instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Catholic muddle

I've seen a couple of references to "the Catholic middle" in the last week or so. John Allen wrote of Pope Francis's election as "a breakthrough victory for the Catholic middle."
In broad strokes, these are people generally content with church teaching and tradition, though inclined to a hermeneutic of generosity in applying it... Mostly these are people who regard Catholicism fundamentally as a force for good in the world and who long for moderate, accessible and inspirational leadership who can lift up the whole gamut of Catholic thought and life rather than a selective version of it tailored to advance a specific political or theological agenda.
And Charlie Broadway says much the same thing about the affinity of the Catholic Middle for Pope Francis, though he's harder than Allen ever is on the Left and Right. He describes the Catholic Middle as:
where most Catholics are. They affirm Church teachings on the hot button political issues such as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. But they also care about the poor and also the Church's theology and devotional life. The Catholic Middle does not scream the loudest but strives to live the Gospel and let their actions do the talking. They like Vatican II, celebrate the Mass in the ordinary form, and tend to be non-partisan in their political viewpoints recognizing that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are in line with all of Church teachings. These people are represented best by someone like Mother Angelica and the folks at EWTN, Father Robert Barron, the National Catholic Register, and the outstanding Cardinal Sean O'Malley.
Personally, I think talk of "the Catholic middle" obscures more than it reveals. Not only do I think Broadway's characterization of "most Catholics" lacks an empirical foundation, he essentially uses "the Catholic Middle" to mean "good Catholics," as distinguished from the "wolves" of the Right and Left who "hate the Church." (If we must have a label for virtuous Catholics, can we at least use "the Catholic Mean"?)

Allen's description of a middle is less judgmental, but it still amounts to defining "probably a majority of the Church" as necessarily situated between two groups that oppose each other.

Why insist that Catholics fall on a one-dimensional spectrum? If we must make such distinctions, why not at least a 2-dimensional plane, with the left-to-right spectrum as one axis and, say, "passion" as the other? Then we don't have a Pope for the Catholic middle, we have a Pope for the Catholic bottom.
Because hypercubes are too hard to draw in PowerPoint.

It's not a particularly good model either, but I suspect it's closer to reality than the left-middle-right model. And it also suggests that the reception of Pope Francis isn't quite the Goldilocks paradigm Allen and Broadway represent it as.

The concept of "the Catholic middle" also perpetuates the model of the Church as a human institution divided by political agendas -- and while it may be accurate to describe the Church as a human institution driven by political agendas, it shouldn't be. That Catholics understand their Church in those terms is a sign of failure.

Let me propose that we start distinguishing Catholics by their willingness to follow Jesus, rather than to follow this or that subset of Church teaching. We can't follow Jesus without following Church teaching, but we can -- and many of us do -- follow a proper subset of Church teaching without following Jesus. I'd certainly score myself higher as a follower of Church precepts than as a follower of Jesus Christ, which maybe makes me a better Catholic than Presbyterian, but so what?

Again, I'm not denying that distinctions among Catholics can be made based on how they relate to different subsets of Catholic teaching, or that distinguishing "Left" and "Right" reflects a truth about Catholics (at least European and American Catholics) today. I'm saying those distinctions are secondary, maybe even accidental, to Catholicism.

For too long Catholicism has been understood -- by Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- in terms of adherence to these or those doctrines. What Catholicism is is adherence to Jesus Christ.

If we start talking that way, we might start acting that way, and who knows what the Holy Spirit might do in the world if a billion people started taking adherence to Jesus Christ seriously.

(Link to Charlie Broadway's blog via Catholic and Enjoying It!)