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February 5, 2019

Public Dialogue: Emerging Leaders on Polarization in a Broken Church and Nation

By Therese Perby Señal (C'19)

Though there has been much discussion over whether American politics has become polarized (it has), there has been fewer talk of the divisions in the American Catholic community. In a time when politics is on everyone’s mind, I was a little surprised to see these political beliefs reflected in the religious sphere. A Public Dialogue hosted by the Initiative of Catholic Social Thought and Public Life entitled, “Emerging Leaders on Polarization in a Broken Church and Nation” sought to address these issues. The event featured John Gehring, Elise Italiano, Hoffsman Ospino, and Gloria Purvis and was moderated by Kim Daniels, associate director of the Initiative.

Each panelist brought their own experiences to the discussion on polarization. Hoffsman Ospino, for example, is the associate director of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, discussed the need for the Church to reach out to Latino Catholics through Spanish Masses, including more Latinos in seminaries and schools, and offering more leadership opportunities to the community. He emphasized the need to see diversity in the Church as a gift, rather than a burden. In addition, Gloria Purvis, editor of the African American Youth Bible, noted the dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement by her fellow pro-lifers. Purvis called for a more holistic approach toward pro-life inside and outside the womb can reduce polarization.

The panelists John Gehring and Elise Italiano underlined the importance of following Catholic Social Teaching to bridge divisions in the Church. Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, noted that Catholic Social Teaching provides the tools to transcend deep divisions and warns fellow Catholics to avoid questioning the faith and commitment to the Church of those on the opposite political spectrum. Elise Italiano reiterated this need for Catholic Social Teaching by pointing to young millennials, who face high levels of stress and isolation from the Church, but still represent a commitment to these teachings through their activism and prayer life. Italiano is the founding director of the GIVEN Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to power young adult women in the Catholic Church.

The word “catholic” was originally used to describe something universal or comprehensive, which is why the Church uses it to describe itself: the Church is a church for everyone, including people of different backgrounds, race, or gender. I first picked up the significance of this word in middle school CCD, and since then, it has become an important aspect of how I view the Church. I was not just part of a church, but the Catholic Church.

This view of the Church has made it incredibly difficult for me to come to terms with the division I see within it. I watched as my pastor gave impassioned homilies in support of a certain candidate and people argue over whether being a “true” Catholic meant subscribing to one party over another.

I had the opportunity to take a class with John Carr, the director and founder of the Initiative, that dealt with the Church and public life. In class, he told us that to be Catholic often means to be politically homeless. One party might share the Church’s view on immigration, while the other on abortion. While I don’t claim to know the solution to ending polarization within the Church (and I don’t imagine anyone else does either), I do believe that we must embrace this political homelessness and accept that before anything else, we are Catholics first.

Therese Perby Señal (C'19) is a senior in the College studying computer science.