Sectarianism and Relativism: The Challenge of Common Ground Today

Are emerging theologians today much different from theologians and church leaders of previous generations? Are we immune from the cultural divides that plagued the generation that lived through Humanae Vitae and Roe vs. Wade.

Recently, this has been a topic of discussion among theologians of my generation who are seeking to create new forms of conversation and links across the divisions within the American Catholic theological world.  A few weeks ago, for example, a few of us gathered at the Catholic Conversations Project  for a refreshing conversation among younger scholars. Since then, there have been a few follow-up posts online on this site, the Women in Theology blog and the Catholic Moral Theology blog. Here are some of my own thoughts.

For many of my peers, I get the impression that there is a renewed hope and desire to get past the bickering and divisions of the past. While I share in that hope, I wonder if we might be missing some alarming trends of the generation x and millennial Catholics being even more divided than the past. (I also worry that we are becoming too sucked into issues of the “white American”– but I’ll leave that for another post)

Breaking the Ecclesial Lifestyle Enclaves

While it is easy to think that the divisions within the church and theological academy (again American bias) can be boiled down to conservative/liberal divisions (like the US Congress), it seems to me that the situation is more complex in the present context of globalization.

In a 2008 article in Theological Studies, Vincent Miller makes a good observation about the American church in the midst of globalization. For him, globalization is characterized by two seemingly opposing trends. On the one hand, there is a growing cultural homogenization. The privileged among us are more and more connected with each other and share common experiences with people around the world. Many of us watch the same movies and can go to a Starbucks or McDonald’s with the same décor in a dozen countries around the world. (I would not recommend either establishment).

At the same time, many of the same technologies that have allowed this interconnection to take place, have also contributed to an opposing trend, what Miller calls heterogenization. While we are more united than ever, we are also increasingly fractured into “smaller and purer cultural identities.” New forms of media, (including blogs) can enable the creation of ideologically niched groups of people. Concerned about the similar fracturing within American society, Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart/ Good Society) worries about the breaking up of America into “lifestyle enclaves.”

The same is true for the church. For most of us American Catholics in urban or suburban areas, there is an increasing temptation to fracture into “ecclesial lifestyle enclaves.” This is especially true for privileged American young adults today. Given the freedom to choose what parish we go to; what Mass to participate in; and what Catholic media to read, we are less likely to have our ideas challenged by others.

We often worship with, study with, and go to confreres with people who look like, vote like, and think like us. Despite the vast diversity within the American Catholic Church, this is often not seen in specific Masses or programs. There are some good things about this freedom to associate with people we get along with, but the danger is that it is all too easy to fall victim to prideful collectivism or what R. Niebuhr called “collective egotism”

Rethinking the Polarization

Instead of thinking of the polarization as being between “liberals and conservatives”, what if we rethought about it as being between the “church of the committed” and the “church of acceptance.” [Note: I suggest these not to create new unhelpful binaries, but to offer some descriptive categories (drawing from Thomas Aquinas) to help understand the present complex context. Of course, any set of categories is limited.]

Both visions of the church have good elements and both can have roots in the Gospel and the Christian tradition. Versions of both these models also can be found in among so-called “liberal” and “conservative” communities.

The Church of the Committed and Sectarianism

Both, can also easily fall into dangerous extremes. The church of the committed can easily fall into the vice of prideful sectarianism. Again, this can take “conservative” or “liberal” forms (think of some Opus Dei or some Catholic Worker communities, for example). In a confusing context where finding a clear identity is increasingly important and difficult, this is very attractive model of church (akin to Christ against culture).

Communities with this tendency (the far right or far left) often get a lot of public attention—just look at many popular Catholic newspapers and magazine.  The same is the case with our political debates – screaming heads get more attention than those open to dialogue.

The Church of Acceptance and Relativism

The church of acceptance, on the other hand, can fall into the trap of despairing relativism (something Pope Benedict often warns about). With so many forms of identity, it’s tempting to simply accept everyone and everyone’s position and let go of any hope or sense of a common vision.

Unfortunately, in the present context, the pushback against relativism often leads to sectarianism and vice-versa. Some self-described “moderates,” for example, who desire to avoid taking extreme sectarian position, might find themselves in a weak watered-down “middle position” with no room to consider that on some issues what is seen as extreme might be the right way ahead. (Jesus was seen as extreme enough to be killed).

Finding Hope in Humility

So how can we seriously hold on to our convictions without becoming sectarian? How can we have conversations without ignoring differences and the possibilities that “the other” might be right?

Naturally, having discussions does not mean we quickly put aside our convictions or go to the extreme of relativism. On the contrary, what we need is an empowered sense of agency that takes into account our true position. For Thomas Aquinas, this is best reflected in the virtue of magnanimity and the closely related virtue of humility. By linking humility with magnanimity, Thomas reminds us that humility is not humiliating but can in fact be empowering.

While personal and collective humility are not popular in our age of talking heads and lifestyle enclaves, they are absolutely necessary if we as a church or as emerging theologians are going to face the challenges of the present context.

Signs of Hope

Thankfully, there is hope. I’d like to end this long post by pointing to two initiatives (in addition to the Conversation project already mentioned).

Catholic Common Ground Initiative

The initiative of Cardinal Bernardin now based at CTU. There will be conference next March (2-4) in Chicago on common ground and inter-generational dialogue.

 Emerging Theologians Conference (ET)

From March 9-11th, 2012, there will be a conference of “emerging theologians” at Boston College to mark the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II.