LEVITTOWN, Pennsylvania (CNS) — People who wish to overcome polarization within the Catholic Church must first talk to each other in the familial terms that date from the beginnings of Christianity: as brothers and sisters, parents and adult sons and daughters, panelists in a conference at the University of Notre Dame said.

The panel, the first session of a two-day event titled “Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal,” called for improved understanding rather than acrimony among Catholic who holds differing views on various social issues. The discussion was streamed online.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, said baptism links church members to Christ and through him to each other, but there has been a loss of confidence that the members of the church love one another.


He said that loss of confidence, when played out publicly, harms the church, especially when conversations and comments are filled with anger.

Echoing Bishop Flores, Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said “the acrimony of many of our conversations” tends to drive people away from the church.

“Harsh, polarizing language” is not meant to attract others to one’s point of view, but “to galvanize the like-minded,” Father Jenkins said.

Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith warned against presuming that polarizing issues and their proponents are equally divided across age groups, and said it would be foolish to dismiss the concerns of those in other generations.

Many of those he loosely termed millennials — people in their 20s and 30s and even younger people — are among those who define themselves as having no church affiliation. Most, he said, do not care about the institutional church even if they see themselves as committed Catholics.

“They’re just not interested,” but see faith as a personal matter,” he explained, adding that they often are unaware of church teaching and experience the church simply as their local parish.

Smith cited a 10-year study of a group who as teen-agers identified themselves as committed Catholics: by the end of the 10 years, 50 percent no longer identified themselves as Catholics. He said there is a group of what he called “JP2 millennials” who are very concerned about church issues and are drawn to interact with older people — such as those at the conference — but he warned against considering them typical. “They are a very distinct minority,” he said.

Panelist Julie Hanlon Rubio, professor of moral theology at Jesuit-run St. Louis University, said “If we’re closer together than we think, then there is hope for reconciliation.”

However, she warned that “hot button” issues such as those involving sex and gender cannot be ignored. “Many are alienated,” because of those issues, she said

Rubio said issues of sex and gender, including homosexuality, women’s ordination and the all-male leadership of the church, are among the most divisive. She said that when young people, especially, criticize the church for having “too many rules,” they’re not talking about Catholic social teaching.

She agreed with Smith that the young people she meets, even those who have been to Catholic schools, often do not know or understand church teaching.

Nevertheless, she suggested, “We have to bracket” some of the hot button issues and talk about subjects where Catholics can come together. She quoted Pope Francis saying that Catholics must be willing to dine with prostitutes and tax collectors.

Michael Sean Winters, columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and the last of the panelists to speak, said “it is not helpful to paper over differences,” but neither must discussions take place where differences are greatest. Noting that divisions in the church are not a new phenomenon, Winters said discussions are needed at the center of church life, not just at the extremes.

He called for civil discourse rather than a kind of homogenized Catholicism.

Responding to a question, Father Jenkins said “When you define groups around oppositional extremes” the result often is what he called a kind of tribalism that is quite different from two people disagreeing and using strong words to express their opinions.

Rubio said most of the polarization she sees “is about politics and rules,” whereas in other areas such as virtue ethics there is more room for people with different points of view to come together.

Father Jenkins also urged the people in the audience to examine his or her conscience about speaking ill of those with whom they disagree.

In response to a question about people talking to their bishops as adults talking to a father, Bishop Flores said, “We need to think and we need to talk. At least tell me what you’re thinking.” He said he might or might not be able to resolve an issue, but at least a respectful conversation can take place.