Divided Catholics

Americans are a restless people. All of us come from stock that left kin and country behind to come to this new land. Even Native Americans took the long trek across the Bering Strait to North America. As a gene pool, therefore, Americans represent the world’s unsatisfied seekers.

The early European settlers raced across the country in search of farmland, furs and gold, stopped only by the shores of the Pacific. Our ancestors then built a powerful nation and an awesome economy. They dug in, creating farms that have fed the world and factories that have made us rich. Now on top of the world, our energetic restlessness is turning inward. In the process, we are, as a nation, dividing as in no other time into camps. Conservatives want to be with conservatives, liberals with liberals.

We are purposely sealing ourselves off from those with different values. During the contentious 2000 presidential election, the playwright, Arthur Miller, exclaimed, “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?”

Since the contentious confirmation hearing of Justice Clarence Thomas and then presidential impeachment efforts following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Americans have politically moved to the barricades. We find it increasingly difficult and often irritating to talk with those “on the other side” of the political divide.

It is not just a withdrawal from people. It is what we put in our heads. It is the newspapers and magazines we select; the columnists we read; the TV channels we watch. FOX and Sean Hannity or MSNBC with Keith Obermann. The same with our choice of websites and blogs.

Some authorities, such as Bill Bishop, the author of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” believe all this choice and separating is the canary in the mine shaft, portending great dangers ahead for Americans, as we increasingly move into residential communes which reflect our views and social comfort zones.

But what about American Catholics? There can be little doubt that this political, attitudinal chasm exists among us. But first we need to acknowledge a few facts. While demographers tell us that there are 60 million Catholics in the United States, that cannot be true. The old adage, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics,” applies here. Fully one-third of that 60 million have left the Church. They are “Census Catholics.”

Another huge group call themselves “Catholics,” but appear to be a long way from the mind of Rome. This situation was on display in last year’s book by a member of the Kennedy Clan. The book, “Being Catholic Now,” is a collection of essays by well known public figures who identify themselves as Catholics. Among them are Bill Maher, Susan Saradon, Nancy Pelosi, Anna Quindlen and the late Frank McCourt. Not exactly a group famous for what we used to call “hitting the rail.”

But even among the 30 million that go to church and “hit the rail” on a regular basis, there are deep theological and political divisions. Many Catholics still chafe at Pope John Paul II firmly closing the door on the issue of the ordination of women. Even though Pope Benedict XVI explicitly requested Catholic colleges to refrain from honoring public figures who publicly affirm and support issues such as abortion and the use of living embryos in laboratory experiments, nevertheless many university presidents of Catholic colleges, including local ones, have extended these honors.

Nowhere were these divisions more on display than in the recent controversy over the invitation by the president of America’s arguably premier Catholic university to America’s unarguably most pro-abortion politician. The choice by Notre Dame to give President Obama an honorary law degree in the clear light of his record of aggressive abortion legislative found many Catholics applauding and many revolted.

We can be sure, however, that as the days and weeks ago by and as President Obama pushes his pro-abortion agenda, Catholics will be reminded from the Oval Office, of this event with statements such as “As I told the graduation students at the University of Notre Dame, while abortion is a deeply serious and, yes, controversial issue, we must move forward...,” etc.

Contentious events like the Notre Dame incident will continue. Catholics will be drawn into controversies within the Church itself and into controversies, like same sex marriage, that are imposed on Catholics from the larger community. It would be tragic if committed Catholics followed the same isolating, sorting-themselves-out trend discussed above. We are, after all, a Church “community,” and one essentially bound by love. True love requires respect for differences. So what can we do in the face of these divisions of thought and opinion?

For one thing, we can pray for and encourage greater guidance from Church leaders. The silence from our pulpits and chancelleries on many controversial issues, such as the gay lifestyle, is deafening, and has left many Catholics confused and unaware of their Church’s teachings.

Second, we can educate ourselves on these issues. Between the Catholic press and the Internet, there is no storage of informed material.

Third, we can talk. We can stay close to those within our parishes who hold alternate views. Talking -- good talking -- involves careful listening. Listening can, of course, be dangerous. We might just have to change our minds.

Controversy and strife are not new to Christ’s Church. The Acts of the Apostles bears witness to the early Church’s controversies and confusions and ultimate consolidation. As those early Christians demonstrated, “love conquers all.”

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.