Post-Partisan? The Importance of Language and Labels

In a recent interview with the Washington Post (6/28/13), the new editor of America Magazine, Matt Malone, explained a shift in policy that no longer allows writers to label fellow Catholics as liberal or conservative:

“It’s not simply that terms [in a Catholic context] like ‘left’ and ‘right’ are inaccurate, it’s that they are counterproductive. There’s a real unity of Catholics. Any language that would oppose one part of the body to the other is inappropriate. We’re a communion. We’re, by definition, one.”

Such thinking is on the rise and often goes by the name “post-partisan.”  While I appreciate the desire to find points of unity and agreement amidst widespread conflict within the Catholic Church, I do not believe that it is ultimately our use of the labels liberal/conservative or left/right that create such conflict (although certain labels may foment conflict – more about that below), indeed, I think such labels reflect the fact that one’s theological views cannot be entirely separated from political, social, and economic realities.

It seems to me that the post-partisan effort is like someone with a jar of beets and a jar of cat food that for some reason finds their difference uncomfortable.  To manage their discomfort over the conflict between beets and cat food, they claim that both are simply “food” and so should only be labeled as “food.”  Further, any questions or evaluations from people wanting to know what kind of food is in the jar are dismissed as partisan.  Instead they are told that the “food” is equally the same, it is really one “food,” and so it can be used in any recipe, as if no one will actually taste the resulting concoction.  In other words, banning descriptive terms that point to real world differences does not thereby equalize or pacify those differences in a way that will make them cease to exist.

Playing around with labels, or pretending they are not there, is based on the assumption that it is language which is causing conflict, when in reality, language is the formal expression (more or less helpful, and more or less accurate) of the material causes of the conflict, i.e., the social, political, economic, and ecclesial situations that have historically developed thus far.  Language is the human ability to take in with our senses various information from the world and describe it.  Theologian Denys Turner gives the example of a human and a dog that are both startled by a noise.  Both sense danger, but only the human can fear it under the description “terrorist.”  Changing the sign by which we express what is meant by “terrorist,” or ignoring it all-together, does not thereby make the situation any less dangerous.  Similarly, ignoring the signs by which we express “left” and “right” does not thereby make any less real the effects of these different ways of structuring our social, political, economic, and ecclesial lives.

Paradoxically, underlying this rather idealist understanding of language, i.e., that ideas inform the world rather than the world informing ideas, is the post-partisan claim that somehow the Catholic or religious sphere is not subject to the same kind of descriptions of reality as “left” or “right” that are apparently perfectly appropriate for other spheres.  As Malone stated in his interview, he believes these terms do not accurately reflect a Catholic unity.  It seems to me that this is an attempt, whether culpable or not, to divorce Catholicism/religion from the sphere of public life, a backdoor way into the privatizing of religion.  Yet it has been the contribution of our age to recognize the false dichotomy between religion and politics, between theology and the everyday.  One’s theological and religious views have real world implications, just ask right-wing Christians (or in Andrew Sullivan’s apt phrase, “Christianists”) who opposes any environmental regulations because of their belief in the apocalypse and a high Christology that tends to de-emphasize Jesus’ humanity and thus his kinship with us and the created world.

Proclaiming Catholic unity does not make it so, and indeed simply hides the differences under a false congeniality.  Attempting to deny the larger frameworks within which we evaluate, discern, critique, dialogue, reason, etc., is never a good idea.  The Church and its members are located within the larger frameworks that make up our social, political, and economic life, and in this way are subject to the values therein.  Likewise, the Church’s values are part of this matrix of competing visions of the good and the true.  Acknowledging the reality of our shared if fragile and conflicted framework, the postmodern horizon within which multiple visions of the good life mix together, is to perform the essential Christian task of reading the signs of the times.  It is to be lovingly attentive to the overall direction of the current of humanity and to seek to guide this current along a Gospel path, even while recognizing that this will never be done perfectly by us (in other words, God is the primary cause of the Kingdom).

In this sense, it is not conflict that is to be feared and it is not labeling such conflict that is the problem.  Jesus himself moved toward conflict, even variously labeling those he disagreed with as hypocrites, white-washed sepulchers, snakes, foxes, etc.  What he did not do, however, was allow those labels to be confused with the nature of those human beings, i.e., he did not allow the expressions of reality to mean that such reality cannot change and become, to mean that those he was calling out could not turn in a different direction.  In fact, he was constantly asking for repentance, and lovingly willing to attend to any and all with ears to hear and eyes to see.  Likewise, he did not seek to resolve and redeem conflict through violence or degradation.  While his speech may at times have been strong, in the end he was willing to give his life for both those who proclaimed to be his followers and those who proclaimed to be his enemies.

We do not love our enemies by pretending difference is not there.  We love our enemies by engaging in dialogue, in the slow painstaking task of articulating our different visions of the good and the true, and in attempting to convince one another, without violent coercion, of the credibility and authenticity of our vision.  In this sense I share with the post-partisans sadness at the denigration of the language by which we address one another as well as the use of language to pursue and maintain conflict with no intention of real dialogue.  Unlike the post-partisans, however, I do not think the solution is to hide from the conflict, but rather to embrace it in the Christian hope of its redemption.  We cannot rid ourselves of evaluative language, and shifting or trying to hide from it will only repress real structural differences, most likely to the advantage of the already privileged.  Belief in justice and human dignity requires us to evaluate, discern, and label some things as closer to the latter than others, so let us get on with developing non-violent and effective means of communication rather than trying to present all competing views as if they were equally good and true.conflict