Quick Hitter: Maybe a Little Polarization Is a Good Thing

Yesterday, Notre Dame hosted a conference entitled "Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal."  A number of folks have been heavily promoting this event, including Professor Camosy of "Beyond the Abortion Wars" fame (who appears to be one of the main organizers of the event).  [Personal Note: Fr. Ken Simpson, who was the priest in-charge of the Newman Center at Northwestern when I was there, and who is a wonderful, wonderful priest and person, is also on the panel].  I missed the live-stream, but hopefully the recorded version will be available soon.   [Edit:  Here it is].  As I haven't seen it, I can't comment yet on the specific content of talks, but here are a few general thoughts on the topic of polarization.

First, the reaction to the conference from certain folks on the left-hand side of the Catholic aisle has been cynical and dismissive.  I understand the sentiment behind it ("where was the concern about the polarization in the Church when the nuns were being put through the Inquisition?" etc.), but I think that line of thought is unhelpful and unfortunate.  It's a natural human tendency to want pay-back when it appears the circumstances have changed and the bottom rail is on top, but its a bad tendency.  Even if it is true that some only become concerned about polarization when it is traditional or conservative folks being excluded, that doesn't negate the issue.  Everyone, including progressive folks, need to lay aside their beefs and grudges.

Second, there is no question that the Catholic Church is polarized, but we should be clear about the nature of the polarization.  The basic alignment, which was universal prior to Pope Francis's election but is still the dominant schema in most places in the U.S., is the organized Church (i.e. primarily the bishops and by extension the priests (whether they want to or not)) and a minority of lay Catholics versus the majority of lay Catholics, divided over issues relating to sexuality.  Pope Francis has introduced the possibility (which was always latent, but unexpressed) of an additional axis of polarization around economic issues.  But even if the First Things crowd goes completely off the reservation over the climate change encyclical (or whatever their issue du jour is), we are still talking about a relatively small slice of the Catholic population compared to the people who are not on board with Humanae Vitae, opposing gay marriage, etc.

Relatedly, we need to acknowledge what we are not polarized about.  No one is talking about rethinking the Trinity, or the role of the Bible, or even the theology and nature of the priesthood/episcopacy (except perhaps for letting women be priests).  Nor are the vast majority of people going to the barricades over the Liturgy; whatever the merits of the new translation, it seems to me that most people have rolled with the changes with little problem.  There is far more divide on the sex-related issues--contraception, gay marriage, the role of women, and to a lesser extent abortion--than all of the other disputes combined.  That has to be the focus of the discussion.

Finally, and perhaps controversially, I believe that a little polarization at this time and place is good for the Church.  It's not like this divide is newly formed--it has basically been in place since 1968.  But from basically '68 until JPII, the operating principle in the U.S. was for the laity to pretend to listen to the Church on the disputed sex issues, and for the Church to pretend to believe them.  From JPII to the election of Francis, the operating principle was that no one could say anything in opposition to the official Church position.  Either way, no one was talking about their views.  Now we are talking.

My only hesitation with a conference like this is that it might frame this talk, which I think is healthy and necessary for the Church, as a problem to be solved.  We need to get this stuff out into the open.  A little messiness, a little bit of dissension, can be good thing.  "Hagan ilo" as Pope Francis would say.

I much prefer this version of Catholicism to the enforced silence of the previous 30 years. So, by all means, let's talk about our issues and our disputes.  But let's take them seriously, as they are, not as something to be cleaned up.


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