Is it possible for Catholics to “get beyond” polarization, to leave right-left, red-blue, liberal-conservative, orthodox-progressive divides behind? A week after a conference at Notre Dame called “Beyond Polarization: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal,” I am cautiously optimistic about dialogue.
During our two days together, via panels, meals, and prayer, and hours at the Morris Inn bar, a diverse group of U.S. Catholic theologians, social scientists, journalists, and ministers attempted to be worthy of the vision of our organizers–Charles Camosy (Fordham, Theology) and Mary Ellen Konieczny (Notre Dame, Sociology). For the most part, we did what they asked of us. No one stormed out of the room in anger. Most of us found positive, unifying things to say while being as honest as we dared about our differences. Old friends remained friends. New ties were forged.
Still, the conversations were not as difficult as I thought they would be, and that disappointed me a little. As the only theologian on the opening panel, I suggested that issues related to sex and gender were sources of wounds for many people that had to be named before any movement toward healing could begin. I called for listening: to young adults alienated by church teachings on non-marital sex; to married couples using contraception; to struggling single parents; to women and men who long for a church with women leaders; to gay, lesbian, and transgender Catholics who do not see themselves in the language used to talk about them.
Yet, I suggested, there is also a need to hear the pain of those who stand with the church and against the culture on these very same issues and, increasingly, feel unable to speak lest they be labeled intolerant. It seems that it is in relation to sex, marriage, and gender that people feel judged, excluded, and alienated, no matter which side they are on.
The reality of polarization among academics in theology is difficult to ignore. It is evident in the different scholarly societies, journals, and presses that attract distinct groups of scholars. Recent attempts of the CTSA to open dialogue about diversity are important, but ongoing controversy suggests the challenge of getting “beyond polarization.”
Though others at the Notre Dame conference also named the wounds that contribute to ongoing divisions, more often we avoided discussing contentious issues. Why?
1. There Is a Real Desire to Find Common Ground. Among conference participants, anyone could notice an understandable tension between a willingness to name wounds and a desire to create safe space and build up good will. I share with many of my colleagues a sense that there is plenty of unexplored common ground beyond the “hot button” issues. It may be more prudent to bracket the most difficult issues and begin instead with what we can actually talk about. Many who attended the conference do research, writing, or ministry in ways that are not easy to label. There was a lot of energy in the room devoted to moving the conversation in helpful directions rather than re-hashing old debates.
2. Polarization May Be Limited. Some at the conference challenged the diagnosis of polarization. Two sociologists suggested that most Catholic young adults and parish families were unaware of and unaffected by polarization. Millennials claimed that their generation, often unfairly maligned, had the potential to lead the church to a much more positive future. Latinos suggested that their communities often have very different concerns (e.g., racism, inequality, unemployment, hyper-incarceration). I talked to undergraduates who attended the opening panel and found it very interesting—but they had had no idea about what to expect from the conference title. “Polarization in the church” did not mean anything to these two lifelong Catholics.
Like the culture war, ecclesial polarization is more pronounced among those who are most invested: academics, students of theology, journalists, and those who work for the church. It may be less central in communities of color. Though it is not wrong to say it endures, it is not the dominant reality for all Catholics. It may be counterproductive to keep attending to it.
3. Building Trust Takes Time. Because many relationships at the Notre Dame conference were new, it made sense to move slowly. Last week was a time to speak with a combination of courage and tentativeness, to eat together, pray together, and just be together. As Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas said in his opening remarks, if we cannot laugh together, there is little reason to hope we can make progress. I was encouraged by the willingness of everyone there to keep talking and laughing. No one engaged in what theologian James Alison calls “outsiding.” Yet we all know that harder conversations will need to happen eventually.
When that time comes, Catholics can find wisdom in Pope Francis, who, in Evangelii Gaudium, speaks of the need to face conflict and build peace through solidarity:
In this way it becomes possible to build communion amid disagreement, but this can only be achieved by those great persons who are willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity. This requires acknowledging a principle indispensable to the building of friendship in society: namely, that unity isgreater than conflict. Solidarity . . . thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity (no. 228).
My hope is that the conversations, meals, and prayers that bridge divides keep happening. Though many are oblivious to polarization, many are deeply scarred by it. There is a real need for those who are willing to keep talking, to embrace intellectual humility, and to commit to seeing the best in others while trying not to grow “impatient at the weeds” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 24). This is what solidarity looks like in a church that is not yet “beyond polarization.”
Julie Hanlon Rubio is Professor of Christian Ethics at St. Louis University, where she teaches courses in sex and gender, and faith and politics. She is the author of Family Ethics: Practices for Christians (Georgetown UP, 2010). Her new book, Between the Personal and Political: Catholic Hope for Common Ground, will be published by Georgetown UP in 2016.