By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
With Pew Research Center and Gallup surveys showing that political polarization in America has recently peaked, with a rise in violence threatening civility in public discourse, faithful across the nation are being called to respect and trust in dialogue as well as to see education on the Church’s stance in areas of social concerns.
In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, stressed the universal nature of Catholicism, indicating that being an active member of the Church should involve an open-minded approach to dialogue.
“We’re called to renew the earth, to change society, and I don’t think you do that from an island,” Carr told CNS. It is important, Carr said, to try to anticipate the concerns that others hold rather than giving into the temptation to view them as bigoted, dangerous or disrespectful.
“I frankly think our ideas, our principles are so powerful, that they can win most arguments, so we’re better served by an open discussion rather than sort of batting down the hatches,” Carr said.
In the Diocese of Trenton, Church leaders have a history of embracing the opportunity of the pulpit to call people to mindfulness in their responses as Catholics.
In 2016, for example, in the wake of a terror attack at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in which 49 people were killed, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., called for prayer in the face of violence.
“The 20th century novelist Mary McCarthy once reflected, ‘In violence, we forget who we are.’ Those words are so true because violence turns human beings, created in God’s image, into something we were never intended to be. In violence, we lose our identity as children of a loving, merciful God,” the Bishop wrote after the attack, the deadliest on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
“Let us also pray that we may recover our identity in the face of such violence that wants us to forget,” he wrote.
In a recent homily and pastoral letter, Father Jim Scullion, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Brant Beach, urged his congregation to remember their responsibilities as followers of Jesus in the face of hatred, polarization and violence.
“Jesus asks each of us to examine our own words and actions instead of judging and condemning others: ‘Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?’” he said, quoting Matthew 7:3.
Father Scullion’s words came on the heels of the June 14 shooting in Alexandria, Va., in which U.S. Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot during a practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity. Negative comments and quotes about Republicans had been attributed to the gunman before the shooting.
Though religious or political zeal can be put to good use, Father Scullion said, it can also lead to self-righteousness or the “demonization of our opponent.”
“You and I as Christians are called to be instruments of God’s peace and ministers of reconciliation,” he said. “We are called through our baptism to be in the middle as mediators, helping different factions in the Church and in our nation listen to one another and respect one another – even when and especially when we disagree with one another.”
Father Christopher Colavito, parochial vicar in St. Isaac Jogues Parish, Marlton, and chaplain of Holy Cross Academy, Delran, stressed the importance of knowing where the Church stands on political and social issues.
“Knowing the Gospel helps lead us to moral and theological decisions,” said Father Colavito, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in American history and was once a consultant for local, county and political campaigns. “We have to know our faith before we know our politics. For too many people, it’s the other way around.”
Many of Deacon Patrick Brannigan’s homilies over the past months have also cited Scripture on social justice issues.
“John lists basic social justice commitments we should make in life,” he preached at his parish, St. James Parish, Pennington, a few months back. “That list is important, but we need to be careful about what drives us to be good – what is the motivation for our commitment to social justice and our service to the poor. Why do we live with such commitment?
“We should live such commitment because God is love, and we believe we are made in the image and likeness of God – so we also must be people of love. ... We should live with such commitment because we believe God is near, and we believe he invites us to repent for our sins and to rejoice in his presence,” said Brannigan, who also serves as executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey.
Father Colavito admitted that many are reluctant to mention faith and politics in the same breath. However, he said, “to separate completely the political world is to negate our call as Catholics. Our politics should flow from our faith.”
To do so, he encourages all faithful to seek out what the Catholic Church teaches when it comes to today’s issues, citing chaplains, priests, homilies and parish workshops as sources for information.
“The beauty of the Catholic Church is that we write down everything, from Scripture on down,” he said. “There are tons of resources that people can go to to form their consciences properly. That way, people know this is not their priests’ interpretation – this is Catholic understanding.”
Father Colavito also points to U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Vatican websites as educational tools.
“It will never tell you to vote one party or the other, but it will tell you the hierarchy of issues and where the Church stands,” he said, stressing that not all issues carry the same weight of importance in the Church. “It doesn’t matter what the individual thinks is the top political issue, but what the Church thinks matters.”
Father Colavito stressed that there is often historical and societal context that gets misinterpreted in Scripture when discerning today’s political climate and issues, which is why parish leaders or groups should be consulted.
For example, Father Colavito recently began a four-week study on the history of the Church. Meeting every Tuesday at 7 p.m., the topics focus on the early Church and Church fathers, the medieval Church through the Crusades, Council of Trent to Vatican II, and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
He finished a similar study group in the Spring on the Gospel of Mark that was attended by about 130 people and plans a series in the fall on the Gospel of Matthew. Putting Gospel in context can also help show how Catholics read Scripture differently from that of other denominations – something, he stressed, that often gets lost in political discourse.
“The theological approach to understanding the Gospel is now, ‘How does this make you feel’,” he said. “Sharing and understanding our faith to its fullest is not just feeling. Emotions are a human aspect but they should not be driving our politics.”
“In the end, Christ will not care if you were Republican or Democrat but whether you helped feed his fellow man and were a good and faithful servant to him and his Church,” he said.
Catholic News Service contributed to this report.