November 10, 2014 — Despite polarization in the Catholic church, “the goal of Christian discipleship is not to be right but to be holy," said Jesuit Father Matt Malone, editor in chief of America magazine, at a recent panel discussion at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, the event was titled “Seeking the Common Good in a Time of Polarization: Pope Francis, Catholic Social Thought, and American Public Life.”
In addition to Fr. Malone, the panel included several other leaders of influential Catholic publications: Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal magazine; R.R. Reno, editor of First Things; Caitlin Hendel, president and CEO of National Catholic Reporter; and Greg Erlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. The conversation was moderated by John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and America magazine’s Washington correspondent. Opening remarks were made by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, a key supporter of the Initiative.
The moderator did not mince words in introducing the topic. “Tonight, we want to understand, how did so much of the polarization in political life begin to come into the church?” Carr asked. “How do we, as Catholics, find a common way to pursue the common good? What unites us? What divides us? And is Pope Francis — as our new leader — uniting us or dividing us in a new way?”
“Covering the Catholic church is not that different from covering the U.S. Congress,” said Hendel. “There are two sides, and you are always trying to figure out whose side is worth covering and what the real story is. You find both sides are trying to own that story.”
Fr. Malone reminded the audience that, even in the midst of partisan strife, all things should contribute to the greater glory of God. “What we have in common is our commitment to God and Jesus Christ. I think what is crucially important is that the source of our unity is not a set of shared ideals,” he said. “When we understand that for Christians, truth is a person — Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life — then, we see our conversation as a way to holiness.”
Jesuit Father Matt Malone, left, with John Carr, moderator of the event.
The discussion continued, addressing subjects including: responsibility for the polarization of the church; the duty of clarifying the issues and maintaining a robust discussion; the panelists’ roles in respecting their publications’ traditions while challenging their readership; how the digital medium affects Catholic discourse; and the importance of agreeing on the pertinence of each issue up for debate.
Baumann summed up the collaborative spirit of the panel, in spite of the broad range of political opinions represented. “I think what [Commonweal] magazine has felt strongly all along is that none of us has a corner on the truth here,” he said. “I think we need to work together to come to the truth.”
Learn more about the Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at catholicsocialthought.georgetown.edu.