I spent the better part of last week at a conference at Georgetown University dedicated to overcoming polarization. We didn’t. But we sure walked out of there knowing some new people and perspectives.
There were a few powerful moments, among them involving Princeton professor Robert P. George and America magazine’s Father James Martin, S.J. They have some differences, and important ones, too, on some significant issues of our time. For lack of a better way to put it, they probably fall on different sides of a political spectrum. No one asked them to — and they wouldn’t — cast their differences aside. But they are both Catholic, and that means something, because Baptism means something, because the Catechism means something.
Pope Francis has lamented, and fraternally scolded teenagers for, the tendency of Confirmation to become the sacrament of “So long,” as in “Good-bye.” Too often it happens that when a teenager receives this sacrament, which is so steeped in the Pentecost, the culmination of so much in the Christian faith of Resurrection, he may count that as just about his last time in church for Mass, or certainly for any kind of instruction and nourishment in the faith. When it could be a time for the ever-deeper walk of faith, where discernment of what exactly it is that God is calling one to in life becomes ever clearer. Well, in a way, picking up from there was some of the work of the conference we were at, “Though Many, One: Overcoming Polarization through Catholic Social Thought,” sponsored by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
And it turned out, once you sat down, you realized as you do that many of us have more in common than we would otherwise realize — especially if we have some sacramental bonds in common. First of all, Father Martin and Professor George can regularly be seen standing up for the vulnerable unborn. That’s a non-compromise position. The question for many on the left was Does someone like Professor George care about human life beyond that? Well, of course he does, someone like me might respond, pointing to much that he’s written, probably in the last week alone. But most of us can barely keep up with our own schedules, never mind follow others’ output. And as with Pope Francis, it’s frequently only the most controversial statement, the most seemingly unusual (which is often taken out of context or blown out of proportion), that rises to the surface and gets noticed and repeated.
On the right, for, again, lack of a better way of putting it, one of the most moving moments of the conference was when a young woman who admitted that while she knew the toll that taking countercultural positions on abortion and marriage cost, she hadn’t really considered the backlash that someone like Father Martin receives regularly for trying to shed a light on the human person in the complications and confusions of life today. He’s been subjected to an unholy litany that includes some of the most profane and dehumanizing words on social media. What happened at “Overcoming Polarization” instead: You looked at a man as a brother and a woman as a sister. You were moved beyond caricature.
Which brings me to the most important part of the Georgetown conference. People these days don’t exactly associate most Christians they know with the Beatitudes. Part of the reason may be that the most prominent Christians they’re familiar with they know only in a political context. It’s also true that often we people of faith get sucked into the same old frenzies and fashions of the day. But some words of St. John Paul II are helpful here, and especially for people of faith who find themselves working in or talking about (who doesn’t anymore?!) politics: “It is not the Church’s mission to work directly on the economic, technical, or political levels, or to contribute materially to development. Rather, her mission consists essentially in offering people an opportunity not to ‘have more’ but to ‘be more,’ by awakening their consciences through the Gospel.”
At one point early on in the conference, Los Angeles archbishop José Gómez quoted Dorothy Day: “Our lives must be a pure act of love, repeated many times over.” That’s not a right or a left thing. It’s what gives real hope. It is the stuff of credibility. It helps people see more, believe more about themselves and the possibilities for life. There is fruitful common ground there and an understanding that not only is politics not everything but that it can be Satan’s playground if we let it, dehumanizing when ultimately salvation is what matters.
And even if you’re not a believer, people engaging in the real work of love is still something we can all get behind. So let’s do more of it, together. It starts with looking one another in the eye and not some yelling or, at best, looking away, in these gravely polarizing times.