On “Rusty” Labels

To the extent I’m able, I try to be a conscientious objector in the culture wars. I’m an academic (read: liberal) by training but a scholar of nationalism and religion (fundamentally conservative institutions), so I find no home in any cultural “camp.”

I say this not to put myself above the fray but to point out how useless culture war categories often are.

Take, for example, the carpet bombing of scare quotes in this post at First Things by my old professor Rusty Reno. Ignore for the time being the line-drawing title – “Our Homophobic Pope” – and note the political language in which a fairly small disagreement is cast. Reno characterizes the “liberal” desire for “the Great Capitulation” in which an otherwise “anti-modern” Catholic Church becomes “progressive” with regards to “sexual liberation” instead of “reactionary.”  He says “it’s good to remind ourselves of how frustrated progressives are…” when parsing various proclamations by Pope Francis on issues of sex and family.

Ostensibly, Reno’s replying to this post by Jamie Manson on the institutional effects of Francis’s language with regard to marriage. Manson advocates rethinking complementarity as the bedrock of Catholic thought on the sacrament of marriage. Reno’s reply is snarky and smarmy in equal measure:

Against this “reactionary” intransigence, Manson calls for church leaders to “evolve.” Don’t the bishops know that forward-thinking people don’t think in terms of “men” and “women” anymore? When is the Pope going to get over his reactionary mentality and ascend to the bright uplands of progressive thought?

My issue here is not with the debate over gay marriage within the Church. My views on that subject don’t align neatly with Manson or Reno. Nor is my issue strictly one of Reno’s tone. My issue is the framing in terms of us and them, wins and losses, comforting and discomforting. “I find it reassuring to know that Jamie Manson finds Pope Francis frustratingly reactionary,” is a pretty self-serving way to contribute to a worthwhile debate on the place of marriage in the lives of non-hetero Catholics. Note the preponderance of first-person pronouns throughout the post. Reno’s only interested in our, we, us, I, my, and so on.

Of course, that’s because certain Catholics view Francis as a champion of their idealized version of the Church. Others, Reno among them I’m sure, hope to find in Francis’s words some space for their idealized version of the Church. Each “side” takes solace when the other appears to “lose.” Pope Francis is ours. I won the debate. And so on. This whole framing is repugnant. Not because it divides the Church (nothing as large and diverse as global Catholicism is ever “whole” to begin with), but because it can only conceive God and the papacy in such dialectical, political terms. There’s literally zero concession that those with whom we disagree may have insight we don’t have. They actively discourage consideration of truths we don’t already hold.

More importantly, there’s no recognition that the salient cleavages – both within the Church and in American culture writ large – no longer divide “liberal” and “conservative.” These are outmoded, old-fashioned labels replaced by self-conceptions and idealizations much more deeply rooted than these 20th century political identities. But Reno and others need to hang on to this old framing.

We’re all trying to drink from the same well here, but some want to use rusty buckets to draw up the water. That won’t hold.

“Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can,” Flannery writes. You can’t do that with labels and scare-quotes

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