WASHINGTON, D.C. — From the windows of Georgetown’s Riggs Library, one can spot the dome of the nation’s Capitol building, ground zero for some of the country’s most heated debates and home to politicians who, increasingly, seem unable to work together to reach solutions on anything at all.

Inside that library, however, more than 80 prominent and emerging Catholic leaders gathered this week in an effort to see how a unified American Catholic Church might offer a better way forward.

“Though Many One: Overcoming Polarization through Catholic Social Thought,” hosted by the Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, served as an attempt to break across current divides within the Church and to take advantage of the momentum of the Francis papacy to positively influence public life.

Over the past year, the Initiative’s executive director, John Carr, and co-convener Kim Daniels, a member of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, worked with an outside advisory committee to bring together a diverse list of individuals representing various political, racial, and ecclesial perspectives.

The requirements for participation: Goodwill and a commitment to Pope Francis and his predecessors’ teaching. The central ingredients: the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

The result: an exhausting few days of honest discussion, a mix of laughter and tears, and, ultimately, as described by Carr: hope, because “this new generation doesn’t carry the baggage that people like me carry” and “a model — models — for moving forward and the relationships to make it possible.”

Setting the Stage

Kicking off the first day was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, who anchored the Convening squarely in what he described as following “the beautiful model of Pope Francis — not just in content, but in his whole style of bringing people together.”

From the outset, the organizers of the Convening were clear that this was not a forum for internal matters of Catholic debate, such as questions over communion, but rather a willingness to think with Francis was expected and assumed.

“While the name changes — Pius, John, Paul, John Paul, Benedict, Francis — it’s still Peter speaking, isn’t it?” said Wuerl. “And we inside the Church, we who are blessed to be called to that heritage, we simply have to continually recognize we have a touchstone, we have an ultimate reference point that can help us overcome whatever divergences might be.”

He went on to stress the “obligation” of Catholics to engage in civil discourse — a theme echoed by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who, along with Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, headlined the opening morning of the Convening, along with a public discussion later in the day.

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(Credit: Lisa Helfert / Georgetown University)

Civil argument has been a central part of the country’s tradition, Cupich argued, noting that “the American heritage is not that we are divided by our differences, religious and otherwise, but that we are united in arguing about them for the purpose of creating new solutions, forging a more perfect union.”

Recalling the 2015 visit of Pope Francis to the United States, Cupich said, “He urged us bishops ‘to dialogue fearlessly,’ but by always first affirming others as persons,” and he encouraged participants to do the same.

In order to frame the debate, Cupich drew a distinction between partisanship and polarization. Partisanship, he argued, is often division over approaches to different issues but still allows for the possibility of working together to accomplish shared ends.

With polarization, he warned, “it is the people themselves who are divided, living an isolated and siloed existence in their own spheres, depending on different sources of information, and distrustful, if not dismissive, of the other group and their sources of information.”

St. John Paul II, Cupich went on to note, called polarization sinful, “because it raises seemingly implacable obstacles to fulfilling God’s plan for humanity.”

Gomez also drew from John Paul II, who decried the “pulverization of the human person,” and extolled Francis for providing a way out, citing his lament that “we are experiencing a moment of the annihilation of man as the image of God.”

Catholics, Gomez contended, are tasked with being saints and apostles to the world and to offer a different vision for humankind through sharing the message of Jesus Christ.

“That is why there is no ‘polarization’ in the community of saints; and there are no ‘single-issue’ saints,” he continued, in a memorable phrase that would pepper the rest of the conversations throughout the gathering.

“The saints teach us that whenever human life is threatened, whenever the image of God is obscured and violated, we are called to rise up and defend it,” said Gomez.

Catholic Social Thought as a Solution

If the goal of the Convening, as described by Wuerl, was to set a table where folks of varying backgrounds within the Church could feel welcome, the organizers served up a meal of Catholic Social Thought with the conviction that it could bring together a wounded and divided family.

In a panel discussion at the start of day two, Meghan Clark, a theologian at St. John’s University in New York, Princeton Professor Robert George, and E.J. Dionne and Christine Emba of the Washington Post, all offered various takes on how they believed the Church’s social teaching is critically important, while at the same time revealing areas of disagreement in how it should be interpreted or implemented.

Clark insisted that the starting point must always be listening to those at the margins of society, rather than to those in a position of power — hence, she argued, the preferential option for the poor must be a place where these conversations begin.

“Only after we start there can we enter into a political conversation,” she said.

George, however, said that Catholics should unite around true principles as a starting point.

“If we unite around a principle that isn’t true, our unity will be worthless,” he insisted.

For George, Catholics must insist that “the principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family” be the starting point.

And, in the spirit of the Convening’s mission “not to paper over differences but to engage them,” panelists used those starting points to engage in a lively discussion on whether efforts should be directed at making abortion illegal or at reducing the number of abortions that take place, as suggested by Dionne.

In the context of the recent Irish referendum which legalized the practice in the country for the first time in its history, the discussion gained particular fervor, with Catholic University of America moral theologian David Cloutier later noting that it revealed that one of the fundamental divides in the Church is over what Catholics should be prophetic about, versus what they should be willing to negotiate.

Yet despite such internal divisions, both Dionne and George agreed that Catholic Social Teaching should seriously challenge Catholics belonging to both parties, and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who is not Catholic, later used his time at the Convening to note that the Church’s social teaching is the only way out of the country’s current divisions.

Emerging Leaders

(Credit: Lisa Helfert / Georgetown University)

If one of the goals of the Convening was to bring together well-known Catholics often seen as in rival camps, it certainly succeeded on that front: long-time sparring partners on the Church’s approach to LGBT Catholics, Father James Martin and Robert George, were spotted not only on a roundtable together, but later taking a selfie photo together (the proof is on Twitter, naturally). Another key goal, however, was to introduce a younger generation of leaders to one another so that they might not inherit the fallout of a previous generation’s struggles.

In one roundtable on the costs of polarization within the Church, Elise Italiano, executive director of The Given Institute, talked about the damage of intra-ecclesial wars on her fellow millennials.

“For many in this room who are emerging leaders in the academy, ministry, and apostolates, it’s really hard to ignore the polarizing attitudes and language that many of our mentors and guides have embraced,” she said.

“While the intra-ecclesial debates about Pope Francis, continued culture wars and fights over how exactly we’re supposed to implement Vatican II take place, our peers are being carried out in spiritual body bags in front of our eyes,” she continued.

Bishop Chris Coyne of Burlington, Vermont explored a similar theme in his homily at a Mass during the Convening’s second day, noting that he’s experienced similar divides between older priests and newly ordained ones.

He said that he likes to remind the younger priests not to forget that older priests watched thousands of priests leave the priesthood in the years after the Second Vatican Council while they remained. By contrast, he says, he tells older priests not to forget that younger priests saw firsthand the fallout from the Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis, and yet they still embraced their calling.

What they all share, Coyne insisted— citing a recent study to evidence his point — was celebrating the sacraments, preaching, being and living in communion together, and helping those in need.

“There is so much more that unites us than divides us,” he said.

Helping a new generation transcend those divides is why Daniels said there was special attention to inviting individuals between the ages of 30 and 50.

“We had diocesan leaders who are doing innovative things at the ground level, and we had young writers, academics, and nonprofit leaders,” Daniels told Crux.

“It’s just fantastic to see the energy that comes from them and their desire to look forward and not backward and engage with the range of integrated issues that are important to Catholics,” she said.

That focus on bringing fresh energy was met with relief, according to Jordan Denari Duffner, a millennial Catholic writer who focuses on Muslim-Christian relations.

“One of the things I have deeply appreciated about this Convening is the commitment to involving young, lay leaders,” Denari Duffner told Crux. “John and Kim don’t simply see us as potential leaders down the road who are in need of mentorship, but as individuals who are already contributing to the Church’s mission and serving as leaders in the Church.”

Gaudete et Exsultate in Action

One of the reoccurring themes of the three-day conference was Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, which focuses on the call to personal holiness.

From Wuerl’s opening remarks, to the Convening’s penance service, to references to it during a range of individual breakout sessions, it was the most single-cited document throughout the whole affair.

While Daniels told Crux that the frequent citation of the document was unintentional, the call to holiness is inseparable from combatting the polarization that has plagued Catholics in recent years.

“Holiness points our every day lives towards Jesus and living out the truths of our faith as best we can,” she said.

“That has practical consequences: as an effort to live out love and truth, it leads to practical ways to try to seek unity, and it leads to a joy in living our faith and working toward expressing the gospel in public life that is infectious, engaging, and persuasive,” Daniels said. “It’s what Catholics need to do in the public square today.”

Next Steps

While some participants lamented the fact that it took more than a full day for new relationships to start to form, or that entire gatherings are needed tackle the polarization of specific issues ranging from abortion to immigration to racism, by the concluding session there was an overwhelming sense of gratitude that swept through the room during its closing hours.

For an event that managed to bring together the founder of the “Nuns on the Bus” initiative — one of strongest Catholic groups to back the Obama administration’s healthcare overhaul — alongside the head of the religious liberty law firm that later challenged part of that law in court, it proved to be a model of what Francis has termed a “culture of encounter.”

“At the beginning, you could feel the anxiety and the curiosity, but that gave way to openness and engagement,” Carr told Crux.

At the concluding session, participants spoke of going back to their own dioceses to see how they might start similar initiatives at home, others attested to their own guilt in once viewing some of the fellow participants as caricatures, but were now ready to partner together on joint projects, and there was a widespread consensus that Catholic Twitter should be better used as a tool for evangelization rather than tearing one another apart.

“One worry was that it was going to be ‘can’t we just get along’ in a shallow way, and the other fear was that we’d just fight the old battles,” Carr said, “but people know there’s just too much at stake.”

From day one there was a vocalized fear of the Convening devolving into a mere kumbaya “pitfall” of individuals playing nice, blissfully ignoring serious differences and challenges, and never committing to concrete action.

Yet, as Jeanne Isler of Faith in Public Life pointed out on the final day, Kumbaya — once sung by former slaves in their Gullah language — means “Come by here, Lord.”

“It’s an invitation for Christ to really be with us and guide us,” she noted.

The point being, she continued, without that intention, everything is for naught.

With that, a final prayer was offered, and the closely-watched, high stakes event came to a close, with its organizers giving its participants marching orders to see it as a mere beginning to much more.

“We don’t want a least-common-denominator Catholicism, and we don’t want to just be all talk about what we’ve done here,” said Daniels. “We want to put our faith in action…to build unity in our Church and live out an effective public witness.”