Catholics Labeling Catholics

There’s been some discussion in the Catholic blogosphere about America magazine’s recent commitments aimed at Pursuing the Truth in Love:

1. Church. The church in the United States must overcome the problem of factionalism. This begins by re-examining our language. America will no longer use the terms “liberal,” “conservative” or “moderate” when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context.

2. Charity. How we say things is as important as what we say. America seeks to provide a model for a public discourse that is intelligent and charitable. In the next few months, America will announce a new set of policies for the public commentary on our various platforms.

3. Community. America will appoint a community editor who will moderate our public conversation, ensuring that it rises to the standards we set for thoughtfulness and charity. We will continue to provide a forum for a diverse range of faithful, Catholic voices.

It’s the first of these that seems to be stirring up the most controversy. Personally, my reaction on reading the decision to avoid labeling Catholics as liberal, moderate, or conservative was to breathe a sigh of relief and appreciation.

Thus, I disagree with the views expressed in Post-Partisan? The Importance of Language and Labels over at Daily Theology. I don’t think this is an attempt to paper over real differences. I don’t deny, or want to deny, that differences exist. I think our discussions will potentially be enhanced and more nuanced when we take the time to describe a particular position with which we are engaging, instead of invoking a label that carries a deluxe matched set of emotional baggage.

I do think the left/right terminology does not mean the same thing when applied to Catholic positions as when applied to secular politics, so both the label “post-partisan” and the concern that this move will diminish the visibility of intersectionality in our discussions strike me as inapt: I think discussions of intersectionality will benefit when we aren’t trying to use the same word to describe a political position and a religious, theological, or ecclesiastical position.

Too often, intra-Catholic disagreement is disagreeable, even hateful, rather than loving. Refraining from the labels won’t make that stop happening, but labels make it extremely easy to “other,” dismiss, and exclude the other person as “not a real Catholic” — no matter the speaker’s definition of “real Catholic.” I’ve seen it in comment threads, and experienced the temptation in my own heart. I’ve seen Catholics of all sorts scandalized by each other

I support America‘s new policy because I believe these labels have become an occasion of sin in Catholic discourse. And we all know what we’re supposed to do about those. [1]

I’m actually more concerned about item 2 on the list. I devoutly hope that America will learn from the experience of feminist and other social justice spaces on the net, and stay away from harmful “real name” policies.

In any case, I applaud America for its renewed commitment to pursue the truth in love, and pray for the flourishing of its ministry.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

[1] “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, and avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.” — from the Act of Contrition, part of the sacrament of reconciliation (aka confession.)

UPDATED to add some quotes and a pointer to a detailed response to the Daily Theology post over at Catholic Moral Theology. I think they’ve got some moral authority on this issue, because their About page states:

We recognize that we as a group will have disagreements, but want to avoid the standard “liberal /conservative” divide that often characterizes contemporary conversation, as well as the bitterly divisive tone of so much ethical discussion (particularly on the internet). We therefore endeavor to converse with each other and others in a spirit of respect, charity, and humility.

Here are my favorite bits:

…often the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are used not so much to describe ideologies, but positions in a chronological narrative, where “liberal” connotes the forward-looking embrace of change and “conservative” the backward-looking cherishing of traditional ideals. . . . Also, since these terms are embedded in narratives of either progress or decline, their usage is inherently polemical (“backwards conservatives” or “dissenting liberals”) and therefore not very helpful for the sort of civil discourse that both Malone and Rothrock believe is needed within the Catholic Church.


Malone is right to abandon the terms “liberal” and “conservative” precisely because they are pre-critical; they provide us a short-hand, stereotyped view of social reality.

But do go read the whole thing.

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1 Response to Catholics Labeling Catholics

  1. Pingback: Brad Rothrock on Practice, Power, and Neutrality | Gaudete Theology

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