The polarization of Catholics in debate

An editorial titled "Community of Disciples," in the current issue of America, takes on the often harsh rhetoric that increasingly characterizes exchanges in the Catholic community. The blogosphere is only one venue where this is true. What's at stake here is not just which side is right on any of several issues but rather the integrity of the Church's identity and the effectiveness of its mission.

-from America, June 22, 2009

St. Ignatius Loyola suggests that in any exchange, “it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” To this call for charity, St. Ignatius added that if correction is necessary, it ought to be delivered with respect and kindness. Those qualities of respect and kindness have at times been hard to find in many of the heated arguments in which American Catholics have found themselves embroiled over the past 12 tumultuous months.

Can a Catholic in good conscience vote for Barack Obama? For John McCain? May pro-choice politicians be given Communion? Should the legal fight to overturn Roe v. Wade bear the full weight of Catholic political energy; or are there other, more effective strategies for combating the culture of death? Should the University of Notre Dame award an honorary degree to President Obama, or even invite him at all? Should there be more frequent celebrations of the liturgy in Latin; and if so, what version of the Mass texts should be used? Issues like these have always sparked much discussion in the Catholic community, but they are now often dominated by a tone that is decidedly dangerous—harsh and often lacking in respect or courtesy.

This rhetoric has threatened the credibility of the church, as the Catholic tradition of trust and toleration has been de-emphasized. Even a few bishops have made statements like “We are at war” and “Tolerance is not a Christian virtue,” suggesting that any notion of the common good has given way to a sharply defined “us versus them” mentality. Such rhetoric also subtly undermines the Catholic principle of subsidiarity first put forth by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, according to which a pluralistic social structure allows and encourages constructive input from a variety of groups on the grass-roots level.

This polarization must stop; otherwise our identity as a faith community will be torn asunder and Catholicism will cease to be an elevating force for change.

(Read the complete editorial here)


  1. What is most important is that one's actions match one's rhetoric. A case in point:

    Shouldn't there have been some tolerance for this form of speech on the campus of a Catholic university?

    Irish Gal

  2. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on "Obama at ND's Commencement."

    I believe what happened to Fr. Weslin was sad indeed. I understand, however, that he was arrested not for what he was saying but for trespassing boundaries established by the University to keep order.

    If I am incorrect on this point, I'd be grateful for the clarification.

  3. Concord Pastor,

    It is sad, isn't it? That old priest was arrested a couple of days before the President arrived at Notre Dame. I cannot imagine that Fr. Weslin's small group was a threat to Notre Dame at any time; they were not blocking buildings or shouting at passersby.

    Unfortunately, Fr. Jenkins chose not to meet or talk at any time to any protesters. He refused to meet with students and faculty members who protested the visit, in addition to seeking the arrest of those who arrived for peaceful protests beforehand.

    It certainly would be charitable, at this point, for Notre Dame to drop charges, but that apparently is not to be. Nor will Fr. Jenkins answer questions on this matter, according to the American Papist blog.

    This very much points up the need for dialogue among Catholics -- even among priests!

    Irish Gal

  4. Just a quick thought here, but where exactly are venues where people of differing opinions are able to engage in debate??
    I think they're hard to come by as is the ability by many to debate, discuss, converse. People spend a lot of time thinking and saying what THEY think, but much less time listening or really reflecting on what they've heard.
    Maybe schools and churches would be a place to start and Catholics with differing opinions could learn the skills to listen and look for commonalities where they could work on solutions together. What we have now IS NOT WORKING.

  5. Today I was at daily mass, a rare occasion even though I work at a church, and I really felt today's Gospel deeply.

    This line in particular struck me as I thought and prayed about blogging and how contentious we all can be, "But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil."

    I have prayed with it all day. In the end, I am always stuck with so many feelings about all this dissent. It is harmful to the church and I am afraid that if we keep focusing it solely on specific events (Obama at ND for example) then we get nowhere.

    How do we literally re-member the Body of Christ if we are all stuck in our own corners?

    All I can think of is Jesus talking to that Samaritan woman. Would we do the same?

    Would I do the same?

    I always wonder - what is the wisdom question in a particular situation. If we have nothing but harsh words and an unreasonable need to be right, where can the wisdom emerge?

    I find myself avoiding comments on contentious blogs more and more lately. It just seems to have no point.


  6. I was so overtired when I wrote that comment I don't think I expressed myself well.

    What I mean to say is this - how do we continually forgive one another? How do we find the place of engagement?

    Rhetorically I must ask - are there places where there can be no reconciliation?

    I believe that there must always be room for reconciliation, otherwise what hope is there?

    And if hope is the goal, being tightly tied to only my own viewpoints leads me to a place of no hope.

    Speaking of hope - I hope that this makes sense, as I am as tired today as I was last night!


  7. PS - I do not have the time nor am I alert enough to find out the answer to the point about Jenkins.

    I think that it is not accurate that he refused to meet with folks but there is more detail and nuance to that - and that is what I can't follow up on right now.

    Does anyone else know the accurate details?


  8. Well, you don’t need to go to Notre Dame to see arrests made in church disputes. We had two such situations right here in the Archdiocese of Boston. (see link below)

    The arrests in South Natick, requested by the pastor, pulled Catholic parishioners out of their church on CHRISTMAS EVE. How Christian.

    Another example of taking a position and digging in your heals is the 5 churches that are still in vigil, occupied by their parishioners. There should be a way to settle these disputes without waiting for Rome to make a win / lose decision. For the love of God, this has been going on for 5 years!

    Cardinal O’Malley has the power to negotiate a resolution that could work for both sides. But, that requires dialog.


  9. To Fran,

    Here's source of the ND story by a blogger who has been inteviewed as an expert by major media. There is accuracy and detail in his posts as well as "nuance."


    (Tom Peters is the son of Ed Peters, a famous American canon law professor and writer.)

    A question: How much time should one devote to "dialogue"?

    Is "dialogue" always the answer in dealing with an evil?

    Neville Chamberlain engaged in dialogue with Hitler, and even won a formally negotiated agreement. Churchill denounced that dialogue and was reviled for his hardline stand.

    Eisenhower chose not to engage in dialogue with the authorities in Little Rock, and instead sent in US Marshals to physically escort black schoolchildren into school. This approach lacked "nuance," certainly. But was it wrong?

    Is dialogue such a moral imperative? When do you decide the time for dialogue is over? When rights are being violated? When lives are at stake?

    To the priest arrested at Notre Dame -- and that's not such ancient history that we need put it aside yet -- lives were at stake. How is he not in the category of those civil rights protesters whose presence Notre Dame more than welcomed Back in the Day?

    I, too, have many questions on this issue.

    Irish Gal

  10. Thank you, ConcordPastor, for broaching this subject on your site and to those who have responded. It has given me much to think about.

    I would think that areas of reconciliation in the area of Catholics who have differing opinions on "pro-choice"/"pro-life" might be mutual efforts for a local orphanage or home for unwed mothers, the local parish school, tutoring &/or helping families who are suffering economically. I think there are many areas of commonalities. Those who are pro-choice are not adverse to helping women who have chosen to continue their pregnancy.
    And, is the abortion issue the only issue of interest to Catholics these days? I don't hear the same rhetoric surrounding individuals' opinions on the death penalty or whether or not a politician voted for or against the war.
    It seems to me there's plenty of areas in the world, in the country, and in our own neighborhoods that need thoughtful reflection and an infusion of community and faith.
    To really create lasting change tolerance will be required. And patience. However, there always are some folks just don't play well with others. Or those for whom being right supercedes seeing the right things get done.
    Thanks for your time.

  11. Maybe a good place to start, give direction and example is among those who are suppose to be leading us...our bishops. Polarization will only get worse, IMO, if the bishops can't find a way to agree. Time for them to concentrate on the conversion of souls and leave the changing of society to those souls they have successfully changed.

  12. Concord Pastor,

    Censorship of those who think differently?

    Irish Gal

  13. The issue was raised in an "anonymous" comment above of ND President Jenkins' willingness to meet with ND students regarding the invitation to President Obama. Here's what CNS reported:

    Fr. Jenkins had initially offered to participate in a closed-door meeting with 25 members of the Notre Dame Response Student Coalition (ND Response), formed in reaction to Notre Dame’s invitation to the president to deliver the commencement address and to receive an honorary law degree.

    The invitation of the president has sparked massive protests from Catholics and other pro-life advocates who thought Obama should not be honored.

    Mary K. Daly, spokeswoman of ND Response, wrote an April 6 letter to Fr. Jenkins, saying his offer was not an adequate option. The coalition asked that the meeting include all student members of ND Response and some of the group’s faculty and staff supporters. ND Response said it would guarantee fewer than ten students would speak or engage with Fr. Jenkins and suggested two large auditoriums be considered as meeting places.

    “The content of this meeting will be available to the public following its event in the form of a transcript and live video recording: True dialogue only comes with accountability,” Daly’s letter added.

    According to an April 14 statement from ND Response, Fr. Jenkins replied that “conditions for constructive dialogue simply do not exist” and informed the students that they could disregard his earlier invitations to meet with him.

  14. Irish Gal: There's a bit of a process a blogger needs to go through to publish a submitted comment and upon publication, the blogger then receives a confirmation of it. When a number of comments come in together, it can be confusing to the blogger (at least to this one). Actually, I'm surprised that it doesn't happen more often that a comment I think I've published isn't actually posted.

    Such was the case with the comment you submitted on June 16 at 9:03 a.m. I had no intention of not publishing it and indeed thought it had gone through until your recent message indicated otherwise. I searched my files, found it, found that it had not been published, and now have published it. Because Blogger publishes according to the time originally received, your comment appears above (scroll up) and not as the most recent comment.
    My apology for the error.

  15. Irish Gal: You'll notice, perhaps, that along with your earlier post, I made an error with a regard to a post from Michael, submitted at almost the same time, and only posted now.

    My apology to Michael.

  16. Good afternoon and "goodbye",
    Yes, "God be with you" all. It is time for me to bow out of this blog, to which I have been an infrequent contributor anyway. Shades of grey are not acceptable tints to some of the writers, to whom there seems to be but one way to be Catholic. That indeed is their right, but some of us live in hope that God will accept us despite our failure to be self-proclaimed "good Catholics."

  17. Maeve, Faithful Catholics come in many forms. One of the things I love about Catholicism is its' diversity. Some may try and tell you that there is only one way to the "truth". They are wrong. The beauty of the Church is the inclusion of the many who see God in many different ways. I don't see this blog and/or ConcordPastor as one that proclaims that there is only one way to be a good Catholic. Now that would be boring and not worthy of discussion.

  18. Maeve,
    I hope that you will continue to tune into ConcordPastor.blogspot.com. You don't have to read the comments, just enjoy the wonderful array of entries by Concord Pastor...

    It is unfortunate that some of the commentary has brought you to your decision.

    It is unfortunate that Concord Pastor has to apologize to someone, because he inadvertently overlooked a comment.

    It is unfortunate that Concord Pastor has to halt commentary because of the tone or direction it takes.

    It is unfortunate and sad.


  19. Oh dear - it breaks my heart to see Maeve, or anyone, leave this blog because of the debate. If there is a voice of wisdom in the blogworld, it is found in CP.

    One of the reasons I come to this blog consistently is because of the lack of judgment and vitriol that I find in other places.

    The CP and I have disagreed but I have never felt inclined to step back or keep silent.

    If we can't share and discuss - how will we be transformed or transform others?

    God's work is not static, it is never done and the hum of creation is found in our mutual contributions and conversations, if you ask me.


  20. Irish Gal- I hear what you are saying but I do think that we may see the world in different ways.

    While I acknowledge the presence of evil in the world, I will not stop my dialogue. As a Catholic, I believe that our primary worldview is one of creation and goodness. If I disengage with what I might perceive as evil then I may be withdrawing from the very wound grace calls for me to heal in myself and in the world.

    Not that I am so cooperative. As I often say, my day starts with "thy will be done" and I spend the rest of the day renegotiating.

    God has yet to give up on any of us, who am I to stop when He does not?

    I wish I could say that I live this well, but not always. I am however, forever trying.

    And please forgive me this if you can, but doesn't everyone trot out Neville Chamberlain when justifying no dialogue?

    And dialogue and contact do not always mean appeasement or engagement, it just might mean leaving the door open, albeit slightly.

    Perhaps this is not a good example, but I love this particular story as a way of seeing how reconciliation can be made manifest.


  21. Well, I already told Fr. Fleming I was taking a break, but I want to thank you, Fran, for tiptoeing around the Neville Chamberlain story. It probably needs updating.

    So how about a more recent example? There's the story of Daniel Pearl, who wanted to talk and write about the worldview of the jihadists. Open and unarmed, looking for dialogue...

    Dialogue is a tool, not a goal. If it turns out to be an obstacle to a goal, a distraction -- or at worse a ploy to run out the clock -- it should be abandoned. It should never take the place of necessary action.

    'Bye. Irish Gal.

  22. Fran, thanks for the link to such a lovely story of reconciliation. Our world, our church needs to work towards reconciliation. Why is it so difficult? Why is there such an unwillingness to see the other person's view? Why can't we try to help one another to achieve the common good for all? Lots of "whys." Not too many answers.


  23. Rosemary, I have so many thoughts about this it is hard to ever express them all.

    Not so long ago I was much more attached to "my way" but between my life in two parishes these days, my life at theology school and my life on the blogs... not to mention my life life, I see it differently now. That is grace.

    I have learned so much from just listening to another, even when I did not want to listen.

    Glad you liked the story, I so love that story. I read it quite by accident during the weekend of Corpus Christi. The cup and the spilled wine made me think it might not be an accident that I read it then!


  24. I agree with Maeve.


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