WASHINGTON — When it comes to polarization in the Catholic Church, is Pope Francis helping or hurting?
Catholic media leaders representing the left and right debated this question Thursday night at Georgetown University, and while they agreed Catholics share many beliefs, they said divisions remain.
“I’m a little more skeptical this early in his pontificate around his ability to heal that polarization,” said Gregory Erlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, an Indiana-based Catholic publisher.
R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, founded to defend capitalism at the end of the Cold War, went a step further, saying the pope might not actually mind the division.
“Is he helping overcome divisions? He’s very comfortable with condemnation actually,” he said. “He very quickly condemns traditionalist Catholics, and that’s not always helpful in overcoming polarization.”
The panel, Pursuing the Common Good in a Time of Polarization, was held “to help us become aware of divisions and then move beyond them,” said Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ, vice president for mission at Georgetown.
A good portion of the discussion centered around the ongoing synod on the family, which has seen cardinals sparring publicly, and how the media has covered that event
“If you’re in Washington journalism, you recognize this pattern emerging, the story starts becoming the story,” said Caitlin Hendel, president and CEO of National Catholic Reporter and a former Congressional journalist. “That debate, though, is now becoming the story, and once again, the message that I think Francis wants us to be able to tell, we don’t have the time. These other stories are distracting us.”
Some of the divisions the Catholic Church faces come not from Catholic media, but the wider trends shaping American culture, one speaker said.
“One of the principle problems we have in American society right now is the collapse of our discourse,” Fr. Matt Malone, SJ, editor of America, said. He cited the “intellectual bankruptcy” of political parties and the “slicing and dicing of demographic groups” in media.
“A Catholic journal of any stripe, coming from any orientation in our Catholic community, is going to counter-cultural, it’s going to be edgy,” he said, but said partisanship has “found its way into our ecclesial discourse in disturbing ways.”
All agreed that Catholic media has a role to play in helping educate Catholics and wider society.
“Catholic journalism and Catholic periodicals are really the only widespread adult faith formation tool in the country,” Erlandson said. “The real issue we’re facing is how do we educate Catholic adults.”
When asked if the church still had a role in the public square, Reno said Catholics will increasingly find themselves at odds with what some consider progress.
“In our society, the Catholic Church is in the way of a lot of things that powerful people want,” Reno said, citing abortion, euthanasia, and drug legalization. “And we’re being pushed out of the way.” He said the church is “too big” to retreat, and that it “has a duty to our fellow citizens” not to give up.
There was some disagreement as to whether or not Catholic media should strive to promote unity, or explore the differences that exist among believers.
Malone, at America, said “young people don’t truck in ideology. They’re not interested in it.” He said if Catholic periodicals don’t recognize this, they might not be around for long.
But Reno pushed back.
“We can’t kid ourselves that there isn’t a deep divide,” he said. “We do a disservice to young people to pretend otherwise.”
Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal, a lay-run magazine, said the church isn’t answering the existential questions asked by contemporary Catholics.
“We think that there are new situations facing Catholics, facing Americans, that old answers the church provides don’t quite make sense,” he said. “We believe it seems to me that we need to pursue these questions in an open and responsible way.”
Reno, who converted to Catholicism, said the church should speak more boldly about its teachings, even if they’re at odds with society. As an example, he called same-sex marriage “a luxury good for a rich that is going to be paid for by the poor.” Thee church, he said, should continue its vocal opposition.
Baumann rejected this notion.
“A more likely way forward is meeting people where they are and using the tradition as a resource to answer the questions that people have. I don’t think that these questions can be solved by appeals to authority anymore,” he said.
The panel was hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, formed a year ago by John Carr. Carr, who moderated the event. He said that most Catholics don’t “know the principles” of their faith, and if they do, that they “want to adapt the principles to fit our own ideological and partisan agendas.”
Some panelists expressed concern that too many Catholics close themselves off to examining what they believe to be essentials of the faith.
“I’ve met people who think supporting the minimum wage belongs to the deposit of faith. I don’t think it does,” Malone said, referring to the set of beliefs Catholics are obliged to hold. “I’ve also met people who think natural law philosophy belongs to the deposit of faith, and I don’t think that does either.”
Baumann agreed, and said Commonweal has made an effort to bring in voices that disagree with the magazine’s editorial position, on issues including religious liberty and same-sex marriage.
“None of us has a corner on truth here,” he said.