Catholicism, authentic communion and the way out of our polarisation trap


Polarisation is exhausting largely because it seems hopeless and also because it gets progressively worse.

As measured in surveys, Americans’ negative attitudes toward political parties other than their own have increased dramatically in recent decades and at a much faster pace than in other countries.

These entrenched divisions simultaneously increase the vehemence of our arguments and decrease our willingness to listen to one another.

We exhaust ourselves by declaring our opinions but are not in conversation.

We produce monologues that are intended more to reassure us than to convince those with different views—or worse, that are received by them as taunts and provocations which must be answered in turn.

Constant exposure to arguments that we are not willing or able to engage with in dialogue is draining as well.

It is like listening to a radio tuned to a station that is half static, half shouting—but that we dare not turn off lest we miss the point our own monologue will aim to refute later.

When we think about polarisation in terms of its derangement of public discourse, we often think first of political partisanship.

But it is clear that this dynamic also plays out in many realms of common life, including religion. In the Catholic Church, it is easy to recognize polarisation operating both within the life of the church itself and in the church’s relation to the secular world.

For example, conflicts over the Traditional Latin Mass and over how the church should engage with a wider culture whose sexual norms have changed radically both reflect different factions arguing fervently but often talking past each other.

Indeed, what most characterizes polarisation is the constant sense of threat: Everything is always at stake, always in need of defence.

In fact, a closer look at the relationship between religion and secularity provides powerful insights about how polarisation arises and how it becomes so intractable—and it also helps us imagine how to find a way toward greater unity.

The reality of the church as a communion, not just an association of individuals, offers a powerful antidote to polarisation.

Finding resources within the church’s tradition for a healthier engagement across internal divisions can also provide a model for responding to secular forms of polarisation.

Where polarisation and secularity intersect

Polarisation is not simply an intense form of extremism but not just the worst case of division or disagreement.

The kind of polarisation that is exhausting us is, instead, a pathology endemic to pluralism.

It is a name for how attempts to live together with others who hold different accounts of meaning, goodness and human nature—accounts that overlap and intersect but do not fully agree—break down and turn into fear and scapegoating instead.

Our arguments about how to live together run in circles.

As we despair of ever convincing each other, the “other side” in a polarized discourse becomes less a partner in conversation and more a threat to be neutralized.

Indeed, what most characterizes polarisation is the constant sense of threat: Everything is always at stake, always in need of defense.

Because we lack shared ground on which to agree or disagree, we also feel the lack of safe ground for our own beliefs.

This is the ugly and dangerous truth of why the outrage machines of social media and the 24-hour news cycle work so well on us.

We are already afraid—and they are ready at hand to tell us why.

Believers or not, we all live in a secular age in which we become responsible for opting to believe.

In thinking through how polarisation operates, I have found that the philosopher Charles Taylor’s analysis in A Secular Age offers crucial insights into how the stakes of disagreement have risen so high in our contemporary situation.

(While I would encourage everyone interested in these issues to read A Secular Age themselves, a 900-page tome is a very good reason to make a recommendation of a shorter précis as well. James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular is an excellent exploration of the key points of Taylor’s work.)

Two main points from Taylor have bearing on the question of polarisation: his distinction between three different meanings of secular and his concept of being “cross-pressured” by having to constantly choose among many sources of ultimate meaning. Continue reading

  • Sam Sawyer is Editor in Chief of America Media
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