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.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to Poles

  1. Sam Schmitt says:

    I have to say I’m struggling to see the connection between Shaw’s article and what you wrote. I don’t see Shaw “blaming” the President, Sen. Kennedy and others so much as showing that they reveal the polarization.

    “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.”

    I don’t see Shaw equating those who “seldom or never [participate] in the central religious acts of their Church” with his ideological adversaries, as you seem to be doing. Shaw argues that “The fundamental issue here is religious and, specifically, ecclesiological.” He thinks Bishop D’Arcy is right and Bishop Quinn is mistaken on a theological level. Thus Shaw doesn’t see Bishop Quinn as his “ideological adversary” but as a mistaken bishop. Shaw is trying to do exactly the opposite of what you accuse him of doing.

    Shaw brings in the stats to argue that those agreeing with D’Arcy actually practice their faith – i.e. their views have some claim to be closer to a correct Catholic understanding, as opposed to those who never or almost never practice their faith. This is a religious benchmark, not a political one.

  2. Liam says:

    Shaw reads more into a poll than is merited. He says “56 percent of Catholics who don’t attend weekly Mass thought the university did the right thing by honoring Obama, but only 37 percent of the weekly Mass-attenders agreed.”

    Now, it should be noted that I would be one of those Mass goers who doesn’t think Obama should have received an honorary degrees (I think honorary degrees are a stupid idea, and so does the university from which I was graduated), I didn’t have a problem with his speaking at commencement as such, I felt Fr Jenkins rationale was self-serving, but I also felt that there were those on the Catholic right whose reaction was intemperate and quite cynical.

    And I am hardly alone; many many people have had different reactions to different aspects of the issue.

    Moreover, many people (including weekly Massgoers) probably didn’t care enough to think much through because it’s not something that affected them personally.

    The poll stat Shaw cited is equivocal because you have no idea how the many facets of the situation were being washed equivocally into the binary choice.

    • Art says:

      The flaw in Shaw’s logic is in using frequency of Mass attendance as the measure of strength of Catholicism in order to claim that those who supported his view were the “good Catholics” and those who didn’t were the “not-so-good Catholics.”

      I’d like to know the theology behind that measure.

      • FrMichael says:


        Since missing Sunday Mass without serious cause is mortal sin, it is fair to say that a large portion, perhaps the majority, of non-weekly Mass attendees are in mortal sin and therefore by definition are “not-so-good Catholics.”

  3. Todd says:

    Two problems, perhaps:

    1. Missing Sunday Mass isn’t the only or the most grave sin a Catholic can commit.

    2. To be in mortal sin, a person must have a substantial awareness and consciousness of separation from God. Unfortunately, many Catholics do not see the connection between their celebration of Sunday Mass, and the loss created with God or with their sister and brother Catholics.

    • Art says:

      Well, the answer to that would be, “See how poorly catechised Catholics are since Vatican II?”

      But you point to another source of polarization: The distance between those stuck in the Baltimore Catechism that they learned in fourth grade and never went one inch deeper than that, and those educations and sense of curiosity led them to some serious questioning and discernment.

    • Art says:

      I also might add that Fr. Michael’s “serious cause” is also open to interpretation.

      I go to Mass generally every weekend. But there are a few occasions when the demands of family and job have left me utterly exhausted on Sunday morning.

      I wonder if Fr. Michael would consider that a “serious cause.”

  4. Jim McK says:

    I am confused now. Who is poorly catechized? The one who thinks missing Sunday mass is a mortal sin or those who think you have to have full knowledge and intent? Those stuck in the Baltimore Catechism or those who seriously question and discern?

    It seems like the ones “stuck in the Baltimore Catechism: are the ones who think missing is a mortal sin, ie those pre-V2 are the poorly catechized people??? (For the record, I think people “stuck in the Baltimore catechism” will know that full knowledge and consent is needed, so maybe that is why I am confused.)

    Anyway, that is the problem to begin with, that the comments seek to judge by a law rather than accept that judgement belongs to God. As it says in Lumen Gentium 14 some “remain indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.”

    • Art says:

      And one can also wonder about the dangers of reducing attendance at the Eucharistic celebration to a ticket out of eternal damnation.

      Personally, I wouldn’t like attending Mass with a church full of people who are there only out of a sense of obedience to rules. Fortunately, this is seldom the case.

      • Liam says:

        “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other people are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as these Pharisees, who are only here out of a sense of obedience to rules.”

  5. Art says:

    No, Liam, I didn’t mean to pass judgment on people. Only the quality of the experience in anything that is attended only by people forced to be there.

    Sort of like standing in line at the DMV waiting to renew your license plates.

    But thank you for bringing up that prayer. That’s exactly what the neo-cons do when they claim that the “real Catholics” like them vote Republican like they do, and only the other infrequent Mass-going, poorly catechised, fake Catholics voted for Obama.

  6. Liam says:


    You may not have meant to pass judgment on people, but you kinda did. We progressives can be just as Pharisaical as neo-cons in terms of how we define who is not a “real Catholic” (for example, it’s not them….). We can be (and often are) just as blind as “they” are in that regard, because that is an aspect of the human condition that knows no boundary.

    As Todd and other regular readers recognize, my prior response was based on the most memorable homily I’ve heard in my life. It was a one sentence homily I heard when I was a child, after the reading of that parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. It consisted of a very long pause of silence, and then the priest wondered how many of us were thanking God we were not like that pharisee, after which he sat down for more silence.

    Ever since then, I have been very attuned to feedback loop of observing the worthiness or non-worthiness of ourselves and others, and that it arises almost constantly that we often become deadened to it.

  7. Art says:

    Liam, I apologize for not being crystal clear in my original post that I was speaking more about the quality of a liturgy attended by people forced to be there, more than I was talking about the quality of the people.

    I thought I explained that subsequently, but here you are, continuing to argue with a point I wasn’t making.

    And I also apologize for being less worthy and less informed than a “regular reader” who would know exactly where you were coming from.

    And please show me where I attempted to define what a “real Catholic” is. My definition would be pretty broad, would you not agree, if I include all the baptized, regardless of how frequently they go to Mass, and regardless of their U.S. political ideology?

  8. Liam says:

    I am sorry. I apologize.

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