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.