As President Donald Trump prepares to meet with Pope Francis on Wednesday, the issue of religion’s role in American life looms large. Despite the pope’s criticism of then-candidate Trump’s divisive rhetoric, a majority of white Catholics voted for Trump, highlighting tensions around the question of how Catholics should approach the “other.”
The debate is playing out not just between Washington and the Vatican. Recently, two Catholic bishops in Missouri took steps to cut ties with the Girl Scouts, and a small Catholic college in Kansas stopped teaching yoga. Both decisions reflect efforts to draw firm boundaries around what is considered to be “Catholic” and what is not. They send troubling a troubling message to those both inside and outside the faith.
These actions create a conflict where there is none. Take the Kansas City bishop’s decision to ban Girl Scout cookie sales in Catholic schools on the grounds that the organization promotes an agenda contrary to Catholic teaching. The Girl Scouts web page in fact says that the organization takes no position regarding sexuality, birth control, or abortion.
As for yoga, which the college stated is incompatible with Catholicism because it is a Hindu practice, the Vatican issued a statement on meditation practices in 1989 that declined to forbid yoga. Indeed, the Catholic Church holds that there can be elements of the divine in other religions.
The larger problem is that these decisions send a message that the Catholic Church is unwilling to engage in conversation with secular society and other religions. Yet since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Church has established ongoing dialogues with other religious traditions and has admitted that in some cases it had much to learn, even from atheists.
As a Catholic feminist theologian (not an oxymoron!) and an occasional yoga class attendee, I find the bishops’ and the college’s stances to be alienating at a time when the Vatican is asking Catholics to be welcoming. Their decisions reflect a fear of the “other,” a conviction that there is nothing to be learned from an encounter outside a single faith tradition, and a resistance to challenges. They remind me of my pre-Vatican II parochial school days when I was chastised for suggesting that we sing “Away in a Manger,” since it was written by a heretic — Martin Luther.
In my own classrooms, I take the opposite approach. I learned early on that engaging with other religions — and with secular society — can help students better understand their own faith traditions. For example, it was not until I actually read Luther that I realized how his unique approach to theological questions made me a better Catholic. As I learned about Luther’s issues with the Catholic Church, I was forced to question and clarify my own beliefs. Similarly, when I teach college students theology, I usually include an atheist such as Freud so that they can address critiques of religion in a context where both reason and faith are respected.
To be sure, there is risk in moving outside one’s own religious or intellectual bubble. I often have a few students who think Freud is right about religion. Girls who are empowered by the Girl Scouts might come to wonder about women’s limited leadership roles in the Catholic Church. College students who practice yoga might find themselves wanting to know more about Hinduism. But the more important thing is that they are seeking — and gaining — greater understanding of themselves and the world. More often than not, interfaith discussion can help believers to rediscover, reinterpret, and even reaffirm their own traditions.
Next year, I plan to buy my cherished Thin Mints and support the Girl Scouts’ efforts to empower girls and young women. I will also continue my occasional yoga practice. But even more, I will continue to encourage dialogue and questioning in my students as they make their way in a complex world where they will need to engage with all sorts of ideas and respond when someone challenges their beliefs. I will continue to tell them that an encounter with the other can lead to greater understanding not only of the other, but also of themselves.
I hope Pope Francis tells President Trump something similar.
Susan A. Ross is Professor of Theology and a Faculty Scholar at Loyola University Chicago, where she previously served as Department Chair. She is the author of three books, past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and a Public Voices Greenhouse Fellow through The OpEd Project.