Perhaps Canada has not seen anything so polarizing in recent years as the Freedom Convoy protests that sprung up across the country. A May 7-9 conference will explore such polarization from a faith perspective. Michael Swan

Seeking common ground in a polarized world

  • April 10, 2023

When Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us” in a comic strip back in 1970, he didn’t know the half of it. Pogo never heard of Twitter, attack ads, bot farms or “doing your own research.” Pogo could never have imagined a Church or society broken down into political and cultural sects caught up in perpetual rhetorical war with one another.

John Milloy believes we have to do something about polarization, and by “we” he means the whole array of faith communities.

“What can faith do about this?” the director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., asked. “Because at the core of the faith, all faiths really, is this idea that we have to see the value of others, even though we disagree with them.”

Milloy and the Canadian Interfaith Conversation have organized a May 7-9 conference at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, Ont., under the banner, “Our Whole Society: Finding Common Ground in a Time of Polarization.” It’s a live, in-person affair that will bring together religious and political leaders to puzzle through why we are so polarized and what we can do about it.

Featured speakers include former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Croatian theologian and Yale University professor Myroslav Volf and Amira Elghawaby, federal Special Representative on Islamophobia.

It’s a subject that’s getting a lot of attention. The Canadian Centisimus Annus Pro Pontifice foundation based in Montreal has teamed up with the St. Monica Institute in Toronto and the McGill University Newman Centre to present its own online lecture series on “Catholic Social Teaching: The Solution to Polarization.”

The CAPP polarization series began with Sant’Egidio Foundation president Dr. Andrea Bartoli on “The Wisdom of Fratelli Tutti in a Woke Culture” March 25. It continues with McGill University history professor John Zucchi on “The Environment and Human Dignity” April 22. The series wraps up with “Magnanimity: A Virtue for Polarized Times” with Alexandre Havard, founder of the Virtuous Leadership Institute.

As a former culture warrior on both the right and the left, Anglican priest Michael Coren hopes religious voices can contribute to a constructive conversation about polarization, as opposed to just more polarization about polarization.

“Religion perhaps does have a role to play in breaking this chain of extremes,” Coren said in an email to The Catholic Register. “As a Christian, this means listening rather than speaking, considering rather than reacting.”

But Coren warns, “We can’t, as people of faith, claim any particular high ground.”

Religious solutions have to come from within, said CAPP Canada co-ordinator Cecil Chabot.

“The problems of polarization in the Church and in the world are inseparably linked, because lay Catholics are not separate from the world,” Chabot said in an email. “We are part of it, we shape it and we are shaped by it.”

Chabot doesn’t think that the problem is that people disagree. Nor does he think solving polarization means flattening all disagreements.

“There is a lot of polarization in the Church and in the world that is proper polarization, pulling us away from a false peace of acquiescence or accommodation in the face of injustice,” he said. 

But Catholic social teaching does have something to say about how we debate.

“Catholic social teaching, like the Gospel message at its roots, demands that we see, emphasize and cultivate the best in ourselves and especially in others,” said Chabot. 

“Not in the service of lukewarmness or indifference to what requires conversion — in ourselves or others — but rather as a path towards conversion.”

Contemporary polarization isn’t just disagreements about the economy, politics or Church discipline, said Milloy. In a culture driven by “affective polarization” there’s an extra layer of contempt and rejection on top of the substance of any argument.

“If anyone else has different views, not only are they wrong but I don’t want to engage with them, I don’t want to work with them, I don’t want to recognize their views,” explained Milloy. 

The proud man’s insults get nothing but re-inforcement in online and real-life echo chambers where people choose to hear and associate with only those whom they already agree with, said Milloy. There’s no room for what Pope Francis has called “their share of the truth.”

“Dialogue demands that we be open to the conviction of others, respecting their identity and difference,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium.

“This is on the to-do list for faith communities — to try to build bridges and fight polarization,” Milloy said. “Faith can be used as a weapon. Faith can divide. We can be a source of division. But, I also think we can be a source of healing.”

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