A convening like no other took place June 4-6 at Georgetown University. Hosted by the school’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, “Though Many, One: Overcoming Polarization through Catholic Social Thought” was an intense, exhausting and exhilarating exercise in finding common ground among those not always adept at seeking it.
The more than 80 Catholic leaders who attended the invitation-only event spanned the progressive and conservative wings of the Church, bringing just enough perspectives and opinions to make things interesting (full disclosure: I was there to report, but also to participate). Notably, Jesuit Father James Martin and Princeton professor Robert George, known more for going toe-to-toe on Twitter about Church matters than for taking selfies together, posed for a photo that really was worth 1,000 words.
But from the outset, the event’s co-conveners, John Carr, director of the Initiative, and Kim Daniels, a member of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications and a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty, made it clear that the event would not center on matters of intra-Church debate. If one was looking to discuss a certain footnote of a certain text, for example, this was not the place. Rather, participants were given the lofty goal of exploring how the principles of Catholic social thought can help bridge ideological, political, racial and ecclesial divides in the Church, thus enabling more effective evangelization and an advancement of the common good in the Church and in society.
The Church’s challenges
As the stakes in the Church grow ever higher, few events have ever seemed more needed. The face of Catholics in the U.S. is growing more Hispanic, yet, as Boston College’s Hosffman Ospino put it, the Anglo and Hispanic churches walk parallel to one another rather than in unison. Meanwhile, as in-fighting among Catholics escalates, young people “are being carried out in spiritual body bags,” said Elise Italiano, founding executive director of The Given Institute, referring to the large numbers of millennials who have left and continue to leave the Church. American Catholics are highly polarized along political lines, and the Church finds itself not immune from the challenge of racism.
Amid this turmoil, Catholics have a choice: to work at odds with one another or to work together. In the name of evangelization and a common witness to the world, the recent convening encouraged the latter. Participants were reminded that, despite varied backgrounds and perspectives, Catholics have far more in common than not. Indeed, some of the most effective moments of the event took place during the daily celebration of the Eucharist or the Penance Service. It is difficult to maintain a hardness of heart when exchanging the sign of peace. Such exchanges illustrated the other goals of the convening — those of developing relationships, modeling dialogue, advancing Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel” and building common ground and unity.
The Catholic approach
This does not mean the Church seeks a watered-down version of itself. Daniels reiterated that the convening was not an attempt at “least common denominator Catholicism.” Rather, it was a starting point, and the principles of Catholic social teaching were the method.
To that end, George reminded those gathered that Catholic social teaching is the same as Catholic moral teaching. “It’s a mistake, a profound error, to pretend there are two different things,” he said. “There’s one unique teaching.” This is because all Catholic social teaching is founded on the profound, inherent, equal dignity of all human people, he said. From this point, this common ground, we are able to move forward.
And as we move forward, each of us has a role to play — and it’s up to us to determine whether that role will be used for good or for ill.
“We are all, in some ways, complicit,” said Jesuit Father Matt Malone, president and editor-in-chief of America Media. Cut off from the transcendent, our debate turns into “mortal combat.”
Yet, we can each also be a part of the solution. Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago advised embracing America’s rich history of civil argument.
“Our heritage is to value public argument and not shy away from it as if we were terrified of conflict or worse, prone to retreat into our own polarized camps, safely living in isolation with those who affirm our views,” he said.
At the same time, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles reiterated that Catholics must not lose sight of the bigger picture: that we are to bring others to Christ.
“The Church exists to evangelize. Period. There is no other reason for the Church,” he said. “We are not called to be social workers or advocates. We are called to be apostles and saints.”
Catholics are able to look to models of sanctity, especially those like St. Mother Teresa or Blessed Oscar Romero, to see how they embraced and lived out all of the Church’s teachings.
“The salvation that we proclaim to our neighbors is a salvation of the whole person, body and soul,” Archbishop Gomez said. “That is why there is no ‘polarization’ in the Communion of Saints; and there are no ‘single-issue’ saints. The saints teach us to see with the eyes of Christ. They teach us to see that every human life is sacred and special, no matter what stage of development or condition of life. And the saints teach us that whenever human life is threatened, whenever the image of God is obscured and violated, we are called to rise up and defend it.”
Each with a part to play
As Catholics strive for holiness, members of the convening were reminded that basic principles come into play: When in dialogue with an individual, give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. Listen to hear, not to respond. Remember that, as Catholics, there is more that unites rather than divides.
With those basics of respectful dialogue in place, the third and final day of the convening sought to find a way forward from the “us versus them” mentality that too often shapes conversation in the Church and hinders its evangelical witness. It left participants pondering questions that apply to all: What role does each of us play in overcoming polarization? What does love call for, given each role? With what attitudes do we encounter diversity? How may we have labeled certain individuals? Who are we seeking to help? How do we discern when to stand firm as prophetic witnesses and when to be open to negotiation?
Neither Carr nor Daniels expected the challenge of our polarized Church to be solved in one conference. But such questions serve as a starting point for further dialogue and reflection as the many parts of our diverse Church body strive to witness to the world, mindful of the fact that they are one in Christ.
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of OSV Newsweekly. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.