November 6, 2020
James J. Bacik
The contentious 2020 presidential election has highlighted deep divisions within the Catholic community in the United States. During the campaign, individual Catholic bishops publicly disagreed on how to interpret their common voting guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which both called abortion the “preeminent issue” and also warned Catholics against “single issue” voting. Spouses avoided talking politics in order to maintain their happy marriage. Siblings had such heated arguments that they had to limit their social interactions. Conversations between friends lacked spontaneity, lest hidden political preferences became evident. Parishioners wondered how their fellow Catholics could possibly support the other presidential candidate.
As we try to promote a healthy unity-in-diversity in the Catholic community, we can find helpful guidance in the Catholic Common Ground Initiative inspired by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who died 24 years ago on November 14, 1996. In December of 1992, Cardinal Bernardin hosted a meeting in Detroit of about 20 bishops, priests and lay persons, who met twice a year for four years, analyzing the problem and considering potential solutions. We eventually produced a statement, “Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril,” which the Cardinal made public at a press conference on August 12, 1996, just months before his death.
The statement insists that “Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, is central to all we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured.” As Catholics, the closer we come to Christ, the more likely we will find common ground and overcome divisive polarization. Our commitment to Christ is more important than our different interpretations of Church teaching and practice. Focusing on the inclusive example of Christ encourages us to look for common ground and to avoid partisan bickering. As disciples of Christ, we must “promote the full range and demands of authentic unity, acceptable diversity, and respectful dialogue” as a way “to make our conflicts constructive.”
At the same time, we must be “accountable to the Catholic tradition and to the Spirit-filled, living church that brings to us the revelation of God in Jesus.” The Church is not an institution that propagates an ideology or demands uniformity. It is a “mysterious communion,” a “spiritual family” that calls all the faithful “to a role in grasping a truth or incorporating a decision or practice into the Church’s life.” More specifically, “Called to Be Catholic” offers “various working principles” for dealing with disagreements in a “renewed spirit of dialogue.”
- We should remember that “no single group or viewpoint in the church has a complete monopoly on the truth,” including the bishops, who must take into account “the experience of the whole church, past and present.”
- We should not envision ourselves or any group in the church as a “saving remnant” which thinks of itself as “enlightened,” while spurning others as unfaithful Catholics.
- We should presume that those who disagree with us are “acting in good faith,” are worthy of respect and do not deserve to be dismissed with stereotypical labels.
- We should put the “best possible construction” on the positions of others, alert to their strengths and valid insights while not seizing on their weaknesses.
- We should not impugn the motives of individuals or groups that disagree with us or question their love of the church.
Transforming our current polarization into a healthy Catholic pluralism remains a challenge requiring, as “Called to Be Catholic” puts it, “fresh eyes and changed hearts.” Even modest success in the Catholic community could serve as leaven for our society as a whole seeking to overcome the national polarization that stifles progress towards becoming a more “perfect union.”
In what concrete way could I help overcome polarization in my circle of influence?