To Prophesy from the Center

To Prophesy from the Center February 5, 2012

In the comment thread on my last post, I spoke of the need to prophesy from the center, a point that I think needs to be elaborated.  In the same comment I also admitted that “there is a kind of paralysis in my commitment to bipartisanship, in that I sometimes feel unable to critique either the left or the right (at least not in the abstract) without hastening to critique the other as well, lest I be mistaken for something I’m not.”  I wholeheartedly believe in the appropriateness of an even-handed approach, especially when speaking in generalities.  On the other hand, I also acknowledge that particular situations often call for a particular stance – situations in which, as many liberation theologians would put it, neutrality is not an option.  A truly prophetic voice should be neither neutral nor partisan, naming injustice and falsehood (being able to name justice and truth in the positive helps too) without having to keep score, being concerned neither to lay all blame at the feet of a particular political camp nor to make the critiques come out even.

This may sound like an idealistic description, but I believe we have a handful of voices here at Vox Nova that have sometimes succeeded at fitting it.  For instance, Kyle Cupp’s and Mark Gordon’s critiques of drone warfare and citizen assassinations, respectively, under the current administration are illustrative examples of the kind of prophetic denunciation that partisanship too often obscures.  If President Obama were a Republican, Democrats would be all over these things, just like they (rightly) criticized the Bush administration for overreaching its power in similar ways.  But they are for the most part too busy trying to keep Obama aloft on his tottering pedestal and protect him from the attacks of Republicans, who, between their absolute hatred of Obama on the one hand (which would otherwise have them denouncing his every move) and their hawkish tendencies on the other (which would otherwise have them praising such policies), are reduced to silence on such matters.  The same general principle is also true in the other direction, as Henry Karlson pointed out in a comment on his recent post:  “I still find it funny how many forget Bush promoted himself as the first president to federally fund embryonic stem cell research. Of course, he was GOP so it’s ok.”  And the Democrats of course are paralyzed by the same dilemma.  This is how partisanship obscures prophecy: what would be intolerable action on the part of the opposing party – or in its own right, for that matter – becomes permissible when coming from one’s own.

A truly Catholic (or catholic, if you prefer) perspective, while it may have occasion to share a stance with adherents to a political ideology on a particular issue, must never presume any party as being either above critique or beyond hope.  This principle, when applied well, can lead to a nuanced double-edged critique that keeps the focus on the underlying principles at stake.  This is just what Morning’s Minion has done by critiquing both Obama and his “Catholic right” critics from a Catholic Social Teaching perspective on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity – a critique even further rounded out by arguing for a still broader application of freedom of conscience.  And a few months ago Brett Salkeld, perhaps the most solid centrist I’ve met in cyberspace, brilliantly challenged one-sided “cafeteria Catholic” accusations in a way that could only be done from a centered perspective.

Now, this is not to say that it is always necessary to go to great lengths to find a two-sided critique for absolutely everything.  Some things must simply be repudiated outright.  Still, there is a crucial difference between a prophetic repudiation and a knee-jerk reaction.  Discerning this difference is not always easy, but thinking uncritically along party lines makes it impossible.  Very often the prophetic vision cannot be seen but from the center.

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  • I think that what you are saying here points inevitably to the necessity of the establishment of a Christian Democratic Party in the United States. Such a party would be, as you have suggested, neither of the Left or the Right, but it could legitimately make alliances with either of the major political parties that might temper the excesses of the decadent, consumerist-driven and plutocrat-favouring American political culture. Such a party would, indeed, be, just as you say, “prophetic from the centre.”

  • Greg

    Prophesy from the Center? What a joke.

    This is for all of you Obama voting Catholics,
    I present for your reading pleasure a truly Catholic perspective. REPENT!

    Excommunicate the Bishops.

    One Atlanta Catholic has a few things to say….

    ….In 2009 and 2010, nominally faithful Catholics who value all of the policy choices you do — labor unions, forced charity, high rates of taxation, urban ghettoes, and of course, universal “health care” — and who claimed to be ardent defenders of the unborn sold out to a one, sacrificed millions of babies and betrayed the infallible teaching of their faith so they could get one gigantic step closer to the social justice you so crave.

    And for that, for that moment when they put aside their baptismal and confirmation vows, repeated every Easter, and their recitation of whatever version of the Nicene Creed you’ve settled on this week, your response was … applause. Silence. Satisfaction. A professed willingness to work with the Administration……………………..

    • Julia Smucker

      And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what a knee-jerk reaction looks like.

    • Mark Gordon

      Look at the things Greg condemns: labor unions, which the Church has promoted since Rerum Novarum; “forced” charity, by which he means the state, which the Church has always considered an essential element in the administration of economic justice; universal healthcare, which the bishops of the United States have advocated for decades; and social justice, which is the very foundation of Catholic Social Teaching. Greg, like so many of the nominally faithful, is a cafeteria Catholic who prefers to exploit the unborn for the benefit of his own political party while ignoring or rejecting vast regions of Church teaching. Well, millions of babies were murdered under Nixon, Greg. And Ford. And Reagan. And the Bushes. And it won’t change under Romney, no matter how many lies you tell yourself.

      In fact, the Church is the center only in the sense that its teaching stands as a critique of the entire binary political and partisan system in America. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Democratic and Republican parties are two dead ends in the same blind alley, and the blind alley is liberalism. Greg is a liberal of the economic variety, soul brother of his liberal counterparts of the pelvic sort. They both share a conviction that what matters most is “liberty,” not virtue; individualism, not the common good; power, not righteousness. It is their shared liberal values that lead to abortion, the abandonment of the poor, and war without end, amen.

      But in a deeper sense, it is a misnomer to describe the Church and those Catholics who try to appropriate and apply the entire range of her teaching as being in the center. In fact, the Church is radical precisely where those parties and their partisans are most centrist, which is to say the most aligned with the liberal consensus that has permeated American society or two hundred and fifty years. We sound radical to someone like Greg because we are. We are trying to stand outside the liberal consensus and think like Catholics, wherever that leads. It drives someone like Greg crazy because he and millions of Catholics like him long ago outsourced their consciences to the Democratic and Republican parties.

      I spent thirty years in that blind alley, in the Republican dead end of it, as a matter of fact. No longer. I don’t intend to vote for either Obama or Romney, because to do so would be to confer a legitimacy on the liberal consensus that it doesn’t deserve. I’ll be writing in the name of Pope Benedict XVI.

      • Julia Smucker

        Prophesy, brother!

        The way you are describing the Catholic perspective captures well what I really meant by talking about being “in the center”: not sitting comfortably in the middle of the American political consensus, but radically transcending it.

  • johnmcg

    Hmmm — I guess I’m not convinced that these all represent a prophesy against our culture from the center, but a (yes, knee-jerk) attempt to change the subject from one with uncomfortable implications to one more in one’s comfort zone.

    We saw this during the Bush Administration when various people responded to criticisms of torture and war with “What about abortion?”

    In this, case, both MM and HK raise the Conscientious Objectors as a parallel problem to the current HHS mandates. If there has been a recent effort to de-legitimize either particular conscientious objectors or the value of the concept itself, I have not been privy to it. There certainly was never a move by any Administration to do away with it or “crack down” on its usage. The most significant thing pointed to was mocking comments on comment threads or in talk radio shows.

    I try to read people charitably, but it is difficult for me not to escape the conclusion that this as an effort to avoid the uncomfortable truth that people one had considered political allies are engaging in a deeply wrong action that demands a strong response.

    They are on firmer ground in pointing to Alabama’s immigration law that punishes those who help undocumented aliens. But, again, the interest in the religious liberty aspect of this seems to be late in coming (, and an effort to change the subject from the current controversy.

    If my wife asks me to pick up my dirty socks, and I point to the dish she left out on the coffee table, I’m not moving us toward an objective look at the issue of house cleanliness; I’m dodging accountability for my own sloppiness.

    I guess what I see as another knee-jerk – -when “my” side is attacked for violating a principle, I look for ways the other side has violated that principle and thus avoid an uncomfortable conversation. I don’t think that’s a very productive habit, either.

    • johnmcg

      To say it another way, I don’t think the Catholic perspective is either “Left”, “Right”,” or “Center.” It is Catholic, and where it lands in the political spectrum will depend on what goes on. Our aim shouldn’t be in the middle between the two sides — it should be wherever Truth resides, which it seems to me both political sides are pretty far from.

      If a referee calls more fouls on one team than another, it is not proof he is biased in favor of one team or the other. Nor should the referee make an effort to balance his calls — even questionable calls — between the two teams.

      Our perspective is going to be different from the prevailing perspective — we are the salt of the Earth,

    • John

      No, I brought up the desire of the bishops, for a long, long time to allow SOLDIERS conscience objection when asked to go to WARS they find unjust. This is not the same thing as conscience objection to war in general. This is something that the bishops have LONG fought for and continue to desire. ( is a good discussion on the matter). The fact that the religious objection to particular wars does not allow soldiers selective conscience objection shows what I said — and completely ignored by you. I made it clear many times that I was talking about the possibility of a solider objecting (which differs from a complete rejection of warfare).

      I could, however, point out Scalia’s Smith decision. There is a clear case of religious liberty being reduced in the US in recent times.

      The case:

      Discussion of its implications:

      Now, I used the conscience objection of soldiers as a mere example; it is not the only one. To say “religious liberty interests are late in the making” is also false and shows you do not understand how religious liberty has been promoted on VN long before it was a popular political catchword for the GOP. And notice how far that goes with the right; how many of them are saying this on the one hand, and looking for all kinds of ways to limit Muslim religious rights on the other? Seriously, what you are doing is to prove my point on narratives; you and many on the net have created a false narrative and you are unwilling to actually listen to what we say here.

      • To come at it a different way, last week when Komen announced they were cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood, did left leaning groups start discussing what “narratives” they were following in opposing this action or thinking about what other examples of withdrawing funding some who opposed this were not as quick to confront?

        No, they didn’t. They just started plugging away.

        Now, perhaps we need to be more careful because, unlike PP’s supporters, we can’t count on the media’s help.

        But there was no doubt about whether PP had their support.

    • John Henry

      Hmmm — I guess I’m not convinced that these all represent a prophesy against our culture from the center, but a (yes, knee-jerk) attempt to change the subject from one with uncomfortable implications to one more in one’s comfort zone.

      Exactly right, John. But, then, past is prologue and all that – after five some odd years of reading people, the support for your impression (which coincides with mine) is buried in hundreds of posts and comments, rather than the text of one post.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    A very interesting reflection Julia, though I am jealous you did not mention my post on the assassination of Osama Bin Laden! 🙂

    More seriously, I have a pair of questions: whey you say “center” do you mean the quasi-mythical political center, as in the expression “centrist voter”? Or do you mean the center of something else? Would it perhaps be clearer to say that the kind of prophetic voice you are aiming at should “speak truth to power” irrespective of where on the political spectrum this power lies?

    • Julia Smucker

      David, I meant “center” in a basically political sense; maybe “transpartisan” would convey my position somewhat more accurately, although “center” has the advantage of suggesting an image of a vantage point from which one can see in all directions. In any case, the kind of definition you are proposing is entirely consistent with what I’m trying to say.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I don’t know that there is much advantage in replacing political partisanship of the left or right with that of the center. To me, that seems to be something of a middle class political fantasy.

    Wouldn’t it be better to apply instead a Catholic theological analysis ? To go deeper into the theology, scripture, tradition.

    God Bless

  • Julia, the examples you use point to a willingness to see things that are ‘against one’s own advantage’. This stance evokes a sense that the speaker is willing to speak something outside him or herself: stand away from his power base, and move into an area of vulnerability. There is a scriptural basis for using weakness to convey God’s insight (the prophetic message) into the concrete situations of life. This appears to be your objective.

    This is very threatening to the core of entrenched interests and evokes a sense of treason and betrayal. In the extreme form of this, political change happens by inducing your opponent to hopefully cut their interest exceedingly while you grudginly and meagerly slice your own. The common objective is to maintain power and advantage rather than grow solidarity and the common good.

  • Julia Smucker

    John and Chris, I don’t think we’re disagreeing here, but your comments indicate to me that my terminology may be misleading. I certainly don’t mean to advocate replacing left/right partisanship with centrist partisanship, but rather, as John proposes, trying to be aligned with “wherever Truth resides”.

    The advantage of using “center” language, as I said in my response to David, is the vantage-point imagery it evokes. The disadvantage is that it remains within the one-dimensional “political spectrum” paradigm, which is why I was hesitant to apply that terminology to myself for a long time. The examples set by a few people with nuanced and nonpartisan commitments to some kind of transcendent “center” (not just on Vox Nova) have allowed me to grow more comfortable embracing a “centrist” identity, but perhaps it would still be more helpful to speak in terms of transcending the spectrum altogether.

    I think we’re basically getting into questions of semantics. Aside from that, the two of you are coming very close to what I was trying to get at in this post.

  • The discussion thus far has been about defining what Julia means by “the center” and I’ve learned a great deal from you all. But don’t we also need to be talking about what she means by “prophesy”?

  • brettsalkeld

    I once used the term “moderate” as a compliment on here (I think of Father Barron) and was immediately corrected. 😉

  • brettsalkeld

    For the record, I don’t mind being called a centrist. But I appreciate the point made by those who find fault with the term. I wonder if a fellow should just start answering questions about his political affiliation with, “Sorry, I’m just a Catholic,” a la Sam Rocha.

    • johnmcg

      Maybe, maybe not.

      Part of the reason I get frustrated with those aligned with the party in power when they seem to be avoiding their responsibility to confront them is that I think their political positioning enables them to have some influence. Someone like me can be dismissed. But if someone with a record as a Republican confronts them about torture or immigration, or a Democrat confronts them about the HHS mandate, that might mean something.

      We do need to be Catholics first, and whatever party our Catholic beliefs lead us to second. But I think there is a place for those embedded in those political parties, as flawed as they are, to help move them in a more just direction.

      • Julia Smucker

        Sure there is, as long as the parties themselves do not become sacrosanct.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    I think that the label “centrist” is misleading. While it does have the sense you mention of a vantage point, it also have the unfortunate connotation of being embedded in, being part of the political spectrum. In other words, it suggests we are contesting for power, along with the left and right. I think, that as Catholics, we need to be “in but not part of” the political sphere. We need to engage with it on a contingent, pragmatic level, but not accept the transcendent ideology of politics as played in the US.

    Unfortunately, I cannot come up with a better term to capture this very essential point you are making.

  • With all the questions of the term center, I actually think it represents the proper Catholic way which is neither right nor left and it can be seen as another way to say Catholicism is of the via media, the middle or central path. Also, it reminds me of spiritual traditions which teach us how to return to the center to keep grounded, to avoid all excess outside of the center. In this way it combines two aspects of the Catholic tradition in one term.

    • The term doesn’t work within the framework of American political ideology. The Catholic way is not a point or a line segment between the Left and the Right on some spectrum. It isn’t even on the spectrum.

  • “To say it another way, I don’t think the Catholic perspective is either “Left”, “Right”,” or “Center.” It is Catholic, and where it lands in the political spectrum will depend on what goes on. Our aim shouldn’t be in the middle between the two sides — it should be wherever Truth resides, which it seems to me both political sides are pretty far from.”

    I — and I think all of us– agree with John here. The Catholic perspective is not something that can be mapped on the Left-Right spectrum because many of the principles that inform it are alien to American ideological thought.

    “A truly Catholic (or catholic, if you prefer) perspective, while it may have occasion to share a stance with adherents to a political ideology on a particular issue, must never presume any party as being either above critique or beyond hope.”

    This point by Julia is, I think, paramount. I think it raises the concern that there seems to be a tendency, even among Catholics (and yes, even among a writer or two on this blog), to think that in order to be a relevant, legitimate, meaningful voice in American politics, one must claim or at least sub-consciously form a party allegiance. The problem is that once this allegiance is formed, it’s all too easy to defend the party as a gut reaction (or, just as bad, refrain from criticism when it is most needed) or to lambaste its opponents in a disproportional and uncharitable way. In other words, just like any other process of “saming” and “othering,” you run the risk of imbuing your outlook with the false dichotomy of party partisanship, which, as we’ve established, doesn’t really seem to jive with the concept of the Catholic perspective as something different from the Left and the Right not in degrees, but in nature.

    The original problem, the mental need to cling to some type of party allegiance as a vehicle of political expression, is certainly a tricky one. How can Catholics maintain relevance in a political system that seems characterized by this framework of ideological division?

  • Julia Smucker

    You “don’t mind” being called a centrist, Brett? And here I thought I was paying you a compliment.

    Actually, I do mind being called a moderate, because I don’t like the bland, middle-of-the-road connotations. A few people, as I mentioned above, eventually convinced me by example that I could call myself a centrist without being bound to a one-dimensional political spectrum, but you all are causing me to question that conclusion. If I keep having to explain that I really meant what others here are articulating rather than how I seem to have been heard, then maybe the term is unhelpful. The problem, as David points out, is that it’s hard to come up with a better one. This may be a good sign: it’s when an approach transcends the dominant paradigms that it becomes difficult to put a name to it.

    If I may stay with the “centrist” language for another minute, let me share one of the things that led me to make at least a temporary peace with it, an explanation from self-described “transcendent centrist” Ron Lane, which I think helps to explain my intended meaning:

    “In the old Scholastic language, I think it is a material sin to be either and only a conservative, or a liberal, though it is not often a formal sin. But let us remind ourselves, in the simplest way, of the classical tendencies of the conservative and liberal positions, whether in art, politics, morality, or religion. The conservative loves the good old and hates the bad new, wants to save the good of the past and combat the evil of the present. The liberal hates the bad old and loves the good new. One or the other of these two positions is the least of what we should all hold. But a fuller and truer fundamental attitude includes the complements: for both groups to love the good, old and new, and hate the bad, old and new. It is often difficult to sustain this because of our constitutional or temperamental natures and our family and cultural traditions and influences, but the truest and wisest Catholic tries to achieve the balance of both of these, as the Church does in its nature, intent, and effort. The perfect balance that each of us should try to maintain is what I call transcendent centrism (not merely a flatland middle or moderate view, or simply having an independent position)….

    Try this: think of transcendent centrism as a high-wire act with a very long pole. Or a wild, accelerating ride down a twisting mountain road, swinging left and then right, again and again, with the peaceful (not cocky) assurance (in Christ, in the Holy Spirit, in the Church) that you will arrive safely onto the gentle, secure, and beautiful homeland of the Father. (I’ll have to work on the images, but you get the idea.)”

    • Julia, thanks for that clarifying passage. I agree, politically a Catholic should strive to preserve what’s good and bring about appropriate change when it’s needed. So with this meaning in mind, yes, transcendent centrism seems like a fair descriptor.

      Outside the confines of Vox-Nova, however, I fear the term would lose the particular meaning expressed by Mr. Lane, and would be construed and misinterpreted as something like the parenthetical part of the paragraph you bolded: “merely a flatland middle or moderate view, or simply having an independent position.”

      It’s important to remember why we use identifying descriptors; not for our own benefit, but for ease of communication with others (ie, If someones asks me my religious beliefs, saying “I’m an orthodox Roman Catholic” facilitates conversation better than rattling off the Nicene Creed). And as I pointed out in my previous post, the American political mindset is fundamentally characterized by this simplistic, one-dimensional spectrum, and that’s the framework from which self-identifying terms are drawn, or at least referred back to. For this reason, I don’t think “centrist” is a very useful descriptor without the necessary description of what is meant by it, which kind of defeats the purpose of using a descriptor to begin with.

      If one derives their political views and positions primarily from the Church, what’s wrong with self-identifying as politically “Catholic?”

      • Mark Gordon

        If one derives their political views and positions primarily from the Church, what’s wrong with self-identifying as politically “Catholic?”

        JL Liedl, you ask the $64,000 question. There is nothing wrong with so identifying oneself. In fact, in the years since I renounced both parties, that is exactly how I answer: I’m neither a Republican or a Democrat. I’m a Catholic!

      • Julia Smucker

        “If one derives their political views and positions primarily from the Church, what’s wrong with self-identifying as politically ‘Catholic?'”

        My first response to this question was, “Nothing at all.” But on second thought, the potential problem with “Catholic” by itself as an identifier of one’s political position is that it will mean many different things to different people. I have argued a definition of Catholic orthodoxy in terms of giving glory to God alone, in a sense that precludes nationalistic exceptionalism; to some people “orthodox Catholic” may signify something like Greg’s position, whether favorably or unfavorably; and many more things besides. Catholicism, even within defined bounds of orthodoxy, is an awfully big tent, and to use it as a political descriptor will at least require considerable explanation. And in my case at least, that explanation would likely lead to the sort of understanding I mean to convey by describing myself as a Catholic in the center. But the way Mark is contextualizing his identification as Catholic as opposed to Democrat or Republican is essentially saying what I mean to say, perhaps less confusingly.

    • brettsalkeld

      I totally took it as a compliment! If I hadn’t written that after reading other people’s concerns about “centrists” my delight would have been much more palpable!

  • “It’s important to remember why we use identifying descriptors; not for our own benefit, but for ease of communication with others…”

    But are these descriptors truly helpful? Let me rattle off a few disadvantages that occur to me. First of all, left/right/center means different things to different people. I might change a position based on the circumstances involved. The labels themselves are limiting and trap us into group responses, Even the ‘catholic’ label has baggage when used in a political context.

    Proclaiming and living the ‘Good News’ (our real mission and purpose) calls for total freedom and the ability to respond to God in every circumstance. It’s a grave deception to think that any human coalition would not need constant conversion and purification. Getting over invested in any party, ideology, school of thought, paradigm, etc is bound to end badly simply because of fallen human nature.