When I was a high school campus minister, I had several students who would come into my office and ask: “I have this friend who is gay, but their church tells her it is a sin. What do I tell them? Is it true that it’s a sin?” … “I have a friend who is pregnant. Is it a sin for her to get an abortion?” … “If Jesus was from the present day Middle East, why is he white in every church I walk into?” … “Why can’t women be priests?” … “Why doesn’t the Church do more to stop gang and gun violence?” … “Why is the Church against sex before marriage?” … “Why do people vote for a candidate that has pro-life stances, but who has harmful immigration policies?”
Their questions reflected the difficulty of holding in tandem the teachings of the Church with our individual faith experiences. And the truth is, I often felt torn about how to answer them. As a campus minister at a Catholic high school that seeks hierarchical approval, I felt as though I had a decision to make – either defend “official Church teaching” or the experience of the human sitting in front of me.
I begin with this story for two reasons. First, it situates where I am coming from in my review of Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church. I have always felt the polarization present in my Church very acutely – by virtue of my gender, my political inclinations, and my theological lens that was shaped by growing up in the midst of the sex abuse crisis. I have felt silenced by many (though not all) of the teachings of the Catholic Church. I have felt unwelcomed by many (though not all) of the Church’s leaders. I have been disappointed in my Church, particularly in moments like the morning after the Orlando shooting when my parish neglected to pray for the victims during the Prayers of the Faithful.
At the same time, I admit that in certain ways I have contributed to the polarizing ethos in the Church, rather than prayerfully seeking ways to ameliorate it. I have a difficult time listening to those who have a position that differs from my own, especially when I feel guarded that my dignity as a woman is on the line.
The second reason I begin with my student’s questions is because it brings the reader into the current historical moment in the Church. The questions that my students asked were not uncommon. In fact, I think these questions are emblematic of the divisiveness entrenched in the Catholic Church today. Questions about liturgy, life, family, sexuality, skepticisms of authority, and racial injustice are dividing us rather than joining us together as united for the common good.
We know the facts about polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church, even if we are reluctant to admit it. 32 million people have stopped self-identifying as Catholic in the United States. As Hoffsman Ospino poignantly articulates in his chapter of Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church, “Liberal voices blame conservative ones for not adjusting quickly to the demands of a fast-changing society, for holding back, for suppressing creativity… Conservative voices blame liberal ones for diluting what is perceived to be a given identity, for introducing change where change should not happen… And in the meantime 32 million Catholics have exited the door” (135-136). With this striking reality in mind, are we able to conceive of a way forward? Is overcoming polarization even possible when division is so deeply rooted?
The book Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church grew out of a conference about polarization, held at the University of Notre Dame on April 28 and 29, 2015 and aims to bring the dialogue that occurred during that conference to a wider audience. The volume is divided into three parts (I – This Moment in the Church, II- Naming the Wounds, III – Assessing the Problem, IV- Looking to the Future). The book is a compilation of essays from various lay and religious Catholic theologians and ethicists, who offer their perspective on the issues that divide the Church. The structure of the book is perhaps its greatest strength, offering a symphony of voices rather than a monotone soliloquy on why polarization characterizes our Church today. The essays are written from the standpoint of the author’s own experience of polarization rather than from mere theological speculation. This fact, together with its method of “see-judge-act” (based on the model of Catholic Action), brings theological and social scientific perspectives into an illuminating dialogue on polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church.
In the first part of the book, six prominent scholars take a position on what they consider to be the central forces that have come together to sediment the state of polarization. Although each voice highlights a distinct facet of divisiveness and vitriol in our Church, all consider how we have strayed away from our Christian commitment to love one another. Most Reverend Daniel Flores writes, “I would place on the table my sense that the wounds that divide us are rooted in the loss of confidence that the members of the household of the faith actually love one another (6). Revered John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame asks a similar question, “Why does the most caustic [criticism] come from sisters and brothers with whom I share a faith in Christ and am called, in the church, to build a civilization of love?” (8). It seems to me that positioning the essays with a flowing undercurrent of love at the forefront of the book was not a mere coincidence. The very fact that this volume begins with the resounding voices of love instead of a reprimanding discussion of freedom or truth or Tradition is telling. In my opinion, the book is an invitation to consider that what our current historical moment demands of us is not that we set out to obtain capital-T Truth through obtuse moral objectivity, but that we explore the mystery of God more feverishly in the concreteness of our relationships with one another.
The essays that follow in the volume traverse the historical contours, and present day content of polarization in our church. I will briefly highlight some of the author’s voices in an attempt to illuminate what I consider to be the overall aim of the text. At the outset of Part II, Tricia C. Bruce writes on the patterns that shape churchgoing behavior noting that some Catholics are more likely to choose a parish based on political affinities. In turn, certain parishes create a safe haven for the direction we want to see the Church going in and thus perpetuate the state of division. In the following chapter, Susan Crawford Sullivan notes that even in those parishes that straddle a middle ground, there is a tendency to avoid topics that could potentially be polarizing. Both of these essays build up to the final chapter of Part II on LGBTQ experiences in the Catholic Church. Despite sociopolitical progress on marriage equality, this topic remains as one of the greatest issues that separates and divides the Catholic Church. Brian Flanagan offers what I consider to be one of the most compelling and critical essays in the book because it draws attention to the experience of pain that has been felt by LGBTQ people. We cannot, Flanagan contends, forego the pain that the Church has caused to LGBTQ people in our discussion on polarization, but that we must “attempt to find meaning in this experience of pain through relation to the paschal mystery” (67).
The third and fourth part of the volume traces some of the historical currents that have affected today’s polarization, examines how an increasing number of Hispanics and the millennial generation are affecting the U.S. Church, and presents the task of accompaniment in the midst of racial injustice and pro-life v pro-choice rhetoric.
The book does an excellent job at pointing out that most, if not all, of these topics are not black and white. It does not seek to speak for or universalize the experience on any one side of an issue. The point of the book, as I understand it, is to generate a spark that will hopefully be kindled throughout the Church in order to foster dialogue on the most pressing moral issues of our day. I would like to raise three challenges that I think are important to note as we proceed into this dialogue. My points here are not reservations regarding the content of the work produced by the authors, but rather challenges on how this book should be appropriated by those who read it.
- More discussion on poverty and the forces that generate it. At face value, it seems like the topic of poverty is not a polarizing issue in the Church today. Most Catholics agree that material poverty, and the systematic injustices that generate it, is harmful to human beings and thus is worth fighting against. However, the extent to which ameliorating poverty on a local and global level is considered to be a central part of our discipleship differs throughout the Catholic community. Some remain content with occasional acts of charity, while others are challenging parishioners to dialogue on white privilege and environmental racism. Take a look at your parish’s mission statement – does it include language of social justice? Does your local diocese have a specific office for social justice activism? Is your parish fostering dialogue on the systematic injustices and how Christ is being crucified in our midst? If we accept Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church’s invitation to accompaniment, solidarity, and dialogue, then we must consider how we can also challenge ourselves to live out our Christian commitment to establish justice and equity more fully, and how we can organize and unite together to fight poverty.
- More discussion on domination. How can the Church continue to be a source of moral and ethical guidance if power dynamics are always imbedded in its instructional claims? Domination can be loosely defined as the exercise of control or influence over someone or something. A driving force of Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church is that authentic dialogue and solidarity are two of the ways we must move forward in overcoming division. And I think this is absolutely true. Charles Camosy says it best when he describes solidarity as an active virtue (163), calling on Catholics to replace polarization with solidarity (170). The language of solidarity is pervasive throughout the whole text. And yet, I challenge readers to consider how the language of solidarity must be supplemented with a new attention to the theories and ethics of domination. Before we can even conjure up what a vision of solidarity entails in our dialogue with one another, we have to think critically about the presence of domination and the affect it has had on both those within the Church and those who have left it. If we understand domination as static social relationships that exercise power and dominion of one over the other, then domination is endemic in Church hierarchy and its teachings. Let’s take for example the issue of same sex marriage. There are voices emerging from within the Catholic Church that welcome LGBTQ persons. And yet, these welcoming voices do not negate the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church still contains those infamous words that have harmed so many – “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” “contrary to the natural law” and “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” (#2357). Too many LGBTQ persons have one foot in and one foot out of the Catholic Church, feeling divided between an inclusive Gospel and more exclusionary official Church teachings. When Pope Francis stated that the Church should “apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended” – I did not hear of any U.S. parishes that held a mass of reconciliation. If we do not speak of how domination is present in that, if we do not accompany our sentiments of mercy with concrete acts of justice, then we risk reducing the language of love to a watered down platitude that assuages the Christian conscience of those in a position of power.
- Cultivating Pope Francis’s Seeds of Hope Julie Hanlon Rubio writes, “If we manage to make any progress during this moment and beyond, it will be because we embrace Pope Francis’s profound understanding of church.” (15). And for many, Pope Francis has inspired a renewed commitment to a faith that does justice. He has planted the seeds that I hope will one day grow. But for others, Pope Francis continues to embody harmful, conservative thought that is clothed in rhetoric of faithfulness. A few weeks ago, Pope Francis claimed that gender theory was a part of a global war on the institution of marriage and just a few days ago reiterated the finality of banning women from a call to the Catholic priesthood. Some rejoiced; others joined the 32 million who have already exited the Catholic Church. But if there is anything we can gleam from Pope Francis’s papacy, it is a consistent humility and attentiveness in listening to the voices of the oppressed. Echoing Julie Hanlon Rubio, “we have to listen: to those deeply wounded by sexual abuse; to young adults alienated by church teachings on premarital sex and cohabitation; to married couples who see contraception as consistent with their strong commitment to self-giving love and fruitfulness; to single parents struggling against the odds; to all who long for a church with women leaders; to gay, lesbian, and transgender Catholics who experience the pain of exclusion” (14). But listening cannot be reduced to mere abstraction. If listening to these wounds, especially of women, are not met with concrete acts of justice that seek to bring about equality with a feverish urgency then we will continue to face the polarization that is damaging us today.
The current historical moment that our nation finds itself in is not an accident. American exceptionalism, nationalism, the sinfulness of manifest destiny are all hauntingly present. Is there only room left for despair in the anxiety building up to today’s election? How can we take and put into effect the message of Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church in light of our nation’s politics? Posting this review on Election Day is timely, because we need to recall why it is worth transcending polarization and pursuing solidarity in the first place. Just for a moment imagine the possibility of a Catholic Church that’s essential character is marked by unity rather than division. Sitting with that image is something that gives me hope. Our faith compels us to seek the incarnation of God’s love in our every endeavor, even and especially in the midst of tension. God is present in the chaos. We cannot forget that. To a certain degree, polarization has always been a mark of our Church. And although a polarized Church may remain throughout our lifetime, our imperfect striving for unity is not in vain. Our efforts to listen, to be inclusive, and to accompany those who the Church has excluded by fighting for justice is what discipleship means today. If we allow it to be, this book could be a watershed moment for the Catholic Church that ushers in a profound dialogue about the issues that polarize us. We need to take the long view here and dare to risk our significance in the pursuit of dialogue, justice, and solidarity.
 See Mark Gray, “Lapsed Catholics Weigh in on Why They Left Church,” Our Sunday Visitor, October 22, 2014, https://www.osv.com/OSVNews/weekly/Story/TabID/2672/ArtMID/13267/ArticleID/16269/Lapsed-Catholics-weigh-in-on-why-they-left-Church.aspx.
Meg Stapleton Smith is a Ph.D. student in Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. She received her M.A. degree in Ethics from Yale Divinity School in 2016 and received her B.A. degree in Theology from Boston College in 2013. Prior to her time at Yale, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie primarily in analyzing Christian virtue ethics from a liberationist perspective.