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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