November 25, 2016


The virus of polarization

Perhaps we should nominate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia as models for people who disagree with one another, but who remain friends. While Scalia was still living, the two justices were usually on opposite sides when it came to interpreting the Constitution, but they and their spouses traveled together, attended operas together, and enjoyed one another’s company.

With the antagonism and discord that characterize today’s society, such people seem to be few and far between.

Pope Francis took note of that in his homily during the Nov. 19 ceremony at which he gave red birettas to 17 new cardinals, including Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin. He told them that they must be ministers of reconciliation in this world of hostility and division, which he called “the virus of polarization and animosity.”

Cardinal Tobin was quick to pick up on the pope’s message. He told Catholic News Service that the pope’s homily was “very timely,” and that all Catholics should “examine ourselves and the Church to see whether we have unconsciously appropriated this ‘virus of polarization and animosity.’ It may hide under the name of truth or the name of orthodoxy or something, when it actually serves to divide. I think probably that is resistance to the acts of the Holy Spirit.”

As for the pope’s message being “timely,” it came shortly after the elections in the United States in which many Republicans won. It was an extremely divisive campaign that has brought protests from those who supported Hillary Clinton. Our divisiveness is such that the protests might have been even stronger if Donald Trump had not won.

We must somehow get back to understanding, as the pope said, that we should not be enemies. All people are embraced by God’s love, he said. “We are the ones who raise walls, build barriers and label people.” It’s hard not to think that he was referring to Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border.

The incoming Trump administration is thought by many to be divisive. That’s why the cast of the Broadway play Hamilton made a plea to Vice President-elect and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to remember that the country is composed of a wide diversity of people. It was encouraging that Trump has promised to be president of all the American people.

To his credit, Pence was very gracious in his response to the mixed reaction he received when he and his family walked into the theater, and to the cast’s message for him after their performance.

The Catholic Church, too, is composed of a wide diversity of people, as the pope emphasized when he created new cardinals from 14 nations. He stressed that “the Church must be a sign for the world that differences of nationality, skin color, language and social class do not make people enemies, but brothers and sisters with different gifts to offer.”

We think differently, he said, but that doesn’t make us enemies. “Instead, it is one of our greatest riches.”

It would appear that many Catholics in America think differently when it comes to politics. According to exit polls, 52 percent of Catholics who voted selected Trump, 45 percent voted for Clinton and 3 percent voted for others. But there was a wide division between white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics. Sixty percent of white Catholics voted for Trump, while 67 percent of Hispanic Catholics voted for Clinton.

There is plenty of evidence that the Hispanic vote went to Clinton because of Trump’s remarks about Mexicans and the immigration policies he espouses. He would like to expel illegal immigrants and prevent Muslims from entering our country.

It’s hard to know how many white Catholics voted for him because they support his immigration policies. It seems more likely that they voted against Clinton rather than for Trump, or that they voted for Trump because of the Republican position on abortion and other important moral issues.

Nevertheless, the pope may have had Trump’s immigration policies in mind when he said, “We see how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant or a refugee” are seen as threats. But he also realizes fear of immigrants and refugees can be found all over the world. The Holy Father said they are presumed to be an enemy “because of the color of their skin, their language or their social class. An enemy because they think differently or even have a different faith.”

If only we could all get along, or treat those we disagree with as Ginsburg and Scalia did.

—John F. Fink

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