By Dennis Sadowski | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON -- Pope Francis' invitation to encounter people at their station in life offers a starting point to overcome the deep polarization that marks public life, speakers told participants at the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.
Panelists during a Feb. 5 session at the annual meeting of 500 church social service providers and justice advocates agreed that encountering others is not easy and requires going outside of one's comfort zone, but said that dialogue and finding common ground is what the pope envisions for a hurting world.
From the sacraments to the tenets of Catholic social teaching, the grounds for encounter are rooted in church tradition, they said.
The 85-minute conversation on "Moving From a Throwaway Culture to a Culture of Encounter" covered wide-ranging topics, exploring the broad outline of Catholic social teaching as a tool to build understanding while touching on the theology behind the pope's call to encounter.
"We are not merely called to unity. We actually are unified as a church because our unity resides in our baptism. It resides in the body of the Lord," said Jesuit Father Matthew Malone, president and editor-in-chief of America Media.
"Truth is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. The way, the truth and the light. So we do not in a sense possess the truth. As Christians, as disciples, we actually live in the hope that he possesses us," he said.
"When we recognize that the true source of our unity" is Jesus, "then our interactions with others are more likely to be encounters rather than mere confrontations," he added.
R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, an interdenominational and interreligious journal, approached the idea of unity and solidarity from a different perspective.
Reno suggested the challenges society is facing resulted from "opening things up," pointing to "open borders, open minds, open societies" as contributing to a weakening of national and familial solidarity and the decline of social groups working toward a common cause.
"One thing we need to do is we need to stop cheerleading for openness, fluidity and diversity. They have become words of deconsolidation and disillusion of solid things," Reno said, admitting his view likely would be "controversial" within the gathering.
He also suggested moving from Pope Francis' idea that the church is a field hospital treating the wounded to one where the church is more permanently rooted and gives "people a place to stand" through the "solid elements of faith" to engage the world.
Encounter and understanding can be served by spreading the tenets of faith found in the church's "strongest resource," that being Catholic social teaching, maintained Sister Patricia Chappell, who is executive director of Pax Christi USA and a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
"These principles actually apply to the dignity of every person regardless of how we as society, sad to say regardless how we as church, often have classified people by race, sexual orientation, gender, income levels, philosophy as well as theologies," Sister Chappell said. "But this Catholic social teaching is the foundation, is the mandate by which we as Catholic Christians need to operate from."
She also called for the church to be on the ground day in and day out listening to people's struggles and challenges. If the church takes such teaching to heart, she explained, differences among people will lessen and the unity of the body of Christ will be strengthened because no one will be pushed aside.
Despite the wide polarization in U.S. society, Maryann Cusimano-Love, associate professor of international relations at The Catholic University of America, offered a sign of hope that divisions are narrowing around the world.
She credited the church for its role with other partners in helping bring peace among long-disagreeing communities in places such as Northern Ireland and South Africa.
Perhaps unlike any other religious institution, the Catholic Church and its presence around the world offers a place from which to begin to heal the differences in the U.S., Cusimano-Love said.
With such a presence, Father Malone suggested that the church should not withdraw from the public square, even though at times the church's message can be distorted by partisan politics. Withdrawing, he said, would distort "our ecclesial imagination."
"We need to assume an even more robust presence in the public square, but precisely as the church," he explained. "One of the lessons that I think we are learning is one of the lessons I take from my experience working in politics, which is if you require in order to cooperate with anyone on one issue that they agree with you on every issue, we're not going to get much done."
Each panelist reiterated that the church's entry into the public square is not motivated by politics, but by faith.
"We need to look at the intersection of these issues, and look at what are the things that are in common that we have that we can work on and can work toward," Sister Chappell said. "There are going to be things that obviously we disagree with. But I'd like to think and believe there are important issues we can agree upon.
"How do we create ways and means to help people to move into their empowerment and to improve their lives and to participate and to be inclusive? It is only when we really get to know each other on an individual one-on-one basis, get through those biases, those stereotypes, all those other things begin to fall apart."
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