The Roots of American Catholic Polarization

To talk about the political polarization of U.S. Catholics it is necessary to begin more broadly by talking about overall political polarization in the United States. The reason for this is simple: most American Catholics do not have Catholic worldviews. The primary reason for this is likely that many Catholics have little to no knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching, which sadly remains the Church’s “best kept secret” here, or the underlying philosophical and theological assumptions that shape it. As a result, many Americans let their political ideology or partisan identity shape their faith and political behavior, setting aside Christianity’s radically countercultural demands.

It is important to also examine what polarization is and what it is not. Among Catholics, there are divisions over doctrinal issues and liturgical matters. There are also racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divides. All of these stand in the way of greater unity for the Church. But perhaps no form of polarization is more widespread, divisive, and toxic than political polarization.

There are two primary types of political polarization in our democracy: polarization among elected officials and other political party elites and polarization among voters or the public. High levels of polarization exist when a high percentage of officials or the public have non-centrist views, coalescing around certain ideological poles. In our country right now, there are two major poles: liberal and conservative. Low polarization is when voters or elites are more closely clustered around the center of the political spectrum. Asymmetrical polarization occurs when one pole is at a far greater distance from the center than the other pole, as a result of a recent widespread change in the views of voters or public officials.

Sometimes the term polarization is used when people are actually discussing partisanship. Partisanship is not focused on one’s theoretical views or ideology like polarization but on one’s loyalty to his or her party. Periods of high partisanship exist when there is a great deal of loyalty or conformity to one’s party. In periods of low partisanship, elected officials and voters are more likely to vote across party lines. Negative partisanship, meanwhile, occurs when the driving force is not support of one’s own party but opposition to the other party.

Polarization is also sometimes confused with acrimony or enmity across party or ideological lines. Polarization and partisanship can foster the use of harsh language and a growing number of bitter exchanges between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, but these possible effects are not polarization itself. This is a critical distinction, because some proposed solutions to polarization, such as promoting more polite or friendly behavior, are really more about reducing enmity than polarization, which has structural causes.

Neither polarization nor partisanship is inherently bad in a democracy. Grave injustices have been preserved untouched during periods of low polarization, while important ideas have arisen and important advances have occurred in highly polarized times. At the same time, elite polarization can lead to disastrous stalemate, gridlock, and stagnation, particularly during periods of divided government, where simple compromises are difficult to achieve and the government fails to act on critical matters. This is the situation we have faced in recent years.

We are currently experiencing high levels of both polarization and partisanship (including negative partisanship)—both among the public and public officials (though polarization among the public is lower than among elites). The polarization has been asymmetrical, with Republican officials moving significantly farther from the center than Democrats—though Democrats have moved left on social issues in the last decade and may be poised to move left on economics following the 2018 midterm elections. Importantly, not only is the country and our government deeply divided, but it is also close to evenly split in many ways. This combination very likely contributes heavily to the very high levels of frustration and enmity that we are experiencing as a society.

The various costs of polarization have led many to grow concerned about the rising polarization we are experiencing. But for Catholics with a sincere commitment to Catholic Social Teaching, elite polarization is acutely problematic because neither major pole is aligned with Church teaching. Both contemporary American conservatism and liberalism are rooted in an individualism that is incompatible with the Church’s understanding of the human person and community. As a result, contemporary liberalism’s social libertarianism and conservatism’s economic libertarianism are radically at odds with the Catholic commitment to the common good. Those who share the Church’s pro-life and pro-social justice communitarian approach are grossly underrepresented in Congress and among party leaders.

As many American Catholics take their cues from the ideology of their preferred party, a great deal of dissent from Church teaching exists on both the left and the right. Dissent on the left mirrors the dissent of others in the West, most notably in its support for legal access to abortion. Support for extreme free market beliefs and policies, meanwhile, are a far bigger problem in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. This is in part because laissez-faire theories and social Darwinism have done more to shape the conservative economic ideology of the Republican Party than more communitarian approaches. This is in contrast to conservative Christian Democratic parties around the world, which were instead heavily influenced by Catholic Social Teaching.

Various Catholic Democrats have sometimes tried to defend their support for abortion-on-demand by declaring their personal opposition to the sin of abortion, while claiming they do not want to push their religious beliefs on others by translating that into legal restrictions on access to abortion. This ignores the Church’s understanding that the protection of unborn life is a matter of social justice and human rights, rather than simply an effort to prohibit a sin (even if it is that too).

Numerous Catholic Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to relativize Church teaching on economic and social justice by distorting and stretching concepts like subsidiarity and prudential reasoning to justify an economic ideology that the Church has called a “poisoned spring.” They have tried to create new holes in our already incomplete social safety net, while redistributing wealth to the richest Americans by claiming that such transparently unethical and imprudent measures might somehow be prudent or by conflating subsidiarity with stripping the federal government of its ability to carry out responsibilities that only it can perform. Some go so far as to say Christianity requires only charitable giving, ignoring the need to create more just social structures.

Both polarization and partisanship have grown tremendously in the past few decades. As Democrats lost ground in the South and Republicans grew weaker in the Northeast, the major parties have developed greater ideological cohesion. The ideological sorting of the parties has strengthened liberalism in the Democratic Party and conservatism in the Republican Party. At the same time, there has been a significant increase in the number of Independents, with over 40% of the public identifying as Independents in many recent polls. Many of these Independents lean strongly toward one party or the other, but the absence of these voters—who are often not doctrinaire liberals or conservatives—in the party infrastructure and their inability to vote in many primary elections has allowed ideologues to gain even greater influence with their respective parties.

This process has been intensified by gerrymandering. The use of gerrymandering to create a very high percentage of safe seats that are not competitive in the general election has increased the ideological purity of candidates, as candidates whose party is a strong majority in a district are far more concerned about losing in the primary to a more right-wing or left-wing candidate than losing in the general election. The rise of the Tea Party movement accelerated this trend, challenging very conservative members of Congress from the right in the primaries. At the same time, shifting populations have created more imbalanced districts and even states. Geographic clustering has occurred, in which many people have moved to areas where their neighbors are more likely than not to share their values and lifestyle. This self-sorting is likely making a major contribution to polarization.

Another key factor in rising polarization is the way campaigns are financed and the rising cost of getting elected. The dominant role played by special interest groups is the product of a system that gives the wealthy disproportionate influence. This influence is used to ensure ideological conformity on issues from abortion to taxation, where candidates feel compelled to embrace extreme positions, ignoring their constituents and the larger public’s preference for more middle-of-the-road policies. As a result, the wealthiest members of each party have far greater influence than the average party member.

This is occurring at a time when economic inequality has exploded. We are living in the Second Gilded Age. Where plutocracy advances, democracy and real political participation are eroded. A number of political scientists have found that widening economic inequality itself produces higher levels of polarization.

Talk radio, cable news, and social media also contribute to polarization. Many Americans are now in silos or bubbles, closed off from alternative perspectives and constantly being fed narratives that align with the interests of their party or ideology. This includes the dissemination of fake news on social media. Polarization is not just a difference of opinion at this point, but often a disagreement over the veracity of basic facts.

Another critical element of polarization is the growing polarization on the Supreme Court and increased politicization in the nomination and confirmation process. An argument can be made that Roe v. Wade, and the response it generated, have made this polarization on the Supreme Court inevitable (though there are a variety of factors behind it). Unlike other controversial opinions that resulted in dramatic shifts in public opinion, the country remains deeply divided over the wisdom of the ruling. And the pro-life and pro-choice movements have made appointments to the Supreme Court the central focus of their efforts. There are a sizeable number of single-issue voters on this issue, compared to others, and many view the Court and potential nominees primarily through the prism of how they will rule on abortion. As the parties became more polarized and special interest groups gained more influence, the old norms surrounding Supreme Court nominations have collapsed. Those seeking to advance other ideological objectives through the Court have also used this central culture war clash to promote more ideological nominees who can achieve unrelated policy objectives that are deeply unpopular with the public. The Court is losing legitimacy with this increased politicization and the collapse of certain long-standing norms.

The average Catholic has been shaped by these changes. Catholic institutions and media have also contributed to greater polarization, however, like the secular press, the Catholic press is largely divided between left-wing and right-wing outlets. “Pro-life Catholics” can get their news and tailor their social media feeds from loyal Republicans and conservatives, while “social justice Catholics” can do the same from liberals and Democrats.

Likewise, the middle-of-the-road Catholic outlets have engaged in “both-siderism,” where all sides are treated as equally responsible, valid, and reasonable on a subject (when they are not). Certain approaches to civility and dialogue (often facilitated by vocal opponents of polarization) are actually intensifying polarization by providing yet another forum to ideologues and failing to maximize the influence of Catholics that put Church teaching above their party and ideological preferences. They reinforce and strengthen a status quo that has many Catholics feeling “politically homeless.”

Both Catholic institutions and the press have also engaged in false balance—allowing right-wing dissenters to claim they are orthodox and giving them a forum to distort and discreetly attack Church teaching and spread their ideology. Left-wing dissenters, who are typically open about their dissent, are often excluded from these same panels, periodicals, and other forums. The result is that right-wing dissent is stronger in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. The “libertarian invasion” that Pope Francis has warned about is being aided by Catholic institutions and media. Certain ideologues are given strong incentives to hide their true motives behind the rhetoric of Catholic Social Teaching. If the Francis Effect ever comes to the U.S., this false balance would be overturned in favor of a consistent commitment to Catholic Social Teaching and equal treatment of those who wish to challenge it.

Until recent years, this is what polarization looked like in the U.S. and how it divided American Catholics and distorted the faith. With the rise of Donald Trump, however, populist nationalism—another ideology deeply at odds with Church teaching—has become increasingly important among both elites and the public.

One consequence has been the rise of what many are calling alt-Catholicism. Alt-Catholics in the U.S. set up their own alt-magisterium, one that permits them to reject Church teaching on a range of subjects. The term is fitting because many of these ideological positions align with positions held by the alt-right: antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, hostility to refugees and other migrants, hostility to racial justice, sexism, support for far-right strongmen, democratic backsliding, isolationism, support for the death penalty, and sectarianism. Some seek to discredit Church teaching on economic and environmental justice, as well. To be clear, it is common for alt-Catholics to reject some alt-right positions, while embracing others, and to even openly condemn the alt-right so they will not be associated with white supremacists.

The U.S. has become the epicenter of anti-Pope Francis right-wing dissent. Some of this comes from mainstream Republicans who are opposed to Francis’ social justice agenda. Some of it mirrors the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim populism that is surging around the West. Some of it comes not from polarization, but partisanship, and a greater commitment to Donald Trump than to the pope. Finally, some opposition comes from opponents of Vatican II, who reject much of the last 125 years of Church teaching, including its affirmation of universal human rights and commitment to genuine participation in government, instead favoring integralism, monarchism, anti-democratic paleoconservatism, or another traditionalist ideology.

These alt-Catholic individuals who claim to be orthodox and more Catholic than the pope, despite publicly dissenting from clear Church teaching, have used social media (including troll armies filled with anonymous accounts) and the Catholic press to magnify their favorite narratives and conspiracy theories, despite the small number of U.S. Catholics (and miniscule number of global Catholics) who embrace this approach. Even the mainstream Catholic media, prone to an “all sides matter” mentality and blinded by the distorted reality of the Catholic social media bubble, has confused social media popularity with real world support and magnified their influence.

So as the Church faces the problem of overcoming the big divide in American Catholicism between conservatives and liberals, it must now also contend with a small group of militant, pope-hating far right dissenters that distort and damage the U.S. Church on a daily basis.

All of this comes at a crisis point for the American Church with the fourth wave of the sexual abuse crisis, damaging the Church’s credibility in the eyes of many. Further, attempts have been made to hijack the crisis by ideologues who are seeking to advance a separate ideological agenda. The anti-pope faction, which includes alt-Catholics and opponents of economic justice, has threatened civil war and schism, while attempting to engineer a coup. This has only intensified polarization, and unless changes are made, we are likely to see polarization increase further.



Featured Image: The sinking of the "Cumberland" by the iron clad "Merrimac", off Newport News Va. March 8th 1862; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Before-1924.


Robert G. Christian III

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

Read more by Robert G. Christian III