Sunday, March 12, 2006

On centers and medians

Mark Sargent of Mirror of Justice blog asks where the political extremes fall in the Catholic Church, and in turn, where the center falls. To him, determining the center seems to be an exercise in perspectivalism:
Rick raises a good question about my post over at dotCommonweal re the dominance of the "extreme right" in Catholic discourse and in the general media, wondering whether I consider Father Neuhaus, George Weigel and others (Robbie George, for example) extreme. Whether one considers another "extreme," depends upon where one stands. More important, it depends upon where the "center" or the "core" is. Those of us who self-dentify as Commonweal Catholics tend to see ourselves as occupying a center position between more radical groups on the "left" (again, the term does not track entirely the political meaning of "left) such as Call to Action and writers such as Wills and Carroll, and the aforementioned writers on the right (same reservation re the political meaning of "right"), with whom we differ to varying degrees on a whole host of issues. Of course, as the recent exchange between Robbie and Mike P and Eduardo suggests, those writers regard themselves as speaking for the core of Catholicism, an assumption with which many of us would argue. Nevertheless, the secular press increasingly looks to that group as the voice of American Catholicism, which at least I regard as a problem.
Problem: Sargent seems to be relying on the ol' straight line metaphor of political affiliation where there are two opposing end points and not so much a center but, to be more geometrically precise, a median. The American way is to identify everything and everybody along a linear axis - a very dualistic way of looking at the world, which of couse, stems from a typically Protestant worldview. "Center" is indeed an apt metaphor for the Catholicism's "belief map," but within a sphere or circle metaphor. What Sargent calls "extremes" are more accurately "peripheries," for in Catholicism, there is a true center: the apostolic teaching of the ages, including past ecumenical councils and ongoing Magisterial guidance. Just so there's no confusion, the center I am referring to here is not an ontological or liturgical center, which could only be occupied by Christ, but rather an ideological or doctrinal center which must be occupied by apostolic teaching and authority.

So in my view, Commonweal is consistently "medianist" (rather than "centrist"), which allows them to be too easily pushed and pulled by the ideological winds of the day. All one has to do to move the median is move the end point. The GOP of the post-Gingrich era has used this strategy to great effect. And that's just too shaky a foundation for one's politics or doctrine. With no objective anchoring point of reference, Commonweal's "centrism" is another's liberalism and yet another's conservatism, which is why "moderate" and "centrism" are highly misleading terms for Catholics. Pope Benedict and JPII have demonstrated themselves to be the true "centrists" of our Church. Medianism may at times be in line with true centrism, but more often than not, it is simply screaming at the umpire from the upper bleachers.