Anything but Moderate

Anything but Moderate September 25, 2014

It’s pretty well known to my friends and former classmates, as well as regular readers here, that I am a constant critic of false dichotomies.  Any rejection of the prevailing political ones, in particular, tends to earn the name “moderate” as the next go-to label.  The problem is, there is little if anything moderate about my sense of political homelessness.  Something in me chafes every time I see this word used to describe someone who is not an “extremist”.  Neither of these is something I’m willing to be, and so that distinction becomes just another false choice that leaves me stuck in some ironic neither/nor.

The latest wave of this dubious honor, as many will have surely seen, comes in the buzz about the appointment of Blase Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago.  Ironically, as I typed his name, the auto-correct function tried to change it to Blasé – which, as Charles Camosy points out at Catholic Moral Theology, is exactly the problematic connotation: “…a warm and fuzzy just right.  Sort of ‘in the middle.’ Doesn’t take clear stand on issues…perhaps to the point of something like moral relativism. Also, boring. Even weak.”  Does not fitting the expected “conservative” or “liberal” molds make one a moderate in this sense?  Does calling for civility over partisanship?  Camosy argues just the opposite:

But what, after all, could be more boring or more weak than yet another capitulation to the kind of personal attacks which rule our public discourse?  It takes radical strength to resist the powerful market-driven forces which reward incivility. But are Cupich’s calls for civility a kind of ho-hum relativism? Hardly. Instead, he argues that “condemnations have limited impact.” He sees civility as the best opportunity for the Church’s argument–which is an argument on behalf of those on the margins–to be heard, respected and effective.

The relentless critic in me hastens to add that this doesn’t mean there aren’t things that must be denounced.  If civility, not to mention Christian charity, merely meant moderation, this might preclude the prophetic.  And I admit I do struggle to balance these things.  Out of my belief that anything truly prophetic is equally precluded by knee-jerk partisanship, I have often been willing to call myself a centrist, despite the pitfall of remaining at least metaphorically on a one-dimensional spectrum – or better yet, “radically centrist”, to avoid the impression of aiming to merely split the difference on everything or avoid taking strong positions.

I take such pains to avoid that impression precisely because I am, for a crucial example, radically immoderate in respect for life, with all that that entails: from conception to natural death, the universal right to a life with dignity, along with the universal duty to respect the life and dignity of others and to seek their good.  All this is foundational to Catholic social teaching.

For this reason, what I find more disturbing than calling people moderate for not being partisan is calling them moderate for not being violent.  One of my colleagues mentioned a comment made by Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria at a recent interreligious gathering about his Muslim friends’ objections to the term “moderate Muslim”, and rightly so, he added, for who of us would want to be called a “moderate Christian”?  If being moderate in one’s faith were truly the only alternative to being fundamentalist, I suppose I’d be an atheist.  I’ve even heard the term used in reference to ethnicity, such as “moderate Hutu” in reference to the Rwandan genocide, almost as if even one’s genetic makeup could be moderated away by non-participation in violence.  Of course, the real and much darker implication is that the group in question is necessarily violent by default and only capable of nonviolence by a kind of self-dilution.  Perhaps our fallen human nature tempts us all to default toward violence, but that’s all the more reason the kind of radical courage that nonviolent action often requires would hardly seem to call for moderate commitments.

To return to Bishop Cupich and his own take on his reputation, his comments to the Chicago press as recently quoted in America downplayed the ecclesio-political hype surrounding his appointment and, with that caveat, accepted a more nuanced definition of the “moderate” label:

I think the Holy Father is a pastoral man; I think that his priority is not to send a message, but a bishop and that’s what he’s sending here—someone to serve the needs of people. I wouldn’t want to in any way overly politicize this or put this in a different context. I think he cares a lot about people and he took his time and he wanted to provide a pastor, so I think he sent a pastor, not a message….

Labels are hard for anybody to live up to one way or another. I just try to be myself and I try to learn from great people. You have had great people here in this archdiocese pastor you and I am following a great man. I am going to try to learn from you.

It’s not my agenda, it’s not what I feel. I am going to try to be attentive to what the Lord wants. Maybe if there’s moderation in that than I am a moderate.

If these comments leave open the possibility that Cupich is what Camosy calls a “Goldilocks moderate”, Camosy’s Chicago-based colleague David Cloutier explodes easy categorization of his incoming archbishop by highlighting a brilliant and robustly pastoral lecture he gave last year in Australia with the revealing title “Untying Some Knots: Talking about Faith to a Skeptical World in a Secular Age”.  Obviously I do not mean by the word “pastoral” here the sense it sometimes takes on as a sort of ecclesial shorthand for “moderate” or even “liberal”, but reflecting a dedicated zeal for compassionate evangelization that bears a true and convincing witness to the gospel.  Like Cloutier, I won’t attempt to unpack the whole thing, but I will quote his brief dissection of one nugget of wisdom, just to demonstrate how this bishop has won me over.

“The cultural warrior approach may seem to some to be our only option, given the aggressive response to believers and religion, but in the end it brings little results other than giving us a temporary feeling of self-satisfaction. But even more so, it is not the way of the Gospel.

What we need is an approach that is arresting, forcing people to take a second look at the Gospel of Jesus Christ by the way we speak and act.”

Bishop Cupich here is overcoming a dichotomy between a kind of timid, “humble” Church versus an aggressive, in-your-face Church. These are the wrong options. Rather, we need an “arresting” approach that “forces” people to “take a second look.” The question is not whether the church should be more distinctive or less distinctive, more countercultural or less countercultural – the question should always be HOW is the Church to be distinctive.

Untier of knots, overcomer of dichotomies – now those are some labels I can get behind!

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  • Mark

    And yet they’ll persecute the old liturgy…

    If you want to see real radically Christian tolerance, look at Anglicanism’s big tent.

    Sadly it’s begun to unravel, but at its best it joined high church and low church, homophobic conservative and post-Christian atheists in one spiritual communion founded on the idea that Charity matters most.

    Whereas our pro-tolerance centrists will be authoritarian in pushing their anti-authoritarianism.

    It’s like they say, I guess “You can take the pope out of a tiara, but you can’t take the tiara out of a pope.”

    • Julia Smucker

      Who said anything about “tolerance”? Or about persecuting anyone?

      I’ll take the big tent of Catholicism (recall that catholic means universal) complete with the partisans of the EF Mass and the anti-authoritarians, who each annoy me in their turn, but “tolerance” is a buzzword of the left that I don’t much care for. In some ways it goes too far, as when it veers toward relativism or indifferentism, and in other ways not far enough, as when it’s applied selectively and thus hypocritically; certainly it falls far short of the much harder Christian vocation of loving our neighbors and enemies. Next to agape, or caritas if you like, tolerance looks pretty flimsy – and far from radical. Something more nearly approaching radical catholicity would be people with dramatically different ecclesiological ideals sharing the sign of peace before sharing the Eucharist, and meaning it.

      If you insist on picking a fight, at least take it up with someone who actually holds the position you want to quarrel with.

      • Mark

        I’m just saying, it seems to me that being whatever you want to call it (and non-authoritarian ideology is a big part of it)…is about form, not content.

        It is always absurd when progressives (ok, not the right word, but you refuse to pick a right word) use extremely authoritarian tactics to push an ideology of non-authoritarianism.

        Cupich, sadly, is apparently this type. The “heavy-handed moderate” (ok, moderate is not the right word…but, I think you know what I mean).

        But the whole spirit of centrism (not the right word, I know) is to NOT be heavy-handed.

        Pushing a theory of “peace and love” in a non-peaceful and non-loving way…is the greatest hypocrisy of them all.

        “Oh we don’t want an old Catholicism with all its hierarchy and authoritarianism and clerical and enforcement and coercive spirit…” and then they try to coerce people into embracing that new spirit using their clerical authority!

        I’m not trying to pick a fight with you, but as a Chicagoan I am very worried about living under our new ordinary.

        The end result of this trajectory is the Church declaring that anyone is damned who still believes in damnation…

        • Julia Smucker

          In this case, yes, I do refuse to pick a “right word”, because I refuse to fight over ideologies I don’t hold to in the first place.

        • Melody

          Mark, you say, “…as a Chicagoan I am very worried about living under our new ordinary.” You don’t have to be worried. Give the guy a chance. Cupich is from my neck of the woods originally. I don’t think he is going to pick on those who like the old Mass. For one thing, he is not one to pick a fight where it isn’t necessary; for another he has a bunch of issues facing him which will be on the front burner way ahead of that.

      • Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente

        Come on, deny one of the 2000-odd articles of the catechism publicly and see how truly universal Roman catholicism is. I’ll stick with Canterbury.

        • Julia Smucker

          If universal meant always agreeing or getting along, Catholicism (not to mention catholicity) would be doomed. If people who are polarized against each other can call themselves by the same name, that itself is a sign of universality, however bad we may be at practicing it. The presence of the polarized in this big tent makes me uncomfortable, but I take some solace in remembering that’s part of the point.

          The catechism itself is a compendium of the living conversation that is Church Tradition. As such, it deserves a little more credit. In fact, when I read parts of it, I can’t help thinking how much better off the world would be if we all lived by this.

  • Melody

    Julia, I agree with you about false dichotomies, and with your statement that “Something in me chafes every time I see this word (moderate) used to describe someone who is not an ‘extremist’.”

    • Julia Smucker

      I think I’ve found a kindred mind.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    I get your point, but I wonder if you are piling too much onto the poor word “moderate”, which is, perhaps unfortunately, multi-valent and being over-used to fill in a linguistic gap. Rereading your post I get the sense that this is what you are saying, but let me say my piece and perhaps in the end it will be clear that we agree after all. Or, if not, you might be able to see better where we disagree.

    Moderate can and is often used to mean centrist. Since political spectra do exist, this seems to be a legitimate use, though one over-used. Perhaps it is better to say badly used, since it often conflates multiple issues into a single linear span with “moderate” denoting the midpoint of all of them. Nevertheless, I think there is some value in describing someone’s political stand as “moderate Republican” or “moderate Democrat”. Maybe I am old school, but I remember when these terms made sense and you could point to concrete instances that instantiated them.

    Although, now that I think about it, I note that this term is never or rarely used in European politics in this way. I tend to hear parties described as “center right” to indicate conservative but not far-right (which in Europe tends to mean nationalist, authoritarian and quasi-fascist) or center-left, which tends to mean democratic socialist as opposed to communist or Green.

    Another meaning of moderate is simply not in excess. For instance, my doctor always asks questions during my routine physical to determine if I am a “moderate drinker.” When this gets translated to the political spectrum I think it becomes a pejorative, meaning wishy-washy or uncommitted. I think this is the sense Jim Hightower, a progressive political activist used it in his book “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”

    There is another meaning for moderate, however, that we need to consider, and that people are groping for when they use it in contrast to extremist or to mark those who do not advocate violence in support of their ideals. Recall that St. Benedict, in his rule, commanded his monks to be moderate: they were to seek moderation in all things. And St. Francis of Assisi (who arguably was not “moderate” in anything) twice in his writings praised God as moderation and justice.

    What do these saints mean then by moderate? What kinds of behavior are they trying to inculcate (Benedict directly, Francis obliquely by making it a divine attribute)? I think there is a sense of balance, of groundedness, of perspective (the divine perspective) in this sense of the word moderate. God must balance in his own self aspects that seem dichotomous to finite human beings: justice and mercy, strength and weakness, immanent and transcendent. God stands at the center of all of these, and the virtue of being a moderate is to model our own actions and beliefs on God.

    This is a sense I see in some usages of moderate, which is an attempt (albeit awkwardly) to contrast someone with those we feel have lost this balance. A moderate Hutu, would be (I guess) a Hutu who valued his ethnic identity, but did not see the oppression of Tutsi as a necessary part of this—something is out of balance. Closer to home, my profound discomfort with most manifestations of American patriotism is that it is immoderate: it lacks balance and any sense of perspective of who we as Americans really are, warts and all. I guess that this makes me a moderate patriot: an odd sounding turn of phrase, but one that I hope illuminates what I am driving. And in the end, maybe I just want to be a moderate Catholic.

    • Julia Smucker

      David, thank you for this thought-provoking response. I think we are much in agreement as far as what we want things to mean. But that’s kind of the problem I have when I get into discussions of semantics: it’s the point at which the linguist in me, decidedly descriptivist (as linguistics is a more empirical science than many realize), starts to clash with my theologian and all-around critic, which sometimes wants to police popular word usage (which the linguist insists is quixotic, but my critical mind insists in its turn that words can be used in ways that obscure rather than elucidate, which is starting to defeat the purpose of language in the first place).

      “Moderate patriot” works for me in a way that “moderate Catholic” does not, and on reflection I think this has to do with some sort of interplay between semantics and identity. First of all, in front of an identity-related descriptor, the word “moderate” somehow sounds more adverbial, as in “moderately patriotic” or “moderately Catholic”. It mitigates the description. In that sense, I can stomach the former much more than the latter because of my priorities of identity: while none of us are just one thing, it is especially under membership in a universal Church that patriotism requires some sense of restraint.

      But to your credit, you have made it abundantly clear that you’re not talking about being “moderately Catholic” in that mitigated sense. As you can well imagine, I resonate strongly with your Benedictine/Franciscan description of moderation, so I guess if that meaning came through more clearly in church parlance I would not object. Unfortunately, when people refer to church leaders as “moderate” they seem more often to be borrowing from the current handy but superficial political terminology that the Church cannot fit into without serious distortion. (Incidentally, your Hightower example makes me think of a parallel on the other side: I recall a member of the Bush administration – I think it was John Ashcroft – saying, “The only things in the middle of the road are moderates and dead skunks.”)

      That parallel illustrates the myopia of partisans on both “sides” when they dismiss political “moderates” as a way of digging their heels in and remaining entrenched – and illustrates, to Camosy’s point, how they are the ones who sound blandly alike. And maybe that also comes back to serve your point about moderation in a more positive sense of balance and completeness.

      I do have an instinctual problem with “moderate” as opposed to “violent fanatic” that I’m still trying to parse without sounding like I’m reading too much into it. Maybe it’s that it implies a question of degree, as if the fanatics’ problem is they care too much and the answer is to simply care less.

      I guess my point is that if we’re going to talk about being moderate in some way, it’s important to distinguish (as you do eloquently here) between a holistic balance and a bland middle. Or maybe that’s the difference between moderation and moderatism, if that’s not too fine a point.

  • “For this reason, what I find more disturbing than calling people moderate for not being partisan is calling them moderate for not being violent.”

    Well, words certainly do kill…and the ad hominem attack is rarely out of fashion these days.

  • Kurt

    “And yet they’ll persecute the old liturgy…”

    I don’t even understand this statement. It seems nonsensical.

  • When you’re being criticized from both the left and the right you know you’re making progress.