The year 2020 has revealed much division among Catholics in the United States. Members of the Church—clergy, hierarchy, and laity—demonstrated numerous rifts in their incongruent and contradictory responses to three significant lighting rods: the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, and the US presidential election.
Certainly, there is a legitimate diversity of opinions and preferences among Catholics on external expressions of the faith—things like liturgy, music, forms of prayer, spiritual practices, and devotions. Likewise, there is a spectrum of variation in the Church on theological approach, the pastoral and practical application of Catholic teaching, and the prioritization of social issues. There are Catholics who subscribe to the extremes on these matters, and it might be tempting to view the diversity of Catholic positions as believers who hold slight variations along a continuum between the polar ends.
Using the language of Pope Francis, however, I propose that rather than visualizing the legitimate variation of faithful approaches to Catholicism as a spectrum, we look at it as a polyhedron.
A polyhedron—as the Greek prefix and suffix suggests (poly means “many,” and hedron, meaning “face”)—is a solid, three-dimensional figure with multiple plane faces.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis describes the polyhedron as an ideal symbol to alleviate the tension between the global and the local, or the universal and particular:
“Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each. There is a place for the poor and their culture, their aspirations and their potential. Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked. It is the convergence of peoples who, within the universal order, maintain their own individuality; it is the sum total of persons within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone.” (EG 236)
In this exhortation, Pope Francis calls on all Catholics to recognize and appreciate the distinctiveness and nuances among members in the Church, including—but not limited to—our unique preferences and opinions. This passage highlights the importance of seeking “the best of each” and the fact that there is “a place for everyone,” with the prime focus on the common good. The polyhedron is an image of unity in diversity, connectedness, equality, and interdependence.
In Fratelli Tutti, the Pope continues to discuss the themes of equality and mutual respect and that everyone has a place, while expanding on the theme of unity in diversity:
“I have frequently called for the growth of a culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions. This means working to create a many-faceted polyhedron whose different sides form a variegated unity, in which ‘the whole is greater than the part’ (EG 237). The image of a polyhedron can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations. Each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable. This also means finding ways to include those on the peripheries of life. For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made” (FT 215).
Variances and differences do exist, and Pope Francis exhorts Catholics to permit these differences to complement, enrich, and reciprocally illuminate the body of believers. Not only does the Pope call for these differences to merely coexist, but to work towards unity. Differences are not obstacles, but opportunities. He writes, “The future is not monochrome; if we are courageous, we can contemplate it in all the variety and diversity of what each individual person has to offer. How much our human family needs to learn to live together in harmony and peace, without all of us having to be the same!” (FT 100).
The polyhedron is a useful image because it offers a unifying alternative to a persistent threat to the Church and society: polarization. Polarization denotes there is no common ground shared by those with differences. The image of the spectrum suggests that differences may be tangentially connected, but there is a clear distance and separation between those who hold different perspectives. A polyhedron, on the other hand, breaks down silos and echo chambers and promotes the Pope’s call for a culture of encounter, which employs the “art of accompaniment” (EG 169).
Accompaniment recognizes that the other person stands on holy ground as well. It acknowledges the other’s inherent dignity and realizes that God can and does speak to and through them. We embrace Christ’s compassion and loving, sympathetic gaze when we practice the art of accompaniment.
In this year marked with significant division, the message of Pope Francis is clear: we must accompany one another rather than quarrel over our differences and perpetuate disunity. This call is not easy because it requires us to relinquish the enthronement of our views and opinions and humble ourselves to people with whom we disagree. We must do this even when it is possible that they might not reciprocate our respect or be open to an encounter.
Pope Francis has modeled this in during his papacy. One clear example was following the August 2018 open letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, in which the former nuncio called on the pope to resign. Viganò accused Pope Francis of covering up the abuse of then-Cardinal McCarrick, and of lifting “canonical sanctions” that Pope Benedict had imposed on McCarrick years before. When asked about the accusations later that day, Pope Francis did not respond to Viganò’s allegations; instead he called on the press to “read that statement attentively and make your own judgment.” In other words, he diffused a potentially explosive situation by not engaging in a war of words with Viganò, and was ultimately vindicated by investigative journalism, the McCarrick report, and Viganò’s progressively unhinged and irrational rhetoric.
Pope Francis is a lightning rod for many clergy and laity. Viganò is among several prelates, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, who express open disavowal of the pope and his teachings. While Pope Francis has the authority and justification to excommunicate both prelates, he chooses not to. The pope has also not sanctioned Catholic media sources that express open opposition to his pontificate. The pope therefore does not subscribe to swiftly canceling those who foment division, but responds to those who differ from him with love and respect, even if he does not receive it from them.
We as Catholics can look to our Holy Father on how to move forward from this year of pain and division by working to build a culture of encounter and unity in our Church. Rather than simply accepting the cycle of quarreling and canceling, we can embrace the image of the polyhedron. This symbol reflects our call as followers of Jesus and illustrates how we ought to engage and accompany our fellow believers. We are connected as a polyhedron of equality, mutual respect, and interdependence, held together by the love of Christ. This is how we are called to share Christ’s love with others.