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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