WASHINGTON, D.C. — As impeachment hearings divided the nation Wednesday, several blocks away a blockbuster line-up of Catholic thinkers sought to harness the Church’s social teachings to make sense of increasing political and cultural volatility while, at the same time, wrestling with public witness in a fractured church.

The wide-ranging conversation on “Nationalism, Post-liberalism, and Pope Francis,” was sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. Panelists included New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, journalist Leah Libresco Sargeant and Commonweal editor Matthew Sitman.

Kim Daniels, associate director of Georgetown’s Initiative, moderated the discussion.

Ivereigh began by declaring Francis to be neither a nationalist nor a globalist. Instead, he said, the pope is “making the people below the architects of their own destiny” to counteract technocratic forces and a “throwaway economy.”

As part of his witness to stand with the downtrodden, Ivereigh said the pope “is the world’s leading advocate for migrants” and that how a country receives the foreigner is “a test of who they are ethically.”

Douthat offered qualified agreement, declaring Francis to be “broadly aligned” with his two most recent predecessors but with a particular focus on migrants and operating in a very different political context — one where political and social elites have worsened the economic prospects for middle and lower class people and created a deeper cultural alienation between the governing and working classes.

“Nationalism emerges out of that tangle of economic disappointment and cultural isolation, a sense of cultural decline and social decline,” Douthat said. Among its problems, he said nationalism struggles to find leaders who are not “bigots and hucksters.”

“The Catholic Church is a global church,” he added, discussing Francis’s challenge to lead a multifaceted worldwide institution. “The pope is the shepherd of Catholics in residually Christian nations in western Europe….and the millions, at some point, billions of Catholics who are part of the global south likely to be migrating to the global north and who are seen as a threat.”

Sitman said that what troubles him about much of the current conversation regarding nationalism is that it is occurring at a time when populist leaders such as President Donald Trump and Viktor Orban of Hungary are in elected office, and some individuals defend nationalism “when there are kids in cages at the border and families are being separated.”

“If you have a whole argument to put forward about nationalism but don’t talk about that and you don’t distance yourself from it, in a way you’re providing the intellectual scaffolding for some of these policies and, in a way, you’re giving permission to these things to be done,” he charged.

“Nationalism defines who ‘the people’ are and who falls outside that boundary, and illiberalism lets you treat people who fall outside as essentially not people with rights or dignity,” he added.

While liberalism merits criticism, Sitman cautioned that its fundamental premise that human beings have equal rights and dignity is worth preserving.

In reflecting on the present liberal order, Sargeant spoke of the ways the individual is often forced to disavow any forms of dependence, which, in turn, weakens or severs ties to one’s community.

Throughout the evening, Sargeant attempted to steer the conversation away from abstractions and to focus on community at the local level. She criticized Catholics for spending too much time on internal ecclesial politics without adequately focusing on their neighbors.

“It’s alright if you tweet about Pope Francis, provided that you also invite someone to your house for dinner,” she challenged the audience.

Even so, Douthat and Ivereigh — who have shared several debate stages in recent years over their differing positions on the pope — offered contrasting takes on whether Francis is the antidote to liberalism’s failures, or someone who has conceded too much to modernity.

For Ivereigh, Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ offers the “most compelling account we have of the crisis of liberalism,” in its sweeping critiques of globalism and the market economy and its challenge to individuals and governments alike to reign in rapid and often reckless consumption habits.

Douthat, however, said the “chief pastoral failure of the Francis pontificate is its desire to accuse conservatives first and to understand them second,” saying the reason some U.S. Catholics are troubled by Francis is a “profoundly unfair” assumption in Rome that Americans are too tied to capitalism or xenophobia.

In looking ahead, Sitman and Sargeant offered different visions for correcting liberalism’s failures and whether the emphasis should be on personal conversion or collective action.

“Obviously we should try to live out gospel values, struggle to follow Jesus, to be as holy as we can, but I want to resist counterposing our individual lives and individual decisions against structures and actual political arguments and what we need to do politically,” Sitman argued. “There are certain things you can only address through collective action, and the biggest one of them is the economy.”

“There’s a lot we can only do at the level of policy and in large groups,” Sargeant said in response, adding “It’s important to remember that you have to do both, and I think what the individual witness gives us that the politics often don’t is a sign of hope that an alternative is possible.”

As for a way forward, Sitman and Ivereigh turned to one of Francis’s central themes — that of mercy — as something in short supply in politics and Church life and something that could point a way out of current crises and confusion.

“I think that’s probably the central message of the Francis pontificate, that mercy is central to Catholic doctrine,” said Daniels. “Pope Francis doesn’t bury the lede of the gospel.”

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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