Healing Catholic Divisions in Year of Mercy


My parish: St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, where Democrat and Republican Senators, conservative think tank staff and Democratic strategists worship together.

Divisions within the US Catholic church dispirit. Mirroring American cultural divides, too many Catholics identify as progressive and conservative. Progressives tend to concern themselves with poverty, immigration, workers’ rights, war and peace and climate change while conservatives focus on abortion, euthanasia, religious freedom and gay marriage.

Persons within these factions insist you believe as they do on each issue, and if you feel a certain way about societal issues, you must feel the same way about church issues. And persons within these factions conflate the person’s policies with the person.

For conservatives, Obamacare embodies everything wrong with the man and progressive policies, and to progressives the Ryan Budget reflects everything that’s wrong with the Republican leader and conservative policies. And some Catholics hold the extreme view: the persons holding these views are bad persons.

Angry, overly personal Catholic disagreements counter the gospel message of love and mercy, and healing these divisions would be a good way for Catholics to demonstrate mercy in the Year of Mercy. Other Catholics should learn from the experience of Nebraska’s progressive and conservative Catholics.

In the summer of 2015, Catholics there worked with others to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty, offering hope Catholics can heal their divisions. These church advocates discovered capital punishment, which has long been considered a progressive cause, isn’t a progressive or conservative issue, but a Catholic one.

As Catholics we’re urged to work against the death penalty as we do to stop abortion because we must defend life at all stages and in all circumstances. That’s the fundamental philosophy informing the church’s seamless garment approach, which views abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, war, militarism, poverty and racism as connected threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life.

If conservative and progressive Catholics embraced this consistent ethic, they could unite to create a culture of life that promotes social justice and peace. Catholics could also find common ground with the 80% of Americans, according to a 2014 Gallup Poll, who aren’t consistently liberal or conservative. Promoting life and finding common ground, Catholics could do more for the common good and God’s Reign.

This will require Catholics repudiating the animosity that has marked our cultural and political arguments because only love will convert persons who disagree with us. Leading with love will liberate Catholics from the cultural compulsion to take sides and from the boxes in which they find themselves.

When this happens, Catholics will learn to become comfortable just being Catholic, nothing else. We may never achieve unanimity, but we’ll grow closer if we recall what we have in common.

Broken sinners, all need God’s grace and mercy, and want, however imperfectly, to follow the Lord. The Eucharist nourishes all, and the gospel and church teachings inspire all to live their faith.

Recalling this mutuality should urge Catholics who disagree with each other to worship and pray more together, listen more to others’ stories of their faith journeys, spend more time together studying the scriptures and what the church says about today’s issues, and engage in service and advocacy.

When Catholics live their faith more closely together, they’ll develop a greater appreciation of, gratitude for and commitment to their rich and distinctive tradition. The more Catholics defend life, the more they’ll advocate justice, and the more Catholics work for peace, the more they’ll uphold all persons’ dignity.

Defending life, advocating justice, working for peace, uplifting dignity, Catholics will increasingly become the church the Pope has called us to be: one that encounters persons on the peripheries, that’s poor and stands with poor persons.

Honoring these actions that mark us as Catholic, and celebrating ourselves as just Catholic, we’ll work to become just Catholics. We’ll extend love and mercy to: the man awaiting execution, the unborn child, the woman on food stamps, the man sleeping on our streets, children fleeing war zones, and even, especially those who disagree with us.