My favorite part of writing for The Jesuit Post is engaging with our readers. So I was grateful that my piece “The Wounded Church” provoked a vigorous reader response.
At a time when there are so few good spaces where people can intelligently and respectfully engage with each other, it means a great deal to me that our readers are willing to cultivate such a space with us at TJP.
It’s unsurprising – and therefore uninteresting – that some people comment solely to troll. What’s surprising and beautiful, however, is how many people comment out of a desire to share their experiences and to learn from others about theirs. It’s worth praying over how we can all dispose ourselves, individually and as a Church, toward a more meaningful and loving internet presence.
In this article I want to continue the conversation by drawing out and reflecting upon three themes that cut across many of these conversations.
My party is closer to Catholic teaching than the other party is.
Some readers are grappling with their partisan commitments. That’s essential work, and I am certainly not asking anyone to tear up their party membership cards.
But when I hear someone explaining why his or her party conforms more closely to the teaching, I worry that we have failed to learn a valuable lessons from this and many other elections. Is party superiority really the point worth pressing? At what point do we begin to worry that we’re more invested in winning arguments and elections than re-uniting a politically divided church?
To put the point more bluntly: why does it seem that many Catholics are more committed to defending their political party than the Church?
Catholics need to change how they think about politics.
We have to move beyond the two-party binary. No one disputes the parties are there and they matter. What deserves dispute, however, is that our conversations should be molded and our options determined by that system. That means finding conversations and dialogue partners whose conclusions are not predetermined by party orthodoxies.
We have to move beyond zero-sum games. The partisan influence in the Church not only puts unreasonable limits on what we think, but it also makes us think that the other side has to lose so that we can “win.” While there is such a thing as healthy competition, the divide-and-conquer approach cannot be imported into the Church without undercutting the love that is supposed to bind us together. We need to seek understanding with those with whom we disagree, not their defeat: reaching out to others, not retrenching in our own positions.
We have to find new forms of witness. Believe it or not, how we vote every four years is not the most meaningful expression of our faith in Christ Jesus. If you really believe that faith matters to politics, then you need to find ways to show that and live it out the other 3 years and 364 days. That could mean re-committing to the corporal acts of mercy, or getting more involved in your parish, local government or schools. It can mean choosing to be an agent of peace with estranged family or friends, between divided factions in your homes, neighborhoods, schools and cities.
In short, Catholics need to see their presence in politics as a ministry of reconciliation. The U.S. does not have many models of what that reconciliation looks like, but we know what reconciliation looks like in our families, in our churches, in our own souls. I have even seen that reconciliation on the TJP website and Facebook page! We can and must witness to that reconciliation for the world.
The “other side” is disingenuous.
There is real mistrust, pain and confusion in the American Church over politics. That was very plain from many readers’ reactions. “I have experienced a great deal of hostility and bitterness,” many readers wrote, “and I don’t see how we can have an honest conversation.” Cheap unity and superficial peace won’t do because they won’t last.
But there is another danger, one to which we have already succumbed. The great risk we run with polarization is that we stop talking with and listening to people who disagree with us. And when we stop engaging them, it becomes easy to treat them as enemies and their arguments as covers for power-grabs. Then dialogue becomes not merely absent but impossible.
A TJP article is not going to fix that. Indeed, only the lived experience of a different mode of relations is going to overcome that hurt. And only real human connections are going to create genuine good will, where we can get to a place where we can presume the good intentions of others.
But how do we get people of different political persuasions in the same room? How do we get them to start not with what divides them, but with what unites them?
Reconciliation is going to be hard work.
In conversing with readers, I often heard despair. Despair is not a pleasant thing, and particularly not when it comes with the frustration that now is the time when we should be doing something.
But this despair might be the “rock bottom” that some of us needed to hit to realize that we have a problem. Indeed, a few readers expressed a loneliness at having felt politically “homeless” for many years. Sadly, they are no longer quite so lonely.1 But maybe the recognition that we are homeless is a start in the right direction.
Reconciliation was never going to be easy. And a renewed desire to engage in it is not going to make it easier or happen any faster, as many readers reminded me.
What are the obstacles? The life and social justice movements live in different worlds. That’s in part because they tend to live in different political parties, in different parishes, in different regions of the country and in different social classes. In those different worlds, the possibilities for healing can look very different. We need to cultivate a Catholic imagination, one that sees the possibilities for as well as the limitations of unity in the world.
What is a “Catholic imagination”? I will have more to say about that soon. But we know this: a Catholic imagination has to be catholic in the literal sense of universal: an imagination that takes in all of reality, not just the pleasant and world-view-confirming parts. Where political ideologies want to remake all of reality after the image of their own myopic views, it is a distinctly catholic task to remind politics of what it desires to forget: both the suffering and pain that speaks to human failure, but also the joyful transcendence that speaks to a power beyond the human.
It is also deeply Catholic in the sense of suffused with God’s presence. It is, after all, God in all things that is the profound basis for any sort of universality. And God shows that the “universal” is not a cold, logical abstraction, but an invitation to what is lovingly and beautifully truly human – because it is divine. And that is a source of hope.
We may feel at times homeless. Given the times in which we live, perhaps something would be wrong with us if we did not feel homeless. But being homeless need not mean being hopeless. Thank you, all our readers at TJP, for that beautiful reminder.