The internal battles are the hardest. The particulars of an internal dispute quickly seem inconsequential but the long term stakes can be significant. For example, during the four years prior to its 1972 convention, the credentials committee of the Democratic National Committee wrangled over delegate seating. The eventual decisions shifted the focus of electoral politics in this country.
The recent Catholic bishops’ Synod on the Family provides a second example. For nearly three years the Synod process was given to debate on relatively obscure rules regarding divorced Catholics and the Eucharist—as if no other issues were of crucial importance to family life. And yet, the eventual outcome of this internal battle might have significance beyond its particulars.
Which brings us to a second observation about internal battles. They are often not about what they are about. This is always the case in polarized battle. “Polarization is not the same thing” as conflict, writes Holly Taylor Coolman of Providence College. Conflict, if conducted fairly, can be resolved satisfactorily. Polarization, by contrast, means two poles with no third or fourth option; no middle ground. Each pole increasingly turns inward, “demanding even purer and more total commitment,” explains Coolman in her contribution to Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church (Liturgical Press, 2016).
So for example, those who wage a polarized culture war over the serious matter of abortion are not really talking about abortion. For the culture warriors an entire worldview is at stake: the value of individualism, the autonomy of science, indeed the foundations of modernity. Not everyone who engages the topic of abortion is an ideologue. Some thoughtful people, including those who use an objective moral method, are open to a middle position for the time being. However, someone who proposes the repeal of the Hyde Amendment is on a polarized crusade; no compromise is acceptable.
Which brings us to a third observation about internal battles—one with a twist. Even though a topic is serious, the majority is not invested in either pole on that topic.
The people who are leading the internal battles within U.S. Catholicism are older, Christian Smith of Notre Dame tells us in Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church. By contrast, “the vast majority” of those in their 20s or 30s “do not care that much.” Based on research, Smith says these young people “are not generally hostile to the church, not antagonistic or fundamentally dissenting. It is more a matter of general indifference.” This is something for Catholic leaders to ponder.
Mary Ellen Konieczny, one of three editors of Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church, says the same. “Only between 10 and 20% of the American public hold polar positions around most culture wars issues.” Further, “the culture wars debates are waged largely by elites.” And, to repeat Smith’s point, when it comes to Catholic topics, young adults are not among the 10% to 20% who battle the internal issues.
This twist presents a dilemma for U.S. Catholicism. The polar positions of those who battle over the status of divorced Catholics might represent something bigger. Those Catholic leaders who battle over gender requirements for legal marriages might be upholding valuable worldviews. But are these and other internal polar battles a distraction from the crucial project of attracting and retaining young adults in the faith? Is a both/and approach a fallacy—both attention to culture wars and attention to the young adult topics of work and relationships? Does Catholic polarization itself (on the left and right) cause thoughtful young adults (rightly or wrongly) to further disaffect from the faith?