csrs.nd.edu/events/polarization/ on April 27th at 4:30 Eastern. Five very impressive plenary panelists will address the conference: Brownsville Bishop Daniel Flores; Notre Dame President John Jenkins, CSC; St. Louis University Professor of Christian Ethics Julie Hanlon Rubio; Notre Dame Professor of Sociology Christian Smith; and National Catholic Reporter Columnist Michael Sean Winters.

Then please plan to share your thoughts after listening to the plenary speakers. This blog conversation will take place in the comment boxes below. As a conference delegate I will be sharing my observations via this thread at the same time that you are doing so. I am sure I will ask you to comment on the five panelists’ presentations in light of your personal lived experiences as American Catholics. I will be eager to learn whether any of the panelists particularly spoke to your heart, and if so how so.

Please participate in this forum. All Vox Nova readers are encouraged to comment. A special invitation is extended to those occasional and even regular Vox Nova readers who rarely or never comment. Let’s all weigh in on the topic of American Catholic polarization.

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24 Comments
  1. April 27, 2015 5:27 pm

    I tuned into this panel and enjoyed it very much. If anyone missed it and would like to see it, it should still be available on the website.

  2. Mike McG... permalink
    April 27, 2015 5:27 pm

    So…anyone out there watch the five presentations and the Q and A? I am eager to read your impressions. The buzz here in South Bend is positive. Lot’s of conversations are swirling around me. I intend to plunge into these conversations and post after dinner, Meanwhile, please share your impressions.

  3. Julia Smucker permalink*
    April 27, 2015 5:34 pm

    I was just able to catch the tail end of the panel discussion, but I literally applauded Winters’ comment (I assume that’s who it was since he mentioned NCR) on caring about the “uns” (in context, presumably referring to the unborn and the undocumented, among others), making the point that we have to recognize we’re on the same team because the Christian thing is to care about everyone who is made an “un” by society.

  4. Mark VA permalink
    April 27, 2015 6:15 pm

    The comments of Bishop Flores were very memorable for me, especially his description of a “young man who is trying to work and feed his family”, and of the children putting on religious plays.

    As a frequent visitor to the Rio Grande Valley (The Valley) for the past several decades, I know and love its unique culture – I feel at home there, even though I don’t speak Spanish (hope to remedy this in the future).

    My reading “between the lines” of the Bishop’s comments, is that there is a cultural disconnect on this panel: most of the concerns are “high culture Anglo”, whereas the reality on the ground is more immediate, existential, visceral, and devotional. Every fiber of my body and mind feels drawn to the latter, because it is life – if you only knew The Valley!

    P.S. This is a Valley original, worth every penny:
    http://elpatomexicanfood.com/

  5. April 28, 2015 8:00 am

    I applaud Julie Rubio for speaking frankly and directly about one of the divisive issues in the Church, particularly among the young: those related to sex and gender (the child abuse scandals, the all-male leadership of the church, the rules on sex and marriage, etc.) She made a pointed comment: “When it comes to sex and gender, people feel judged, excluded and alienated no matter what side they are on.” I think she’s right about this, and I’d like to raise the question of why we’ve gotten this way. As Anglican writer Francis Spufford mentions in his recent book “Unapologetic” (a great book that I plan to write about on VN one of these days), Jesus really does not talk about sex or gender-related issues much at all in the Gospels. So, why do we as Catholics place so much emphasis on them and let them become so central? Julie did not answer this question directly, but she did suggest that these might not be the most pressing issues for non-white, non-middle class Catholics, who find other issues like immigration, racism and incarceration to be more urgent. Anyway, I am curious to hear what other people thought of Julie’s talk and how they interpret her words.

  6. April 28, 2015 8:05 am

    I also appreciated Fr. Jenkins’s comments on the effects of vitriolic, polarizing language. This kind of language is ubiquitous throughout our communications, especially online. He makes an important point when he says, ““No clear-thinking politician thinks he will change the mind of someone he calls depraved… Polarizing language is meant to bind together the like-minded in a common antipathy. It signals a threat that must be defeated. Catholic America mimics the practices of our political life.” This is a problem that we are all susceptible to, and it also seems like one that should not be difficult to alter by paying more attention to the tone – not just the content – of our discourse. I especially like his final comment, which suggests that we think not just of the next election cycle, but the entire cycle of salvation history: “We must be engaged in the world, but I recommend we engage in an examination of conscience regarding our rhetoric and whether it serves our unity in Christ, who is the only King.”

  7. April 28, 2015 8:14 am

    Sociologist Christian Smith’s comments, though accurate, were more than a little discouraging to me. He researches millennial young Catholics, and his findings cast us as a rather sorry lot – excepting a small minority of committed “JPII Catholics,” he has found us to be disengaged, indifferent to the problems in the Church, and possessive of a view that religion is a private matter only. I know he has done his research, and unfortunately, his findings square up with my own experience (at least half of the people I know who identified as Catholic in high school no longer do). This is a very concerning phenomenon, but what bothers me is that while Smith does a good job of outlining the situation, he does not appear to offer any solutions. How can we in the Church reach out to younger generations and help them to make a home within our communion of saints? Mike, I’d be grateful if you could report on any answers you might hear to this question while at the conference. Thanks!

    • Andrew permalink
      April 29, 2015 12:20 pm

      I had a slightly different take on Smith’s comments. It seemed to me as if he was describing the faith experience of millennial Catholics as merely different — not better or worse than the experience of those in his own generation, just different. He seemed to be careful to frame his description of millennials not in pejorative terms (such as “a rather sorry lot”), but merely as something outside of the expectations of those in his own generation.

      I’m a GenX’er, and my generational bias is such that, while I don’t think that the disengagement of millennials is something to be necessarily lauded, I am likewise suspicious of what we tend to call the Baby Boomer Narcissism — the unquestioning assumption on the part of some Baby Boomers that what matters to them should matter to everybody, and that they are engaging in some all-important crusade to change the world. I think this attitude plays some part to feed the fires of polarization in our Church, and so I would almost suggest that the problem of polarization doesn’t come from millennials not caring enough — it comes from the rest of us caring too much and for the wrong reasons. To put a positive spin on Smith’s comments, one might suggest that a slightly more mature form of the disengagement millennials exhibit may in the future be a helpful corrective to some of the polarization we currently see.

      • April 29, 2015 1:31 pm

        That’s a hopeful point, Andrew. I’m just worried that some of the millennial disengagement that Smith is talking about goes so far as to isolate people from the Church to such a degree that they may identify with it but don’t really participate or practice.

      • Mark VA permalink
        April 29, 2015 5:25 pm

        Andrew, I applaud your comment!

        In this vein:

        A year or so ago, I was listening to a radio discussion about the “Millenials” by several well mannered middle aged panelists. Predictably, they focused on the Millenials’ alleged cultural distance from the “Leave it to Beaver” America (which period was then ritually satirized), and on their love of technology, mostly Apple products.

        However, after opening the telephone lines, the first Millenial to call said she had no money for any of these products, and while pursuing a degree, has acquired a valuable skill: she learned how to fix her bicycle! This skill was very important to her, since it saves money which otherwise would be spent on public transportation.

        This was too much “out of the script” for the panel – next call, please!

  8. Agellius permalink
    April 28, 2015 3:37 pm

    Jeanine writes, “Jesus really does not talk about sex or gender-related issues much at all in the Gospels. So, why do we as Catholics place so much emphasis on them and let them become so central?”

    I don’t think they’re central, but they’re important because sexual relations constitute grave matter, and therefore sexual sins are mortal sins. It’s vitally important to warn people of the gravity of any sin that’s a mortal sin (I realize that’s redundant) for the sake of their souls.

    Your question may actually be, why do sexual activities constitute grave matter? I don’t know that I can give the best answer to that question, but in any event the Church has always seen them that way, from St. Paul to the present day.

    The question of why Jesus doesn’t emphasize sexual matters in the Gospels, may have the same answer as the question of why Church councils don’t place equal emphasis on all Church teachings: Councils, as well as pastoral letters and encyclicals, tend to address issues that are under dispute or which are causing widespread problems or confusion. I would suggest that there was not a lot of confusion about sexual issues in the time and place in which Jesus was preaching, as evidenced by the attempted stoning of the woman caught in adultery. It was not a point that happened to need emphasis.

    If such matters receive more emphasis later on, in Paul’s letters to the various churches in pagan territory, again this is probably because there was more confusion (and bad habits) in those places with regard to sexual matters, than there was in Jewish Palestine.

  9. April 28, 2015 5:05 pm

    Several remarks jumped out at me to the point that I took notes. But the most significant came near the end when Bishop Flores made the comment (I’m paraphrasing)…‘The poor have a lot to say without an office (i.e. authority), without a degree, without too much concern about the power structure and five story offices.’ I’m grateful for the remark and appreciate that he was the one who made it…for he is the one with office, degrees, and power. That is a kenosis of sorts on his part and is the true recipe for unity and progress.

    His project of calling together the various groups with causes (i.e. pro-life and pro-immigration) is also inspirational. In effect he was pointing out that the Church has an overall witness and mission that cannot be reduced to participation in selective ’causes’.

  10. Andrew permalink
    April 29, 2015 12:41 pm

    Jeannine, I meant also to reply to your question about how to reach out to younger generations in general. I looked up Christian Smith and found that he was partly responsible for coining the term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, describing an image of a remote God who just wants everyone to be happy and feel good about themselves. Smith ascribes this attitude as common amongst young people.

    I believe that discussions about faith need to meet people where they are, and so in that spirit I am wondering if it would be fruitful to reach out to millennials starting from the standpoint of MTD and discussing where one goes from there to a more Catholic understanding of faith. I feel that this is possible because I see MTD as not so much wrong (the idea of a loving God who wants everyone to experience joy is a correct one) as incomplete — it doesn’t go deep enough into what that means. It is possible that one avenue to reach out to millennials is to consider seriously the common ground between our faith and the MTD attitude and to work from there.

  11. Mike McG... permalink
    April 29, 2015 1:03 pm

    Sorry for my delay in commenting on Monday’s powerful addresses. If you didn’t have a chance to watch the live streaming, you can see them now on YouTube at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rC1PxAdbFUc. None of the five speakers were talking off the top of their heads. All had clearly labored over their remarks. Below, in distinct comboxes, I’ll post my comments. Please respond with your impressions.

  12. Mike McG... permalink
    April 29, 2015 1:04 pm

    Brownsville Bishop Flores is brilliant. I appreciated his very scholarly comments but even more his pastoral comments. He interpreted polarization in light of the ‘family language’ woven into both scripture and the tradition and called for a renewal of the primacy of our stable relationship recognizing God as author. Paraphrasing from my notes, he believes that our wounds come from our loss of confidence in our relationship to the Father, our doubts about the love of the Father. He counseled that if we believe our Father loves us, conversations among us are less likely to be cantankerous.

    Building on the family analogy, Bishop Flores laments the loss of affection among us that occurs when ‘labels’ exempt us from entering into relationships. Instead of identifying ‘what’ people are relative to me…left, right, radical, traditional…we should focus on ‘who’ they are to me…sister, brother, father, mother. He invites us to ask for the grace to see people and things differently. Good stuff.

    • Andrew permalink
      April 30, 2015 12:12 am

      I took Bishop Flores’ comments to mean that the healthiest of debates occur IN THE CONTEXT of our relationships, and are never meant to hinder or prevent them.

      I have a good friend at work who happens to be an atheist, and we have had many discussions about religion and faith over the last few years. Although our discussions are at times vigorous, they have never descended into rancor. I think very much that this is due to the fact that we are friends first, before anything else. Arguing over religion is part of the function of our friendship, and she is never the “representative of the other side”, whom I must defeat personally as some avatar of the position she espouses. Recently, she paid me the best compliment that I think she could have when she told another co-worker that, although she agreed with very little of what I said, she found that I explained things in such a way that it was easy for her to understand how a reasonable person might think as I do. Our conversations have been so fruitful precisely because we consider the “who” before the “what.”

  13. Mike McG... permalink
    April 29, 2015 1:04 pm

    Notre Dame President Father Jenkins has been through the wringer. As president of perhaps the most visible Catholic university, he is the lightning rod for the discontented of every stripe. Think what it was like to be in his shoes during the controversy about President Obama’s 2009 address at Notre Dame. He started off by saying that as university president, “I get letters!” He pointed out that often the most personal and vitriolic attacks have come from devout Catholics and he located this phenomenon within the context of the broader society. Catholic America is mimicking political America. Harsh language is used to galvanize the like-minded and to vanquish real or perceived threats.

    When aligned too closely with political movements, Father Jenkins argues, the Catholic Church loses in the long run. Political rhetoric poisonous to the Church…driving away many, attracting few. I couldn’t agree more. His remedy: we need to examine our conscience regarding our rhetoric. Yes.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      April 30, 2015 7:16 pm

      “Catholic America is mimicking political America.”

      This is exactly the problem that has grieved me for as long as I’ve been in the Catholic Church.

      If I may be forgiven for quoting from the Solidarity Hall book I recently plugged on here, I was just reading Thomas Storck’s essay in it which is apropos of this point. Here’s his diagnosis of the problem:

      “The degree to which American culture was alien to Catholic ways of thinking and living was rarely faced in the triumphal march of American Catholics toward full acceptance by their fellow countrymen. Those who had originally raised uncomfortable questions, mostly German-American Catholics, were ignored and marginalized and ultimately forgotten by Catholics bent upon full acceptance as true Americans, regardless of the cost.”

      And his prescription (or the introduction of it):

      “The fundamental issue that American Catholics face today is to disengage themselves from their identification as either conservatives or liberals, and try to forge a cultural identity based on Catholic faith and tradition.”

      His diagnosis strikes a particular chord with me, as it describes a certain upwardly mobile Catholic impulse (broadly and collectively speaking) that I, coming in with drastically different instincts in my ecclesial DNA, have often struggled to comprehend.

  14. Mike McG... permalink
    April 29, 2015 1:05 pm

    St. Louis University Professor Rubio reminded us that avoiding discussion of hot button issues doesn’t resolve them and isn’t possible anyway. Consistent with the conference’s title, she declared that we must identify particular wounds in order to move toward healing. She proceeded to name wounds associated with sex, gender and the abuse schedule. She also cautioned us to recognize that polarization plays out differently among African American and Latino/a Catholics. She held out great hope for the Synod of the Family, reminding us that the Church needs to be merciful. She read a really great quote encouraging dialogue from Francis’ Evangelii Guadium. I wish I could have written it down.

    The best part of this fine presentation was Professor Rubio’s suggestions for handling the controversies that divide us. One was to recognize that there is pain on both/all sides these controversies. She was able to point to the pain of the proponent of a change not yet enacted as well as the pain of an opponent at risk of being labeled intolerant for not embracing that same change. She also urged “bracketing” certain topics where, at present, we are unable to achieve accord, in favor of topics where movement is possible. So, for example, both proponents and opponents of women’s ordination would not in any way cede their convictions but would ‘bracket’ this topic to focus on discipleship and seek greater space for women’s leadership in the Church. Good counsel.

  15. Mike McG... permalink
    April 29, 2015 1:05 pm

    Notre Dame Professor Smith began by ‘establishing the phenomenon,’ simply putting some sociological facts out there prior to any attempt at analysis or response. He reminded us that concerns about polarization are not evenly distributed among all age cohorts and that many Catholics do not share the concerns that brought us to a conference about polarization. The Millennials (those in their 20s and early 30s) are in a very different place, for example. The vast majority of them really don’t care about religion; they are neither hostile nor antagonistic. What really matters to them? The personal, the private, and the local…not the institutional. Consequently they are uninterested in the culture wars and often they don’t even understand the issues at play. He believes this disconnect and indifference explains the Catholic attrition rate he estimates to be about 50% from childhood to young adulthood. On the other hand, he did acknowledge the small but committed minority of young Catholics who are perhaps just as polarized as their elders.

  16. Mike McG... permalink
    April 29, 2015 1:06 pm

    National Catholic Reporter Columnist Winters was the most provocative and entertaining of the speakers. He employed a metaphor I had never heard: We are born with different hearts. We need to find out what hearts we weren’t born with and forge friendships with those of other hearts. You would expect a ‘gentle touch’ at a conference on polarization. Indeed, that was the approach of other speakers. But Mr. Winters was refreshingly contrarian. He provided evidence from American Catholic history that polarization is nothing new. While he registered his preference for avoiding arguments that focus on personality, it was clear that he wasn’t adverse in throwing a sharp elbow from time to time. But he says that when it gets personal, the two disputants should meet for coffee. He cited personal examples of friendships forged from such disputes. He offered two ground rules for conversation: first, each must be a Catholic first, not an ideologue; second, each must be willing to call out his/her own team. (Personal aside: I couldn’t agree more. Incivility multiplies when I call ‘them’ out for shrill discourse but give ‘us’ a pass.)

  17. Mike McG... permalink
    April 29, 2015 1:07 pm

    The questions from those in attendance and those participating electronically were great. Those involving the Internet were of interest to me. Winters opined that anonymity is a particularly damaging feature of much internet discourse and that online communications offers a particularly thin sense of solidarity. It’s not a community building tool; real community must be thicker and deeper. Bishop Flores was asked for guidance on the way out of polarization. He told us that standing with the undocumented, the unborn and the dying would invite us to cross boundaries.

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