News & Commentary

Church has a crucial role in combating polarization, ‘Civilize it’ panelists say

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The church has a crucial role in combating the rise of polarization, panelists said at a March 20 webinar organized by the U.S. bishops’ conference and other Catholic groups.

At the webinar co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA, Glenmary Home Missioners and the Jesuit Conference, and moderated by Gloria Purvis, a Catholic speaker and host of “The Gloria Purvis Podcast” from America Media, panelists said rising polarization is contrary to the common good Catholics should seek to foster.

A 2023 study by the Pew Research Center found that positive views of many governmental and political institutions are at historic lows. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans surveyed in that study said they always or often feel exhausted when thinking about politics, while 55% feel angry, 10% feel hopeful and just 4% feel excited.

In March 2024, as both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump became their respective parties’ presumptive nominees, setting up a likely rematch election between the pair, Pew found that 26% of Americans hold unfavorable views of both men, a sentiment more common among people under 30 than older generations. However, Pew found that when it comes to evaluating Trump and Biden on their own — without being compared to their rival — about six in 10 Americans hold unfavorable views of both candidates.

Kerry Alys Robinson, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, said the same polarization that impacts American politics also has impacted the church.

When she “saw the corrosive effect it was having on families, communities, neighborhoods, I yearned for our beloved church to play an ameliorating role in addressing that,” Robinson said. “We are called to one Eucharistic table, so it just made sense to me that our church might play a role in helping bridge these divisions and lessen the chasm.”

Robinson said Catholics should demonstrate an “emphasis on encounter and accompaniment, genuinely interacting with — and gaining a deep understanding of — our neighbors and those different from us, from different backgrounds and circumstances.”

Father R. Aaron Wessman, the author of “The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World,” said that the challenge of polarization in American culture is that individuals within groups feel uncertainty, fear and grievance, leading to an “us versus them” mentality.

Father Wessman said “some politicians and some media outlets will oftentimes try to capitalize on the two groups that exist,” both intensifying and promoting that “‘us versus them’ mentality.”

“It’s very difficult for us to live in American culture and not be caught up in that ‘us versus them mentality,” he said. “And when I see you as a member of the other group and I see you as the enemy, I see you maybe even as being less than human; and obviously for us as Christians that’s a problematic place for us to be in.”

The Catholic faith, he said, provides “a tremendous treasure trove of resources” for overcoming polarization, including in the Eucharist.

“This is where human beings are united with God, and also with each other,” he said of that sacrament.

Father Wessman said self-awareness and examination of conscience are key components of an intentional response to reducing polarization.

“Really ask the question, ‘How have I become polarized myself? How am I contributing to polarization?'” he said. “And it takes some hard work to be honest with ourselves. And to answer that question, then we can also think about an examination of conscience, you know, ‘what are my biases?'”

The webinar was part of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ “Civilize It” initiative, which seeks to foster “a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good,” a nod to Pope Francis’ encyclical on human fraternity, “Fratelli Tutti.”

By Kate Scanlon | OSV News