By Paula Ruddy
Recently, several people have declined an invitation by The Progressive Catholic Voice for opinions about our project or for contributions to it because they did not want to be "branded" or "labeled" as progressives. For instance, we asked an educator who had written a thoughtful article about the relativity of truth claims for permission to reprint it. He told us he did not want to be branded as a progressive because his educational institution has a strong faction of both progressives and conservatives. The administration wants to side with neither in an attempt to advocate for "civil discourse." That statement set me to wondering about neutrality, polarized factions, and civil discourse.
In his book Call To Liberty: Bridging the Divide Between Liberal and Conservative, Anthony Signorelli, a Stillwater thinker and businessman, describes the roles of the progressive, moderate, and conservative energies in the political arena. All three modalities are directed toward creating a well-functioning society in which people can create a good life for themselves.
Signorelli describes progressive energy as hope-filled, directed to the future and the improvement of current systems. Moderate energy is directed toward the present and how problems can be solved through compromise and consensus. Conservative energy is directed to preserving values and systems that have worked in the past. In different situations an individual may take any one of those roles, but we generally have a dominant focus to our energy. We are looking to the future and change, looking to the past and stability, or grappling with the present to hold the community together. Signorelli argues that each modality has strengths and weaknesses and all modalities are needed in the project of sustaining a liberal democratic republic.
Can we think of those energies also at work in religious institutions? In its history, the Catholic Church has evolved slowly through centuries under the leadership of progressive, moderate, and conservative people in dialogue with one another. Yet what about the present church?
John Allen, in the August 31 issue of National Catholic Reporter, writes that liberal Catholicism predominated from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to the mid 80's. Since then there has been a conservative reversal. Allen says that following Vatican II, liberals wanted the relationship between church and culture to be "a two way street," with adjustment of church teachings and structures in the light of contemporary science and thought. This collaboration with the world can look to conservatives like losing a Catholic identity. Their response is to hold the line with a "bold proclamation of timeless truths." Can't we together acknowledge that healthy, living identities evolve emerging from the past, carrying what is true, good and beautiful into the future? We need all three modalities to do this.
Where does this polarization, the fear of being "branded" either progressive or conservative come from? The problem may be that instead of thinking of those words as naming honorable modalities or energies, as Signorelli suggests, we may be using them to name closed positions on issues. In the political sphere, if I call myself progressive I may be branded as being for abortion, for stem cell research, for high taxes and for amnesty for undocumented immigrants. In the moral and religious sphere, if I call myself progressive I may be branded as being for the state's requiring churches to marry gays, for taking the solemnity and uniformity out of liturgy, and the total collapse of institutional religion as we know it. Conversely, if I have reservations about any of those "progressive" positions, I might be branded as conservative. If I am branded as closed minded either way, I lose credibility as a thinking person.
No thinking person wants to be scripted. Thinking people hold their minds open to new information and new arguments. They hold conclusions provisionally, pending better information. They insist that the deliberative process work itself out with all voices heard before making decisions that affect the lives of others. They value all experiences in the process of moral reasoning. They accept that reasonable people may differ. Thinking people are to be found in all three modalities, progressive, moderate, and conservative, as are unthinking closed-minded people.
The solution to the problem of polarization is, first, for each of us to try our best to be thinking people. Second, instead of using the words "progressive" and "conservative" to name positions on issues, we can use them to name ourselves according to the imaginative drive we bring to thinking about particular questions. Is our gift to create the future, to preserve the past, or to create resolution in the present? Third, after identifying our own contribution, we genuinely have to value and depend upon the contribution of the other.
If the aforementioned cautious, neutral educator led the way by declaring himself a progressive, while all the while keeping an open mind and valuing the conservatives' contributions, he could model civil discourse for the progressive faction. He could move the institution forward without losing the values of the past. Instead of being a leader, he has settled for being a neutral referee out of fear of being branded.
It is our hope that as part of The Progressive Catholic Voice, we can promote conversation among thinking Catholics of all modalities in the Archdiocese. We begin by identifying ourselves as people with progressive energy, a vision of a future church. We invite moderates to join the conversation, people who see how the present teachings and structures have to be negotiated into the future. We invite conservatives, people who love the time-honored, life-sustaining teachings and structures of the past to show us the value of what we might otherwise destroy. All of us have to defy conventional wisdom that cautions us to hide behind neutrality for fear of being branded.
Paula Ruddy is a founding member of The Progressive Catholic Voice.