Every day on social media, Catholics can find no shortage of issues to disagree on. A cursory review of heated topics includes abortion, racism, LGBTQ people, liturgy, and even opinions on Pope Francis.
Since our followers on social media are often a curated group of like-minded individuals, we may, unbeknownst to us, be settling into an echo chamber that reinforces our opinions, beliefs, and preferences, even to the point of treating them as gospel.
The formation of echo chambers originates from a desire for solidarity with respect to a particular issue. But echo chambers foster a narrow-minded outlook that is strengthened by affirmation from agreeable counterparties, thereby promoting confirmation bias and a belief of superiority in one’s positions. Likewise, they may lead us to militate against ideas that are contrary to what we believe and to express outright hostility toward those with whom we disagree.
Echo chambers prevent self-examination and inhibit the need to grow. Additionally, among Catholics they foment division. St. Paul exhorts “that there may be no division” in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:25, NASB) and promotes the necessity of each and every member.
I believe Pope Francis is continually beseeching the faithful toward unity, which requires exiting our echo chambers. The Holy Father proposes the following four models for practical engagement to promote unity within the church that effectively challenge us to move beyond our comfort zones of confirmation biases. In doing so, we can better reflect the tenderness and love of Christ to one another, modeled in the heart of Christ, which can bring healing and unity to the body of Christ.
The art of accompaniment
Pope Francis, in the 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), describes accompaniment as the practice of looking more “closely and sympathetically at others whenever necessary,” removing “our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (Ex. 3:5), and reflecting “our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.” By participating in the art of accompaniment, we recognize dignity and value in the other, and we honor God by loving and listening to the other person.
In these times 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 to humble ourselves to people with whom we disagree. We must do this even when it is possible that they might not reciprocate respect or be open to an encounter.
Pope Francis exhorts us to go to the peripheries and beyond our comfort zones so that we can see Christ in those who are different from us.
Pope Francis recently exhibited the art of accompaniment with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a prominent pro-choice Catholic politician. While Pope Francis made it clear that he considers abortion to be murder and likened it to hiring a hit man, this did not prevent him from welcoming Pelosi to a meeting where he took off his metaphorical sandals and spent time with her, a time that Pelosi describes as a “spiritual, personal, and official honor.”
By doing this, Pope Francis teaches us to imitate the example of Jesus, who chooses to dine with sinners like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10), call the tax collector to become his disciple (Matt. 9:9–13), and converse with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1–26). Jesus leads us to expand our horizons to engage those who are different from us and recognize their inherent goodness and dignity. In turn, Pope Francis exhorts us to go to the peripheries and beyond our comfort zones so that we can see Christ in those who are different from us.
A culture of encounter
A culture of encounter combats a culture of indifference by truly noticing the other. Rather than choosing to look the other way, we acknowledge the person in need and respond compassionately. The other’s burden becomes our own, and we express love and solidarity toward our neighbor. A culture of encounter promotes selflessness, which combats rivalry and ideological superiority. Meeting our neighbor, especially one we disagree with, calls us out of our echo chamber in order to echo Christ’s love.
Jesus gives us the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) as the model for how to be a neighbor and encounter the other. What we are missing is how we can be Samaritans to one another.
Often a contentious issue stems from a place of hurt. When Catholics react to the issue with their pain and respond to one another with pain, we only expand the woundedness in the body of Christ.
Instead, if we pause and recognize that the other person might be reacting from a place of hurt, we can listen with compassion and care. This provides a dose of healing to the other, which in turn can be transmitted throughout the body of Christ.
Contrapositions, not conflicting positions
In his book Let Us Dream (Simon & Schuster), Pope Francis encourages us to enter into the tension arising from opposing opinions and ideologies. Polarization is not the answer, nor is merely regarding differences as “conflict.” Rather, even when consensus seems elusive, learning to view such differences as contrapositions enables us to engage them in a “fruitful, creative tension.”
Polarization is not the answer, nor is merely regarding differences as “conflict.”
Using the work of Father Romano Guardini, the pope promotes the importance of approaching polarities not as static, coexistent entities but as living realities, with dynamic possibilities when exercised with sound discernment. When we do so, neither side is demonized—a process that Pope Francis notes is the activity of the evil spirit. Rather, the good spirit calls both sides to move toward fraternity and solidarity. Mercy permits us to engage in this dialogue, viewing the other as Christ does and choosing to listen in an open and loving manner.
If we Catholics utilized this model on social media, we would practice respectfully treating those whose opinions differ from us and learn to listen to what they have to say rather than shut them down and write them off. In doing so, we might be more authentic witnesses to Christ by imitating how he loves and listens to all his people.
I had an interlocutor on social media that I often vehemently disagreed with over issues such as racism and mass shootings. When I applied the Holy Father’s counsel in this regard, I began to let go of my need to be right. Instead, I started to view this person holistically. In doing this, I began to see this person beyond our differences, and he eventually became a friend and brother to me. I even learned that there was far more that we agreed on than what we disagreed on.
Therefore, reframing differing ideologies as contrapositions rather than conflicts allows us to listen to the good spirit and work toward unity as opposed to demonize one another, which furthers the divisive mission of the evil spirit.
Unity in diversity
Catholics often utilize the model of the spectrum to denote positioning on certain issues, using “right versus left” or “conservative versus liberal” as common labels. The problem with the spectrum paradigm is it promotes the echo chamber mentality among like-minded people and views those on the opposite end as being wrong for being on the other “side.”
In place of the spectrum, Pope Francis offers the model of the polyhedron. A polyhedron—as the Greek prefix and suffix suggest (poly means “many,” and hedron means “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, since it “reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness.”
In this apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis calls on all Catholics to recognize and appreciate the distinctiveness and nuances among members of 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 the 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), the pope continues to discuss the themes of equality and mutual respect and the idea that everyone has a place. He also expands on the theme of unity in diversity:
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.
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 also to work toward 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!”
The polyhedron is a useful image because it offers another unifying alternative to a persistent threat to the church and society: polarization. Polarization, as alluded to with the previous model, 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. When we allow our differences to prevent us from finding common ground with one another, we enable a barrier that prevents us from working together for the common good.
A polyhedron, on the other hand, breaks down silos and echo chambers. It promotes the pope’s call for a culture of encounter, which employs the art of accompaniment and allows us to work toward the common good. Additionally, the polyhedron permits the possibility of engaging those with whom we disagree from the standpoint of contrapositions as opposed to conflicting, mutually exclusive stances since this model teaches us to appreciate and respect differences.
Therefore, the polyhedron model ties together the three previously mentioned ideas from Pope Francis to promote engagement. Moreover, when our hearts have a disposition of inclusivity and interconnectivity exhibited by the polyhedron, we can better imitate the heart of Christ, which demonstrates total acceptance of and complete love to all people.
Enveloping these various models, I believe Pope Francis points us ultimately to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a remedy to division. The Sacred Heart, according to him, teaches us to love God and neighbor with generosity:
Formed as a Jesuit according to the Spiritual Exercises, Pope Francis’ use of the term generosity is intentional. St. Ignatius of Loyola invites the one making the Spiritual Exercises to grow to become more like Christ by entering “into them with great courage and generosity towards the Creator and Lord, offering God all one’s will and liberty, that the Divine Majesty may make use of this person and of all one has according to God’s most Holy Will.”
Loving one’s neighbor more generously involves loving them as Christ does. The Sacred Heart teaches us that our neighbor is worthy of love even if they believe differently than we do. By the grace of the heart of Christ, we can see one another as connected like a polyhedron instead of separated by our differences. Additionally, we can encounter the one in the peripheries like the Good Samaritan, who ultimately is an example of Christ’s outpouring love for each of us.
Pope Francis further teaches that to imitate the heart of the Good Shepherd, we must practice going beyond ourselves to seek out the other and to include the other. This attitude can turn our hearts toward accompanying the one we are at odds with rather than writing them off and dialoguing them not from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” disposition but to make room for what they have to say. The latter is a practical application of Pope Francis’ emphasis on contrapositions rather than conflicting positions. By adopting these spiritual and pastoral practices, we grow in the habits of Christ, thereby allowing our hearts to be united to the Sacred Heart.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus leads us to form our hearts into the heart of Christ, a heart of mercy and compassion that is a house of prayer for all people (Isa. 56:7) and loves all people without exception. When we look upon the other with whom we disagree through the lens of the Sacred Heart, our solidified echo chambers melt through the warmth of Christ. We can then begin to accompany and encounter the other as Pope Francis exhorts us to.
Therefore, let us work for healing amid the divisions in the body of Christ by imitating the heart of Christ. The Sacred Heart of Jesus can lead us to move away from echo chambers and into a polyhedron of diverse connections and possibilities. This allows us to see the ones we disagree with bathed in the merciful love of Christ, a love that moves our hearts to accompany and encounter the other. The Sacred Heart also enables us to convert polarizations into contrapositions, since echoing the heartbeat of Christ teaches us to loosen our grip on our ideologies and enter into the generous love poured out for us on the cross (John 19:34). By adhering to Pope Francis’ exhortations on unity, our echo chambers can be converted into a house of prayer for all people.