In the Catholic universe, the claim that there is something inherently superior about taking the “middle position” is being made with increasing frequency. Those who advocate the supremacy of the middle position argue that, instead of picking sides, the rising generation of theologians should seek to chart a middle course, avoiding the irresponsible divisiveness of the post-Vatican II generation. Anyone who picks a side (and using the words ‘patriarchy,’ ‘racism,’ etc is usually considered to be picking a side) is being divisive and unhelpful and is actually damaging the church. Similarly, the “middle position” is often claimed to be the most objective (both in the sense of actually true and disinterested) and therefore the most mature.

The middle position is also given epistemological privilege: picking the middle position in any of the debates currently raging in the church is the surest way to truth, they claim. (So, if you think that women ought to not to be priests because women are inferior to men, that is extreme and therefore bad, but if you also think that the church’s teaching on women’s ordination is at least partially motivated by sexism, then you are depicted as saying something just as ‘extreme’ and therefore bad as those who claim that women are inferior to men).

Not surprisingly, claims about the supremacy of the middle position often function as rhetorical trump cards or as a type of rhetorical check-mate. Now, this is not necessarily wrong, of course; all of us are in the persuasion business and the persuasion business necessarily involves power. The problem here is that the theory of the middle way denies that its adherents are situated in the struggle for truth and instead conceives of them as being outside of this struggle, positioning them as referees rather than players.

I have a few thoughts on this:
1. Who gets to decide what ‘the middle’ is? White, North American members of the theological academy should be especially wary of thinking ourselves positioned to determine what the statistical middle is on any particular issue in the church. Statistically, we are the “extreme” minority.

2. We should accept the fact that seeking to define the middle and then claiming that you occupy it is both a power play and a way to identity yourself as normative. In claiming that you and your position are the healing middle, you betray a belief that you are the defining center of the universe. This, to me, seems eerily reminiscent of the modernist and typically white Euro-American and male tendency to assume both the universality of your particularity as well as to assume that all other human beings ought to be measured according to you.

3. A quick look at virtue theory can help us see that we seem to have confused two senses of the word “moderation” and/or “mean.” In thomistic virtue theory, the “mean” is not “the middle.” The mean is whatever is reasonable in a given situation. While the mean is a type of middle between two extremes, this is not necessarily a geographic middle between two points (the selecting of which is, as mentioned above, more or less a function of one’s belief that he or she is the defining center of the universe), but again, is what is reasonable and appropriate. For example, if I become extremely angry upon finding out that someone has drank the last of the orange juice, clearly, my anger is inappropriate to the situation; I am too angry. On the other hand, if someone pushes an old woman down on the ground into a puddle of mud as sport, and I feel no anger, my anger is also inappropriate to the situation; I am not angry enough. In virtue theory, the mean, then, is not “an average amount of anger in every situation,” meaning that it is always wrong to feel ‘lots’ of anger and always right to feel a ‘medium’ amount of anger but quite simply that one should feel however much anger is reasonable given the circumstances.

In assuming that we ought to always take up the middle position in theological debates, we seem to confuse these two related, but ultimately distinct senses of the words moderation and middle.

In conclusion, we shouldn’t give much credence to the argument that there is something inherently good or right about taking the middle position on any particular issue. That in practice this argument also seems most frequently to involve telling those denouncing sexism and racism that they have gone “too far” in their critiques would also seem to indicate that the theory of the supremacy of the middle functions as a way to uphold the normativity of a relatively conservative status quo. For this reason, it turns out to be not so “moderate” after all.

Accusations of extremity are also problematic because they rely not so much on data or argument but simply on the supposedly privileged status of “the middle.” My point is: if you disagree with a given theologian’s claims about the way the sins of racism and sexism function in the contemporary world, step out of that referee’s uniform you have bought for yourself and come play the game with us.

Like Thomas Aquinas, let us recognize that the mean is not whatever is most milquetoast or in the middle or average, but whatever is appropriate in response to a given set of circumstances. How can we as Christians respond to a world marred by sin unless we first identity and analyze sin? How can we bring sin to light unless we call it by name? If we assume the supremacy of the middle way before we have even let ourselves look at sin in all of its awfulness, how can we have any chance of mounting an adequate response to it?

23 thoughts

  1. I love this post! I couldn’t agree more. The bit about it being conservative insofar as it tends to preserve the status quo is spot-on.

  2. Katie,
    Excellent post!

    I agree and one thing that bothers me about holding up the “middle” as “moderate” and virtuous just because it is moderate is that it leaves no real room for evaluating the so-called extremes. Not all “extreme” positions are created equal. Where is the room for the principled position? The “extreme” that is a rational, faithful judgment of conscience and which one cannot deny and maintain integrity? Put another way, where is the room for the prophetic voice? It is interesting, to me, that for Aquinas, Charity is the paradigmatic virtue and it has no middle. There is no excess of charity.

    The other aspect I find troubling – particularly when it pertains to the confluence of politics and Christian theology – where is it that the “middle” or “moderate” position is the virtuous or morally good position in politics? Christian discipleship is a radical committment. No one would call St Francis a moderate. NOr St Vincent de Paul, Mother Teresa, etc.

    I have been thinking about these conversations and claims a lot lately…and yours and Bridget’s posts have helped me to shape and hone in on ideas I’ve been struggling to express (so thank you for that!!).

    I am interested in broad, honest conversation about theological positions and differences within the Church. I want to have those conversations seriously and intelligently without resort by anyone to calling someone a heretic or bad catholic. Let’s have debates about our theological positions – without making assumptions on all sides (and I agree with you that those in the middle are just as much in danger of these charicaturing assumptions as those on the extremes) It happens anytime we assume we know what someone’s position and argument is without engaging their actual position. As a Catholic moral theologian, I want the merits of my actual theological positions and arguments to be evaluated – not my perceived position on someone’s spectrum, my sex, my age, my clerical/lay status, or my academic lineage.

    1. Thanks for this, Meghan. I especially like what you say about St. Francis, St. Vincent de Paul and many other saints. 🙂

  3. Katie,
    Thanks so much for this. I hope to write a longer reflection on this soon. What strikes me as really important here is the virtue of humility. Humility helps us to see not only our reality as sin, but also our social position and ideological location- it helps us to see the mess that we are in AND (and this is the Catholic in me) the grace that is around all that mess.

    Watch out for a Murray Circle event on this in October… 🙂 Thanks again for this great blog.

  4. I really appreciate this post, particularly how you named the game around asserting ones reality as normative. I think once that lie gets broken up, then honest dialogue can start, and not a second before. And honest humble respectful dialogue between different world views is really needed in the Catholic ballgame.

    I do want to challenge your articulated challenge that people should get out of referee mode and join the game, though. I come from a lowly social location and nobody that I know or grew up with or am related to had the life and opportunities to even go looking for the access to the intellectual formation required to understand theological conversation (in it’s academic form, at least.)
    So, it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re speaking to a very small and refined elite group who can even have a shot at understanding the paragraphs preceding said challenge!

    I know this is tangential, but something to think about. When I teach (especially an RCIA class, lecture, or bible study), the simple and more innocent questions are often the best ones. Especially for exposing racism, sexism, classism, etc. in the church: “Uhh, this church that theoretically affirms the fundamental dignity and preciousness of every human being sees half of the population as incapable of priesthood? That doesn’t make sense.”

  5. Katie,

    As others have already said, this is a really super post. (As you know, it intersects with my own work on privileging the epistemological position of the poor, so I couldn’t agree more.) What’s strange to me about those who take the “middle position” is, as you point out, their assumption that such a choice is self-justifying, without much need for substantive moral argument or a critical examination of method, theological anthropology, social position (broadly defined), etc. Regarding a particular case, it may indeed be that a “middle position” is the must prudential route to take, but we simply can’t know this in advance. It may indeed be that a “radical” position is more prudent (as you point out). Neither can we know the content of a “middle position” in advance through some sort of intuitionism, as if it were obvious that blocking women’s ordination (for example) is the “middle” position. This is all to say that I think you’re right that the real function of all this “middle position” talk seems to be rhetorical–a type of ethical shorthand that saves you all the time and effort required by critical thought.

    It seems to me that taking the “middle position” is becoming so trendy because of an interest in helping the political “middle” to hold in the church, in order that things don’t fall apart and/or result in schism. Those who are interested in this goal, defined in these terms, tend to assume that the church itself is self-justifying in its present form. This is obviously not true, inasmuch as it still tends to act in the interest of white American and European men. But even if it worked in a less biased fashion, it still is ideally directed to something beyond itself (the Kingdom of God); therefore its continued existence in its current form is never an end in itself. In a sense, the church only deserves to exist in its current form to the extent that it promotes justice and charity, defined as liberation from the anti-kingdom (to use Sobrino’s terminology).


  6. Thanks so much for this insightful post. Katie’s reflections and many comments, especially Megan’s strike important chords that next month’s series, “More Than A Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church ,” also aims to advance. The first conference is at Fordham on Sept 16. I’ll paste in the evite for those who might be interested. And thanks again for this great blog!

  7. Katie,

    This is a great post and a great thread because they clarify an intersection between liberation theology with regard to its epistemological privileging of the poor and Aquinas’s virtue theory with regard to the definition of moderation.

    I noticed that one of the challenges when I taught Christian ethics last semester was to help the students see that one can take a clear stance on a given social issue (in this case related to immigration) that accounted for the suffering of the marginalized. Unfortunately, some remained unmoved because they believed that the role of Christian faith is to find and sustain the middle position to keep the peace, even if it comes at the cost of continued purposeful suffering imposed on the poor (unsurprisingly, a few still think that suffering glorifies by itself so it is not a bad thing).

    Un abrazo,


    1. Thanks, Victor. I really like what you say here. You remind us of the way in which “peace” so often comes at the expense of the poor and marginalized.

  8. Great thoughts on this and you’ve clearly spurred a lot of thinking on the topic. I think that your thought #1 is probably one of the most important. As much as the European/North American church wants to still claim centrality, the middle (if we even accept that as what we’re looking for) is almost certainly not going to be found there. The priorities of Americans and Europeans for the Catholic Church (or Christianity in general even) are certainly not the priorities found in other parts of the world and as these other parts are a growing majority, it’s necessary to recognize their needs and perhaps put aside our priorities and debates in order to do so.

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