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

CONCLUDING COMMENTS….Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal April 30, 2015

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

Fifty American Catholics gathered in South Bend earlier this week to discuss Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal. In an April 23rd post, this topic was introduced to Vox Nova readers and on April 27th, Vox Nova served as a portal for discussion of the opening addresses. Each of these posts generated comments well worth reading. The opening addresses are available for view at

This final post recaps the exchanges among participants following the opening addresses and doesn’t begin to do justice to the depth of these conversations. These structured exchanges were closed to public so that participants would feel safe in speaking candidly. Full disclosure: The comments below reflect my distillation of others’ views and are thus subject to confirmation bias, our pervasive tendency to search for and evaluate information in ways that favor our initial beliefs.

I learned that while many parishes are rent by culture war-like discord, many more are not. Yes, we are sorting ourselves ideologically, with the geographical parish in decline and lifestyle enclave parishes on the upswing. This trend is both divisive in that it increases polarization and empowering in that it creates ownership and identity for groups otherwise excluded. Case in point: LGBT Catholics. How can we welcome them, deeply listen to their stories, acknowledge their pain, and facilitate healing? Similar questions were asked regarding racial and ethnic minorities, women, poor, abuse victims, the divorced…and, yes, traditional Catholics who can and do often feel equivalently excluded. Open question: Is it possible to have both unity and fragmentation at once? The jury is out. A great deal rests on the answer.

I learned about the rich variety of ways to communicate the gospel as mediated by our tradition. Engaging the intellect isn’t the only way and often not even the best way. We may also seek to foster ‘aesthetic solidarity,’ exploring what moves the human heart. Stories, music and art can help us to move beyond ourselves and enter into the experiences of the other. The Focolare approach to the Christian life was also discussed and seems to offer real promise. There was deep appreciation for the vision and energy Pope Francis brings to evangelization. There is broad, but of course not unanimous, admiration for him across the ideological spectrum.

I learned that avoidance of conflict cannot be our standard for discourse. We cannot silence others by dismissing any challenging discourse as ‘polarizing’ nor can we imagine that creating ‘kumbaya’ moments is our goal. Being ‘non-judgmental’ isn’t a cardinal virtue; sometimes truth has to be spoken to power. Tough question: What are the non-negotiables of our faith?

I learned that too many voices are muted. Who speaks and who doesn’t? Which voices are missing from the table? Too many. I picked up a very strong vibe that the Latino community, comprising a majority of Catholics in some dioceses and well on the way to becoming the majority in many more, does not have voice even remotely comparable to its size. Asian and African communities, although smaller, are increasing in size but not in comparable influence. We must beware of the ideological segregation which privileges the concerns of better educated, upscale Anglo Catholics, especially men like me.

I have barely scratched the surface. Perhaps the best way to conclude is to offer my own answers to the questions I put to Vox Nova readers in the April 23rd post:

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?

After South Bend, I’m going to say 8, one notch lower than the 9 I would have assigned before the conference. It was heartening for me to see how much we have in common despite the neuralgic and contentious issues that divide us. Yet 8 is still ‘high threat’!

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

I have. Here’s what I shared at the conference: “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. These scars have dogged me over the years. I have never shed the resentments I formed when my deepest beliefs and convictions were disparaged. And until this moment I have rarely felt safe enough to reengage publicly on contested issues.”

Do you ever find yourself wounding other Catholics by disparaging their deepest and most cherished beliefs and convictions, particularly those which are most remote from your own?

Yes I do…but, sadly, I am much more in touch with the wounds I have borne than those I have inflicted. This came up several times during the conference. Bishop Flores, in this pastoral wisdom, counseled us to regularly examine our consciences in this regard. (It is so much more comforting to examine the consciences of others, isn’t it?)

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

Besides prayer and regular examination of conscience, I endorse becoming deeply familiar with the social psychology of polarization (reading Haidt’s Righteous Mind is a superb first step), displacing condemnation with curiosity when confronted with views most discordant from our own, and developing friendships with those who inhabit very different moral matrices than we do.

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

I really don’t think we do…and not just Catholics. I have come to believe that we humans aren’t wired well for tolerance of divergent worldviews. I think our ‘go to’ frame of reference is basically tribal.

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

As to the first question, I am more sanguine post South Bend. The sociologists among us estimated that only about 20% of American Catholics inhabit the far ends of the ideological spectrum. Conference participants were drawn from the 80% and were, in addition, uniquely open to contrasting views. It felt good to be among them.

However I am not at all sure that the center can hold. The 20%, while less numerous, have a firm grip on the megaphones. Their intransigence on controversial issues and their loathing of those of the opposite tribe empower them to dominate the conversation. Yes, the 80% are more numerous but many are at the margins and want to stay there. The nuance and greater tolerance of ambiguity of the 80% may equip them to be bridge builders but they often disengage when the conversation gets contentious. Look at what has happened to our Episcopal/Anglican sisters and brothers both in the U.S. and around the world.

Please weigh in below with your comments and questions.

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  • DanC

    “Is it possible to have both unity and fragmentation at once? The jury is out. A great deal rests on the answer.” Does a great deal rest on the answer, really?

    Why can’t we continue along the way we have been doing?

    As Christian Smith noted, the younger generation sees the Church differently from how the older generation does. It’s not a matter of individuals changing their minds; change happens as old people die off and new generations come in.

    “LGBT Catholics. How can we welcome them, deeply listen to their stories, acknowledge their pain, and facilitate healing?” Here’s an example of an artificial problem that seems to exist mostly in the minds of a few worrywarts more than in reality.

    Not all LBGT people feel the need for healing or want their pain acknowledged. And if they do, is that why the Church is here? Do we “welcome” the other 97% of the population, hear their stories, acknowledge their pain? I’ve never been to a parish where I felt either welcome or unwelcome. That doesn’t even register. Most weeks I go to the same church at the same time. During the sign of the peace I shake hands with often the same people. But I don’t know their names. I don’t know whether they are gay or straight, Democrat or Republican, who their favorite football team is. We’re all anonymous, and that’s the way I like it. How we approach the liturgy and the Church isn’t as an individual; it’s as part of the anonymous tribe.

    I don’t see the point of the concerns raised in this blog entry. The Church is hardly on the verge of schism.

    • Mike McG…


      I take your point. We have different concerns and that’s OK.

      In South Bend it was crystal clear that we were in/from different places. Some of us worship in settings where polarization is extreme and highly divisive. Others clearly do not. Some of us are comfortable in settings where there is an abundance of conflict. Michael Sean Winters spoke of his willingness to jab with a sharp elbow from time to time. He certainly is on the receiving end of plenty of jabs from his readers at NCR. Others of us shut down in such settings.

      This conference was designed for people, like Sean Cardinal O’Malley, who are disturbed by the level of polarization in the church and seek a more welcoming church. I acknowledge that some Catholics don’t find polarization troublesome and indeed find a more anonymous church attractive.

      We just need to find ways to understand one another and worship together.

  • Chris

    What are the non-negotiables of our faith?

    Isn’t that the gospel? Stick to what Christ taught and we’ll be fine.

    God bless

    • Mike McG…


      The gospel, certainly. That would be the last word if we agreed in our interpretation of the gospel. Sadly we don’t.

      Baptist minister David Gushee was invited to speak to the Notre Dame conference. Forced to cancel at the last minute, he posted the address he would have presented on line at

      After exploring the depth of polarization afflicting Christians, Gushee asks: “Is there a way forward?” and proceeds to explore four resolutions. One of the four, “find a grand synthesis,” seems consistent with your advocacy of the gospel as the arbiter of non-negotiability:

      “Some of us have tried it with a holistic human dignity or sacredness of life ethic. It works well until an issue comes up where people read the demands of human dignity in very different ways.” And there’s the rub: We read the demands of the gospel in very different ways.

      Gushee concludes on a more hopeful note, one that I think will resonate with you: “Christians, at least, have resources for this approach in expansive biblical texts like Romans 14-15. There Paul reminds his squabbling readers that there is One Judge of all the earth and we are not it. Radical Christocentrism could trump moral and political polarization. Sometimes it actually does.”


      What can we do to come into greater accord on the demands of the gospel?

  • R. Garcia

    There are plenty of Latino voices across the country. The dominant, white theological community simply ignores them. Hence the scandalously homogenous group that met at Notre Dame this week. In addition to the shockingly low representation of HIspanics at the gathering, the lack of any Asian-American, African-American, and other minority Catholic representatives at this conference is inexcusable. What were the organizers thinking? There’s plenty of scholars in the Black Catholic Theological Symposium and the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the U.S. who could have been consulted. This conference is itself a cause of polarization in the church.

    • Mike McG…

      R. Garcia:

      I can’t explain the composition of the South Bend conversation since I wasn’t involved in the invitation process.

      Writing off the conference altogether because of its diversity deficiencies would serve no good purpose, in my estimation. I think that a more constructive approach would be to listen to the voices raised, however unrepresentative, and work toward initiating other conversations more diverse and inclusive. Let’s listen to more voices, not fewer.

      • Mark VA

        Mike McG:

        I don’t think this conference is being “written off” – it certainly had its highlights. I do think legitimate disappointment is being voiced that a conference on “polarization” in the Catholic Church in the USA was so mono-cultural – with Bishop Flores being the exception;

        However the invitation decisions were made, the net result suggests a certain myopia. Considering the 21st century demographics of our country, this lens needs to change if we are to move forward on “polarization”. Perhaps inadvertently this could be one of the main conclusions regarding its causes.

        Next time, maybe a round table format with a more diverse, more “poly-optic” group (including even George Weigel?) will be considered?

  • Mike McG…

    Point taken, Mark. We must do better. I wonder if it would be possible to arrange smaller scale conversations around polarization that would be more inclusive. What do you think?

    Just for the record Bishop Flores wasn’t not the only speaker of color. Nicole Flores and Hosffman Ospino made powerful presentations and invited participants to widen their lenses when discussing polarization.

    You mentioned George Weigel. Catholics of color were not the only underrepresented demographic.. Traditionalist Catholics, if present, were neither visible nor audible.

    But I wonder how wide the net can be cast without the ensuing conversation devolving into a food fight. ‘The price of admission’ to a conference on polarization must necessarily be an abiding interest in hearing other points of view and seeking comment ground. Not all Catholics are interested in reducing polarization. Some on both flanks of the cultural divide send out few signals of interest in genuine dialogue.

    In a stinging post on Salon in 2012, Michael Rubens spoke to this dynamic in his own life:
    “I lived in a little bubble surrounded by people who think more or less like me. And when I considered people with opposing viewpoints I would turn into a fabulist, concocting an entire narrative of who they were and what they were like — and what they were like was yucko. Because I was not really interacting with them. I just thought I was, because, hey, look, there they are on the TV, or there’s that guy’s post in the comments section. But that stuff doesn’t count. Meeting people counts. Talking counts.”

    • Mark VA

      Elegant reply, Mike McG!

      I’m a proponent of small scale and informal discussions – aren’t important decisions often made in small groups, after the rituals of “The Conference” and “PowerPoint” are over?

      I think the difficult, unwelcome, and disconcerting “critical and out of the box” thinking most often happens when people feel comfortable, without the spotlight shining on them;

      In this vein, let me propose this: Why don’t you start a small discussion on this topic here at Vox Nova? Its commentariat seems diverse enough. Tell you what, in the spirit of such a friendly conversation, I’ll even reveal my first anticipated counter-move:

      If your first move is “polarization”, then my counter-move will be “alienation”.

  • annedanielson

    “What are the non-negotiables of our Faith.”
    We must affirm that God Is The Author of Love, Life, and Marriage.