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?