By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Pope Francis’ repeated invitations to practice mercy and charity have become the focus of efforts to defuse the widespread polarization that has wracked society and has crossed into Catholic circles.
The basic message behind such efforts during the last year is simple: come to see perceived “enemies” as real people, deserving of respect and dignity.
While such efforts have not been a coordinated campaign, diverse Catholic voices have expressed concern that rampant polarization poses a threat to the common good.
“The danger in our current political climate is that the people of the United States will come to accept the current political division, nihilism, hypocrisy and anger in our culture as normal,” Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego said in delivering the Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause Lecture at Loyola University Chicago in April.
The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University has addressed polarization in the church and society several times throughout 2018. And there have been other efforts that have sought to limit, if not stop, the vitriolic fear mongering, anger and name calling that has emerged in the hope of creating space for respectful dialogue.
John Carr, director of the Georgetown initiative, recently described the current state of affairs as one guided by “fear, cynicism and anger” that leads to “alienation, loneliness and hopelessness.”
“This feeds tribal identities in politics, where we often define ourselves for who or what we are against” instead of working to anger, he said Dec. 4 at the start of a panel discussion that included four young emerging leaders addressing polarization in the church and the nation.
Carr’s observation about tribal identities taking precedence even among Catholics who angrily have debated church teaching when it comes to challenging public policy issues — such as immigration or climate change — seems to be illustrated in a Pew Research poll. A survey released in March showed that U.S. Catholics’ regard of the pope is colored by their political leanings.
Pew said the results revealed “signs of growing discontent with Francis among Catholic on the political right, with increasing shares of Catholic Republicans saying they view Francis unfavorably, and they think he is too liberal and naive.”
The poll found that favorable support for the pope among Catholic Republicans dropped from 90 percent in 2014 to 79 percent early this year. Catholic Democrats saw no discernible shift in favorable views of the pope over the same period, rising from 87 percent to 89 percent.
Such findings concern Catholics who care about the church. They have called for dialogue among people with differing points of view with a focus on the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Speaking at the Georgetown forum in December, John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, acknowledged that the church is experiencing infighting among Catholics on the left and the right.
“I think one of the dangers in these days right now in terms of the infighting is that the credibility of the church in the public square is at its lowest point in many, many years,” he said. “My point is, if you’re a Catholic progressive or a Catholic conservative, if you think the church has nothing important to say in politics or relative to the public square, now is not the time to hunker down. … We have to find a way to navigate through legitimate differences in a prudent way.”
Another panelist, Elise Italiano, founding executive director of The Given Institute, which provides leadership training for young women seeking a greater role in the church, said polarization and the church’s loss of credibility threatens to turn away young people.
Italiano described a retreat by young people from established institution as they search for identity, community and purpose. “The church should be able to provide that and yet we’ve seen the effect of polarization on their hope and commitment,” she said.
Gehring and Italiano also were among 100 Catholics representing different perspectives invited to a three-day conference in June at the Georgetown institute to share ideas on overcoming the deepening polarization in church and society.
The gathering led to commitments to further conversations across the perceived liberal/conservative divide to better serve the church and begin to heal society.
Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, called on the church, including his fellow bishops, to take steps to reverse polarization.
“We must acknowledge it’s there,” he told Catholic News Service Dec. 11. “That’s the starting point. We see it and I think we have to call it out.”
Bishop Coyne, who until November was the chairman of Committee on Communications of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church must guard against letting the small percentage of people on the left and the right “drive the bus.”
“The saddest thing is when you encounter the person who is so convinced of their righteousness that they’ve lost all sense of charity,” he said.
“Their message is ‘I’m doing what I’m doing to save these people from hell,'” the bishop continued. “It’s almost like, sadly, there’s a kind of lower level magisterium that’s developed where people are convinced they have the truth in a way the church doesn’t and they operate out of that.
“When they operate out of that they often leave out the most important teaching of mercy and charity.”
The church’s tradition of respect for human dignity must be part of the discussion on the road to overcoming deep differences, Bishop Coyne added.
“Those of us in the moderate middle either way,” he said, “have to be willing to be bold and say exactly what the church’s teaching is and not allow the extremes to say who we are.”
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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski