Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

How can we overcome polarization?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Last month I was delighted to participate in a Georgetown University conference on a subject we have heard so much about over the past several months: polarization. The conference, sponsored by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought, brought together speakers from different backgrounds and perspectives to think through this vexing problem afflicting our nation.

In my keynote address, I began by noting that it is important to distinguish polarization from partisanship. The latter term refers to the differences people have over ideas and beliefs. With polarization, it is the people themselves who are divided, isolated in their own spheres, depending on different sources of information and distrustful, if not dismissive, of the other group and their sources of information. 

Even more, polarization describes a situation in which people are so far apart that they barely hear what others are saying. Partisanship may divide us in terms of our particular approach to issues, but there was a time, not so long ago, when partisans of different stripes worked together, even while recognizing their differences, and got things done. 

Polarization threatens the very idea of working with those on “the other side.” If we are serious about overcoming polarization, more is required than finding common ground over ideas. Rather, people have to come to a renewed sense of how they are connected to each other as persons.

One pathway forward, I remarked, is offered by Pope Francis with his urging of a new kind of dialogue. The emphasis of this new kind of dialogue is not the mere sharing of ideas to find common ground, nor is it talking endlessly so as not to offend, or in a way that obscures or relativizes the truth. Rather, the first goal of dialogue is to encounter the other person. 

During his 2015 visit to the United States, the pope urged us bishops “to dialogue fearlessly,” but by first affirming others as persons, realizing “deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.” 

Our own experiences bear out the truth of what the Holy Father says. Families and friendships can handle the tension of differing ideas, but these relationships are threatened if those differences are communicated in a way that shows little personal respect for the other. Over the years, I have learned that the more I get to know someone, the more likely I am to listen to him or her. Likewise, it is always astonishing to me how easily some people mischaracterize the words of others or misjudge their motives, without ever having met them. 

As a Jesuit, Pope Francis is familiar with the “Ignatian presupposition,” which should give us all pause before we come to a fixed conclusion about others. It reads: “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity.” 

Surely this is wise counsel to follow, lest we find ourselves easily dismissing the views of others, or worse, as happens from time to time in our Catholic community, labeling some bad Catholics or heretics simply because of their opposing views.

In addition to what the church offers in the teaching of the Holy Father, we also have resources in our American heritage of civil argument to guide us. Earlier this spring, you may have heard Senator John McCain read this excerpt from his recent book “The Restless Wave”:

I’d like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different … . We argue over little differences endlessly and exaggerate them into lasting breaches … whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect … . We’re citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it.

When I heard him recite those words, I was struck by his observation that it was precisely the drive to find a new way to deal with the tribal enmities of the old world that gave rise to this new world, this republic we call America. That commitment to deal with our differences and diversity by ever forging a more perfect union is the unique heritage of this nation that we should embrace.  
The point of the American experiment is not for us to be divided by our differences, religious and otherwise, but rather to be united in arguing about them for the purpose of creating new solutions, forging a more perfect union, which is never a done deal, but something we aspire to as a nation. 

Our heritage is to value public argument and not shy away from it as if we were terrified of conflict or worse, prone to retreat into our own polarized camps, safely living in isolation with those who affirm our views. As the late Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray put it so well, “Society is civil when it is formed by people locked together in argument.” Even when we reach agreement, he wrote, we should continue to argue, because our heritage has always been about creating new solutions, forming that more perfect union.  

St. Pope John Paul II was unabashed in calling polarization sinful, simply because it raises obstacles that thwart God’s plan for humanity and creates a sense of hopelessness in the world. “It is important to note,” the saintly pope observed, “that a world which is divided into blocs, sustained by rigid ideologies and in which instead of interdependence and solidarity different forms of imperialism hold sway, can only be a world subject to structures of sin [giving] the impression of creating, in persons and institutions, an obstacle which is difficult to overcome.”

His warning about the dehumanizing costs of polarization should provoke us all to a healthy examination of conscience about how this sin may have a place in our hearts and what we need to do to overcome it. So too should a reflection on our heritage as Americans and the urging of Pope Francis for a new kind of dialogue. In the end, we all have something to contribute in overcoming polarization. 


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