NEW YORK – When Knoxville, Tennessee, resident Tricia Bruce considers the role of Catholic social teaching in contemporary society, one place she looks is the city’s oldest church: Built purposely on a hilltop and later altered with a clock on its steeple to help the townspeople below.

“When I think about the Church’s role up here on the hill … it’s one in which the church has the opportunity to tell the time and remind the town what time it is,” said Bruce, chair-elect of the American Sociologist Association religion section. “That there is common ground; a common good in which we can move together, show up to the train at the right time and move forward.”

For College of the Holy Cross President Vincent Rougeau, sometimes it’s important for Catholics to take a step back in a secularized, divided, society and remember Catholic tradition.

Participants in the December 7, 2021 Georgetown University dialogue “Whatever Happened to the Common Good? Divided by Covid, Torn Apart by Politics, Fractured by Faith”. Top row: John Carr of the Initiative, Tricia Bruce, author and sociologist, and Vincent Rougeau of the College of the Holy Cross. Bottom row: Matthew Dowd, candidate for lieutenant governor of Texas, and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) (Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.)

“Because we are living in a society that is very individualistic, very market-driven, very libertarian, so we sometimes do not do what we could be doing and that’s using our faith tradition to step back from what we’re seeing and to ask ourselves: Maybe we should be questioning this? Maybe we should be offering some alternative visions?” Rougeau said.

Bruce and Rougeau spoke part of a Tuesday, Dec. 7, Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life discussion, “Whatever happened to the Common Good? Divided by Covid, Torn Apart by Politics, Fractured by Faith.”

The conversation explored how a divided society can rediscover the “common good.”

Along with rooting decisions in faith tradition, Rougeau highlighted the importance of listening – a concept that’s integral to Pope Francis’s culture of encounter and the worldwide Synod on Synodality underway at a diocesan level. Embedded within listening, Rougeau further argued that people need to seek discomfort to find common ground.

“If it’s a parish outside of your comfort zone, go to Mass there. Spend time in communities you know little about,” Rougeau, who’s the first black and first lay president at the College of the Holy Cross. “Organize with people whose experience is different from yours. Pray with people whose experience is different from yours.”

The importance of sacrifice can’t be ignored either, he added, explaining that “if it’s not a dialogue with some possibility of movement then we are going to be locked into the positions that we’re in right now.”

Political Leaders Exacerbating the Divide

At a time when partisan lines have been drawn in the sand, Rougeau put the onus on the nation’s political leaders to bring people back together. Especially, he said, because their behaviors are a large part of what fosters divisions in the first place.

“As we work up the leadership chain we see more and more retreat, more and more division, and more of a sense of a winner take all politics that has them coming down and encouraging behaviors that are very destructive,” Rougeau said. “We need to see political leaders in Congress, in our state governors and legislators to understand they have a responsibility to the nation, and they are supposed to be exercising certain values of leaders that promote those.”

Money and gerrymandering – the manipulation of electoral districts to favor a particular political party – are two reasons panelists gave as to why politics has gotten to this divisive place.

U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), the longest serving woman in the history of the House, called it a “pity” that there’s been no campaign reform by Congress. She argues that the money has become so exorbitant and integral to the process it’s kept members from working together. On top of that, she added, gerrymandering has allowed the edges of each political party to flourish while pushing the middle out.

“The system is crazy and that creates less time for members to actually work together,” Kaptur said. “They’re now spending time raising money and also now with the manufactured gerrymandering, what’s happened is both parties are making it impossible for a more moderate set of members to be elected. The edges are being promoted.”

Kaptur used her own state as an example. The new congressional districts map in Ohio – that’s being challenged on both the state and federal level – favor Republicans to win 12 of the 15 congressional districts in the state.

“It’s so out of whack,” she said.

A similar situation exists in Texas. The state was sued earlier this week by the U.S. Department of Justice over the new congressional districts’ maps, alleging the new districts dilute the minority vote. In both Ohio and Texas, the Republican governors have defended the redistricting maps as fair. Other states on both sides of the aisle have faced accusations of gerrymandering.

Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign who is now running for lieutenant governor of Texas said that a debate can be had over “tax policy, education policy and all of that,” but you can’t have “the people sitting at the table no longer represent the country.”

He said one key way to change the present realities of politics in the country is for Americans to drop their unwavering commitment to a particular political party and choose someone that has “integrity and puts the common good first even if they’re with the opposite party.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg