Qualifying labels and the ‘Hermeneutic of Suspicion’

Amy Welborn’s blog ‘In Between Naps’ has hosted an ongoing debate (initial post 7/8/03) those who feel compelled to use ideological qualifiers when speaking of themselves and/or others (“orthodox”, “progressive”, “conservative”, “liberal”, et. al.), expressing her concern over the disruption that such politicized factionalism has on the unity of the Church. It’s a perplexing issue and, like Amy and many of those who responded to her blog, I’m not really sure what can be done about it.

Perhaps there used to be a time where by simply describing one as ‘Catholic’ you knew implicitly what that meant, and what Catholics stood for. After all, the Church identifies herself as ‘holy, Catholic, and apostolic’ and lays out quite clearly what it believes in the Catechism, a concrete expression of faith around which one would expect Catholics to rally. However, it is all too often my experience that the opposite is the case, when I encounter both online and in everyay life those who may refer to themselves as “Catholic” and at the same time express differing opinions on all matter of subjects including contraception, abortion, capitalism & U.S. foreign policy, priestly celibacy and the prospect of female clergy, etc. — in which case recourse to qualifiers in conversation may be an unfortunate necessity.

An example of such a situation raised by one commenting on Amy’s blog was that of a child informing her mother that she’s been invited by her Catholic classmate to attend a “Voice of the Faithful” meeting with her parents. How does one respond to such? I found myself in a similar predicament recently when a family member and recent convert to the faith forwarded me the URL to a wonderful “Catholic” website he discovered which, upon further investigation, turned out to enthusiastically endorse the Society of St. Pius X and other schismatic groups and condemn the Holy Father and Vatican II. Presented with such concrete experiences the question “What’s the problem? They’re Catholic too, aren’t they?” absolutely calls for such qualification and clarification of just what it means to be “Catholic”.

Ultimately, it’s kind of a ‘Catch-22’ — for those who use such qualifications as much as for those who eschew them, as Lawrence King noted in his comment on Amy’s blog:

. . . I do not think it’s possible to be an unlabelled Catholic and at the same time be outspoken on controversial issues. If you are asked straight-out if you feel that contraception is wrong, or asked if praying the Rosary every day is just a waste of time given all the homeless folks who need food, then you have to either give a “liberal” answer or a “conservative” answer or a “wishy-washy” answer.

If you give a liberal answer, you alienate the conservatives. If you give a conservative answer, you alienate the liberals. And if you give a wishy-washy answer, those on the left and the right will feel a mild degree of pity and disgust, but you won’t actually alienate anyone! (That’s why far too many priests and bishops choose this third option.)

Finally, there’s the fourth option of strongly holding some conservative views and some liberal views. Garry Wills, for example. But that just gets you the label “eclectic” (or in Wills’ case, “schizophrenic”.)

So Amy, as long as the Catholic people remain divided on issues and consider those issues important, no one can take a stand on these issues and be an unlabelled Catholic.

* * *

While use of such qualifiers is helpful and even necessary at times, indiscriminate labeling carries with it the danger of cultivating a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, as Fr. Tucker of Dappled Things notes:

The whole problem with the labels is that they reduce the Faith to a handful of pro and con positions (litmus tests, if you will) that presume to present the essence of the Catholic Faith. Until the stranger in the pew next to you answers your questions correctly, his faith is suspect (whether that be a liberal faith, conservative faith, traditionalist faith, or whatever). Such a hermeneutic of suspicion is poisonous. If a person professes the Faith with us in the official Creeds of the Church, receives the Sacraments in communion with the Church, and takes part in the Liturgy of the Church, we are supposed to assume his orthodoxy and accept him as a Catholic without qualifiers. He may not be a perfect saint, and maybe he can’t explain the difference between the Virginal Conception and the Immaculate Conception, but we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt. [7/8/2003 12:39:33 AM]

One is thus tempted, says Fr. Tucker, to adopt a mediate position between the liberal and conservative camps within Catholicism by avoiding those aspects which are not embraced by the mainstream. But promotion of “centrism” may only exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem, in that:

[centrism] does not eliminate polarization: it merely moves into a situation where there are, perhaps, two antagonistic extreme camps, and it opens a third camp, just as intolerant and exclusionary as the first two, even if its appeal might be broader. It, too, slaps labels on people and excludes them from the number of the elect, generally for the flimsiest of reasons (this person is a Catholic Worker weirdo, that one a mantilla-wearing doily head). If a person is outside the norm (however we want to define that), then somehow he is divisive. Never mind whether the person in question is in error or lacking in charity: the offense is his being outside the norm. It makes people self-conscious of what others think of them (which, in turn, makes them obsessive about the external elements of religion), it restrains discourse to an arbitrarily small range of acceptable opinions (lest one be thought too extreme), and it leads people to think they should be scandalized by opinions different from their own (which breeds both intolerance and intellectual stagnation). Plus, it’s boring as hell.

. . . it is seriously wrong for us to say that to be a good, “unifying” Catholic, one must (or should) be a centrist. This falls into the same narrow-minded label trap that we’ve already discussed — to say nothing of disqualifying most of the saints, prophets, and pleasantly harmless eccentrics that make the Church so grand. Catholics used to understand that.

Fr. Tucker recommends as a means of guarding against this “hermeneutic of suspicion” our developng an appreciation for the history of the Church, which enables us to “see the sometimes astonishingly varied ways in which the Faith has been lived and can open us up to the possibility that some pluralism is possible, and even desirable.”

Belong as we do to a universal Church encompassing humanity in all its diverse levels and backgrounds, interaction between Catholics (and the human family in general) can be understandably messy and subject to numerous differences of opinion. While clarification and correction may be necessary in some cases, we shouldn’t be presumptious in pronouncing judgement on the state of another’s soul. Fr. Tucker’s blog reminded me of some observations by Thomas Howard in Lead Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome:

The Holy Catholic Church looks more like the five thousand whom the Lord fed on the hillside than it does the small group of insiders in the Upper Room. That is, everyone is here: the earnest and the preoccupied; the poor and the rich; the fashionable and unfashionable (more of the latter than the former); the ignorant and the luminously wise; the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (to reach for anachronistic categories); the pathetic and the impressive. It is just “us” whom this very ancient Church comprises. None of us has any credentials at all other than the fact that we are baptized into this Church.

. . . the congregation at Mass in any parish church on any day of the year will comprise everyone from advanced saints to people whose conversation is laced with profanity and vulgarity, and whose whole approach to life, from one perspective, excludes even the smallest trace of anything that can be recognized as faith. Where are these latter people — inside our outside of the pale of faith? Only God knows. The Church’s task is to woo them, and to keep on in its pastoral efforts to fan any miniscule and lambent flicker of faith, and to keep offering them the gospel in word and sacrament. If they consciously and explicitly reject it all, then the Church can only pray for them: “Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” If judgement must fall on any of them ( or on me), the Church must accompany them all the way to the block, as it were, with the appeals of grace. . . . The Church shares God’s seeking of the lost, not his office as Judge. (p. 83-84).

Or, as another reader commenting on Amy’s blog so aptly put it:

Keep speaking the truth, continue to challenge one another, be persistent in following God’s will, but always with humility and love.

Part of the answer may just be accepting the fact that we’re stuck with each other. At some point in the future we may have an event or action that causes many on the right or the left to leave the Church, whether voluntarily or not, but for now we’re all still here, in God’s hands, for whatever His purpose may be.

* * *

Personally I would like to hope that Catholics on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum can identify some ground for agreement with respect to manifesting Christ to the world. Amy inquires:

I’m trying to find a way beyond it. Not, please note, for the sake of pretending that all is well or false unity, but simply because it’s vital that we do. . . . we need voices that call us to simply heed the Good News and act on it as Jesus tells us to, voices that can cut through our politicized discourse, despite our own pride and our own resistance. Voices that are dedicated to just that task.

One reader responded to this by commenting on his experience as a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which strikes me as a potential avenue for cooperation. I can disagree with my fellow Catholic about any number of things, but to refrain from joining him in the corporal works of mercy seems to me indefensible. Nourishing the hungry & thirsty, providing clothing and shelter to the homeless, visiting the sink & imprisoned — we have an imperative for action in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the adomination of our Lord (“whatever you do to the least of these . . . “).

Perhaps this is what Hans Urs von Balthasar was getting at when he spoke of the universal appeal of Mother Theresa:

Where should one look to see a dawn? One should look to where in the tradition of the Church something truely spiritual appears, where Christianity does not seem a laboriously repeated doctrine, but a breathtaking adventure. Why is all the world suddenly looking at the wrinkled but radiant face of the Albanian woman in Calcutta? What she is doing is not new for Christians . . . but suddently the volcano that was believed extinguished has begun to spit fire again. And nothing in this old woman is progressive, nothing traditionalist. She embodies effortlessly the center, the whole.

* * *

So, altogether a good fruitful discussion at St. Blog’s, which provided much food for thought (and I hope, impetus for action as well). While I wanted to cover what were for me some highlights, I recommend reading the whole thing (comment boxes especially) when you have the time. Additional participants include Peter Nixon, Gregory Popcak.

God bless.


“Christ in the Breadline”, by Fritz Eichenberg

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