One of the things I value about my institutional location is that I get to engage conversations from the full spectrum of American Catholicism. I think in many places there can be a temptation to a “party line” on disputed questions, which unintentionally inhibits real engagement and dialogue across our differences. A recent experience higjlighted some of the dynamics of effective conversation; I am attending the upcoming conference at Notre Dame on overcoming polarization in the American church, and I hope to bring these insights to that gathering. (The opening session of the conference will be available for livestreaming and should be very worthwhile!)

Last Monday at Mount St. Mary’s, Bill Mattison of CUA and myself led a forum on Pope Francis and the synod on the family. For me, the success of the forum was indicated by the Q&A and subsequent personal conversations in the auditorium afterwards, where we were able to engage questions both from some Mount seminarians and from some gay and lesbian Catholic undergrads. The very fact that both groups were present and were interested in engaging us further in real conversation is a good sign. But their different questions also indicated to me something about where these difficult conversations might go.

I had two insights in reflecting on the experience. The first was about the general presentation. Bill & I tag-teamed through our presentation, first putting into context the whole idea of a synod and of the Catholic conversation on marriage and family since Vatican II, and then turning to the events of the synod itself and possible things to look for this fall. While we presented the details of some of the concrete questions, we did so in a larger context. Rather than develop a “good guys-bad guys” narrative, both of us sought to explain the event in terms of the church trying to combine the lofty vision of the universal call to holiness that has driven Catholic teaching on the good of marriage with the need to “meet people where they are,” dealing with concrete challenges in a way that facilitated a real encounter with God’s love and mercy. This seems to me the sincere aim of at least most of the synod participants. That is to say, the success of the synod relies on a belief that, even if people bring different conclusions about pastoral practice, there is an underlying shared vision – a common good – on which all agree. A narrative of complete incommensurability, and a subsequent win-at-all-costs mentality, is probably what creates breakdown in our legislative system, and it is no different for the Church. Overcoming polarization requires that we try to understand and appreciate disagreements within a frame that identifies clearly the shared goods we have.

The particular questions seemed to indicate that audience members with different views came to appreciate this common ground for conversation. Their questions illustrate this first point, but also provide a second insight. One seminary student posed a question about “the law written in our hearts” – he was apparently appreciative of some of things we had said about Francis’s criticism of “law for it’s own sake” types, and was trying to understand law in a different way, not as an external imposition. This is good; it is definitely a considerable move beyond “the Church says so” reasoning. On the other hand, a couple gay and lesbian students wanted to know more about the Church’s teaching on adoption. They had picked up on a comment in the presentation about adoption being an emergency measure, and thus requiring prudence about different realistic options that would best serve the child. They wanted to know if this meant the Church can be OK with adoption by single parents or even same-sex couples. The way I read the question, at least, was a desire to find a way within the Church’s teaching to accommodate some paths forward, without necessitating a wholesale challenge of the entire vision.

I liked both these questions because they showed thought – they showed a recognition that if there is simply a battle between law and conscience, or law and change, there cannot be movement. But, as a moral theologian, I was also aware of the challenges opened up by these lines of inquiry. In the comments from the seminarian, it became clear that what he wanted to believe was that people would eventually feel bad if they were violating Church teaching. The “law written in our hearts” morphed into an appeal to a kind of moral instinct. At one point, he even said, “The Church doesn’t even need to teach the law” – obviously a problem. On the other side, while I was appreciative of the creativity of the question about adoption, I did worry about a kind of letter-of-the-law legalism, where careful distinction and actual prudence gave way to the search for a loophole that would be taken as permission.

Thus, the second insight: the Catholic tradition is filled with many riches, but is subject to the same kind of fragmentation that Alasdair MacIntyre describes at the beginning of After Virtue. Words like conscience and the “law in our hearts” are used, but they become isolated fragments used without regard to their context. MacIntyre’s text suggests that such decontextualized moral language is ripe for use (by politicians) as a tool for manipulation. Thus, the fragmentation can produce creativity, but it can also produce further, sharp polarization, in which decontextualized concepts (whether “law” or “mercy”) become mere tools in a political battle.

Both the form and the content of our discourse can exacerbate polarization or overcome it. The more the form of the discourse is a battle, with our words and ideas as the weapons, the more likely is polarization. The more the form is an attempt to deal with complex difficulties that cut in multiple directions, with our words and ideas as ways of better coming to grips with the full complexity of the matter, the more likely we will keep talking. Seems simple. But we humans do like battle…