Panel looks at how Catholic social teaching can address polarization

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Julie Asher

Sister Teresa Maya grew up hearing her “abuela” say, “People understand each
other by speaking to one another.”

In her grandmother’s wisdom, she said,
lies a way to address the polarization that seems to affect every aspect of
U.S. society today.

Fostering “encuentros,”
or encounters, on the personal level and people “really being interested in the
other side of the story” would go a long way to encourage folks with different
opinions to dialogue about all manner of issues with civility, she told an
audience at Georgetown University June 4.

Sister Maya, a Sister of
Charity of the Incarnate Word from San Antonio, is president of the Leadership
Conference of Women Religious. She was one of four speakers at the public
session of a June 4-6 invitation-only conference on “Though Many, One:
Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought.”

Organizers said the conference
was meant to be a starting point to bring about Pope Francis’ vision of the
church responding to human hurts and social challenges by living out the joy of
the Gospel.

Joining Sister Maya on
the panel were Helen Alvare, professor of law at George Mason University’s
Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia; Chicago Cardinal Blase J.
Cupich; and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, vice president of the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Moderator John Carr,
director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown, asked the
audience to “check your impulses” at the door as far as trying to decide which panelists
were “conservative” or “liberal.”

He asked them to consider
who among the speakers “has stood up for the dignity and lives of the unborn”
and for women, the vulnerable, immigrants, the poor and families and “against
violence in our communities.”

“It’s really a trick
question. Every one of these people has stood up for” all those groups, said

He asked the speakers
what they see as “the major cause or cost of polarization” in the country and
how the principles of Catholic social thought could help everyone work for the
common good.

“The fear of the other
has poisoned our souls. … We’ve allowed it to divide us,” said Sister Maya, who
noted that as an immigrant herself, from Mexico, she brings “a migrant’s view
to this conversation.”

She grew up with a deep
fascination of the American idea that all people are created equal, that life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness are human rights that cannot be taken
away. In entering religious life, she said, she was convinced Jesus held the
clues to create a world where these truths would hold for all.

She still believes in this
“narrative of human rights” but said it “is threatened because we live in a
polarized society.”

“We stay in our bubbles,
with people we know,” feeding our fears, when “we must realize we breathe the
same air,” she said. “Unless you can get to know the other, it can justify the
most terrible thing. ‘ The antidote to fear is hope.”

Archbishop Gomez said
Pope Francis talks a lot about how his pontificate is “not only a change of
era” but how this is “an era of change. Everything is changing.”

The “simple and most
obvious thing” contributing to polarization is “the internet,” he said. It is
making talking to each other more difficult. Secularization also a major
factor, he said.

“We are used to a
Christian culture,” the archbishop said. “We assume that’s the way it is, but
the whole country is becoming more and more secular.” He also took issue with the
prevailing notion that faith and science are incompatible.

“This nation is saying, ‘We
trust science more than we trust faith,’ like there’s a contradiction between
science and faith, and that’s not real,” the archbishop said.

Against this backdrop, it
is “important to understand who we are, who God is, how we can relate to God,”
he continued. Catholics are called “to become missionary disciples, to go out
of our comfort (zone) and be united as a people and bring the teachings of our
Lord Jesus Christ to our people. Everything is based on God’s plan for
humanity, for each one of us.”

In addressing current
social realities, he said, U.S. Catholics can learn from the church’s approach in
Latin America. He noted that Pope Francis, being Latin American, follows this
“see-judge-act” method of discernment: Seeing what current social realities
are, judging them in light of the church’s social teaching, then acting to make
those realities more just.

Cardinal Cupich also
talked about fear as a major factor causing polarization, describing “merchants
of fear” actively working in society today.

If you watch kids of
different backgrounds playing together, you see “they are not afraid” of one
another, the cardinal said. “We are taught to be afraid and we have to own

The cost of polarization,
he said, “is the division we face in our nation. We are not just separated by
ideas but into groups. That’s the difference between partisanship and
polarization. Partisans used to be able to get things done, to reach across the
aisle. But we are polarized, we have our own sources of information.”

Such division leads to
lawmakers not getting anything done legislatively and people dehumanizing “the
other” through rhetoric that is anti-immigrant and racist, he added.

“I think we often refuse
to credit different ‘gifts'” people bring to the discussion on issues, and so
fail to learn from one another, said Alvare. Society being so materialistic
also sharply divides people, which is coupled with the fact people are short on
time and patience, she added.

“The shortage of time is
very much related to economic life,” Alvare added. “We don’t have time to be
patient with people” and listen to other views.

She described receiving
violent hate mail in reaction to comments she has made on the human costs of
the sexual revolution and how poor women especially are suffering the
consequences of this revolution.

Alvare said sharp
disagreement is good but people also need to have good facts and sources, and
they must pay attention to “tone, tone, tone” when they talk to one another,
she said.

“If you feel dizzy and
out of whack” in this polarized society, she said, “Catholic social teaching
insights would help account for what we’re feeling and also (help us) find a
way forward.”

On moving forward, Sister
Maya said that will not happen until the country has an honest conversation
about “the unresolved issue of racism,” which she said is “at the heart of U.S.

She also said these times
call for “contemplative dialogue,” and people need to learn tools to listen
deeply for common ground, respect silence and employ an “economy of words.”
Sister Maya also said lessons on how to dialogue can be learned from how LCWR
leaders before her and church officials in Rome, during the Vatican probe of
the leadership organization eventually could find common ground and reach an
understanding and respect for each side’s views.

To move forward on the
immigration issue, Archbishop Gomez said “what we all need to see” is that “immigrants
are people — men and women, children, boys and girls.” Talk about the nation’s
legal principles is one thing, he said, “but we must “see these people are just
like us” and are coming here “for a better life.”

Carr asked if Pope
Francis is bringing a new kind of leadership to applying Catholic social
thought to today’s realities or whether he is continuing the leadership of his

Cardinal Cupich replied
with a quote he said he has often heard that “captures the continuity”: “John
Paul II told us what to do, Benedict said why we should do it and Pope Francis
says, ‘Do it.’ ‘ Pope Francis is ‘ really an activist pope wanting to make the
church a field hospital.”

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