Remedies for American Catholic Polarization

Those hoping for a quick fix to the problem of Catholic polarization are sadly out of luck. Reducing Catholic polarization will almost certainly require reducing overall political polarization in the country, a difficult challenge. At the same time, the Church can and should try to convince more American Catholics to embrace Catholic ideals and support the countercultural approach of Catholic Social Teaching. This will, in part, require reducing partisanship among Catholics. But if Catholics remain divided by party, and polarization does not drop dramatically, it is important to consider how we might work to reduce acrimony and enmity between American Catholics across party and ideological lines.

Catholic polarization is intrinsically problematic. It undermines the effort to build communion among U.S. Catholics, which is at the very heart of the faith and the Church’s mission. There will always be disagreement within the Church, but the large chasms that exist are bound to generate great disunity and discord. It also undermines Christian witness. People are not just turned off by the infighting, but by the failure to live Gospel values. When the Church is not a poor church for the poor, but filled with people who justify the abandonment of the weak and vulnerable, few will find this witness compelling. And in a secular age, the power of witness is vital for keeping people in the Church and adding converts.

Polarization, particularly as it is manifested on social media and in the Catholic press, has also resulted in some Catholics attempting to capitalize on the sexual abuse crisis to advance their ideological or liturgical agenda. Traditionalists, supporters of an unfettered free market, and alt-Catholics even attempted to orchestrate a coup against the pope, failing spectacularly, as they were unable to provide evidence to back up numerous key claims. It is no surprise that the anti-pope faction is overwhelmingly American, given the amount of dissent and polarization present in the US. In a less dramatic way, some on the left have tried to use the crisis to advance their own preexisting goals for Church reform. A more unified Church would be in a far better position to respond to this crisis by focusing on its real causes and effective solutions.

Reducing polarization is therefore an important goal, but it is far from the only important one. If we want greater unity, it must not be at the cost of human dignity or protecting the poor and vulnerable, or failing to confront racism and other forms of bigotry. It cannot be achieved by setting aside core Catholic values to appease warring ideological camps. At the same time, reducing polarization can help to advance the common good, bring greater unity to the Church, and empower pro-life, pro-social justice Catholics who feel alienated as voters and citizens. And Church leaders cannot foster unity by rising above polarization—simply ignoring it and what is driving it.

Structural Political Reform

A primary consideration should be advocating for structural political reform. Campaign finance reform is essential for re-democratizing our system of government and ensuring the type of authentic participation that Catholic social teaching demands. A system that is dominated by economic elites will not be motivated by a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, as they will continue to prioritize economic libertarianism in the Republican Party and social libertarianism in the Democratic Party. Nothing would do more to undermine special interest groups, which play a key role in fostering polarization, than diminishing the power of money in elections.

Redistricting reform cannot make every race competitive, particularly given demographic trends, but it can reduce the behavior that has intensified polarization and make representation more closely reflect the views of the public. The creation of independent commissions or other more neutral mechanisms for drawing districts is a far better approach than allowing politicians and other ideologues to draw district lines.

If many Independents were to join the major political parties, the influence of doctrinaire liberals and conservatives would be reduced. The current dominance of these figures, however, is deterring many from joining these parties. Catholics should join a party and work to reverse efforts aimed at ensuring ideological cohesion. At the same time, primary reform would help to reduce polarization by allowing these voters to participate earlier in the process. Open primaries or nonpartisan blanket primaries are two possible approaches.

Increasing access to the ballot and stopping new efforts at voter suppression would also create a more democratic system and likely help in reducing polarization. Black Americans, Latinos, and the poor are the primary targets of voter suppression efforts. These groups are disproportionately likely to oppose the abortion litmus test of wealthy white liberals and efforts to redistribute wealth to the rich while cutting programs for the poor. By helping these citizens to increase their influence, polarization will likely be diminished.

If economic inequality increases polarization, working for greater social and economic justice will reduce it. Once again, standing up for Catholic Social Teaching and the common good will have the secondary effect of reducing polarization. And a large middle-class has long been considered the backbone of strong, stable democracies, an important consideration given domestic and global trends.

Addressing polarization on the Supreme Court requires addressing the thorough politicization of the Court. The Court has a constitutional role as a counter-majoritarian force in safeguarding fundamental rights, even if public opinion has suddenly become hostile to such rights. A polarized Court of ideologues, however, that simply mirrors the dominant ideologies in the political branches is largely unable to play that role. Radical reforms, such as the direct election of Supreme Court justices or the creation of term limits, for instance, should be considered if this role is seen as no longer viable.

Catholics should refuse to analyze the Court through the prism of just one issue. They should support potential nominees who would show proper deference to the political branches, respect the traditional role and purpose of the Court, and safeguard fundamental rights. They should in turn oppose the placement of new justices on the Court who are left-wing judicial activists that favor the creation of new rights with little pretext and right-wing textualists or originalists whose strict constructionist approaches are designed to advance the goals of small government ideologues. This may be a fairly lonely fight and it requires taking on special interest groups that have played an increasingly important role in picking nominees, but the legitimacy of the institution itself is collapsing. Reducing the number of ideologues on the Court can help to reverse this.

A Unified Vision for the Church

Support for this type of structural political reform is vital, as these structural factors are critical in generating and sustaining Catholic polarization. It is also essential, however, for the Church to look inwardly and examine how we should behave toward our fellow Catholics and as a community.

Step one in confronting Catholic political polarization should be to unite against all forms of bigotry and those seeking to undermine our democratic system. We must not forget the lessons of the 1930’s and allow brutal ideologies to become mainstream among American Catholics. Essentially, this is about preventing a new political pole to emerge—one more toxic and antithetical to Christian values than the existing poles. A failure to arrest rising Alt-Catholicism would make Catholic polarization far worse—creating new obstacles to communion, jeopardizing souls, pulling the American Church away from the global Church, and badly damaging Christian witness. It is perhaps the gravest threat to Catholicism in the United States.

But we also need a positive vision for what the Church in the U.S. should look like and the contribution it can make to the common good. There is no better approach to reducing Catholic polarization than in following Pope Francis’s lead at all levels of the Church. The American Bishops, individually and collectively, should embrace the pope’s agenda of ending the throwaway culture and replacing it with a culture of solidarity. Disunity among the bishops, prioritizing pet issues above the gravest threats to the common good, and thinking more about institutional considerations than living the gospel will only exacerbate polarization. Given the very limited knowledge the average Catholic has of Catholic Social Teaching, it is clear that increasing knowledge, understanding, and support of Catholic Social Teaching must be a top priority. This requires teaching people to understand what a Catholic worldview looks like in a culture that is often hostile to it in its embrace of extreme individualism and libertarianism. And it requires inspiring them to be a Catholic first.

Rather than caving to the ambient culture or succumbing to polarization themselves, bishops should be clear about the countercultural approach Catholics of every party are required to take. They can emphasize the different paths Catholics may take in seeking to promote the common good, but also the limits of what Catholic Social teaching permits, so that these Catholic principles are not so easily stretched and distorted by those with ulterior motives.

With greater unity among bishops, we might hope that Pope Francis’s approach would begin to shape our dioceses and parishes much more than it has thus far. The unwillingness of some Church bureaucrats to accept the pope’s leadership has limited the “Francis Effect” that could be revitalizing our Church. Meanwhile, getting priests to promote the fullness of Catholic teaching and encourage parishioners to fight for the unborn and the poor, for strengthening marriage and the social safety net, for the religious freedom of Catholics and non-Christians, and for every other Catholic principle, regardless of partisan divides, is vital for generating change in the pews and reducing polarization.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops currently advocates for this communitarian approach. But it has to resonate from the top to the bottom in the Church, and this message needs to be spread with verve and passion. American Catholics must not seek merely cosmetic societal change, but a real revolution of solidarity. Catholic leaders should try to rally Catholics behind a whole life approach that confronts the gravest threats to human life and dignity in our society and around the world.

This will profoundly challenge both major political parties. Yet Catholics should join a party, even a third party, if they feel it is the most suitable way to advance the common good. For an everyday Catholic, joining a party almost always maximizes his or her influence. Being an Independent may give one a sense of purity, separated from the messiness of party politics, but too often it means inactivity until one is deciding which flawed candidate they will support in the general election. Membership in a party does not need to lead to the abandonment of one’s principles.

Being in a party does not signal agreement with the entire platform, particularly in a two-party system. Practically, the parties will not change without the pressure of internal reformers and/or a powerful, organized movement outside of the party, such as a strong third party that threatens its viability. Joining a party and sticking to one’s Catholic beliefs is therefore a key way to reduce polarization. Ultimately, Catholics are called to stand up for their values and to support or oppose specific legislation that will promote or harm the common good, regardless of their party allegiance. Catholics are called to examine their well-formed consciences in deciding for whom they should vote, as they consider all the important issues that affect the common good. They can do this in a party, if they refuse to be partisans before Christians.

More Responsible Political Engagement and Discourse

A third essential element in confronting polarization is more responsible political engagement and discourse. The incredibly harmful impact of social media on democracy is not just the product of nefarious anti-democratic actors, but the irresponsible behavior of users. The failure to check sources, show caution before spreading false information, and consider who is writing a post or article and why is pervasive. Even some of the smartest Catholic thinkers recklessly retweet and elevate the most hateful and toxic voices on social media if that individual happens to agree with them on a random subject.

Reducing polarization requires carefully considering what one is sharing and doing the research required to make sure that one is behaving responsibly. It requires a refusal to promote those who disseminate hate, nonsense, and false narratives that intensify polarization and enmity. It requires the discipline to find the best sources and share articles from these sites, rather than those that lack credibility and a moral compass. Being responsible also means carefully considering whether one is engaged in partisan or cliquish behavior that is leading to intellectual sloppiness or unfair attacks on others.

And it means making sure that one is not posting for the rush of endorphins they might get from generating likes, shares, and new followers. Vile racists and partisan hacks flourish on sites like Twitter, which often reward bad behavior. Catholics must remember being virtuous is more important than being popular.

Being more responsible in how we use and consume media and social media should go along with how we interact with others offline. Authentic dialogue can help to reduce partisanship, polarization, and unnecessary hostility. Dialogue is possible when the desire for it is mutual and sincere. There is no such thing as unilateral dialogue, though we should never treat someone in a way that ignores their worth and dignity as a person. But dialogue is possible when there is a mutual willingness to listen to one another, to take in new information and be open to modifying one’s views based on that information, and to attempt not to coerce but to persuade the other person. This type of dialogue is critical in a democracy. Its absence is one reason why our democracy is short-circuiting. And it has the potential to draw people away from the bumper sticker slogans of popular ideologies and partisan rhetoric.

But this does not mean that one must engage in dialogue with everyone. Some forums, like social media, are not well-suited for engaging in this type of dialogue. It is perfectly fine to avoid certain conversations and to block people on social media if their tactics or dehumanizing views are causing distress or irritation. Many of these individuals have no interest in dialogue. Engaging with them will simply be a waste of time. And it is not necessary to have a relationship with everyone that one runs across in real life or online. It may even be necessary for some people to move on from relationships that already exist, if they are no longer worth the costs associated with maintaining them.

In evaluating politicians and their rhetoric, Catholics should be neither naïve nor cynical. Some people argue that it is best to assume that everyone has good intentions. But they do not. And it is extremely reckless as a citizen to assume that politicians have good intentions when their record shows otherwise. It harms democracy. There is no Christian responsibility to believe lies and there is no shortcut to prudence. When the evidence shows a disconnect between a politician’s actions and rhetoric, it is not wrong to attempt to evaluate their intentions rather than assume they are entirely benign. Furthermore, intentions are not everything. They are relevant for a politician’s eternal soul, but not nearly as important for a voter as the concrete impact of the politician’s behavior and voting record. Likewise, engaging with fellow citizens does not require assuming they are interested in sincere dialogue or the flourishing of all people. Ideally there would be some level of trust between public servants and voters, as well as between two Catholics discussing the best way to advance Catholic principles, but this trust must be rooted in reality.

We also need more responsible behavior by the Catholic media in the U.S., which too often has been deeply irresponsible and helped to fuel Catholic polarization. Some Catholic outlets engage in openly partisan behavior and put their ideology above Church teaching. Some of these completely distort Church teaching to advance their ideological objectives. Most disturbingly, a number have become rabidly opposed to the pope and staunch defenders of the throwaway culture, bigotry, and a toxic alt-Catholicism. No Catholics should support these alt-Catholic publications in any way. Church leaders should warn everyday Catholics about how hostile they are to Catholic values. Catholics should also be aware of their biases. These outlets can still have worthwhile content, but readers must be responsible so that they can discern what is worthwhile and sincere and what is not.

The middle of the road Catholic outlets have also engaged in irresponsible behavior. Some have shown more interest in the status or name of the writer than the quality and integrity of their argument. They have provided a forum to bigots who do not deserve a forum anywhere in mainstream media. One of the biggest problems is that these media outlets have often further empowered ideologues, providing doctrinaire liberals and conservatives with yet another forum, while those who are both pro-life and pro-social justice are given less space to defend Church teaching and the pope’s agenda, something that is already very limited in the broader media landscape.

Catholic periodicals that are run by religious orders, or those that profess to uphold Catholic teaching or claim to be “Catholic first,” should almost certainly be posting very little that opposes Church teaching and nothing that distorts it. Those that do wish, in the name of open-mindedness or the desire to reflect the views of the larger population, to promote the writing of Catholics with non-Catholic worldviews or those who dissent from core Catholic principles should again refuse to run articles that distort Church teaching or cloak their dissent.

They should also eschew false balance. By permitting dissent on something like economic justice, but not on a topic like abortion, these outlets are legitimizing one form of dissent, which is one reason why this dissent is a bigger problem in the USA than anywhere in the world. Catholic Social Teaching, as Pope Francis has said, is all non-negotiable. Outlets that create a special set of “non-negotiables,” against the direction of the pope, while taking an otherwise relativistic approach are deeply harming the Church. False balance by the press and Catholic institutions, where those who are orthodox on one side are treated the same as dissenters on the other side of the political aisle, makes polarization more prevalent, problematic, and bitter. If an outlet wants to have a wide-open approach, it should be done sincerely and fairly. If it cannot or will not, it should cease to provide special treatment to certain pernicious forms of dissent.

Reducing Animosity Across Party and Ideological Lines

The changes required to reduce polarization are considerable and not very easy to achieve. We can expect polarization to persist in the immediate future. It is therefore worthwhile to consider how we might reduce enmity in such a polarized environment.

Authentic dialogue can be a means of persuading others to move away from their ideology toward Catholic Social Teaching or to embrace parts of Catholic Social Teaching that they reject, but it can also be a way to come to a greater understanding with those who continue to hold different views.

It is important to remember that Catholics without a Catholic worldview or who publicly dissent are still Catholic. We should not want them to leave the Church. We should want to persuade them to embrace a fully Catholic worldview, which is a lot easier if they do not feel they are being pushed out of the Church. While some dissenting ideologues seek to expel people from the Church in order to remake it in their ideological image, this approach is fundamentally contrary to the Christian mission. These ideologues have often been the champions of the weaponization of the sacraments. But as Pope Francis has made clear, sacraments are not a prize for the most virtuous or just. One way to reduce enmity is to firmly reject such approaches and affirm that Catholics are still Catholic.

Another way to reduce the enmity so often generated by polarization is to love people with terrible political opinions. That means not letting politics dominate everything or trying to create a bubble where one is only surrounded by those who meet the most exacting standards of wisdom and virtue. Many people have little understanding of the nuances of policy debates and are easily swept up by bumper sticker slogans and propaganda. Our lives can still be enriched by their presence.

Another downside of social media has been that people broadcast toxic views so frequently, it can be hard to compartmentalize that part of them and preserve a relationship. But preserving relationships with family and friends is conducive to both our flourishing as persons and reducing polarization. There will be times when it is exceptionally frustrating, but it is often in these relationships where people will be exposed to new ideas and information that leads to the evolution of their views.

Of course, that does not mean we must stay friends with everyone or place ourselves in conversations and situations that continually bring us misery. For someone who believes in human dignity, it can be hard to be around someone who thinks sick kids don’t have a right to healthcare or that unborn children are better off dead than raised in poverty. And sadly millions of Americans believe these types of things. This is particularly true if one has experienced certain forms of dehumanization firsthand. If someone is propping up structural racism or treating a politician who brags about sexual assault like he is a great role model, no one should criticize those who have experienced this racism or been subject to sexual assault for not feeling comfortable in the presence of a person who holds such views. Scolding people for not wanting to be around those spouting such rhetoric, particularly if it is in a hostile way, is wrong. At the same time, it is possible to be friends with those who have radically different worldviews, and this is a great foundation for dialogue and learning how to live together in a pluralistic society.

One critical way to reduce enmity is for American Catholics who are publicly dissenting from Church teaching to be honest about their dissent. Catholics should not overstate their knowledge of Church teaching or their commitment to it. They should not distort it—intentionally or through neglect. And they should never downplay it or undermine it by making it seem optional by twisting concepts like intrinsic evil or the need for prudential reasoning. They should describe Church teaching in a way that is clear and fair, having examined it with the desire to fully understand and accept it. If ultimately, having looked at Church teaching in its best light, they feel that core Catholic principles and factual reality point to a different conclusion than what the Church teaches and they wish to discuss this publicly, they should be honest and clear about it and explain precisely why. The Catholic press should likewise set such standards for those who wish to write in Catholic publications or appear on a Catholic television network, if they publish or broadcast dissent. Efforts to hide dissent undermine trust. Dishonesty generates hostility. To reduce animosity, American Catholics should approach public dissent with honesty and integrity.

These are three ways to reduce enmity and conflict, but there are times when a confrontational approach is appropriate. It can be contentious to consistently defend the dignity of all people, particularly when a careful, thoughtful approach is met with hostility. There are times when conflict is necessary. In a democracy, where verbal jousting can be a substitute for violence when ideas and interests clash, this can be viewed as a peaceful means for resolving conflict. But it is also clear that at other times, arguments and debates can be a total waste of time. Often there are more fruitful ways to spend one’s time. On social media, it is often wise to block trolls and those looking to pick fights. It is often a waste of time to hate-read simplistic hot takes.

Most people would be better off spending their time reading a limited number of good, thoughtful writers, rather than a wide range of superficial op-eds by writers feigning expertise. And responsible citizens should be willing to put in the time to find genuine experts if they wish to make definitive statements on exceptionally complex policy matters and to read books, white papers, and other resources that take the subject seriously. We might also hope that Catholic outlets will favor precise, thoughtful, nuanced articles by competent writers and commentators over sensationalism, hot takes, and clickbait. Real dialogue can reduce enmity, but it requires responsibility and work. In the absence of these, enmity too may grow worse before it starts getting better.

Featured Image: Lothar Meggendorfer & Franz Bonn, Was soll ich werden 38, 1888; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Robert G. Christian III

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, an online journal by millennial Catholics on politics, religion and culture.   

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