Finding an Engaging Voice – The Limits of Prophetic Language
Like many of the contributors to catholicmoraltheology.com, 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.