Catholic gathering shares ideas on overcoming polarization through social teaching
June 11, 2018
US & World
One week before former antagonists President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shook hands at Singapore in an historic summit aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, 100 Catholics representing different perspectives and experiences huddled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on June 4-6 to share ideas on overcoming polarization in the Church and in U.S. society.
“That work is more important now than ever,” said John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, which convened the gathering on “Though Many, One: Overcoming Polarization through Catholic Social Thought.”
Carr, speaking at the concluding session of the three-day meeting on June 6, noted that the nation’s Catholics sometimes feel politically homeless when the nation’s political parties espouse stances in variance of Catholic teaching.
“We’ve tried to provide a shelter, if not a home, for people who belong to the same family – the Catholic family,” he said, underscoring how Catholic social teaching on issues like the dignity of all human life, solidarity with the poor and care for the environment can unite Catholics in working for the common good.
That point was echoed by Jesuit Father James Martin, the editor at large of America magazine, who said the gathering reflected Pope Francis’s call for dialogue and a culture of encounter in the Church.
The priest, who has faced criticism for his efforts to promote dialogue between the LGBT community and the Catholic Church, said, “The Holy Spirit drew us here. The Holy Spirit is about unity.” He noted how Jesus encountered and listened to a variety of people, including the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion and lepers.
In today’s social media age, it’s important “to encounter the person rather than the Twitter handle,” the priest said.
Father Martin said that from his perspective, one of the lessons learned at the gathering was “the divisions between the social justice and pro-life crowds might be more perception than reality,” and as representatives of those groups spoke with and listened to each other, they expressed common concern for the unborn, the poor, immigrants and refugees.
The priest expressed hope that encounter could foster efforts to unite the pro-life and social justice wings of the Catholic Church into one wing, uniting their efforts on behalf of all human life.
Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, the assistant director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs who is among the leaders planning the V Encuentro gathering in Grapevine, Texas, in September, said the grassroots effort among the nation’s parishes and dioceses planning that effort to examine how the Church can better minister to its growing Hispanic population offered an example of reflecting a culture of encounter that is needed at a time when the nation’s people, including its Catholics, are so divided. Parishes can be the place where Catholics help build relationships across different communities, drawing on their shared faith, he said.
Kathryn Jean Lopez, an editor-at-large of National Review, noted how William F. Buckley Jr., the Catholic founder of that conservative magazine, “was able to have robust conversations and meals with people he didn’t agree with.”
One of the blessings of the polarization gathering, she said, was that Catholics from different backgrounds who never met each other before had the chance to build relationships.
As the participants reflect on ways that they can bridge divides in their own lives and organizations and confront vexing societal questions with no easy solutions, Lopez said she saw the need to pray and seek God’s guidance. “I think going in front of the Blessed Sacrament is the next step,” she said.
At that closing session, participants shared ideas from their earlier roundtable discussions, such as fostering civil dialogue through careful listening and seeing the other person as part of the solution. In terms of media strategies, people were encouraged to read and engage with publications with viewpoints that vary from their own so they can learn from them. To evangelize the next generation, it was recommended that Catholics make an effort to meet and accompany young people where they are, especially as mentors.
Gloria Purvis, the cohost of the EWTN Radio program “Morning Glory,” spoke on behalf of the group that discussed “Building Bridges: Moving Past Ethnic and Racial Divisions,” saying they felt it was important to embrace, not erase, racial, cultural and ethnic differences, and also for the nation’s Catholics to reflect on the historic and ongoing impact of racism on the country and the Church.
“We’re all one body of Christ,” she said.
Sarah Yaklic, the director of the Grotto Network at the University of Notre Dame, which shares stories through its website and social media in an effort to evangelize young adults, compared the gathering to an Upper Room experience, where the participants, like the Apostles before them, could be empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out to the world and share the Good News of Christ.
“I think we can learn from each other,” she said, adding that younger generations of Catholics can offer a new language, and new ways, to share those eternal truths.
Vincent Alvarez, the president of the New York City Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, noted the Catholic Church’s historic relationship with labor and working people, and how priests comforted workers and their families in the aftermath of 9/11, and how they and laypeople can continue to share and live the faith in the workplace. He said that at the end of the day, the Catholic Church’s mission is to bring Christ to people “and leave the world a better place.”
That morning, a panel at the conference examined strategies for moving forward. John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, noted how Congress seems to be at a perpetual impasse in passing immigration reform, even though many members support it.
“When we shout at each other, we undermine democracy. It makes it impossible to sit in the same room and come to a decision,” he said. “…We have to start treating each other with Christian charity.”
Sister Norma Pimentel – the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley who recently received Notre Dame’s 2018 Laetare Medal – spoke about her work with immigrants and refugees on Texas’s border with Mexico. “It’s Jesus Christ calling us to go forward and be present,” said the religious sister of the Missionaries of Jesus. “…We’re here not to forget they’re human beings – they’re us.”
That same spirit, she said, can help people break down polarization in the Church and in society, so people don’t “look at the other as other, but as my brother who is with me and may be thinking differently.”
Msgr. John Enzler, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, noted he once served as pastor of a D.C. parish whose members included noted politicians and pundits from different sides of the political spectrum.
“They were all believers, doing their best to practice the faith,” he said, adding that he has found it is important as a priest to “get in the middle, and find a way to preach and teach the message of Jesus.”
Kim Daniels, a co-convener of the gathering who was appointed by Pope Francis to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications in 2016, noted that reaching people with different views doesn’t mean compromising the Church’s teaching on human dignity. “Our job is to be faithful. That’s our first job,” she said.
At the opening session, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, noted that “we need to be at the same table talking to one another, and addressing the issues, even though we come from different perspectives.”
Catholic social teaching, he said, “holds out for all of us a field of common ground on which we can all stand.”
Working together as one family of faith, Catholics can help build a more just society and show the face of Christ to the world, the cardinal said, adding, “If love is manifested in our speech, our service and our actions, we can imagine our impact on the world.”
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich noted the difference between partisanship – a division over ideas and beliefs – and polarization, where people are divided and distrustful of each other.
“There was a time not so long ago, when partisans of different stripes worked together, even while recognizing their differences, and got things done,” he said, adding that something has to be done to help those on different sides “see how they are connected as people.”
Cardinal Cupich said Pope Francis’s words and example about dialogue and encounter have helped him work with political and labor leaders in Chicago, and he noted that along the way, “we did not trade or compromise Church teaching, but worked together where we could.”
Chicago’s cardinal said America’s heritage of civil argument does not mean “that we are divided by our differences, religious or otherwise, but that we are united in arguing about them for the purpose of creating new solutions and forging a more perfect union.”
Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez noted his archdiocese is the nation’s largest, with 5 million Catholics and ministries in more than 40 languages. And he recounted statistics involving social challenges there, including homelessness, poverty, abortion, a large prison population, high rates of pollution and more than 1 million undocumented immigrants. And each of those numbers, he said, represents a soul.
Stressing the need for evangelization, Archbishop Gomez said, “Now more than ever, we need to raise up a new generation of disciples, a new generation of saints… What we proclaim is true liberation – the pathway that leads to eternal life. We can change the world by changing people’s hearts – by making God’s love present and leading men and women to find him and to discover their true dignity as his children. And you and I, we are called to carry out our Christian mission in the world – person to person and heart to heart.”
That afternoon, researchers presented survey results on polarization and noted that Catholics like the rest of the nation’s citizens are deeply divided on controversial issues like abortion and immigration, and they often identify more with their political party’s stances than with Church teachings.
In another panel on overcoming polarization, Scott Appleby, the dean of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, said, “A way forward is if we find ways to come together, to seek common ground and have dialogue.”
Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who serves as president of Pax Christi USA, said Catholics must recognize that “racism s the seed of what divides us” on a host of social issues, including policies on immigrants and refugees.
Elise Italiano of the Given Institute noted, “Millennials have really grown up in the divided states of America,” with distrust of institutions like marriage. She said to reach them, “We can’t just say the same thing in the same way. We’ve got to come up with an ever ancient and ever new vocabulary.”
Later that day, Cardinal Cupich and Archbishop Gomez spoke on a panel that included Helen Alvare, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, and Sister Teresa Maya, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word who serves as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Sister Maya said polarization is “about fear. The fear of the other has darkened our soul… The antidote for fear is hope. This is a time for us to embody hope, enflesh it and make it real and tangible in the world.”
She added, “A civilized nation is one that can recognize the humanity and dignity of all.”
Alvare said that even on issues where there is sharp agreement, “tone is important.”
Cardinal Cupich added, “There really is no contradiction between having strong convictions on an issue, and still being able to talk with people. That’s part of (our) American heritage, public and civic argument that’s back and forth.”
Archbishop Gomez noted the importance of the Church using digital media to reach what Pope Benedict XVI called the digital continent. “We need to be there and evangelize their continent,” he said.
Alvare said that as Catholics face challenging issues in the public square like religious freedom, they need to show how their viewpoints, grounded in Catholic social teaching, promote the common good for all. “We have to explain the hope that is in us,” she said.
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