Polarization of Church and society "discouraging" for millennials

Polarization of Church and society “discouraging” for millennials

Polarization of Church and society “discouraging” for millennials

Elise Italiano. (Credit: Catholic University of America.)

Elise Italiano is the executive director of the GIVEN Institute, a Catholic young women's leadership forum. She spoke to Crux about polarization in Church and society.

[Editor’s Note: Elise Italiano is the executive director of the GIVEN Institute, a Catholic young women’s leadership forum. Formerly, she served as the Director of Communications for the Catholic University of America. She was an invited speaker at a recent conference at Georgetown University, which discussed how the moral principles of Catholic Social Thought can help overcome polarization and address the key challenges in a divided and sometimes demoralized society. She spoke to Charles Camosy about her work, and how to overcome polarization in our society and Church.]

Camosy: Most recently you directed communications for the Catholic University of America, but now you have an exciting new job coming up – Can you tell Crux about it?

My career path has been rather an unorthodox one, but proof that sometimes you just trip right through the doorways that God opens up for you. After working in Catholic education and then in public relations for various Church entities, I’ve been entrusted with getting what I think is one of the most exciting organizations for the life of the Church off the ground.

The GIVEN Institute, as we’re called, will launch later this summer. Our aim is to identify and equip the next generation of female leaders for service to the Church and culture through leadership training and faith formation; the creation of a mentoring network; and programming which showcases the diverse and creative ways that Catholic women – lay and consecrated – are using their talents at the service of the Gospel. GIVEN hopes to be a resource for Church officials and organizations with an interest in engaging faithful female leaders.

The timing couldn’t be more providential as we approach the upcoming synod. Young adults have asked the Church to provide them with credible witnesses, opportunities to take on strategic leadership roles, and a more robust understanding of how women’s gifts can be activated for the life of the Church. We hope to deliver these goods in spades.

Though we’re recently incorporated, our history began in June 2016, when nearly three hundred young adult Catholic women gathered for a first-of-its-kind leadership and faith formation conference. The GIVEN Catholic Women’s Leadership Forum, developed by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, brought some of the Church’s most prominent lay and consecrated female leaders, including Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., Prof. Helen Alvaré, Dr. Carolyn Woo, and Sister Norma Pimentel, M. J., among others, in contact with the next generation of young adult Catholic women.

In addition to hearing keynote addresses, participants received mentoring and spiritual guidance from more than 75 religious sisters, had ample networking opportunities, and were guided in the development and execution of an Action Plan in their local communities during the year following the forum.

The event was recognized by organizers, attendees, bishops, lay Catholics, and sponsors as something that should continue into the future. So, here we are.

I’m glad someone with your particular background was at the recent conference on polarization at Georgetown, organized by John Carr’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Life. One criticism of the first conference I helped organize at Notre Dame was that we had too many people from the media and the academy. Having dealt with both of these groups in your previous work life, you know the limits of our vision! Did the Georgetown conference expand enough to include people of different backgrounds?

The Georgetown conference accounted for the fact that overcoming polarization in the Church requires a multi-pronged approach, since the members of the Body of Christ – along with those we hope to evangelize – don’t live their lives in any singular sphere. The conveners included representatives from the academy and the media, but also ensured that there were participants from diocesan offices and ministries, new and innovative apostolates, and members of the clergy and religious orders.

It was important to hear that polarization within the Church is trickling down into Catholic schools, parishes, and social service organizations. One danger is to think that the disputes taking place in the media and academy are contained, but that’s not true.

RELATED: Georgetown summit looks to Francis in overcoming polarization

Most conferences draw together people who not only share the same field of work, but who share similar ecclesial perspectives and political persuasions. What was distinctive from other conferences I’ve attended was that this cut through the silos in which many people find themselves – not only left and right, but influence and reach. It was important for the public intellectuals who were present to engage with those who are “on the ground” and vice versa. I think it increased appreciation for mission territory beyond one’s own area of work.

I was at home with a new baby and couldn’t attend, but I tried to learn what I could from social media and by checking in with friends who were there. One important turning point multiple people pointed out was your saying something like, “No one cares about your Twitter wars.” Can you say more about this?

I hope I wasn’t that direct, although anything is possible when you haven’t had enough caffeine. I was invited to address the topic of the costs of polarization for Millennials and emerging Catholic leaders. One of the points I tried to convey after presenting the cultural context which shaped Millennial beliefs and behavioral patterns was that for those who have disaffiliated from the Church, the intra-ecclesial Twitter wars go unnoticed. And in the unlikely event that someone in this demographic comes across them, they provide a fractured witness.

They also shift the Church’s gaze inward instead of outward, which flies in the face of Pope Francis’s insistence that at this time in history, the Church needs to function as a field hospital. When it comes to tending the wounds that young adults are suffering, there’s no shortage of places to start. One third of our generation has been aborted.

We’ve watched friends and family members go off to a war without any foreseeable end. We have witnessed mass shootings in public spaces, including our schools, and have seen a staggering increase in suicides among our peers and parents. We have an addiction to technology and don’t know how to break it. We were brought to the United States by our parents and are now facing the possibility of deportation. We came of age during a time in which divorce devastated our families, 9/11 destroyed our sense of security, and the sexual abuse crisis rattled – and compromised – our faith. Many of my peers lost trust in institutions that were supposed to protect us and provide us with stability.

The Church should be able to present young adults who are searching for identity, purpose, and community with an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ, who, as Gaudium et Spes insists, “is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings.” The more we turn inward, the less able we are to engage in the work of the field hospital. The parable of the Good Samaritan only takes a turn when someone stops and takes notice of the person in distress.

The last thing I’ll say is that for those of us who work for the Church, the polarizing attitudes and divisive language that many of our mentors and guides have embraced is pretty discouraging. To take the image of the field hospital a bit further, those of us on the ground generally agree that we are in triage mode with our peers.

This is not to minimize the crucial work that some established leaders are undertaking to get our theological disputes right. But it could be helpful to prioritize our processes or at least acknowledge the value in undertaking several of them concurrently. We have got to stop people from bleeding out before moving onto complicated surgical repairs and prescriptions for preventative care.

Another thing the Georgetown conference struggled with was actually creating the time/space to hash out specific disagreement. Was that present at the follow up event?

I think the consensus was that we started getting into those topics on the second day but then had to shift our focus to the practical steps we could implement moving forward. Now that new relationships have been established and goodwill was demonstrated, I think if we were to reconvene again the meaty work could begin.

I’m also hopeful that we can take some of those disagreements and hash them out again in person, perhaps in regional gatherings, or at least offline. I think the general idea is that we would build up one another’s work where we can, and where we run into points of disagreement, we’ll address them in more productive, fraternal ways.

What about next steps? Where do Catholics who want to resist polarization go next? 

First and foremost, we’ve got to go to the sacraments. It was incredibly moving to see individuals who have publicly disagreed or pointed fingers at one another line up behind each other for Confession. The conveners made sure that the sacraments bookended our discussions. So often our debates are divorced from communal prayer, which is obviously detrimental.

I also think that we have to go to one another’s events and initiatives, even when we come from radically different starting points. That would demystify things a bit and tone down speculation about people’s motivations and intentions.

Archbishop Gomez reminded us that there are no “single-issue saints.” If holiness is our primary goal, our witness in the public square will be more credible. Pope Francis regularly reminds us that the Church is not an NGO. The principles of Catholic social teaching divorced from the person of Jesus Christ lose their radical and transformative power. My sense at the end of the conference was that – even though it might seem counterintuitive – in the face of a complex, secular society, it would do us some good to get back to basics.

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