WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic social teaching might be an antidote to the coarsening and polarized national political discourse, but first, people will have to return to respect for essential institutions such as the church and the government.

That was one of the conclusions of a June 5 panel discussion at Georgetown University for a conference convened by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life along with other organizations. The three-day conference was titled “Though Many, One: Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought.”

“Our politics is far less forgiving and far less fun,” said commentator and columnist Mark Shields, who moderated the evening of polite discussion. “One sign of the health of an institution is whether you’re looking for converts or for heretics. It’s a sign of weakness when you’re looking for heretics.”


“Our sense of identity has grown unfortunately political,” Cherie Harder, president of the evangelical Trinity Forum, said in agreement. “Our politics is growing increasingly apocalyptic,” and as a result, people feel “fear or contempt” for those with differing views or party affiliation.

That means opponents are not viewed merely as “the other,” but as “the enemy,” regardless of whether the divide is created through race or sexuality.

“People are really disappointed in the institutions around them,” observed Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for The Washington Post. “The way they are organized is completely shuffled.”

“As a result, it’s become more difficult to identify moral leadership in the culture, she said. “Is it (NFL quarterback) Colin Kaepernick? Is it Oprah? Who are the people who are really inspiring America?”

New York Times columnist David Brooks thought the problem of growing tribalism is rooted not in politics but in “cultural sociology.”

He thinks tribal politics is the result of leaving people “naked and alone,” and cited Catholic social worker Dorothy Day’s memoir, “The Long Loneliness,” which advocates for self-sufficient religious communities, as especially popular with students he teaches in seminars at Yale University.

Catholic social teaching it “basically all we’ve got” to combat tribal politics, and that also applies to the concept of subsidiarity, which directs decision-making away from large centralized institutions such as government, Brooks added. It consists of “somehow taking success down and turning it upward.”


Terrence Johnson, a professor of theology and government at Georgetown, acknowledged that millions are “very fearful” about others who look different from themselves. During the day, “we don’t talk to each other” about those differences, making the divide even worse. “We assume that the (ecumenical) Council of Nicea is not happening right now.”

The Black Lives Matter movement, Brooks said, is “part of a truth-telling that’s not comfortable for everybody,” adding that his conversations with college students have expanded his sensitivity to the national conversation on race. He called the movement an “unfurling of moral pain in ways that are good and bad.”

“Mere truth-telling,” he pointed out, “is not incivility.”

“One of the truths we do not tell,” said Johnson, has to do with “when we look at our priorities and how we live our lives. I think people are very diverse religiously,” but have trouble expressing that “in public spaces.”

President Donald Trump didn’t come up very often in the conversation, although Harder made an oblique mention. “One thing that the Catholics have done better than the evangelicals,” she said, was “not being entirely co-opted by one divisive wing of a political party. I think that’s something that should be protected … and perhaps more vocalized.”

Brooks identified the problem as “latching onto a political figure who won’t be around forever.”

“We’ve always wrestled with our tribalism,” Johnson said. Trump’s election “just pinpointed our pain.”