Nathan Howard ’25
On November 16, 2021, the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture hosted Holy Cross President Vincent Rougeau, who led a conversation with conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and liberal Commonweal Magazine editor Matthew Sitman. The conversation largely addressed the growing political divide in the United States and how it specifically has affected the nation’s Catholic population. Throughout their conversation at Rehm Library, President Rougeau, Ross Douthat, and Matthew Sitman shared their perspectives on what can be changed throughout our nation in order to unite Catholics around core principles of the religion, instead of a strict divide based on partisan views.
Matthew Sitman began the discussion by focusing specifically on the topic of mercy. Sitman argued that the polarization of politics has led to the United States becoming a less merciful environment than it should be. In turn, Sitman expressed the concern that the political divide has led to the Catholic Church “not being a very merciful church.” Sitman then related this to how Pope Francis has been viewed so critically by a large number of Catholics in the United States. This is predominantly because, as Sitman proclaimed, “He has made mercy the theme of his papacy.” Sitman proposed two political theories as to why mercy is viewed with such disapproval in the United States. Sitman argued that conservative Catholics may see it as “a weakening of morals and a soft pedaling of ethical demands” while liberal Catholics may see it as “too existential for certain kinds of religious liberalism” and that “it’s too focused on the darker currents of our lives.” In concluding his remarks, Sitman blamed the cruel and unjust aspects of American society on the lack of mercy, and stressed the importance of having mercy going forward.
Following Sitman’s remarks, Ross Douthat introduced the argument that political polarization has altered the identity of American Catholics. Douthat argued that past generations felt their identity had a far greater connection to their religious beliefs than their political ideologies. This, however, is not the case today. Douthat proclaimed that today, people are “Republican first, Catholic second, or Democrat first, Catholic second.” This has created an environment where both politicians and citizens have drifted away from the core principles of Catholicism and focused more on the platform of issues that correspond to each political party. In concluding his remarks, Douthat explained how he would like to see Catholic politicians focus more on the specific core beliefs of the Catholic faith, instead of being swayed and controlled by party members and donors.
President Vincent Rougeau offered insight into the relationship between authenticity and the Catholic Church throughout the discussion. Specifically, President Rougeau explained that his most authentic experiences of worship has been when he has “stepped out of the upper middle class experience of a suburban parish and gone into ethnic and immigrant parishes.” President Rougeau then offered the example of this when he attended a cathedral in Tucson, Arizona. He discussed how cultural diversity contributed to authenticity and meaningfulness of the worship experience. In concluding the discussion, President Rougeau offered the following inspirational statement: “Our inability at times in this country to see this faith as global and to engage those spaces in our own country that bring it to us, I think is the failing of the elites in this country, and in a sense, we have not understood our obligation to learn from and engage and be in more meaningful community with people who are often on the margins of our society, but who are actually bringing to us a full and authentic expression of faith.”