The Church's Mission in a Polarizing World: Finding Spaces for Surmounting Our Divisions

By: Greg Erlandson

March 22, 2024

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If there is one concern that brings most Americans together, it is their worry about how divided we are. This concern about our divisions in both church and state extends across our fault lines of red and blue, traditionalist and progressive. Yet with the 2024 presidential election a reprise of 2020, and with ill-disguised lobbying taking place in high church circles to influence the next papal conclave, this year looks to be an unwanted polarization milestone.

Amid the fissures and fractures dividing us, Hollywood will soon be exploiting this uncivil terrain with a forthcoming movie called Civil War. It is described as a “dystopian action film,” in which the United States fractures into warring sides, with the government run by a dictatorship and extremist militias engaged in the battle.

But not everyone is ignoring the divides or exploiting them. Some are asking how we can overcome them.

That was the intent of a February 28 conference organized by Georgetown Law’s Amy Uelmen (who is also a Berkley Center senior research fellow). Titled “The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World: Relational Resources for the 2024 Campaign Season,” the conference brought together participants for a day-long reflection on de-escalating the rhetoric and building trust.

The primary inspiration for the conference was a book by Fr. Aaron Wessman, The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World (New City Press, 2023). Fr. Wessman attended the conference and gave two short talks intended to set the tone for the gathering.

The problem with talking about polarization is that most often our fingers are pointed away from us. It is someone else’s problem. They are being irrational. They are living in a bubble. They are “the other” on the wrong side of history.

And the challenge of having a conference on polarization is that the conversation is often stuck on those belligerents on the other side of our divides.

What made this conference unusual is that Wessman examines Jesus’ life for models on how to overcome our divisions. And rather than shifting all the blame to the people who don’t agree with us, Wessman invites us first to start with ourselves: Begin by examining how we might be part of the problem; cultivate curiosity about people on the other side; look for ways to reach out to them, even if that comes with a risk; and cultivate the virtue of prudence.

All of this takes a great deal of courage. The problem, as Uelmen explained in her opening remarks, is that while some people have limited sources of information, a relatively straightforward problem to address, others simply have no trust in those with whom they disagree. Drawing on an article by C. Thi Nguyen called “Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles,” Uelmen discussed contributing factors to polarization. Where people gather their information about events to a large extent shapes response to that information, but there is a significant difference between a bubble and a chamber.

When people have limited sources of information for reasons of availability or choice, they may never hear alternative points of view. The solution, at least on paper, to epistemic bubbles is simply to pop the bubble by introducing new sources of information that broaden a person’s perspective and give new insights to other points of view.

An echo chamber is something more complicated. A person may in fact draw on different sources of information, but more to confirm one’s distrust of that information rather than to broaden one’s outlook. An echo chamber claims to offer a template for identifying the falsehoods in contrary sources of information. The question is not one of lack of sources of information, but of a distrust of others. One listens in order to confirm one’s prejudices and conclusions.

That echo chamber could be reinforced by a radio talk show host. It could also be reinforced by a late-night comedian. The clear message is that we can’t trust the other side to be straightforward or honest, so there is no need to understand them. We must only defeat them.

Wessman identifies one problem as the vocabulary we use. It isn’t just Hollywood who wants to make it all into a war. We use the language of combat, of disease, of life and death, all the time. This language rallies our base, convincing us through metaphor that the existence of what we value is at stake. This language makes us unwilling to compromise, unwilling to see any goodness, or any legitimacy, in those with whom we disagree. There is even a quasi-religious component, the rhetoric of a holy war. We are fighting for the soul of our nation, for our very survival.

This explains why efforts to transcend our divides carry multiple risks. On the one hand, to reach out to “the other” could result in our opponents rejecting the overture. What we see as a sincere gesture could be interpreted as a trap, a threat, or simply a fraud.

On the other hand, our own allies, those with whom we are most comfortable, may view us as “betraying the cause.” In talking to the “other side,” we could be seen as abandoning our own. While this might be obvious in politics, it can also impact the Catholic Church, such as when pro-lifers talk with pro-choicers, or social justice advocates talk with social conservatives. Wessman cites statistics where more Americans would be concerned if their child were to marry someone from another political party than if they married someone from a different church, a significant change from 50 years ago. Increasingly, our politics influence our beliefs rather than the other way around.

Catholics can see the same divisions in how they relate to the pope, or the liturgies they prefer, or whether they emphasize certain moral teachings over others. “Are you a Francis fan or a Benedict fan?” might be the unspoken question, making the papacy itself a metaphor for division.

The obvious lesson Wessman points us to is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Do we reach out? Do we “cross over,” or do we avoid contact with the other?

In the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis says of the Samaritan in the parable who stops to help the robbers’ victim, “he gave him his time” (63): “Without even knowing the injured man, he saw him as deserving of his time and attention” (63).

Any effort to bridge a polarized divide takes two essential elements: Time and trust. These are, in fact, the requirements for friendship. First is the investment of time. We cannot overcome suspicion nor can we bridge distances without this investment. And the investment of time leads to trust. It is over time that we are allowed to see beyond our own stereotypes of who the other in fact is. And it takes trust to lower the barriers, to acknowledge the nuances, and to be willing to risk understanding the other.

The theme of trust came up repeatedly. Even clergy at the conference talked about the barriers they experience in a rectory or in community. It is easier not to share, not to risk, to stay silent.

Making all of this even more challenging is the impact of social media. While it is a communications tool for sure, it is also a wall, a barrier, or a shell protecting us from publicly admitting doubt or weakness. Particularly for younger adults, but not only, social media can be a huge hindrance to overcoming polarization. In a digital space in which anonymity is far easier than honesty, we are keenly aware that we are much more vulnerable to attack when we wander outside our lane and reach out to others. The impact this is having on campuses as well as in other communities was noted.

When discussing polarization, the conference asked participants for suggestions on how to build trust and transcend political and other divisions, to get beyond red state/blue state or traditionalist/progressive.

Suggestions often centered on guidance for initiating contact. First, overcome the fight or flight instinct. Find language for encouraging conversation. Find ways to draw people out (“I’d never thought of it that way”). Don’t respond to every provocation, and don’t feel one must respond right away.

Strategies for accompaniment included getting people to exchange roles. One participant talked about overcoming the pro-life/social justice divide by inviting pro-lifers to work in a food pantry or immigrant shelter, while inviting social justice volunteers to go to a pro-life march or work in a pregnancy center.

Finding ways to do projects together, to take pilgrimages or simply to share a meal, brings people into contact with those with whom they do not usually associate.

There are institutional programs for building safe spaces like Civilize It, a program developed by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that encourages efforts to bring people together. Braver Angels is a similar effort.

The challenge, always, is taking that first step. The bubbles we live in are vast—a city, a state, a college campus, a parish. Looked at on a national level, the scale of the task seems overwhelming. Like the Good Samaritan, we need to find the opportunity close at hand. The first act of courage may be simply making it known that we are seeking such an encounter.

If we are united by our concern about polarization even when so much else divides us, how do we move forward?

  1. In a university or school setting, how can we create a space where dialogue can occur without fear of retaliation?
  2. How do we get our Church leaders to address the issue of polarization in the light of Gospel expectations and the shared community signified by our common baptism?
  3. How can we get political leaders who are dismayed by the toll polarization is taking on our political institutions to seek forums of mutual understanding rather than abandoning the fray completely?

Editor's Note: This series is ongoing and will be updated as additional submissions are received.

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