Polarization in the Church: How Can It Be Overcome?

COMMENTARY: Servant of God Luigi Giussani can help us see that the road past ecclesial division does not go through some sort of political compromise, but through a deeper awareness of the heart of our faith.

Pope John Paul II and Monsignor Giussani.
Pope John Paul II and Monsignor Giussani. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain )

In his recent homily commemorating the beginning of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Pope Francis regretted the “polarization” of some Catholics in the wake of the Council. 

“How many times did they prefer to cheer on their own party rather than being servants of all?” he asked. “To be progressive or conservative rather than being brothers and sisters? To be on the ‘right’ or ‘left,’ rather than with Jesus?” 

Polarization has indeed been a painful wound and, frankly, a scandal, which has greatly hampered the mission of the Church in our time. It affects above all what could be called the “public face” of the Church: its writers and intellectuals, but also many members of the clergy, catechists and educators. 

While many people recognize the problem, the proposed remedies often sound generic and ineffective. Calls for civility or for greater charity will not heal divisions that stem, ultimately, from radically diverging visions of the Church’s situation in today’s world.

On one side, many Catholic “liberals” long for a nonauthoritarian Church. Deep down, they think that today the Church must downplay “outdated” teachings, which were appropriate in the past but are incomprehensible to our contemporaries. It must stop obsessing about matters of individual (especially sexual) morality, and join the great moral-political battles of our time: against poverty, global warming, racism, human trafficking, the death penalty, etc. 

All worthy causes, of course, except it is not clear why one needs to be Catholic in order to fight for them. Is the role of the Church simply to give “moral encouragement” to a world that otherwise does not need her? And should her magisterium really “adapt” in order to accommodate the fleeting priorities of different historical periods? 

On the other side, Catholic “conservatives” respond to the “doctrinal fluidity” of the liberals by reaffirming the recta doctrina (correct teaching), with a particular emphasis on the teachings that have been undermined by the sexual revolution (on abortion, marriage, contraception, etc.). 

This is an understandable response, but is it sufficient? Is orthodoxy in and by itself what Christianity brings to the world? In fact, one could argue that our problem today is not so much a mere rejection of truth, but that truth and life are divided. Either life is affirmed as the primary value, or truth is affirmed in the abstract, but has a hard time becoming life, being verified as truth in experience. I personally suspect this is the reason why many people find help in the traditional liturgy because in it Christian truth manifests itself to them in gesture, sound, vision and experience. But again, is that sufficient?

When these questions come up, I often think of Msgr. Luigi Giussani (1922-2005), the Italian priest and educator whose centenary of birth just occurred on Oct. 15. He is best known as the founder of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation (to which I owe my own education in the faith), but many of his intuitions are valuable for the whole Church. 

Here, I want to recall one in particular: Msgr. Giussani’s steadfast insistence that the Church must approach the world following God’s own method, which is encapsulated in the mystery of the Incarnation. 

At the beginning of Christianity, Jesus did not primarily propose a set of doctrines or a list of moral principles. Primarily, he proposed himself as “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” The disciples did not just meet a teacher and a moral exemplar; they met God-made-flesh. 

In order to underscore this point, Msgr. Giussani (inspired by the French poet Charles Péguy) used the word “event”: Before anything else, Christianity was (and is) an event, a fact; Jesus Christ entered into history and turned it upside down. Those who experienced that event had to make sense of it, and this generated a doctrine. They had to live in light of it, and this generated a morality. But both doctrine and morality were existentially downstream, so to speak, from the event of the Incarnation.

Msgr. Giussani’s simple but deep insight was that the experience of the first disciples remains the paradigm of Christianity in every age. The nature of the Church is that of being the continuation of the Incarnation, and her function is to show us the Risen Christ, who remains our contemporary “every day until the end of the world.” She does it with the liturgy and the sacraments, but also by the simple fact of being there as a human ecclesia (gathering) in which one can experience Jesus’ promise that “when two or three of you are gathered in my name I will be in your midst.” 

We often take this for granted, but Msgr. Giussani took it very seriously. As a young teacher of religion in a very secular public high school, he realized that the objective sign through which he could follow Christ was the unity of the small band of “losers” who had begun to follow him. He realized that, before everything else, the Church brings to the world Christ himself and does it simply by being present, by simply existing in the middle of the world, filled with the memory of the event of the Incarnation. 

If one takes this claim seriously, and verifies its truth for oneself, many problems dissipate, or at least fall into perspective. This includes ideological polarization, which is often a sign that Christianity has become “disincarnated,” that it has been reduced to a set of religious ideas and ethical principles, unmoored from the experience of the moving presence of Christ under the cloak of sacramental signs. Then faith is increasingly taken for granted, and people’s different intellectual, ethical and even political preferences (which, per se, are completely natural) ossify into agendas and come to dominate the life of the Church. 

Conversely, when people love and live the unity of the Church as the sign of the presence of Christ, other disagreements (including political disagreements) become relative, and a true missionary impetus is possible. People’s political or theological concerns do not dominate their attention because their attention is focused on “something that comes before,” as Msgr. Giussani used to say. 

Today, he would certainly tell us that the road past polarization does not go through some sort of political compromise, but through a deeper awareness of what our faith is about. As is often the case, one can only go forward by going deeper.