WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the very grounds where Jesuits once helped fuel one of the most divisive issues in American history, slavery, by selling off human beings to pay down the university’s debts, more than 200 individuals gathered on Monday to discuss ways in which a divided country might become more unified by harnessing the powers of Catholic social teaching.
Georgetown University’s Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life capped off the first day of its summit on “Overcoming Polarization” on Monday with a panel discussion headlined by two of the leading figures in the U.S. hierarchy — Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles — and two of the most prominent women in the American Church — Sister Teresa Maya, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Helen Alvaré, a professor at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School.
Moderated by the Initiative’s executive director, John Carr — who noted that there are few institutions like the Catholic Church that are capable of bridging divides on a range of contentious issues — the event was at times a sober assessment of the issues facing the Church today, but also a chance to cast a vision of what the country and Church might look like if that polarization is overcome.
The Costs and Causes of Polarization
While panelists offered multiple reasons for the root causes of polarization, a common theme that quickly emerged was “fear.”
In noting that she approached America today from a migrant’s perspective, Maya lamented the “tribal instincts” that she views as pervasive throughout the nation. Such tribalism has led to a fear of others, that is “poisoning our souls,” she cautioned.
“Unless you get to know the other, it can justify saying and doing terrible things,” Maya advised.
Cupich echoed that very theme, noting that there are “merchants of fear” in this country who profit from dividing individuals from one another.
“People are taught to be afraid,” he said, “and we have to own that as a nation.”
He went on to condemn the “dehumanizing” result of polarization, further contributing to this climate, “whether that’s the unborn or the migrant.”
Similarly, Gomez cited his experience as an adult immigrant to the United States who now leads the most diverse Catholic diocese in the country and the need to see the humanity of those on both sides of the border.
Alvaré, too, urged a stronger emphasis on the relational aspect of Catholic social teaching, which highlights the “different passions, perspectives, curiosities” people bring.
“I don’t think it’s as much right or left,” she said, rejecting traditional political and ecclesial categorization, so much as it is a matter of “different gifts,” she posited.
Yet if the panel discussion was a time in which panelists painted in broad strokes about the challenges facing Catholics inside and outside of the Church, the question and answer session proved to be a time during which audience participants wanted answers to specific issues, ranging from the role of women in the Church to racism and the Church’s relationship with the LGBT community.
After a tearful question from a mother inquiring about how to respond to her own daughter about sexism in the Church — which was met with audience applause — Maya said that the answer is the same as it was over thirty years ago when a college friend asked how she could remain Catholic as a woman: “the Church is my home.”
“We need to create a Church that is a welcoming place for everyone,” she continued.
Rather than focusing attention on the hierarchy, she encouraged creating a space of welcome in one’s local community.
“We need to start small,” she said.
Alvaré, who was quick to point out that she was not speaking as a theologian, didn’t hesitate to agree: “We need women at every level, including right at the top, who are actually partaking in the conversation about everything.”
While treading lightly on the question of women’s ordination — noting that it was a “temptation to power” – she said that she focused her spiritual reflections on different parts of the body of Christ learning to work together.
Meanwhile, when asked about his role in defending Jesuit Father James Martin for his advocacy in urging greater dialogue between the institutional Church and LGBT Catholics, Cupich offered a strong critique of the way in which fellow Catholics attempted to humiliate him, leading to various parishes, colleges, and Catholic institutions to disinvite him from their campus.
Instead, Cupich invited him to speak at Chicago’s cathedral, acknowledging it was a public attempt to repair the damage done to Martin.
“This was not just about disinviting someone, this was an attempt to publicly humiliate a priest who has given his life to service in the Church,” said Cupich.
“This is wrong,” he said — adding, “this should not happen to somebody.”
And while one of the aims of the panel was to highlight the diverse voices in the Church today, it was not spared criticism that it lacked representation from an African-American.
“The panel is missing that voice, a serious voice,” Carr admitted. While he went on to note that the larger, diverse gathering included black Catholics and was attempting to confront racism head-on, he conceded hers was “a point really well taken.”
What would the Church post-polarization look like?
In thinking about what the Church might look like if it were to overcome polarization, Gomez encouraged a turn to what Pope Francis has termed “missionary discipleship.”
He urged attendees to adopt what the Latin American bishops — including Francis while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires — embraced as the “See, Judge, Act” approach of Catholic social teaching to read the signs of the times and to see where and how the Holy Spirit might be leading the Church to respond.
Cupich also lamented the ways in which “we’ve lost the ability to separate how we feel about another person… from the fact that we disagree with them about a particular issue.”
He derided the idea that others who believe differently — even if they take positions contrary to the Church — should be viewed as suspect.
“I’ve never bought into that,” he said, encouraging an honest curiosity about the other in order to better understand and respect where one is coming from and who they are.
Maya heeded attendees to embrace a practice of “contemplative dialogue,” noting that the spiritual consequences of polarization should be combatted with spiritual resources.
Yet, if the Church is going to overcome stereotypes and silos, Alvaré insisted that it has to do more than just talk, but instead it must illustrate what a full commitment to the Church’s social teaching looks like.
She referenced her time working at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops traveling throughout the country, visiting every diocese except one, seeing everyday Catholics in action.
“What I saw was the lady running the pregnancy center, she’s also helping staff this gigantic warehouse full of stuff for homeless people,” said Alvaré. “I saw that this disparateness was not as existent as much with these people.”
Spotlighting those in the trenches putting the Church’s teaching into practice, Alvaré maintained, is a way to combat what she described as “the false narratives” that contribute to polarization inside and outside the Church – a nod to living the Church’s teaching rather than just talking about it.
With that, Carr closed out the discussion by turning to the U.S. bishops’ document on faithful citizenship, outlining broad principles for Catholics to engage in public life — which, he said, are exemplified by the four panelists at Georgetown.
And, in a manner that resembled more of a benediction than a summation, Carr concluded: “We need to be principled, but not ideological. We need to be civil, but not soft. We need to be engaged, and not used.”