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

Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal April 23, 2015

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

Sean Cardinal O’Malley calls polarization “a cancer on the church.” How is the current degree of polarization within American Catholicism working for you?

Well, it is not working for me. In fact, I find it quite disheartening. Yet I have often felt alone in my desolation. The good news is that those of us who feel wounded and broken by polarization are not alone.

A number of American Catholics deeply concerned about polarization will gather in South Bend in a few days and, as you will note below, we have devised a way for the Vox Nova community to tap into this gathering.

On April 27th and 28th, the University of Notre Dame is sponsoring a conference entitled Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal. Please check out this link: http://csrs.nd.edu/events/polarization/ The rationale the organizers offer for this conference includes the following comments:

“Rather than the healthy debates characteristic of a living tradition, we have witnessed in our public politics—and often, also in the local contexts of everyday lives—an absence of genuine engagement and dialogue. Catholics of good will are alienated from one another. This is a disturbingly apt metaphor applied to the Church as the body of Christ.”

“The premise behind this conference is that, although particular “hot button” issues, including those surrounding issues of gender, sexuality, and authority, have divided American Catholics, there is much that yet binds us together as both Catholics and citizens. In fact, despite the magnified influence those at the poles can exert, sociological studies of polarization suggest that only 20% or less of the population occupy truly polar positions on these contested issues. Our goal, then, is to better understand the social and religious underpinnings of our divisions, to explore how our common beliefs and aspirations can help us heal some of the hurts that the divisions have caused, as well as how open dialogue with those with differing views of issues that have proved contentious might challenge us to revise and incorporate new understandings of them that might help bring healing and hope—unity in our diversity.”

And now for Vox Nova participation!

First, please plan to watch to the conference’s plenary addresses on Monday, April 27th from 4:30 pm to 6:15 pm, Eastern time. This event will be live streamed at csrs.nd.edu/events/polarization/ on that date and at that time. 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.

Secondly, please plan to share your thoughts after listening to the plenary speakers. Our blog conversation will take place in the comment boxes of a new post which will go online Monday when the convocation begins. I will be attending the conference and sharing my observations on Vox Nova at the same time that you are doing so. In this Monday evening posting I will be asking you to comment on the five panelists’ presentations in light of your lived experiences as an American Catholic. I will want to know whether any of the panelists particularly spoke to your heart, and if so how so.

In preparation for our conversation on Monday, here are some questions to ponder:

…What is your read on the challenge polarization represents to American Catholicism? Given a range of 10 (high/severe threat) to 1 (low/no big thing), how would you rate this as a challenge to the tradition?

…Have you felt wounded by interactions with other Catholics who seemed to disparage your deepest and most cherished beliefs and convictions?

…Do you ever find yourself wounding other Catholics by disparaging their deepest and most cherished beliefs and convictions which seem remote from your own?

…How can we begin to heal the wounds and change the tone?

…Quite apart from agreeing or disagreeing among ourselves, do Catholics of various cultural, theological and ideological persuasions fundamentally understand one another?

…Is there a ‘center’ in American Catholicism? If so, can it hold?

We know that there are occasional and even regular Vox Nova readers who rarely or never comment. Please plan to participate in this forum. All voices but particularly new voices are most welcome!

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  • DanC

    I always wonder why people worry about disagreement among Catholics. Calls for unity are misplaced.

    It’s good to have differences. Diversity makes us stronger. Why should we all value the same things, down to small details?

    “What is your read on the challenge polarization represents to American Catholicism? Given a range of 10 (high/severe threat) to 1 (low/no big thing), how would you rate this as a challenge to the tradition?”

    Challenge to American Catholicism: 1. Challenge “to the tradition”: 4. I guess it depends what you mean by tradition, but I think tradition is vastly overrated. American Jews are fond of calling Judaism a tradition. I don’t want Catholicism to be a tradition. I want it to be a religion.

    • Julia Smucker

      What indeed IS the relation between unity and diversity? That is a question worth exploring, as is the distinction between diversity and polarization. The former are not necessarily opposed, and the latter are not necessarily equivalent.

      • It is arguable that Catholicism became an ideologically totalitarian system, in which a diversity of opinions and of devotional practices were basically outlawed only in the “Early Modern” age, and as a result of the loss of power of the medieval Church. This trend toward ideological totalitarianism was solidified at Trent, some Church historians have insisted, and it persists to the modern day. Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena definitely did not have to put up with a totalitarian ecclesia, but Teresa of Avila and Dorothy Day did.The rigidity of the Counter-Reformation Church and the what even John Henry Newman considered to be the over-reaching of the First Vatican Council have made what you call “polarization” inevitable, in an age with such a skeptical attitude to authority as ours. In other words, the Church has hoisted itself on its own petard, by ENCOURAGING polarization, by persecuting her original thinkers.

        • Mark VA

          Dismas – always an acquired pleasure – let me trotter thy train of thought for a spin:

          “If Trent and the First Vatican Council are responsible for the “ideological totalitarianism” and the resulting “inevitable” polarization, then the thing to do is to excommunicate all those recalcitrant traditionalists who refuse to repudiate these councils (once they fail their remedial education – need to be pastoral, of course). Now, once these bitter, un-reformable elements are purged, the polarization will go with them, and only the “original thinkers” and their followers will be left – a happy family again!”


          P.S. Got some music to go with “The Glorious Purge”:

      • Ronald King

        I see your point in that there can be unity within diversity. It seems to me that diversity is critical for healthy theological, spiritual and psychological development within the church community. If fear is an underlying influence in our most intimate relationships then there is the danger of hostility and contempt becoming the foundation of expressing opposing beliefs. The problem as I see it begins with exploring each person’s core beliefs about God, self and others because these core beliefs are major ingredients in the construction of our human identities. When we question another person’s core belief that is experienced as an attack against that person and is met with a response of hostility. I have experienced that many times here and elsewhere.

      • MarkVA, your cult of “victimhood” is NOT an “acquired pleasure,” believe me. Also, I think that the “liberals” in the Catholic hierarchy are MUCH more tolerant of a diversity of opinions than are you so-called “traditionalists” (who, I believe, as you know, actually aren’t “traditional” at all) , when you have the helm. Can you imagine what kind of anathemas would have been called down on the heads of “liberals” by supposedly “conservative” hierarchs and pontiffs had they been trying so hard to undermine a papacy as the owners of these websites are doing?



        Call to mind what Ratzinger did to Charlie Curran, with numerous phone calls to Catholic University, when that Cardinal-Archbishop should have been paying more heed to rooting out the pedophiles in his archdiocese (and later insisting that he didn’t “micromanage,” but certainly HAD done, with all those phone calls to Catholic University, to secure Curran’s sacking). Call to mind John Paul II’s overheated persecution of Father Arrupe and the whole Jesuit order, for “deviationism.”

        • Mark VA


          Let’s reconcile – I admit, I ain’t perfect. How about Progressives and Traditionalists Together – ProTrads!

          So, here is my peace offering:

          P.S. I actually really like this piece music – good source for variations.

      • I’ll “reconcile” with you, MarkVA, if you’ll promise to obtain and read a copy of John Henry Newman’s The Development of Doctrine and then write on here what you think are the implications for your version of “traditionalism” of Newman’s statement that “to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

  • Andrew

    Does anyone happen to know if a replay of the session will be available afterwards? I would like to participate but I will be at work when the speakers are talking as I am in Pacific Time.

  • Mike McG…

    Andrew: I believe that a replay will be eventually but not immediately available. As soon as I find out that it is available, I’ll post this information on Vox Nova. Thanks for your interest.

    Dismas: Your reading sounds somewhat Manichean to me. The proponents on all sides of contested issues necessarily privilege their truth claims, no? But let’s stipulate that you are correct about how we got in this mess. Where do we go from here? Apropos of Ronald’s point, what do we do with the disdain advocates for each point of view display for those of contrasting views? For example, how do you regard those who disagree with you on the issues most compelling to you?

    Julia: It seems to me that we need to remain as loose and flexible as we can be regarding the lines between unity and diversity. And yet I can’t seem to shake the thought that our tradition or any other has boundaries that are infinitely permeable. Some beliefs are beyond the pale. ‘Vegetarians for Meat Consumption’ and ‘Pacifists for Capital Punishment’ would never be taken seriously. What threads of our tradition are so central as to virtually compel unity and which other threads can accommodate diversity? I simply don’t know, and I suspect it would be difficult to achieve consensus.

    The boundaries now being imposed in San Francisco seem to privilege sexual conduct above all else. But even those most critical of such morals clauses would likely balk at tolerance of diversity on some other issues. Imagine a diocesan spokesman with an off-the-clock volunteer role as the local spokesperson for the NRA or as a prominent leader of a group advocating for rounding up and departing all undocumented immigrants. I would be ‘intolerant’ of such involvement.