Russell Shaw, long-time Catholic commentator, throws up some thoughts today on Catholic polarization. In his own small way, he contributes to the fractures in Church unity. Let me lay out my criticism, then leave it up to the commentariat here to hash it out further.
Mr Shaw is very thorough to include statistics on the millions of Catholics who sacramentally confess their sins once a year to never, but the whole essay is an exercise in that deeply American cultural exercise: blame somebody else. In a thousand or two words, he offers up President Obama, politicians in general, bishops in general, a few bishops in particular, and takes a mention, directly or indirectly of a university president, and a deceased US senator. In other words, the usual suspects from the self-styled orthodox. He doesn’t mention popular culture, the voyeurism of gotcha! politics, the ramping up of violence by extremists, or even my favorite whipping boy, the blogosphere.
What Mr Shaw does manage to do is drive the wedge a little deeper, equating orthodoxy with virtue, sacramental participation with the political high road, and looking through the numbers, be they bishops or penitents, for the right percentages to spin his case for unity by enforcement. In other words, when the laity agree with the argument, let’s take a vote. That’s not a sensus fidelium, that’s a confirmation hearing. If you doubt my conclusion, you have only to read the comments he evoked: blame previous presidents, poor catechesis, misinterpreters of Vatican II, and all of the last four presidents. (Anyone for five?) In other words, the polarization already exists as a feeling in search of a ready target.
Conclusion, part one:
This isn’t American Catholicism at some point in an imagined future — it’s a snapshot of where we are now: three out of four adults seldom or never participating in the central religious acts of their Church, while only one in four does. Here’s the real polarization of American Catholics.
A rather relativistic view of polarization isn’t it? Usually one must actually go to two separate poles, say north and south, to get to the extremes. The opposite of involved believers might be those who are actively anti-religion, who stand contrary to the values and virtues preached by Christ. But this story isn’t about atheistic scientists. And heaven forbid it would be about unchristian behavior on the part of conservatives. The gospel mandate would suggest that the lost are not ideological adversaries, but those who should be sought out, found, and brought back to the fold. One might say this is the task of the bishop, and indeed, when we read Church teaching on the pastoral office of bishops, we find little to suggest that prelates serve people by putting up their dukes and engage in staredowns with other believers.
In electromagnetism, opposite poles actually attract. It’s a nice model for the solution to unity: be drawn in by one’s opposite, integrate the whole, and learn from the experience. Or at least be open to the grace at work through the Holy Spirit.
I’ve seen and read lots of cyber-ink spilled on what bishops should and should not do. But very little is rooted in actual church teaching. When it suits, a commentator will cherry-pick a nice Scripture text, flash a mental image of Jesus chasing off pigeon-sellers, and suggest that the solution to the GOP’s political woes is to yell louder and pound longer. And lest I get caught in my own cited trap of prooftexting, I don’t offer any quotes from Christus Dominus today. I just offer a challenge to bishops, commentators, and university presidents alike: read the whole document, get an overall sense and direction of what a bishop is supposed to be. Assess honestly the state of unity in the Church. And if you still want to play the blame game, well, you may be one of the special 20% who go to confession regularly, but you might also be in need of a bit of a deeper examination of conscience.