19 September 2009

Why are we so divided?

Meandering thoughts on Catholic polarization. . .

Russell Shaw of Inside Catholic has posted an article titled, "Polarization and the Church."

After pointing to the presidential candidacy of B.O. and his subsequent election as President as the principal suspect in the growing rift between factions in the Church, Shaw makes this important point:

But let's be realistic. On the whole, the polarization of American Catholics isn't a split among practicing members of the Church.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only 23 percent of Catholic adults in the United States now attend Mass every Sunday -- which is to say 77 percent do not. Moreover, reports CARA, 75 percent receive the Sacrament of Penance -- confess their sins, that is -- less than once a year or never.

Former Master of the Order, Dominican friar, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe has argued that the polarization in the Church is a split between what he calls "kingdom Catholics" and "communion Catholics." The essential difference here being that Kingdom Catholics embrace Christ's admonitions to pursue justice and peace in the world, while Communion Catholics tend to focus on his call to foster a strong sense of identity over and against the world. Given these divergent and necessarily imperfect visions of the Church, Catholics (broadly speaking) tend to shake out politically as liberals and conservatives. Fr. Radcliffe argues that a true Catholic identity will is best perfected by transcending these limited categories.

If Fr. Radcliffe is right, then Shaw is arguing that Communion Catholics are the one most opposed to the political agenda of B.O. And Kingdom Catholics are more inclined to give B.O. the benefit of the doubt. This seems right to me--as far as it goes.

Assuming that your view of the Church's relationship with secular power shapes your notions of how we ought to go about evangelizing the culture, it is very simple to step back a bit and see how your secular politics can influence your view of the Church itself. Fr. Radcliffe seems to be arguing that Catholics begin with a view of the Church and then move out to the culture. It seems to me that it is often the case that Catholics on the extreme ends of the ecclesial spectrum begin with their secular political views and then move in toward the Church, defining the faith as just one plank in a party platform. In other words, what counts as "being a good Catholic" gets defined in terms of what counts as "being a good liberal/conservative." It is no accident that our ecclesial polarization (at its extremes) seems to mimic our political polarization.

To the degree that American Catholics are polarized along secular political lines, I would say that we differ philosophically in three major areas:

1). Truth: is truth revealed, rational, or constructed? Or some combination of the three? Is it knowable in any form? Is it useful, if knowable? If useful, how should it be used and for whom? For example, some argue that religious belief necessarily opposes scientific fact and vice-versa. Religious belief is understood to be assent to revealed and rational truth, while scientific fact is a rational construct based on observation and experiment, i.e. devoid of any divine revelation. What you think about the nature of truth goes a long way toward shaping your politics.

2). Goodness: is goodness a transcendent goal to be achieved, or a cultural/rational construct built to serve as a measure of social conformity, or merely an emotive expression of preference enforced by convention and law? For example, some would argue that Goodness is an objective end to be achieved as a matter of religious practice. Others would say that Goodness is just a way for us to talk about what appears to be useful for social harmony. In debates about health care, we may differ over ends and means, but it seems that we might differ most over the questions: does Goodness measure us? Or do we measure Goodness?

3). Beauty: like Truth and Goodness the differences here fall within the more fundamental debate over the whether or not our measures are transcendent/revealed or immanent/constructed. Beauty is about harmony, order, and proportion in all things. Those who see beauty as an essential characteristic of the created order will naturally look for it as a sign of God's presence, an indicator that creation participates in the divine. Those who understand beauty as a constructed measure, a way of talking about how we see ourselves as creators within the material world, will call something "beautiful" based on criteria that do not appeal to the divine.

Are we measured by God, or do we measure Him? It seems to me that at the extremes of our polarization, each extreme inconsistently applies a favorite measure. Kingdom Catholics measure the divine by cultural standards on some issues but not others. Communion Catholics measure cultural norms by divine standards on some issues but not others. Which standards are applied to what issue seems to be determined by a desired political outcome. The trick, of course, is to surrender always to the standards of God. But what counts as "God's standards" is itself part of the debate. . .

What do you think is the source of our polarization?


  1. off topic:

    here's a followup to that prayer request I sent you last week:


  2. the source--original sin

    Hasn't this always been so? Circumcision or not?

  3. Very interesting thoughts. I have to digest this properly.

    Another difference between Kingdom and Communion Catholics is where we believe the use of force is justified as opposed to allowing the grace of God to do its work in the hearts of others.

    Kingdom Catholics generally believe that government is the best vehicle to bring more of the "kingdom" to the world - and hence, usually unknowingly, believe that it is ok to force moral behavior on the average person (e.g. you must share your income with others vs. you should share your income with others.)

    Communion Catholics believe that force should be confined to the defensive use of force (protecting from someone else's immoral behavior).

  4. It seems to me (as a convert of only three years) that there's a lot of anger on both sides. Many of the Catholics (who proudly called themselves "Cafeteria Catholics" and would probably be closer to "Kingdom Catholics in this description) that I met at the Catholic University that I attended seemed so angry with the Church for not agreeing with them on certain hot button issues, although it often seemed like they really didn't understand what the Church taught most of the time.

    On the other hand I tend to hang out on Catholic Answer Forum's Traditional section when my baby's napping and there is also a lot of anger from the other side about any and all reforms from the last century. It also brings to mind some of my friends from our parish who are in their eighties who had a problem with the last pastor at our parish and who always seemed to be looking for "liturgical abuses" to write to the bishop about. And of course there's the general anger that could be caused by frustration as our society seems to worship a sort of moral relativism in which anything goes.

    I think the anger on both sides, added to the anger people feel when they talk about politics, causes extreme polarization.

    If only there was a party that took the good from both Democrats and Republicans and combined them. I find myself voting for Republicans because I agree with them on the moral issues of abortion and marriage, but I usually completely disagree with the person I'm voting for on social issues...

  5. I would call the divide as one between the natural and supernatural. Those who see the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ will tend to more traditional.Those who view the Church as the community gathered to do good things in the world, will tend to be more progressive.

  6. Ego. Only someone who truly loses themselves in Christ will have the humility necessary. The problem is on both sides and within both camps. If you want an example just try talking about wearing a mantilla amongst a bunch of conservative Catholics, it's such a minor thing yet chances are you'll soon see sides drawn and personal attacks made that would make athiests blush.

    When I was a Pentecostal the pastor we had once told me the people that gave him the most problems were the most devout because of their self-righteous attitudes. Seems that happens everywhere.

  7. Anonymous5:05 PM

    Good point, Alan.

    And great post, Father!!!! I have 3 kids at UD and I'm going to make sure they see this. Thank you!

  8. trying to find where I fall in this....and having a very hard time.