It is no real surprise that United States’ politics is polarized. (See the recent Pew Study). It is a bit surprising that people have started to reshape their religious beliefs to fit into these political extremes. As Robert Putnam concludes in American Grace, “The ranks of religious conservatives and secular liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates in between.”
Catholic moral theologians must refuse to rely on these categories, especially the versions of them that have dominated our own discipline for the past forty years. Among the many problems these binary extremes create (think lack of charity for one), they threaten the very heart of our enterprise by compromising our attentiveness, insights, and judgments.
Below are four practices that I hope can overcome these extremes.
1. Avoid Relying on Liberal and Conservative Categories: Part of the weakness of these categories is that they oversimplify analysis of and solutions to problems. As a practice, avoiding these categories would entail actions like:
- Checking our resources to make sure they are diverse, not just drawing on one school of thought
- Reexamining our conclusions to ensure that they are warranted on their own merits and not just the default conservative or liberal response.
- Checking our methodology to make sure it is not just an application of a conservative or liberal approach.
- Refusing to use the terms to define ourselves or to evaluate others.
2. Be Builders and not Doctors: So often our scholarship takes the form of diagnosis and then treatment, similar to the work of a doctor. The problem with this approach is that it begins by asking, “what is wrong?” It fosters a hermeneutics of suspicion and, as a result, hostile responses and further divisions. Instead, we should think of ourselves as builders. Builders ask, “how do we accomplish what needs to be done?” They draw from a wide array of resources to complete their task and, while they evaluate the material and its suitability, they are focused on what is good and useful, not on what is wrong. Moral theology should primarily view its task as constructive and subordinate critiques to this constructive task.
3. Engage Locally: I do not have a specific locality in mind but rather a range of ones that could include schools, families, parishes, ministry or work. This embeddedness forces us to include the issues and concerns of people other than academics. Our questions and solutions are thus tested against these experiences and not just against the norms of the academy. As essential as the academic norms are for good scholarship, they can lead to perpetuating a particular school of thought. Local engagement helps us to better use academic work toward what is truly good and helpful.
4. Become Companions: When we gather as scholars (at academic conferences for example), we should be intentional about becoming companions, literally “people who break bread together”. If we can pray and worship together, we should. We should also eat and drink together. The result is that when we write, we will view others more as people than positions, more with understanding than opposition. In the famous economics experiment “The Dictator Game”, two people are put into a room, and one, the dictator, is asked to divide $10 between them. The one caveat is that the second person has to agree on the division. The result is that the dictator does not act like a dictator at all but rather divides the money 50-50. (This experiment perplexes economists because the theory of self-interest implies people should divide the money 90-10 or even 95-5 as the second person would accept any amount greater than 0.) This 50-50 division does not change even if the second person does not have to agree to the division. The first person only becomes a dictator when the second person does not have to agree and the two people do not meet each other. Then, the dictator usually offers less than $2. In becoming companions, we will avoid treating others and their ideas like a “dictator” would.
While I am confident in these four practices, I realize that there is a danger in utilizing them. In refusing to locate ourselves on a side, we could be a) viewed as cowardly or as compromisers, b) misinterpreted by those utilizing the binary categories, or c) ignored as irrelevant to the academic conversation. I am not sure what to do about these possibilities, but I do believe that we must see ourselves as fellow people, scholars, and friends if our work is to avoid being a defense of one side or another and truly being at the service of God and neighbor and.
Hey Jason– Great post, and I think these rules would take us very far!!
I wanted to add an issue that I’ve noticed particularly in a couple of our young theology majors who are intellectually talented, which is the problem of trying to negotiate “culturally” amidst this polarization. I’ve had separate conversations with two of our most intellectually gifted theo majors in recent years, both of whom intellectually “get it” – they recognize the problems with the categories, they are trying to get beyond them. However, they are most challenged not because of intellectual problems, but because of what I’m calling “cultural” problems. That is, once they actually start challenging certain pieces of the orthodoxies of the two sides, they begin to experience a kind of “ecclesial cultural homelessness” which is very hard on them. It’s hard enough for these students to develop a mature spiritual life in the midst of often-indifferent or hostile secular culture. But then we end up also “challenging” them to give up comfortable “spiritual” homes with liberal or conservative peers – they have the intellectual resources to do this, but the real challenge has to do with how they end up facing marginalization from both “camps.” One example is a student who is very pious and obedient to church authority., but whose life experience and then involvement with our campus outdoor adventures groups has led her to very strong environmental commitments – commitments which she intellectually understands as part of her faith, and can see in the writings of Benedict XVI… but for which she is constantly derided by her “conservative” peers.
I guess my bottom line is: polarization is an intellectual problem, and the above are great principles for getting beyond it. But ecclesially we should also think through the problem of “cultural belonging” and about how hard it is to put oneself in a position where one is marginalized from groups.
Well said, David…and I absolutely love these guidelines, too. My experience with my students is that this generation will eventually carve out this place of ‘cultural belonging’ for themselves. Much like the young people of the 60s did in pushing back against the culture they inherited (where liberal/conservative meant very different things that they mean today!) and carved out a new ‘home.’
Thanks for such a constructive and engaging post. For the most part, I agree very much with your four practices. I also second David’s comments on the problems people feel in terms of cultural belonging – I suspect that this struggle is often at the starting point for where the polarization happens. In that struggle for belonging, many chose the political over more uncomfortable ecclesial identity. I know from personal experience – it is very difficult when you cannot accept tenants largely considered “non-negotiable” by particular political camps. You end up being accused of being “too moderate” or “too Catholic” for both sides. For those reasons, I really like your post and David’s comment rings true. (And I hope with Charlie in a new generation..)
At the same time, however, I am a bit hesitant with your second principle. I do not agree that it is “builder not doctor.” I completely agree we cannot be JUST DOCTORS but I think this is an integral part of the task of moral theology.
I hesitate to set up a dichotomy in that way – as I do not think we can constructively determine are we doing what needs to be done – without clearly identifying what is wrong. (And I may be reading it as more a dichotomy than you meant….).
In my opinion, the first step in moral theology’s engagement in the world is often to identify what is wrong and then the focus should be how do we do what we need to do, how do we build a faithful community, how do we work for the Kingdom of God? This is in part why I believe that engagement with social sciences and social analysis is so key for moral theology – building the common good is the goal; but we need to be attentive to what the impediments are (and often, we don’t see them unless we are attentive to what the problem is)
Thank you for these thoughts. I largely agree with them, except I think your second point about being “builders, not doctors” requires further nuance in order to be helpful.
Methodologically speaking, I’m not sure that you can reconstruct with any credibility until you’ve already deconstructed. You can’t get past the hermeneutics of suspicion by going around it; you have to go through it. That’s what Ricoeur means, I think, when he talks about the “second naivete.”
Furthermore, there is the more general question of whether one’s method of ethical analysis ought to start with the ideal (e.g. Rawls’s Theory of Justice) or the real (e.g. Sen’s The Idea of Justice). This tension can be addressed effectively, however, in view of the telos of all social organization, the common good, which is both an ideal and a partial reality (analogously to the theological category of eschatology). If we assume that the common good is the goal, then something can be evaluated as a problem to the extent that it impedes our progress toward that goal.
Basically, I think you’re correct in that we cannot merely be doctors. We cannot stop at deconstruction. But even a doctor prescribes a treatment for the disease on the basis of some empirical data available by means of an adequate method of analysis. In other words, I would be careful not to set up a false dichotomy between diagnosing problems with adequate social analysis, on the one hand, and proposing prudent approaches to those problems, on the other hand.
Being ‘doctors’ is a very fine image for some of us, but it is good that our field is balanced by others who are more like ‘builders’ (and some who do both!). If all of us are doctors then we are just paid and promoted to find things that are wrong (which is very much like our consumerist-driven, disease-focused health care system in the United States)…and we do so from a very specific and narrow perspective: that of the ivory tower, privileged academic. While this has produced important insights, it also has important limitations…many of which have produced the hostility and division you reference above, Jason.
We are all likely to find exactly what we are looking for in any given situation…but the more diverse group of doctors and builders we can create, the less likely our discourse will devolve into the hostile and rancorous one we are trying to avoid.
Charlie – this is where the Catholic “Both/And” approach really is necessary and so helpful! 🙂
Jason – this is a great post and has kept me thinking about it since you posted! I am curious though – why the focus on extremes vs. moderation? I understand and agree with you in terms of political extremes, which become ideological and blinding (for all the methodological reasons you note in your first point – which I think are spot on) and I do think these are necessary to avoid – as Charlie notes – simply seeing what we want to see or what we’re looking for as opposed to what is actually there – good or bad. Can you envision an “extremist” where it isn’t for some secular political ideology but the Gospel? Does it matter what you are an extremist “for” ? At Saint Anselm there is this humanities program for all freshman, and on Martin Luther King Day they have a lecture “Martin Luther King, JR – an Extremist for Justice” and your post has had me thinking about that particular title….
Also, I think part of how you avoid the concerns at the very end – is that one is not refusing to take sides; but refusing to take sides as determined through someone else’s priorities. At least for myself, it isn’t that I won’t or choose not to take positions – but I choose to take firm positions based upon a different criteria and not based upon the “tests” American political parties designate. SO that as you note at the end – we avoid ” being a defense of one side or another” so that we are “truly being at the service of God and neighbor “
Great set of comments – particularly Meghan’s highlight an important potential hermeneutic for the whole question: the problem of political identities vs. ecclesial identities. It seems painfully clear to me that in American Catholicism, too often issues are determined by the political camp, and not the ecclesial camp. Or perhaps the ecclesial camps themselves are overly determined by their political allegiances. A professor at my own institution who teaches seminarians joked that in the 1970’s, seminaries had to teach incoming seminarians to be “less Democrat, more Catholic” – and now the problem is that they all come in Republican, and have to go “less Republican, more Catholic.”
This all makes me think of two further points:
1. A lot of this has to do with the continued desire of clergy (and moral theologians?) for political influence. It is clear that today (some?) Catholics relish their “power and influence” in relationship to the political party. I am sure it was the same previously with the Democratic party. Training with Hauerwas probably made it easier for me to be leery of letting this desire for influence affect one’s commitments.
2. In practical terms, I always like to joke: well, we have one party that is committed to totally laissez-faire sexuality, and the other party committed to totally laissez-faire economics. Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate quite evidently makes moves to connect the Church’s sexual and social teachings much more closely, thus (hopefully) providing a better “theo-logic” within which to move forward.
Great conversation folks. I wanted to make a point about when eschewing middle ground may be appropriate. But it seems Meghan has made this basic point with reference to MLK Jr. It seems there are indeed times when we want to be squarely on one side, rather than like those (ministers!) to whom MLK wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I wonder if there are some such issues today, that in the future we’ll look back on with hope that we stood squarely on the side of a truth that we difficult to apprehend as a whole community. (This is where I’d want to mention abortion, so let me do so and get Charlie to jump in here!)
Of course the problem is that we probably think there are more of these issues than there really are, and needless to say we think we are always on the right side…. Jason’s guidance stands, esp. since clear sight of these truly “no compromise” issues surely does not rely on the left / right terminology or resting in the easy comfort of (our) group think.
Thanks for all of the great comments! I think David’s “home” comment is absolutely correct. Without a “home”, it becomes very difficult to avoid extremes (much less find a place to work). I also realize that my “home” emerged on an ad hoc basis, and, because of this, I do not have any good ideas of how we might foster a more robust “home”. I would love some ideas on this.
I also agree with the cautions about “doctors vs. builders”. I do not want to put too much of a dichotomy between them. (I would agree with the way that Michael related the two ideas through Riceour.) I want the diagnostic piece to be at the service of the constructive one and worry that we stop with the former and not the latter. Probably the best way to avoid a false dichotomy is Charlie’s comment that we should not think of the task individually but communally: some of us are doctors, some builders, and some both.
Meghan, I think your observation that there are times we need to be extreme and need to take sides really needs to be addressed. When do we compromise our commitments by “avoid extremes”? Being a southerner, I am prone to try and please and, thus, have little insight on the question. It seems like people would need the virtue of prudence to distinguish when avoiding conflict would lead to greater charity and when confronting conflict would. I would really love to hear some good thoughts on this point.