Getting into a political discussion in Washington these days is about as hard as finding a Fighting Irish fan at a Notre Dame football game. In the era of Trump — where those who dislike the president are as obsessed about him as his strongest supporters — the real challenge is extricating oneself from one.
But a recent panel on "Pope Francis, Catholic Social Thought and U.S. Public Life" was an opportunity to think about our political era from a Catholic vantage point.
Political columnists Mark Shields and Michael Gerson with The Atlantic's Emma Green did not focus so much on Pope Francis as on Catholic social thought and where a thinking Christian could find a home in today's political environment.
Of course, for many Catholics, choosing a political party may have more to do with one's upbringing, political inclinations or economic self-interest than one's religion. For those people, Emma Green's assessment that Catholics are in a difficult position with no political home might be hard to understand.
The church does have social and moral teachings that should shape how we evaluate the political choices we face, however, and neither party fully satisfies these teachings.
For Gerson, an evangelical Christian and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, the social principles that make up Catholic social thought are something that evangelicals lack. We don't have "if-then teachings," he said, such as if we believe in the sanctity of human life, then we care for the unborn and the poor and the refugee.
He also worries that where once "there were two contending visions of the common good, now we are having an argument about whether there is a common good at all."
For Shields, a thoughtful Democrat and a Catholic, there is much to bemoan in both parties. He expressed particular concern for the polarization that divides Washington, and he expressed concern that some Democratic Party leaders go so far as to say that the party should not support any candidate who is pro-life.
"This is a dismal time," he said.
For Emma Green, a Georgetown University graduate from 2012 and a certified millennial, the glass was at least half full. She noted that at the March for Life in Washington this year, there were signs proclaiming that "Black lives matter, immigrant lives matter, unborn lives matter." While many young people are "politically homeless," she said, new coalitions may be emerging.
The conversation was moderated by John Carr, who heads Georgetown's "Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life," which sponsored the gathering of academic centers for Catholic social thought.
For a Trump supporter, of course, most of the evening's conversation would have felt fairly hostile, and the polarized gulf that now divides so many Americans certainly didn't get any narrower.
Politically, we face a growing red-blue segregation that keeps us from even being able to empathize with those we disagree with. Perhaps we need to borrow an idea from the Cold War and establish cultural exchanges where Democrats from California would come live with a Republican family in Indiana for two weeks and vice versa.
The challenge for the church is that Catholic social teaching is not well understood and is often seen as code for a liberal agenda. This is not helped by the fact that at times it is.
Whatever happens next week or next year or in 2020 may matter less for the church than finding a way to communicate effectively the entire ecology of Catholic moral teaching. It may not make political discussions any less energetic, but at least we'd have a shared framework, a shared language and a fighting chance of understanding even those with whom we disagree.
The writer, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected]