George Wesolek, Director of Public Policy and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, has an interesting essay in this week’s edition of the Archdiocesan newspaper. He argues that the decision of many dioceses–and the USCCB–to have separate offices for social justice and pro-life ministries exacerbates political polarization among Catholics:
Like the certainty of winter coming after fall, further polarization in the Catholic community will happen during this presidential election season. This polarization, poisonous and infectious to the ecclesial community, makes us increasingly ineffective in living out Catholic social teaching and producing change for social justice.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Structural decisions made 34 years ago by American Catholic Church leaders – bishops, clergy, religious and laity – are a primary cause of these circumstances today. The fruit of these decisions continues to be an obstacle to American Catholic unity of thought and purpose and the cause of bitter division and partisan infighting.
When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops set up a separate Pro – life ministry with its own staff and network right across the hall from its office for Social Development and World Peace ( Justice and Peace ) , it set in motion a chain of developments that has compartmentalized Catholic social teaching and helped to create two Catholic constituencies. Instead of establishing one office of Catholic social teaching which would expound one message – clearly and consistently about the human person from the unborn through the life cycle right until death – the decision makers set up parallel structures, each with its own message. These structures resulted in dysfunction and confusion that continues to this day.
Each message has created a constituency around it. These two constituencies often have little in common; have opposite world – views regarding culture and politics and, frankly, dislike each other.
I think that Wesolek makes a number of good points. But I’ve had some encounters lately that have led me to question the idea that Catholics are “bitterly polarized” over politics.
My first encounter was with a staff person from the USCCB who briefed me on the process the conference used to develop the most recent Faithful Citizenship document. She noted that this was the first time the conference as a whole–rather than the USCCB Administrative Committee–had really deliberated and worked the document. The final document, which I would argue is quite balanced in its presentation of Catholic Social Teaching, was adopted 221-4. That is not a vote indicative of a high level of polarization.
My second encounter-or set of encounters-was a series of interviews I did with parish leaders as part of the process writing a magazine article on how parishes deal with “political” issues. Without giving the content of the story away, I’ll say that I was surprised that “polarization” was not the most pressing issue these folks were dealing with. Most were taking a balanced approach, presenting information on issues like abortion, immigration, marriage, and health care reform. While they certainly got negative reactions from some parishioners, their most pressing concern was apathy: relatively few parishioners were interested in the information, regardless of the issue or the point of view expressed.
My final encounter was an ongoing dialogue with a friend at my parish. While not a partisan Republican, he is strongly pro-life and doesn’t see how a Catholic can vote for a pro-choice candidate. He and I disagree on that point. But the conversation has never become bitter. We’re both committed to reasoning in a “Catholic way” about these matters and understand that our partisan attachments, while important, are not more fundamental than our attachment to Christ.
I realize the plural of anecdote is not data. But these experiences lead me to wonder whether the “bitter polarization” that we see is a phenomenon that affects a relatively small number of Catholics. It has certainly been amplified by the Internet and the tendency of the media to favor certain Catholic spokespeople with strong partisan commitments. But I’m not sure it really characterizes life in the typical parish. Thoughts anyone?