Reconciliation after election: Possible, but it will take time

Dennis Sadowski

Document Publication: Catholic News Service - Washington, DC

Publication Date: November 07, 2008

The woman at Buffy Barkley's door had fire in her eyes. The Obama-Biden 2008 campaign sign in Barkley's yard probably had a lot to do with it.

What Barkley experienced next illustrates some of the polarizing actions that separated people of faith during the election cycle.

"She asked me, 'Are you Catholic?'" Barkley said, recalling the Oct. 25 encounter at her suburban Cincinnati home. "I said 'Yes.' And she said 'Are you pro-choice?' and I said 'I'm not going to answer that. I have no reason to answer that.'"

That's when the unexpected visitor launched into a tirade aimed at the widow, the mother of three and a former vowed member of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. "You don't know what you are doing!" she shouted, stunning Barkley, who is involved in various ministries at her nearby parish, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.

"I told her I felt I was very well-informed. I read the (U.S. bishops') 'Faithful Citizenship' document a year ago. I feel like I know the teaching of the church and I feel fine with my conscience," Barkley said.

Not persuaded, the woman's anger grew. "She was furious with me," Barkley said. Thrusting an envelope at Barkley, the woman turned and began walking away. "I will be back and I will bring others with me," she said in a shrill voice. Halfway down the drive she turned and shouted again, "I will be back!"

The envelope, along with another that Barkley received in the mail four days later with the return address only indicating "Friends of Immaculate Heart of Mary," contained graphic images of aborted children, excerpts from Scripture and references to a Web site focusing on the "tough love" of Christ.

The irate visitor's threats never were carried out, but Barkley was shaken enough to call the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department. The dispatcher advised her to call 911 should the women or her supporters return.

"What I'm feeling is why do I have to prove to these people that I'm a good person," Barkley later told Catholic News Service. "It bothers me that they perceive me as evil and it's very hurtful."

Seemingly, the most heartfelt anger has revolved around the issues of pro-life and family concerns --- abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, traditional marriage, all keystones of the Catholic faith. Some of the most strident voices have questioned the faithfulness of Catholic supporters of the Democratic ticket of Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Likewise, the din of malicious rhetoric has hardly left supporters of Republicans Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin untouched. Not only have staunch partisans attacked the candidates themselves in humiliating ways unheard of in 20th-century campaigns, but voters supporting the GOP duo have been degraded and mocked for their positions as well.

So what lies ahead? After the rancor of the campaign, can America overcome the contempt that at times has bordered on hate? Can people of faith be reconciled so that they can stand behind the White House's new occupant as he attempts to unify an increasingly polarized country?

"It's a tall order," said Marie Dennis, director of the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns in Washington. She said the basis for reconciliation can be found in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2007 document on political responsibility, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."

"The bishops' political responsibility document was excellent," Dennis told CNS. "It really laid the groundwork for that kind of reconciliation because it really embraces the moral dilemma that we face that I think is at the root of the conflict. Part of the challenge is we all know we are faced with imperfect choices, and that makes everybody anxious that there is not going to be a definitive answer to the great moral challenges of our time in the short term."

The key, Dennis offered, is for Catholics to open an honest discussion with each other.

"You have to listen to each other respectfully," Dennis said. "We have to begin with the belief that we are all people of good will and that if we are caring enough to pay attention to these serious moral issues, that we're trying to do it from the deepest place in our hearts.

"That may be the prophetic role of the church right now ... to insist that that is necessary, that we as a Catholic community model the kind of right relationships that we wish for the world."

That will be difficult, in the eyes of Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., who chaired the USCCB committee that wrote "Faithful Citizenship."

He told CNS that while there is a need for people to stop "looking for the worst in the other" Catholics still must challenge intrinsic evils such as abortion as long as they remain the law of the land.

"There's no compromise and no easy way around it," Bishop DiMarzio said. "There's ways on how we can limit an intrinsic evil and we should take those steps.

"But there's a culture of death you are supporting and it's not going to go away," he said. "We are going to have a hard time reconciling."

Even as the life issues are of foremost concern, Vincent Rougeau, associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said Catholics of differing perspectives must reach out to each other so that the wounds opened by those who question the validity of someone's faith because of their voting preferences are not left untended.

"When really hurtful words have been exchanged and people are diminished and demeaned in ways that are debasing and demoralizing, you've got to do some repair work," explained Rougeau, who has widely taught and written about Catholic social teaching and its intersection with public life.

"Part of that is extending a hand and saying, 'Let's have a conversation from the places that we share and recognizing that we don't live in a perfect world and that there are difficult decisions we have to make and we may not come to the same conclusions,'" Rougeau told CNS.

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, lamented that "we have lost the ability within the church and society in general to constructively challenge and criticize one another." He called for reconciliation where there has been "rash judgment, harshness, lack of charity, real anger, sometimes rising to the level of hatred."

"What needs to be done is that people who have crossed the line of charity and justice simply need to apologize," he said. "Catholic faith and Christian morality require that we make up for it somehow. You can't put the feathers back inside the pillow when you harm someone's reputation, but you can make amends."

Despite such calls, the question over whether Catholics can be reconciled with each other remains.

Notre Dame's Rougeau said the answer can be found in Catholic social teaching.

"You have to say you're available," he said, "and you're willing to talk and think about one of the core messages of Catholic social teaching -- openness to the other, the people you least want to deal with to have the transformative experience of Christian love.

"If black South Africans (now) can talk with white South Africans," he said, "and if Jews can talk to former Nazis, we can talk to each other."


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