About twelve years ago, as Bishop Raymond Boland was retiring from episcopal leadership in the Catholic Church, he gave a major address on the topic of polarization. On his way out, he wanted to warn us about this horrible disease that undermines the integrity of both our society and church, how it bubbled up with the intent to destroy us. Below are excerpts from his talk, perhaps even more relevant today, as citizens of our nation and members of church are coerced to choose sides.
Polarization is the division of civil or religious society into two elements that concentrate on opposing extremes. Though extremes have to exist to mark the beginning and ending points of every continuum, and human creativity coupled with the influence of the Holy Spirit has given us a dynamic movement of the pendulum with a healthy synthesis of ideas, the pendulum has either stopped swinging or lost its vigor. The extremes have adopted all the qualities of fortresses and those who live within them see everything as black or white; and those who live in polar castles or trenches are met by their counterparts with disdain or hostility.
It is a natural desire to seek comfort in a compatible community, finding collective security. But something deeper with far more profound implications is now running through our institutions, something that begins with the conviction that I am right and you are wrong. It escalates itself to a level which convinces me that I am always right and you are always wrong. It brims to the top when you are shunned by me, and boils over when you, my enemy, become the object to eliminate. This is what led Christ to the cross. We readily recognize this form of delusional polarization on the international scene, both historically and in current headlines. It created the Soviet gulags and gave birth to Japanese kamikaze pilots; it is at the core of suicide bombings, assassinations, and the tragedy of 9-11. It erects walls: some to keep people in, others to keep people out: from the Berlin Wall to the Great Wall of China. It protects more than a code of principles or healthy belief system as it becomes frozen, immovable, arrogant, and frequently irrational. It equates dialogue with weakness and regards diversity as an assault.
Modern social media has helped bring paralysis and frustration not just to the polarizing forces but to everyone that stands between them. When everything is black or white, all shades in between become unacceptable. Many, in between, become disillusioned and apathetic. Wolves in sheep’s clothing use rallying cries with words like “patriotism” and “orthodoxy;” hopefully it’s no longer acceptable to say, “my country, right or wrong” or “my church is infallible.” Polarization creates impasses that lead to civil strife, denial of human rights, refugee camps, and genocide. As black and white become red and blue in national elections, each side rightly accuses the other of playing politics as good government gets sidelined. The Catholic Church suffers similar paralysis as each end sets aside theological knowledge and ecclesiological understanding in favor of championing their cause. But fortunately, as an institute of divine origin resting on human shoulders seeking to help sinners transform into saints, we have Pentecost. It marks the transformation of frightened disciples imbued with the Holy Spirit’s gifts which propelled them to sally forth with a mandate to convert the world to the way of the crucified and risen Christ. And it is the same Spirit that reminds us today of the integrity of His teachings and guides us in the development of doctrine and wisdom. No matter how much we may want to insulate our lives or build a fortress that keeps others out, a patient God will not let us go there.
Bishop Boland concluded his remarks by saying that we can think of “polarization” as a dirty twelve-letter word. It probably should haunt our consciousness. Much as Jesus transformed the cross, an instrument of torture, into an instrument of triumph, by embracing it, so might we transform this cross of polarization that we bear. Rather than choosing sides we must rise above them and, like the earliest disciples, go forth to participate in public discourse, use our intelligence, common sense, and gifts of the Holy Spirit to study issues, promote dialogue with real or imagined adversaries and become builders—building bridges rather than ramparts.