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Finding an Engaging Voice – The Limits of Prophetic Language

Like many of the contributors to, I recently attended the Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in Chicago.  For me, one of the highlights of the conference was a presentation by Bridget Burke Ravizza and Paul Wadell entitled “Beyond the Impasse: Catholicism, Community, and Reproductive Health Care.”  The catalyst for the presentation was an incident in Green Bay, Wisconsin in which a Catholic food bank (Paul’s Pantry) refused to accept a donation of food from the local Planned Parenthood clinic.  The situation deteriorated quickly from there, with vicious comments posted in online discussions by outside supporters of each organization (A sampling: “All of these pro-lifers are out of their minds.  They don’t care about children or women. They don’t care about the poor. They just don’t care. Disgusting.” and “Do you know what’s extreme? KILLING!  Planned Parenthood has no moral authority on the matter of health care and feeding the poor when its main purpose is to kill.”).  As both SCE presenters observed, little is accomplished with such heated rhetoric.  No one wins any converts to his or her point of view with these attacks and name-calling.  Meanwhile our ability to cooperate on other matters of mutual concern (e.g., feeding the hungry) is seriously undermined.

Learning about the incident in Green Bay was interesting, but I found this presentation to be particularly compelling because of the way it probed and reflected helpfully upon the deeper question of how the church should engage broader publics about political and social questions.  Burke Ravizza and Wadell asked whether the “prophetic” mode of engagement that is currently favored by many bishops—a mode of discourse that is characterized by drawing very clear lines of distinction between the church and its opponents and one that condemns some beliefs and actions as inherently contrary to Christian life and belief —is the most effective or appropriately Christian mode of discourse and engagement.  They drew rather extensively upon Dennis O’Brien’s book, The Church and Abortion, to suggest that the bishops’ “flamboyantly condemnatory” language is neither effective nor theologically appropriate.

The more constructive portion of the presentation recommended that the church shift from a condemning voice to a more pastoral voice marked by conviction but also by mercy and humility.  Wadell and Burke Ravizza suggested that a starting point for developing a public voice should be to remember that everyone in the church is first of all a sinner who has been forgiven by the grace of God.  This deep awareness of the mercy that has been shown to us by God should color the way we engage other people, including those with whom we strongly disagree.  Wadell drew fruitfully upon his extensive work on friendship to elaborate further on what constitutes an appropriate voice – one marked by deep concern for the other and a desire to be in relationship.  It was a very moving account.

Burke Ravizza and Wadell focused their criticisms primarily upon the way in which various Catholic bishops have engaged in public moral/political discourse, but as Charlie Camosy pointed out during the discussion of this paper, their critique could also be applied quite appropriately to the way in which some academic/theological church leaders address those with whom they disagree.  Frankly, I thought that SCE President Miguel De La Torre’s plenary address was written and delivered in the very voice that Wadell and Burke Ravizza’s paper criticized.  Indeed, that seemed in part to be the point.  He was naming what he saw as an injustice and a distortion of Christianity.  De La Torre had concluded that mainstream theology and American culture had caused him to be complicit in his own subjugation so he needed to reverse course by naming that injustice.  But I found that in the process of naming injustice he used sweeping generalizations and wrongly maligned many theologians and their work as irrelevant at best and as racist and indifferent to the cause of justice at worst.  Nevertheless, his address received a standing ovation.  The point of view that supported the enthusiastic reception of De La Torre’s remarks surfaced again during the discussion of the Wadell/Ravizza paper when someone stated that Wadell and Burke Ravizza were wrong if they were suggesting that the voice they had sketched was universally applicable; this critic maintained that it is sometimes necessary to use a different voice to call out great evil when one finds it in the church by using the strongest prophetic language possible.  A pastoral voice or a voice of friendship was described as too soft for some forms of social sin.

I would not rule out the need for Christians sometimes to be prophetic, but I must ask why it is that many academic theologians can so readily recognize the futility and wrongheadedness of “prophetic critiques” from bishops who insist upon condemning abortion “in an escalating series of characterizations” (O’Brien, 3) – calling abortion genocide, suggesting that those with whom they disagree are promoting a culture of death, etc. – but these same theologians cannot recognize it when academic writing and witness show an equal lack of mercy, humility, and pastoral awareness.

For theological and pragmatic reasons, Christians should strive to find a voice that speaks the truth with charity, humility and mercy.  A condemning voice is rarely a convincing voice.  I sincerely hope that bishops and other church leaders heed this wisdom offered by Paul Wadell and Bridget Burke Ravizza .  I hope that academic theologians do the same.




  1. Chris–
    A very important and powerful set of comments – I am very grateful for your point, and think you have raised a really bold question in a powerful way. I agree with you that there is a tendency to applaud “being prophetic” in some areas and to criticize it in others – and this inconsistency contributes a great deal to the polarization of our profession (and to the same polarity in our society in general).
    You make a good point, following Wadell, about needing to be conscious of our own sinfulness and need for mercy. I would extend this by saying that, too often, the “prophetic voice” comes out most often in cases where one can exempt oneself from the critique being offered. I am troubled by the vigor of the conservative critiques of abortion and homosexuality, but their unwillingness to be prophetic on issues like divorce and excessive wealth, where they might be uncomfortable. Similarly, I worry that critiques based on categories of identity make it far too easy to draw lines between the righteous victims and the evil oppressors. In both cases, there is definitely a need to name sin. But perhaps a better tone would be adopted if we cultivated a stronger sense of our solidarity in sin, as well as an appreciation for the complexity and interconnection of various sins in our society.

  2. Thanks for the post. Very clear and interesting. I’m a little unclear why the voice that draws lines is a prophetic voice, but that’s my own limited understanding. The general point you raise is a good one. Students are apt to make sharp dividing lines as well, so one thing I try to insist on in teaching ethics is to be creative in seeking out alternative solutions. It is also something I noticed that happens on medical ethics boards at hospitals.

  3. Thanks for this, Chris. The most interesting session I attended at the SCE was a presentation by Judith Kay on Rwanda. Among other points, she argued that strong prophetic language about liberating the oppressed Hutu helped lay the groundwork for the genocide there by providing a way for Hutu nationalists to justify some of their extreme views and overlook the complex way in which both Tutsi and Hutu were oppressed by whites. Indeed, David is right that sin is complex and interconnected.

  4. Excellent points. Thanks for posting this. I always turn to Pope Benedict XVI for an example of how to teach, correct, and exhort–lovingly. His encyclicals alone demonstrate over and over how to use an abundance of charity when speaking truth.

  5. Thanks for your comment, OBI-WAN-KY. I’ve been thinking about the question you raised (“I’m a little unclear why the voice that draws lines is a prophetic voice”) for a week now. It’s a great question. What exactly makes a voice prophetic? Why was that label chosen to describe someone who draws strong and clear distinctions? I don’t have any good answers for you. I think that’s because the deeper question that I’m asking here is HOW to be prophetic (not whether to be prophetic), and there isn’t an easy answer to that. We need to do some serious thinking and theological work in order to move toward an answer. Wadell and Burke Ravizza have provided what I think is a very helpful starting point by stressing the need for humility, mercy, and charity.

    David – Thanks for your supportive comments and excellent points. I think your quite right that so-called “prophetic language” comes out typically when we think we are exempt from the critique we’re making. I like your term “solidarity in sin”. Thanks.

    Laurie — I was completely unaware of that connection to Rwanda. Very interesting.


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