Catholic bishops warn of polarization in Church, urge more dialogue 

bishops polarization Gloria Purvis, Cardinal Robert McElroy, Bishop Daniel Flores, and Bishop Robert Barron discuss polarization in the Catholic Church during a panel discussion hosted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA, Glenmary Home Missioners, and the Jesuit Conference on May 14, 2024. | Credit: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Live Stream YouTube channel

Three Catholic bishops warned of a growing ideological polarization within the Church and the need for civil dialogue among those with disagreements during a livestreamed panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon.

“Politics is almost a religion and sometimes it’s a sport, [but] it’s not supposed to be either,” Bishop Daniel Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, said during the discussion. 

“It’s supposed to be a civil conversation … to seek what is good and make the priority how to achieve it and how to avoid what is evil,” Flores said. “And I think if we could stay focused on that, we can kind of tone down the caricature and the rhetoric that seeks to dehumanize people.”

The panel discussion included Flores, Cardinal Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego, and Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota. It was moderated by Gloria Purvis, the host of “The Gloria Purvis Podcast” at America Magazine, and co-sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Catholic Charities USA, Glenmary Home Missioners, and the Jesuit Conference.

The panel discussion was part of the USCCB’s “Civilize It” initiative, which is meant to foster civility in important ideological debates. As part of the initiative, the bishops ask Catholics to sign a pledge to affirm the dignity of every human person — including those with different ideological beliefs — and to work with others in pursuit of the common good.

According to the panelists, American society and the Church have grown more polarized when it comes to ideological differences — and debates about those differences have become less civil.

Barron, who founded the Catholic media organization Word on Fire, said disagreements within the Church are nothing new, but the way people approach those disagreements has changed: “What’s broken down is the love that makes real dialogue possible.”

“It’s a tribalism that’s lost the sense of love in dialogue,” Barron said.

The bishop warned that people are more focused on winning arguments and being loyal to an ideological identity than on love. He said these problems are very noticeable in discussions on the internet and encouraged people to ask whether “this comment [is] an act of love” before saying anything. 

“Is it born of love?” Barron said people should ask themselves. “Is it born of a desire to will the good of the other? If it’s not, there’s like a thousand better things to be doing than sending that statement.”

McElroy said too much dialogue today “is meant to be confrontational” to the point at which people “can’t enter into a genuine dialogue.” 

“People are coming toward each other in the life of the Church looking first at that label: What are you? Where do you stand in the war-like culture politics of our country?” the cardinal said.

People focus on this “rather than [on] what unites us: where do we stand in terms of our identity as Catholics and with a Christological outlook,” he added. 

McElroy also built on the concerns Barron highlighted regarding dialogue on the internet.

“When you’re writing the Tweet, imagine Jesus is there with you and when you think through that question ‘should I do this?’” McElroy said. 

Similarly, Flores emphasized the need to remember what Christ would do. 

“He would not be unkind, especially to the poor and especially to those who had no standing in the world,” Flores said. “And also he would never commit an injustice in order to promote justice.”

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