Monday, October 5, 2009

A Reader Responds: Real Center Is on the Margins

Colleen Kochivar-Baker of Enlightened Catholicism recently left an outstanding response to my Friday posting “Reforming the Catholic Church from Margins to Center: A Response to Michael Sean Winters.” I want to lift Colleen’s comments from the discussion thread to a posting, so that readers can take full advantage of her insights.

Colleen says,

I guess I have a different take on this 'center' thing. It seems to me that the center is where one chooses to see the center. The real 'center', at least in terms of numbers of people, is on the margins. This is why it is so important for those of us who inhabit the margins to get beyond ourselves and recognize our commonality.
The sixties were a powerful statement of solidarity on many issues precisely because those on the margins believed passionately that they were the true center and the true voice of common human interests.
I'm not much interested in any longer in arguing with the right. One can't argue effectively from two distinctly different world views and spiritual formations. I am only interested in claiming the center for the progressive voice of love, compassion, and unity in diversity.
The Michael Sean Winters of the world only hold the center voice because we of the left have let them as we've passively bowed to the notions of power and authority employed by the right.
Real power exists in the sensus fidelium, that huge group of religious and laity who have effectively been cast to the margins. I think the real focus is not to form a new center of power but to look outward from our place on the margin, seeing that as the center. From that view the issue is to reach even further outward in order to create an even bigger circle. This is where the hope for the future of humanity and this planet resides.

The real 'center', at least in terms of numbers of people, is on the margins: I agree. That was the point, in fact, of my observation that centrists will have a hard sell defining authentic Catholic identity as fidelity to Humane Vitae, when the vast majority of the faithful in Western nations long ago rejected this encyclical.

The rejection of Humanae Vitae is, in my view, what I called a theological datum in the posting, a sociological phenomenon with significant theological implications that theologians (and the church’s magisterium) ignore at their peril. The widesepread rejection of Humanae Vitae’s teaching about artificial contraception—and, increasingly about magisterial sexual teachings in general, insofar as they are grounded in a biologistic understanding of natural law—is a theological reality. It is dishonest and self-defeating for Catholics of the right and center to rule this reality out of theological conversations.

The rejection of Humanae Vitae and of the biologistic foundations of magisterial sexual ethics is not fueled, as reactionary Catholics and many of their centrist allies like to propose, by self-indulgence or the collapse of Catholic ethics to culture. It’s fueled, instead, by an alternative reading of scripture and tradition among the faithful, which rejects the notion that the best way to measure and talk about sexual morality is by looking at the purported biological intent of human sexuality.

Lay Catholics have made a turn in their thinking about sexual morality based on their own lived experience of their faith, which draws on aspects of scripture and tradition that illuminate that experience in ways the magisterial teaching fails to illuminate it. For an increasing number of the Catholic laity in the developed areas of the world, the most significant question to ask about the sexual life is not whether isolated sexual acts fulfill the “natural” objective of sexuality.

The most significant question many Catholics want to ask about the sexual life today is about the quality of the relationship that sexual expression serves. Is this relationship, with its expression of physical intimacy, growing in generosity, in openness to others, in the ability to give more to others? Does it build, enhance, develop the persons involved in the relationship?

Increasingly, the lived experience of the faith of many Catholics convinces them that the reductionistic natural-law understanding of human sexuality misses the point: it looks at human relationships, and the sexual component of some human relationships, as if human beings are nothing more than mindless animals involved in the biological process of reproduction. It fails to touch on the relational aspect of human sexuality that, in the experience of most lay Catholics, is far more important, as we assess the morality of sexuality, than the biological reproductive aspect. And it overlooks the scriptural imperative to live our vocational lives in the world according to an ethic of stewardship that seeks to preserve and use wisely the gifts of the natural world placed in our hands.

I agree wholeheartedly with Colleen that the real “center” is on the margins—and that the most effective way in which the many of us who stand closer to the margins than the center will have our voices heard is through solidarity. The primary task of those who experience marginalization and are struggling to overcome that marginalization for themselves and for others is to build bridges of solidarity that span boundary lines separating marginalized groups.

The particularity of the marginalized differs from group to group. But the experience of marginalization is the same, and it is there that all marginalized groups can, if they will, find solidarity. Along these lines—and as an illustration of how marginalized groups can find solidarity even when the center seeks to play them against each other—I found it heartening to read in the Denver Post yesterday that a Latino social action group in Denver has just refused to meet at a Catholic facility in Denver, after the Denver archdiocese told them they had to shun its gay and lesbian supporters as a prerequisite for meeting on Catholic grounds.

The Latino group is, interestingly enough, El Centro Humanitario. It has long collaborated with the Denver archdiocese in shared ministries to working families. But when the archdiocese discovered that a luncheon El Centro was to sponsor last Friday at the diocese’s Hispanic ministry building was sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Fund among other donors, the archdiocese gave El Centro an ultimatum: repudiate the gay sponsorship and exclude the gays or move.

El Centro chose to move. Its director Minsun Ji stated, “We're not going to participate in singling out and discriminating against our gay and lesbian allies. It's a pretty simple matter of principle.”

And that’s, in my view, a brilliant statement of the challenge and the opportunity that lies before us, before those of us on the margins who have the potential to shift the center, if we make common cause around our shared experience of marginalization. (And as I say that, I wonder how many banquets the Denver archdiocese has shut down because they contained donations from, say, militarists, racists, or powerful economic groups that violate Catholic moral teaching by exploiting the poor.)

The one area where I would want to talk further with Colleen, I think, is about our response to the right. I agree wholeheartedly that ongoing argument with those on the right is futile, when the starting principles from which neoconservatives and progressive work are seriously at odds with each other.

But I would definitely urge continued ongoing scrutiny of the right—and continued pushing back against the right—by progressives. I agree with Chip Berlet’s analysis of these issues in his review of Max Blumenthal’s book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party (Nation Books, 2009) at Religion Dispatches today.

Berlet notes that discourse about the relationship between the center, the right, and the left has been heavily influenced by Michael Paul Rogin’s 1967 work The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter. Rogin applied a psychoanalytic paradigm to the discussion, arguing that the right and left are both dominated by an unbalanced extremism unpalatable to the “psychologically fit” center.

But as Berlet notes, both careful analysis of how the left and the right function in political debates and more rigorous scholarly analysis of this concept challenge the notion that either the left or the right exhibits signs of unbalanced extremism. Rather, the political movements that coalesce around these poles coalesce around strategic responses to particular issues of their time frame.

And it’s crucial to analyze and understand those strategic responses, even when we do not share the political assumptions of those formulating the responses at the political pole opposite to the one that attracts us. It is, Chip Berlet proposes, dangerous to dismiss the politics and positions of the religious right as manifestations of a psychologically aberrant extremism.

It’s imperative, instead, that any of us who recognize some of the political positions and strategies of the right as dangerous for our political future understand and engage those positions and strategies. Berlet concludes,

The death of the Christian Right has been greatly exaggerated. By the end of Republican Gomorrah, it is clear the leadership of the Christian Right is composed of many highly motivated and skillful people. Disagree with them as you wish, denounce them if you must, but dismiss them at your own risk.

I think he’s correct. And because I think that those who claim the center—though they may well not represent anywhere near the viewpoints of many of those shoved to the margins—also track to the right, and will continue to do so as long as the right has powerful ability to dismantle progressive programs and thwart the solidarity of those on the margins, I think our eye has to remain on the center, as well.