Several of the respondents to R. R. Reno’s First Thoughts item “When Reality is Unspoofable,” which offered the program for last year’s meeting of the Catholic Theological Society, noted how often the theologians used—invoked might be the better term—the word “prophetic.” The item was published last June, but Reno is the sort of writer whose lightest jotting one wants to read and reread and if possible commit to memory. My saying this has nothing to do with his being the next editor. Nothing at all. It’s perfectly, completely, sincere.
Anyway: In my years as an Episcopal activist, I duly read all the “progressive” magazines and newsletters and press releases and sat through dozens of “progressive” sermons, lectures, press conferences, and literally weeks of General Convention meetings, covering the debates both of the house of bishops and the house of deputies (which included clerics and laymen both). I was surprised, after a while, to notice not only how often the progressives used the word “prophetic,” but how un-ironically they used it.
“Inclusive” language liturgy was Prophetic! and "gay marriage" was Prophetic! and support for illegal immigrants was Prophetic! and legalized abortion was prophetic and so was that and that and that! Nothing they said or did was non-prophetic. Nothing, or almost nothing, was just a good idea or the right thing to do or simply useful or helpful.
Everything was a Statement. Every action was a bold, courageous, radical, unconventional—that is to say, prophetic—witness to a world stuck doing things the same way and unable to escape its self-interest and moral blindness.
I exaggerate a little, but not much. The sustained, the unrelenting, earnestness amazed me. As did the sustained obliviousness to the effect of their unrelenting claims to be speaking prophetically. It did them no good, other than as a rallying cry to excite the troops.
For one thing, the term was used as a claim to special virtue, if not in oneself in one’s idea, which is the modern version of “I am glad that I am not like this tax collector.” To call everything you want to do “prophetic” is the equivalent of saying over and over, “O Lord, I thank you that I am not like this worldly conservative who disagrees with me: elitist, selfish, xenophobic, sexist, racist, homophobic, comfortable, blinkered, self-satisfied, self-interested, and probably Republican to boot.”
You will not be able to engage your opponent as effectively as you can if you think he’s a knave or a fool. You'll make a better argument if you think you really have to argue with him. You might even be his moral superior, but you'll gain more politically if you assume you're not. (Though in this case, the Episcopal progressives’ political power was so great they were going to win even if they did badly underestimate their opponents, but in general, it's a bad idea.)
For another, speaking that way defeats your own purposes. As one of the respondents to Reno’s item noted: “To paraphrase The Incredibles: Saying, ‘Everything is prophetic’ is another way of saying, ‘Nothing is prophetic’.” The claim to be speaking prophetically should draw people to your side or drive them to attack you, because both know that it means a stark and crucial choice, but when you invoke it all the time and for almost every issue, all you do is make everyone yawn.
This over-use of prophetic amazed me because I assumed someone would see that it did them no good. They would eventually see that everyone else reacted to their invocation of the word “prophetic” the way they reacted to a hypochondriac’s constant claims that he’s sick. The word would become background noise the mind blocks out because it has important things to think about. But the Episcopal progressives never saw this.
When the Catholic theologians use the word, it tells everyone else that they are visiting an intellectual ghetto, and one that looks a little old and tatty. It's a sign of the day before yesterday's ideas. You would not be surprised to find people in bell bottoms and hear The Doors playing on the stereo. On the other hand, John Paul II and Benedict rarely use the word, becaues they are, in fact, more up to date and relevant.
But this kind of attempt the win the debate by declaration is not only a progressive fault. At the same time the Episcopal progressives kept calling almost everything they wanted “prophetic,” the conservative wing insisted that almost everything they wanted was “biblical.” They used the word even more than the progressives used “prophetic,” and often with no more discrimination. Theirs was the biblical morality, the biblical worldview, the biblical practice.
I generally agreed with them, of course, and on some issues was more traditional or conservative—or even, I’d like to think, biblical—than the conservatives who spoke so constantly for the biblical side. I was guilty myself of using the word too often and too glibly. Using the word so often and so uncritically did the conservatives no good for the same reasons it did the progressives no good.
They did not, for example, have to think deeply enough about what "biblical" means and does not mean. Homosexuality they declared unbiblical, and offered the verses to prove it, but they did not then reflect on what in it was wrong, and in particular what was the place of procreation in marriage and what the physical complementarity of the sexes in marriage was for. Calling it "unbiblical" settled the matter.
This left them with a position that (as a Catholic) I'd suggest was not all that different from the position of the homosexualists they opposed. Marriage does not have to be fruitful. It can be sterile. It is constituted in some way by the feelings and desires of the partners, by their love for and commitment to each other. The homosexualists objected, quite reasonably, that if this was so, their desired form of relationship ought to be accepted as well, the nature of the organs used being at most secondary to some deeper essence of marriage.
Some conservative theologians did, to be fair, write carefully and deeply on the matter. But even they never pressed the question that far, to the point of questioning the conservative movement's belief in contraception, and this meant that their case was mainly a negative case against homosexuality and not a positive case in favor of marriage. In any case, the conservatives' public and effective rhetoric depended upon this quick and easy invocation of "biblical" to declare victory in the argument.
This is something, as I say, I did myself. It is very easy to do. It is very easy to do when caught up in ecclesiastical politics, but nearly as easy to do when you on your own and feeling the need to feel superior to someone else. As, I admit, when reading the program for a theological conference and imagining all the white-haired, comfortably tenured theologians being so boldly prophetic, just before going to the expense account dinner in the nice restaurant.
Too many of us substitute being right for being good. Holiness is hard, ideology easy. A small step toward holiness, or at least away from speaking as an ideologue, can be made by avoiding our school or party or movement's pet words. That can force us to try to make an argument, and that effort can lead us closer to truths we would not see otherwise.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. R.R. Reno’s "When Reality is Unspoofable" can be found here.