In a polarized world, what is the mission of the church?

By Charlie Camosy | OSV News

Almost daily we hear America being described as not just divided but “polarized” — that factions in society are not simply in disagreement with each other but willfully entrenched within such extremes that we can no longer see or hear each other. Father R. Aaron Wessman, the author of “The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World” (New City Press), explores how we might rein in the momentum of hate that is pushing us further and further apart.

OSV News: First off, what is and is not “polarization?”

Father Wessman: Risking oversimplification, polarization in the American context is the formation of two groups or “tribes” — generally divided along political lines — whose members seemingly have little in common, rarely interact, view the world in quite substantially different ways and increasingly disdain members of the “other” group, even viewing them as having less-than-human characteristics.

Polarization is not simply the existence of two dominant political parties in the United States. For instance, it is possible — and has been the case historically — for America to have two parties where opposing members share some values and common interests and do not view each other with an overwhelming sense of hatred and suspicion. Today, however, geographical sorting, less diversity within the two main tribes, and an intensification of negativity between those groups have produced a perfect cultural storm of negative polarization.

Polarization is more about “identity” — about how we each answer the question “Who am I?” and about us feeling that our identities are being threatened by the “other.” It’s helpful to view polarization as an intensification of an us-versus-them mentality touching the most important realities of peoples’ lives: race, religion, politics, values and our sense of “home.” Research suggests that when these identity markers are threatened, we struggle to find value in the “other” — we are impeded from listening to and learning from the “others” and grow to hate them.

OSV News: Describe the state of polarization in the U.S. church at the moment — in particular, what do various reactions to the current world Synod of Bishops on synodality reveal?

Father Wessman: In line with Pope Francis’ recent remarks, polarization is one of the most important challenges for Christians today. Christians are called to be witnesses to the Gospel and to deepen the reality of being one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Polarized culture impedes us from living these realities more profoundly.

Take, for instance, the idea of catholicity, defined in part as openness to all that is good, true and beautiful in the world — no matter where these exist, or whether they are lived by a secular atheist or a person of another political party.

Polarization limits our ability to come close to those people and to listen honestly to them or accept that we can learn and grow from them. Polarization, at its worst, means we view people with different positions as an enemy that needs to be destroyed at all costs. The difference between a “catholic” approach to the “other” and a polarized approach could not be more stark.

As to the current synod, in my personal experience I’ve found the synodal emphasis on listening to be an antidote to the sickness caused by polarization. One of the most consistent recommendations made by those proposing solutions to the challenges of polarization today is the importance of cultivating curiosity.

Curiosity is lived by coming close to those who are different from us — especially doing so in person — asking genuine questions and actively listening, in order to learn. When moments of genuine questioning and sacred listening occur, I have found synodality to be extraordinarily fruitful in the church.

OSV News: Can you discuss how the framework and approach of your new book addresses this?

Father R. Aaron Wessman is the vicar general and director of formation for the Glenmary Home Missioners, and is the author of “The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World” (OSV News Photo/courtesy Father Wessman)

Father Wessman: Because of the dominant influence polarization has on us, it’s helpful for Christians to be inspired by figures and examples from our tradition who were “outside” of our present moment. In my book, I use the lives of various saintly figures, from Damian of Molokai to Dorothy Day, to provide a renewed vision for the church in the United States. In particular, I invite Christians (including myself) to examine our consciences — to determine whether we, personally, are living in accord with the message of the Gospel or if we have become victims (or even promoters), of our polarized culture.

Ultimately, I point readers to Jesus as the way out of our polarized times. I show that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are infused by his willingness to “cross over” to the “other” — whether to all of us in our fallen state through the incarnation, or through his earthly ministry — by standing in solidarity with the poor, sinners, lepers and even demoniacs. Jesus consistently saw an “outsider” and moved closer to him or her. He did this as an example to us and to deepen the experience of salvation for all.

OSV News: How much of our polarization comes from public-facing Catholics defining themselves by their opposition to “the other,” especially on social media? Might a synodal way that engages regular Catholics (most of whom have little or nothing to do with intense Catholic debates online) reveal a much more complex, interesting and hopeful lay of the ecclesial land in the U.S.?

Father Wessman: My book presents research on the polarizing effect of social media on American society in general. More quantitative and qualitative research is needed to explore the specific influence of social media on the church and how “elite ecclesial polarization” might be affecting the church. However, research suggests — and I suspect people have had this experience — that Twitter and Facebook are not often the best platforms for Christians, especially leaders, to deepen “communio.” I don’t argue that the church should avoid social media in her evangelical mission, but I invite readers to consider its influence in their own life.

The beauty of synodality and other types of events that attempt to bring people together from various backgrounds, is that it often includes in-person engagement where ordinary people share their stories and practice respectful listening through real curiosity. I would suggest, and have experienced personally, that taking part in these events (and spending less time on social media) is suited to depolarizing the church and helping Christians live as missionary disciples in the contemporary period.

Father R. Aaron Wessman is the vicar general and director of formation for the Glenmary Home Missioners ( “The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World” will be released Feb. 20.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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