Civil Discourse in an Era of Catholic Polarization


In our Catholic tradition, there has long been a variety of theologies. From the earliest years of the church in fact, we had a Petrine theology, a Pauline theology, and the four theologies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Occasionally, however, polarization sets in. Civil discourse breaks down, Christian charity disappears, and church people seem better at fighting each other than celebrating and living their common bonds of faith, hope, and charity.

That is where we are today. LCWR’s difficulties with Rome make an excellent case study. Another good case study is the way many a high placed American ecclesiastic demonizes Barack Obama and his policies. History will judge whether Obama is or was a good president. But it is cruel and immoral to demonize him and either his supporters or his opponents.

The same goes for the Pope. Another excellent contemporary case study. He is not my favorite Pope. I find his theology narrow-focused and archaic in a disturbingly unhealthy way. Nevertheless he has a a right to hold and express his theology. Others in the church have an equal right (responsibility) to hold and express a different and more contemporary theology. Disagreement with papal theology does not make one a Catholic heretic.

Nevertheless: Polarization in today’s church is an ecclesiastical infirmity of major proportions. People hide behind their favorite stereotypes and arrogantly condemn and assail their enemies. Like medieval knights fighting dragons. In the process they demean the other. In the process they demean themselves.

Such heated exchanges are painful for the actors. They are painful for the observers as well. I still remember an exchange, that got out of hand, between my friend, Joe, a somewhat rigid and very macho Catholic businessman and my friend, Ellen, a rather assertive sociology instructor who belonged to a community of progressive women religious. Both were participants in a seminar I had organized on “women in the church today.” It started out fine. There were keen observations, expressions of concern, and occasional laughter.

It became tense when someone in the group asked why women could not be Catholic priests. Joe, well-known and influential in the diocese, bristled and said the Lord did not want women to be priests. Ellen bristled and said she was certain the Lord did want women priests and had called her to ordained ministry. The fight was on.

At one point red-faced Joe yelled at Ellen: “why don’t you just jump on your broom and fly back to your feminist convent?” She locked her jaw and hissed: “well isn’t this nice….just what we need… another arrogant, narrow-minded talking penis!” I stood up and as calmly as I could (well I do have Quaker roots) announced it was time for a coffee break and took the two “friends” for a long walk in the backyard…..

Most of us do have strong viewpoints. When our buttons get pushed, it is not always easy to come up with something other than a polarizing response.

Nevertheless, as I scan the contemporary church scene, it is obvious we are well beyond the eleventh hour in the Catholic Church. Red danger lights are flashing. We have to move beyond the liberal/conservative — preVatican II/postVatican II — pro-life/pro-choice –feminist/sexist polarizations that demean and destroy all of us.

We need to develop the habit and the skills for critical and respectful dialogue.

I have been following the work of a young American theologian who, I believe, understands exactly what we need: Charles C. Camosy, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University in New York City and author of an insightful book about polarization: Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization.

Charles proposes five practices for moving beyond the polarization which currently dominates so much of contemporary church (and contemporary political) discourse:

(1) Humility. We are finite, flawed beings and are prone to making serious mistakes. We need to enter into discussions and arguments with this at the very front of our minds — not only in being comfortable with someone challenging our point of view, but also reserving the right to change our mind when our argument is shown to be problematic.

(2) Solidarity with our conversation partner. This involves active listening, presuming that one has something to learn, and (if possible) getting to know the other personally beyond an abstraction. Never reduce the other to what you suspect are “secret personal motivations.” Instead, give your partner the courtesy of carefully responding to the actual idea or argument that he or she is offering for your consideration.

(3) Avoiding binary thinking. The issues that are seriously debated in our public sphere are almost always too complex to fit into simplistic categories like liberal/conservative, religious/secular, open/close-minded, pro-life/pro-choice, etc. Furthermore, it sets up a framework in which taking one side automatically defines one against “the other side” — thus further limiting serious and open engagement.

(4) Avoiding fence-building and dismissive words and phrases. It might feel good to score these rhetorical points, but doing so is one of the major contributors to our polarized discourse. Let us simply stop using words and phrases like: radical feminist, war on women, neocon, limousine liberal, prude, heretic, tree-hugger, anti-science, anti-life, and so on. Instead, use language that engages and draws the other into a fruitful engage of ideas.

(5) Leading with what you are for. Not only is this the best way to make a convincing case for the view you currently hold, but this practice often reveals that we are actually after very similar things and simply need to be able to talk in an open and coherent way about the best plan for getting there.

Charles C. Camosy can be reached at camosy@fordham.edu.

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3 thoughts on “Civil Discourse in an Era of Catholic Polarization

  1. How sadly true about the debate within Catholicism (and our broader society as well) and our needs to be civil. A friend left the Episcopal church because the very liberals she supported were so uncivil to Third World bishops in sessions debating the ordination of gays. She came into the Catholic church…out of the frying pan….
    Actually, I find the more progressive-minded people (myself included) on a parish level at least, failing to express ourselves for fear of being shut out, told we don’t belong. I’m not upset by traditional Catholic views, I have loved many who held these views. But traditionalists tend to want those who hope for a more inclusive future in Catholicism to be ousted from communion. So many of us remain silent, hanging on by the skin of our teeth.
    I’m not sure what it means to “lead with what you stand for” (where, how, & under what conditions), so I will look up the book recommended for more on that. I wonder if the writer of this lovely piece ever wishes to be among the Quakers again.

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