Polarization, Partisanship, and Enmity: The US Catholic Church Divided

Millennial editor Robert Christian recently wrote about the roots of American Catholic polarization at Church Life Journal:

We are currently experiencing high levels of both polarization and partisanship (including negative partisanship)—both among the public and public officials (though polarization among the public is lower than among elites). The polarization has been asymmetrical, with Republican officials moving significantly farther from the center than Democrats—though Democrats have moved left on social issues in the last decade and may be poised to move left on economics following the 2018 midterm elections. Importantly, not only is the country and our government deeply divided, but it is also close to evenly split in many ways. This combination very likely contributes heavily to the very high levels of frustration and enmity that we are experiencing as a society.

The various costs of polarization have led many to grow concerned about the rising polarization we are experiencing. But for Catholics with a sincere commitment to Catholic Social Teaching, elite polarization is acutely problematic because neither major pole is aligned with Church teaching. Both contemporary American conservatism and liberalism are rooted in an individualism that is incompatible with the Church’s understanding of the human person and community. As a result, contemporary liberalism’s social libertarianism and conservatism’s economic libertarianism are radically at odds with the Catholic commitment to the common good. Those who share the Church’s pro-life and pro-social justice communitarian approach are grossly underrepresented in Congress and among party leaders.

As many American Catholics take their cues from the ideology of their preferred party, a great deal of dissent from Church teaching exists on both the left and the right. Dissent on the left mirrors the dissent of others in the West, most notably in its support for legal access to abortion. Support for extreme free market beliefs and policies, meanwhile, are a far bigger problem in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. This is in part because laissez-faire theories and social Darwinism have done more to shape the conservative economic ideology of the Republican Party than more communitarian approaches. This is in contrast to conservative Christian Democratic parties around the world, which were instead heavily influenced by Catholic Social Teaching….

Until recent years, this is what polarization looked like in the U.S. and how it divided American Catholics and distorted the faith. With the rise of Donald Trump, however, populist nationalism—another ideology deeply at odds with Church teaching—has become increasingly important among both elites and the public.

One consequence has been the rise of what many are calling alt-Catholicism. Alt-Catholics in the U.S. set up their own alt-magisterium, one that permits them to reject Church teaching on a range of subjects. The term is fitting because many of these ideological positions align with positions held by the alt-right: antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, hostility to refugees and other migrants, hostility to racial justice, sexism, support for far-right strongmen, democratic backsliding, isolationism, support for the death penalty, and sectarianism. Some seek to discredit Church teaching on economic and environmental justice, as well. To be clear, it is common for alt-Catholics to reject some alt-right positions, while embracing others, and to even openly condemn the alt-right so they will not be associated with white supremacists….

So as the Church faces the problem of overcoming the big divide in American Catholicism between conservatives and liberals, it must now also contend with a small group of militant, pope-hating far right dissenters that distort and damage the U.S. Church on a daily basis.

And possible remedies for polarization (and ways to reduce animosity, if/when it persists):

A primary consideration should be advocating for structural political reform. Campaign finance reform is essential for re-democratizing our system of government and ensuring the type of authentic participation that Catholic social teaching demands. A system that is dominated by economic elites will not be motivated by a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, as they will continue to prioritize economic libertarianism in the Republican Party and social libertarianism in the Democratic Party. Nothing would do more to undermine special interest groups, which play a key role in fostering polarization, than diminishing the power of money in elections….

Support for this type of structural political reform is vital, as these structural factors are critical in generating and sustaining Catholic polarization. It is also essential, however, for the Church to look inwardly and examine how we should behave toward our fellow Catholics and as a community.

Step one in confronting Catholic political polarization should be to unite against all forms of bigotry and those seeking to undermine our democratic system. We must not forget the lessons of the 1930’s and allow brutal ideologies to become mainstream among American Catholics. Essentially, this is about preventing a new political pole to emerge—one more toxic and antithetical to Christian values than the existing poles. A failure to arrest rising Alt-Catholicism would make Catholic polarization far worse—creating new obstacles to communion, jeopardizing souls, pulling the American Church away from the global Church, and badly damaging Christian witness. It is perhaps the gravest threat to Catholicism in the United States.

But we also need a positive vision for what the Church in the U.S. should look like and the contribution it can make to the common good. There is no better approach to reducing Catholic polarization than in following Pope Francis’s lead at all levels of the Church. The American Bishops, individually and collectively, should embrace the pope’s agenda of ending the throwaway culture and replacing it with a culture of solidarity….

Catholic periodicals that are run by religious orders, or those that profess to uphold Catholic teaching or claim to be “Catholic first,” should almost certainly be posting very little that opposes Church teaching and nothing that distorts it. Those that do wish, in the name of open-mindedness or the desire to reflect the views of the larger population, to promote the writing of Catholics with non-Catholic worldviews or those who dissent from core Catholic principles should again refuse to run articles that distort Church teaching or cloak their dissent.

They should also eschew false balance. By permitting dissent on something like economic justice, but not on a topic like abortion, these outlets are legitimizing one form of dissent, which is one reason why this dissent is a bigger problem in the USA than anywhere in the world. Catholic Social Teaching, as Pope Francis has said, is all non-negotiable. Outlets that create a special set of “non-negotiables,” against the direction of the pope, while taking an otherwise relativistic approach are deeply harming the Church….

Authentic dialogue can be a means of persuading others to move away from their ideology toward Catholic Social Teaching or to embrace parts of Catholic Social Teaching that they reject, but it can also be a way to come to a greater understanding with those who continue to hold different views.

It is important to remember that Catholics without a Catholic worldview or who publicly dissent are still Catholic. We should not want them to leave the Church. We should want to persuade them to embrace a fully Catholic worldview, which is a lot easier if they do not feel they are being pushed out of the Church. While some dissenting ideologues seek to expel people from the Church in order to remake it in their ideological image, this approach is fundamentally contrary to the Christian mission. These ideologues have often been the champions of the weaponization of the sacraments. But as Pope Francis has made clear, sacraments are not a prize for the most virtuous or just. One way to reduce enmity is to firmly reject such approaches and affirm that Catholics are still Catholic.