Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Rhetoric of Prophecy

Prof. Kaveny has been clarifying her disagreements with the politically pro-life wing of American Catholicism over at the Mirror of Justice blog. She characterizes the "culture of life" vs. the "culture of death" rhetoric of Evangelium Vitae as "moral chemotherapy," the equivalent of trying to kill a fly with an RPG. And she makes a good point. American Manichaeanism does tend to ravage and neutralize the brain whenever it faces any dualism. But isn't it silly to place blame on the rhetoric itself? And just as chemotherapy is sometimes necessary, isn't there a logical flaw in judging a procedure solely in terms of its destructive but unintended effects? In fact, that to me, seems to be a classic liberal error.

Liberal thinking has always appeared to be marked by a largely self-induced fragility of ego, hence the chronic inability to distinguish sin from the sinner, both in oneself and in others. So when the life vs death rhetoric gets thrown at liberals, their unarmored egos get easily bruised and scatched. But as a political pro-lifer (political in the sense that I believe that pro-life ethics requires political and legal solutions as much as cultural and socioeconomic solutions), I have never thought of "Kerry Catholics" or the more moderate "Roche Catholics" as permanent members of the "Culture of Death;" if anything, their membership depends on their shifting beliefs and practices. I think Kaveny would have a hard time trying to find explicit language that is any more judgmental of their persons than that.

"Liberal" casuistry may in fact feed what we call the Culture of Death (and it is in the end figurative) and on that count, be foolish, non-sensical, and worthy of a swift smack upside the head. The brutality of pro-life criticism is, more often than not, a proportionate reaction to the way a certain erroneous worldview can wreak such grave havoc upon the rational faculties of otherwise highly intelligent and well-intentioned Catholics.

For Prof. Kaveny to neatly stuff all this into a "prophetic rhetoric is bad" sack is in itself harmful because it threatens to stuff the entire prophetic tradition of the Old Testament along with. The targets of the Nebi'im were always deeply offended by the proclamation of truth. Isn't it in MLK's Letter from a Birmingham Jail where King addresses the offense taken by so many respected clergymen regarding the prophetic rhetoric of the civil rights movement? The key distinction between the prophetic tradition and a puritanical moralistic tradition is that the prophets held themselves to be under the same hand of judgment as their target audience. The political pro-lifer sees herself as subject to the judgment of God in an issue that is quite literally about life and death (cf. Moses' speech on that). As the Prophets did not have the time or luxury to mince words or employ "practical reason" on a trans-pratical matter, I would want to avoid taking too much offense at anything at the very least for fear of finding myself on their bad side.