Readers of the New York Times, which Alasdair MacIntyre has called “that parish magazine of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment,” will have noticed the appearance on its op-ed pages of a relatively new genre of sermonizing. The burden of the preachers (who include, but are not limited to, Catholic theologians) may be called “defining the mainstream.” The game is to sketch a spectrum of theological or political opinion in such a way that one can locate oneself in the center. The centrist (or “balanced” or “nuanced”) position is assumed to be the equivalent of fairness and clear-sightedness, while proponents of more marginal ideas are portrayed as self-evident bigots. Not surprisingly, Cardinals O’Connor and Ratzinger are, in this scheme, pushed out to join the Pope on the rightist fringe of the Church, while the homilists commonly perch themselves and their colleagues squarely atop the Medium Aureum of sober objectivity.
This ploy is bogus on several grounds. First, out of any 1,000 people, 998 will be able to find positions more extreme than their own on both sides of any issue: it’s a game nearly anyone can play. Second, we must surely judge that individual (after the fact) to have been most clear-sighted and objective who saw the truth of the matter at hand, not the one who was most nuanced in his deliberations. Neville Chamberlain was more “balanced” than Churchill regarding the Nazi threat, yet it is Churchill who was proved right. Athanasius would have fared poorly next to the suave and sensitive Arius at a cocktail party in a modern Faculty Club, yet Athanasius, not Arius, was judged to have spoken the mind of the Church. We need not be impressed, then, by the man who claims to find the Mainstream flowing between his own two legs.
To equate the true or the just with the consensus of the Academy is an error of such astonishing naiveté that it is incredible it should have survived Plato’s Gorgias; yet those who work to perpetuate it are guilty of a still more profound imposture. E. F. Schumacher helped expose the fallacy by making a distinction between “convergent” and “divergent” problems. Convergent problems are those whose solutions tend to become more and more alike the more thoroughly they are investigated and the more clearly the terms of the problem are understood. Schumacher says that the solution to the problem of building a man-powered, two-wheeled means of transportation tends to “converge” on what we recognize as a bicycle. Some problems, such as those posed by detective novels or crossword puzzles, might be called “trivially convergent,” since they have one and only one possible answer. Divergent problems, on the other hand, produce alternative solutions that grow more distinct and irreconcilable as more careful scrutiny and analysis are brought to bear on them. The justification for civil punishment provides such a problem, as does the controversy over the justice of abortion. To understand the terms of a divergent problem is precisely to understand that a “middle ground” is logically impossible.
The chief disservice of the Mainstream Guard is that it treats all controversies as if they were susceptible of convergent solutions. In this view the possibility of cold fusion and the morality of contraception are the same kind of problem, and, on such terms, we are obliged to be suspicious of any deviant position—that is, of a position at variance with those whom the most influential sector of the Academy regards as expert. For the only scheme in which it makes sense to invoke a “mainstream” position as desirable or meritorious in itself is that in which the relevant dispute concerns a convergent problem, wherein the centrist solution (provided the spectrum of opinion is well-defined) is likely to be the best one. Now it takes little reflection to see that most major problems of ecclesial and political controversy have always been and will continue to be divergent and not convergent ones; accordingly, there is an especially vexing irony in the fact that those who want to find a “mainstream” position on the Big Issues are almost always those who are committed on other grounds to a pluralist or relativist stance in matters of public debate.
This paradox merits some comment. It is nonsense to connect consensus with truth except, cautiously, in the case of a convergent problem dealt with by unanimously esteemed experts. But those who vaunt consensus from the pages of the Times insist they are pluralists, even on the issues respecting which they assign themselves to the center. How can this be? Only, I believe, if their pluralism is one of convenience rather than principle—that is, if it is a device of political expedience instead of a truly philosophical conviction. And there is, in fact, very little evidence that champions of ecclesial pluralism have bent over backwards to insure that their opponents are given a fair hearing on occasions of public debate, nor are they conspicuously tolerant or open-minded when they happen themselves to be in positions of extra-ecclesial authority—as journal editors, perhaps, or as deans of theology faculties.
Of course, the ruse is not a new one. As long as there has been an orthodoxy, there have been those who have claimed it for themselves on sociological rather than theological grounds. One thinks of Brilliant Arcturus in Ronald Knox’s memorable lines:
Who cried, as joyfully he bound his sheaves,
“What I believe is what the Church believes!”
Tho’ some might find it matter for research
Whether the Church taught him, or he the Church.
In a true democracy, a doctrine of pluralism may be a way of safeguarding the rights of minorities; in a hierarchy, however, where authority proceeds from a Will not constituted by any part of the population, “pluralism” is often a code word for the project of giving political power the ascendancy over legitimate authority. The vocabulary of the mainstream is simply a way of excommunicating the authorities by drawing a doxographical map in which all opinions are created equal and in which those of the Magisterium occupy an extreme marginal position.
Defining the Mainstream is ultimately a power game. There is no other explanation for it being played so earnestly on the editorial page of the New York Times—hardly a forum for measured theological discourse. It is, however, an arbiter of fashion, and of political fashion especially. Those for whom power and success are the only things that matter will count it vital to be among the Definers at whatever cost to earlier allegiances. Others will find themselves among the Defined, the exiled, those judged outside the mainstream, seated high above the waters of seamy Babylon, straining to hear the music of a distant Voice. Theirs, surely, is the better part.
Paul V. Mankowski, S. J., is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Semitic Philology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.