Friday, February 24, 2023

The Church's Mission in a Polarized World


In this increasingly conflicted era, when more and more people are worried about "polarization," Glenmary Father Aaron Wessman, his religious community's Vicar General and Director of Formation, has written The Church's Mission in a Polarized World (New City Press, 2023). 

Fr. Wessman starts from the widely experienced reality of polarization and division in the U.S., where "good, thoughtful, and caring people are being subsumed into the vitriolic intensity of cultural polarization." As a Catholic priest, he finds it "devastating" that those "united in divine bonds by the power of the Holy Spirit treat their fellow Christians with contempt beyond contempt," which leads to the painful admission "that the Church in the United States has, in part, lost her way through this valley of tears." 

Wessman draws on both religious and secular literature on the subject of polarization, of which there is now an abundance. For example, he follows Ezra Klein's 2020 Why We’re Polarized, referencing three now familiar contours: "sorting, homogenization, and intensification," and Journalist Bill Bishop's study of U.S. geographical sorting in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. The by-now familiar  result is that "most people throughout the United States are unlikely, within the county they live in, to have any in person, sustained interaction with people from a different political persuasion." 

As is widely recognized, religion plays an important part in contemporary polarization. When it comes to Catholics, Wessman notes, while U.S. Catholics "are equally represented in the Republican and Democratic parties, 48 percent, and 47 percent, respectively," there is however an underlying  "racial sorting" within the Church, in which "most white Catholics identify as Republican (57 percent) while most Hispanic and Black Catholics identify as Democrat (68 percent and 85 percent." Yet, even recognizing the legitimacy of making distinctions, there is a certain sense in which "Christians cannot be satisfied being separated by bastions with the out-group world if that separation hinders their missionary movement." Accordingly, Wessman highlights the contrast between our contemporary cultural "othering" and what he calls a "catholic" approach to the world - as demonstrated, for example, by Saint Justin Martyr, Matteo Ricci, and, perhaps above all, by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

In today's polarized society however, Catholics seem increasingly "more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church.” Strikingly (but hardly a surprise for anyone who has been involved in pastoral ministry in the United States in recent years), neither conservative nor liberal Catholics seem to rely primarily on their religion to form their moral perspectives.

Partcularly problematic, he feels, is the increasing reliance on the metaphor of war. Recalling the 2019 Sohrab Amari-David French imbroglio within the right wing Catholic world, Wessman
worries that "Ahmari’s invective against French showed that it was now unapologetically acceptable to some to use war as a lens to view interactions not just between two different political parties, but between members of the same Body of Christ." In contrast, he calls for what he terms "a missionary view of the ‘other’," a recognition that the "other" has "an inherent value that cannot be ignored, suppressed, or rejected."

The specifically religious alternative he envisions, then, depends on rediscovering discipleship, which (with a nod to Bonhoeffer) he notes has inherent costs. Throughout the book, the author has regularly returned to his experience of Hurricane Florence for his images and language. So now, near the end, he borrows further from that experience to speak of "crossing over into the storm of one’s out-group." This image of "crossing over" is explicitly religious and ineradicably Christian, connected as it is with the incarnation and God's self-emptying in Christ. "Jesus’ example should provide ample evidence that any Christian seriously dedicated to following Christ, and putting on ‘his mind,’ cannot help but feel called to engage in some manner of crossing over in his own missionary discipleship, to deepen Christ’s incarnational movement in the world."

Such behavior is, of course, the opposite of the narrowed vision, oversimplified analysis, and pigeonhole categorization of others that characterizes our normal posture in our polarized world. To live such an alternative requires authentic connection with the faith community and its unique spiritual resources. "Christians should not be naïve to think that they can maintain this essential aspect of missionary discipleship without regularly being fed themselves—fed by the sacraments, by prayer, and by communion with other Christians."

Negative or affective Polarization, such as we are currently experiencing in our society seems almost intractable in political and cultural terms. Fr. Wessman's focus, however, is on the Church's mission in this polarized world, which challenges us to look at these issues through a distinctive lens and to risk responding as disciples.

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