Societal polarization: Dangerous but also a sacred duty.
Some Catholic commentators are wringing their hands now about the polarization in the United States (and certainly many other places), and the need for everyone to come together in a process of healing under the new Administration of Joe Biden. Indeed, Biden himself has emphasized the importance of healing the wounds of our divisions. But this is simply standard political rhetoric for a man who campaigned on a platform precisely designed to rub the wounds raw, and who has already deliberately poured salt in the wounds by, among other things, his appointments to leadership positions in the Department of Health and Human Services.
As we move into the Biden era, Catholics must remember that there are two kinds of polarization at work in American politics (and certainly in many other places). One type of polarization is based on preferences for differing positions about which good people can disagree. The best policy on immigration is usually an example of this first sort of polarization. People can be seriously divided on immigration questions, and for a great many different reasons. Very few of the reasons run afoul of Catholic social teaching on this subject, and these few only when they are essentially irrational, such as arising from mere prejudice. One thing which differences of this type have in common is that the various solutions admit of perfectly moral compromises.
But the second kind of polarization arises from clear conflicts between good and evil, where one side favors policies that are objectively immoral and the other side resists those policies not so that the nation will maximize prudence, but rather so that the nation will avoid deliberate moral evils. Unfortunately, in the United States and in most nations around the world today, the primary polarization is between those on the one hand who uphold the clear moral principles all men and women can know through natural law and those, on the other hand, who deliberately subvert this moral order, even if they do so blindly. Moreover, the primary conflicts and even party differences today are not about complex questions of the common good (such as when does taxation become equivalent to theft) but about simple questions that only a culture steeped in sin can fail to answer correctly—questions immediately tied to human sexuality, the family, and human life itself.
All other causes of polarization (take, for example, arguments about the best course to follow during the COVID Pandemic) are trivial and secondary compared to what we face now. We are not even discussing the question of whether there are some evils that the State should not proscribe by law. No, what is at issue in our time is the inescapable polarization between those who adhere to the good, and those who insist upon the political implementation of absolute moral evil.
Where prudence comes in
While many prudential issues also divide those of different political sympathies, the core polarization in the United States today arises not from disputes about the best morally neutral policies to solve particular problems but from the recognition of absolute good and evil on one side and the reduction of morality to personal desire on the other. We must make no mistake about this. There is also a corollary: As a direct result of this absolute moral disagreement we must also look with suspicion upon any, including religious leaders, who speak about the evils of polarization and the need for healing without also recognizing the fundamental legitimacy of a properly moral polarization.
I have no doubt that each of us can find ways to imbue a principled course of action with greater love, understanding, fairness, concern for the other, and, yes, even courtesy. But what none of us may do without answering to God is to pretend evil is good, or that seriously immoral laws and policies may be justified in the name of the preservation of democratic principles and civil discourse. The various kinds of political systems are essentially neutral morally; it is typically what they are used for that renders them good or evil. It is more important to combat grave evil than to preserve a particular system. In the face of serious state-mandated evil, even war and revolution can be legitimate options if they are not likely to precipitate greater evil than they prevent. To speak frankly, when it comes to a State that fosters abortion, gender ideology, and unbridled sexual license—not only murdering millions of persons but radically undermining the family as the essential foundational unit of a healthy society—the standard for precipitating greater evil is a very high bar indeed.
But of course prudence is the virtue that connects moral means with the likelihood of a desired outcome, and we know that effective means are not always available. Somewhat annoyingly—but nevertheless with the full weight of truth behind it—this is precisely where prudence comes in. What actions we take, and even how polarizing our speech becomes, must be determined not only by hard moral limits but by the softer demands of prudence, so that we do not commit ourselves to means which cannot possibly achieve the ends to which they are (thus incorrectly) ordered.
I would like to believe (but am not at all sure) that considerations of prudence provide the primary explanation for the differences in both tone and substance which characterize, for example, the remarks of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and those of Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago in their initial welcome messages to the new President. I say again that I would like to believe it.
Instead, I fear we are going to see a great deal of unseemly jockeying for position among bishops in dealing with the nominally Catholic Joe Biden—who consistently rejects the most fundamental Catholic moral principles regarding the sanctity of human life and the givenness of human nature. Nonetheless, it is the task of prudence to determine the best way to approach others in order to influence them toward the Good. I will say only that the Church cannot begin to regain her health until bishops learn to minimize their attempts at direct political influence, instead teaching the truth unswervingly to the laity, so that the laity in turn might find ways to achieve moral political results.
Without this, the Church remains powerless. So mark this down: Insofar as any bishop engages directly with President Biden at all, it should be as bishop to layman, not as lobbyist to President.
Polarization is a given
In this world, a kind of holy polarization is thrust upon us by our response to events in accordance with our Faith in Jesus Christ. There is always a profound difference between the Kingdom of God and the world. The tactics we use to deploy this fundamental polarization for good must be guided by prudence or, to put the matter in terms of politics, by “the art of the possible”. But prudence cannot operate in a vacuum. It is a virtue which presupposes a commitment to the Good. As soon as we begin to hide our light under the proverbial bushel basket, we have decided to abandon the exercise of prudence as irrelevant to the ends we have in view. For have we not chosen no longer to tell the truth, to pursue the good, or to announce the Gospel?
We must never forget that polarization is built into the Christian life: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). This is the light of the Word become flesh, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, at once the body and spouse of the visible Catholic Church. This light is fundamentally polarizing, not because Christians hate those in darkness, but because “every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn 3:20). Therefore the light we share in Christ must continue to shine in polarizing opposition to a darkness which cannot consume it—even today in our allegedly modern democracies, where the sacred duty of polarization is routinely condemned.
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Posted by: cmariefrench6102 -
Jan. 24, 2021 8:37 AM ET USA
This cogent, thoughtful article is a balm for the soul. Truth is like that. I would also like to read a similar piece on what is of grave danger to the Church and frankly to all citizens of the world right now. The ability to express oneself is being hampered. Data collection and social media tech giants are acting in a way to have a chilling effect on speech both secular and faith based. Attacks on churches around the world are calculated to silence. A frightening precursor to tyranny.
Posted by: jalsardl5053 -
Jan. 23, 2021 3:41 AM ET USA
"The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me." "poverty, climate change and integrating immigrants and refugees" vs. the war on the family "abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender" clearly demonstrates whose priorities are out of line.
Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
Jan. 23, 2021 12:05 AM ET USA
Thank you for an article which is lucid in more than one sense of the word. Every time I heard Mr. Biden prate about Unity, I could see that any objections to his anti-human policies were being preemptively made to appear unpatriotic. You have spoken the truth in charity at a time when a lot of us, including me, are reduced to babbling befuddlement.