Polarization and the Church

American Catholics have endured internal polarization for many years, but lately the split has become more visible, vocal, and vitriolic. For this we largely have Barack Obama to thank.
Before Obama’s admirers start screaming — itself a sign of the polarization — I hasten to say I don’t particularly blame the president. Obama has only been doing what politicians always do, seeking allies and votes where he can get them. In the process, however, the divisions among already divided Catholics have unquestionably grown wider and deeper.

Now even bishops have taken to advertising their differences. Maybe it’s healthy that they should, since this allows the rest of us to evaluate their arguments instead of leaving it to them to scrap over things that concern us all behind the closed doors of increasingly secretive general assemblies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But the results are dismaying all the same. Consider recent public comments by Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, and Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.
Here are three serious senior bishops committed to the best interests of the Church. Yet when it comes to events surrounding Notre Dame University’s decision to give Obama an honorary degree last spring and have him as commencement speaker, despite his well-publicized support for abortion, they could hardly disagree more profoundly.
Archbishops Quinn and Sheehan hold that their 80 brothers in the American hierarchy who publicly criticized Notre Dame were flat-out wrong.
Writing in Americamagazine, Archbishop Quinn argued that “sanctioning public officials” like Obama by denying them honors “undermines the church’s transcendent role in the American political order,” since it looks like partisanship and alienates many Catholics. Archbishop Sheehan, interviewed by the National Catholic Reporter, castigated “hysterical” reactions to the Notre Dame incident while citing as a model for others his own success in persuading pro-choice New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to support abolition of the death penalty.
(In passing, it’s noteworthy that Archbishop Sheehan declared the 80 bishops who criticized Notre Dame to be a minority within the hierarchy. At last count, there were 424 American bishops, active and retired. Subtract the 80, and that leaves 344. But nearly all of those in this group said nothing publicly about the Notre Dame affair. Archbishop Sheehan did not explain how he knows what they think.)
Bishop D’Arcy is ordinary of the diocese in which Notre Dame is located. Kept in the dark by the university about the Obama invitation until it had been extended and accepted, he protested strongly and boycotted the commencement. Like Archbishop Quinn, he explained his reasoning in an Americaarticle.
His objections, he wrote, were “not about President Obama,” “not about Democrats versus Republicans,” not about the appropriateness of providing Obama with a platform, and “not about . . . ‘sectarian Catholicism.’” Rather, as he saw it, the problem with honoring a pro-choice politician was its betrayal of the fundamental mission of the Church, laid out by Christ in the gospel of Matthew: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt 5.13).
This exchange among bishops illustrates the old truth that he who gets to define the issue can be sure of winning the debate.
Archbishops Quinn and Sheehan define the Obama-Notre Dame affair — together with the separate but related question of communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians — in political terms: to withhold an honorary degree or refuse communion because politicians support abortion are, in Archbishop Quinn’s word, forms of “sanctioning” intended to coerce politicians into toeing the Church’s political line on abortion.
Bishop D’Arcy defines what’s at stake in religious terms: defending the integrity of the Church and its mandate from Christ to preach the gospel.
Archbishops Quinn and Sheehan make some interesting points, but Bishop D’Arcy is right. The fundamental issue here is religious and, specifically, ecclesiological. Keeping that fixed clearly in one’s mind doesn’t by itself settle the question of whether to honor pro-choice politicians or give them communion, but it does make it possible to discuss these things in the correct context.
The consequences of not doing that were patent in some of the comments at the time of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death last month. Make no mistake — Kennedy died in the Church as a practicing Catholic. God rest his soul. But however much his views may have converged with Catholic social doctrine on some issues, on abortion he and the Church were miles apart. It made an enormous difference.
A Los Angeles Times op-ed writer named Tim Rutten was right in saying Kennedy showed his fellow Catholics that they too could be pro-choice while remaining Catholics in good standing. Rutten thought that was swell. Others do not.
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.
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.
In the Notre Dame dust-up, 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. More polarization. Instead of criticizing the university’s critics, bishops would do well to address this pervasive crisis at its roots, while at the same time considering the possibility that the views of people who go to Mass every week are the sensus fidelium at work.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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