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.