12 October 2013

On the dangers of using secular partisan labels in the Church

Fr. Mark Massa, S.J. was the speaker last night at NDS' annual Msgr. Tekippe Theological Forum.

His lecture was titled, "A Pox on Both Your Houses: Moving Beyond Conservative and Liberal Labels in the Church." 

Fr. Massa argued that the use of secular political labels to describe ideological parties within the Church is not only historically and theologically inaccurate, it's destructive as well.

He pointed out that using labels like "progressive," "traditionalist," etc. to denote one's posture toward change in the Church suggests that change is somehow an option for us, something that we can legislate or avoid.  He surveyed the use of partisan labels in our history, noting that only in our very recent history have we adopted secular labels to denote ideological differences.

Part of the reason for this adoption of secular partisan labels has to do with the introduction and development of historical consciousness in late 19th and early 20th century theology (esp in Biblical scholarship).  Though historical consciousness helped the Church to better understand how our faith has responded over time to various cultural-political challenges, its introduction into ecclesial life wasn't pretty. The modernist crisis in the European Church after the French Revolution was largely the result of the historical consciousness of change crashing into an institution unprepared for its challenge. 

Our current ecclesial polarization results from the Church "putting off" dealing with the inevitability of change. VC2 gives us the tools for recognizing and managing ecclesial change; however, because we put off dealing with the inevitability of change for so long, what could have been a renewal post VC2 became a revolution instead.

Generally, I agree with Fr. Massa's view. It seems to me that change is inevitable and that a historical consciousness of how we respond to various challenges both inside and outside the Church is here to stay. 

Two points:

1). Though he didn't argue the point directly, it would seem reasonable to suggest that using secular partisan labels also places our anxieties about immediate change at the center of the Gospel rather than seeing these worries as peripheral to Christ's charge to go out and preach. In other words, as a Church, we risk damaging the Gospel message in this century by failing to think in centuries as the Church always has.  The use of secular partisan labels stunts our ability to think in centuries.

2). Whereas historical consciousness is primarily a way of describing changes in the Church, it came to serve as an argument for prescribing particular changes.  In other words, that the Church changes to meet various secular challenges has become an argument that the Church ought to change to meet various secular demands. This strikes me as a non sequitur. So, I wonder if those in the Church who advocate for particular changes using historical consciousness as their warrant recognize this is/ought fallacy as a fallacy?
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  1. "...using secular partisan labels also places our anxieties about immediate change at the center of the Gospel rather than seeing these worries as peripheral to Christ's charge to go out and preach."

    It also, I think, inclines us toward alliances and allegiances outside the Church. If I call myself a political conservative and a religious conservative, then I may start finding my religious arguments, goals, and perspectives affected (if not determined) by my politics; it all becomes undifferentiated conservatism. It facilitates, at the very least, the monstrous arguments we've heard from Democrats for Obama and the risible pro-war claims made a decade ago.

  2. LudiDomestici3:37 PM

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  3. It depends by what is meant by "change". Some things cannot change, some ought not to change. Change is not a value.

  4. I doubt many recognize the fallacy as a fallacy - but I can only speak to what I see here. I have heard that very argument, that since the Church "changed/changes" (not really liking that word) to meet certain situations or challenges that she Should change based on some other demand or pressure from society. I usually just do the "dog doesn't understand head tilt" while looking at them quizzically :-).

    As far as labels go, I bristle when I hear people describe me and my slant in the faith formation group as very conservative - to which I respond, with a smile, that I am simply orthodox, simply Catholic - neither conservative nor liberal nor progressive or whateverotherlabel you want to name it. My personal Liturgical preference leans toward the traditional side, but that is merely a preference and has (or should have) nothing to do with my fidelity to the Church and her teachings/authority.

  5. Anonymous11:17 AM

    The Eastern Province Student Brothers had a very enlightening piece by Archbishop Di Noia in one of their Dominicana journals. (You can read it here: http://www.dominicanajournal.com/journal/dominicana-542-winter-2011/theological-method-and-the-magisterium-of-the-church-j-augustine-di-noia-o-p/)

    He talks about how the confrontation with modernity caused the Church to defend base-line doctrines and develop another level of doctrine covering how doctrine is defined. This seems to me to be very relevant to the issue of whether we call ourselves "conservative" or "liberal" and what that means; to the relationship of truth, authority, and change.