Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, August 06, 2004

Holding the Mean 

Disputations reports on a recent statement - 'All are Welcome' by Pax Christi International, a Catholic pacifist organization devoted to Catholic social teaching. The statement is a response to the possibility that certain Catholic politicians might be excluded from the Eucharist due to positions taken at variance with Catholic teaching and practice. Unsurprisingly, Pax Christi resents this increasing trend, and seeks to propose what I like to call the 'big tent' approach to Eucharistic praxis. In the midst of their statement, Pax Christi posits a list of those who should be invited to the Eucharist table; this list includes those who hold positions on either side of a litany of dichotomies:

"Pax Christi members assert that all who feel called to approach the Table of the Lord should be welcomed; those who reject war as a means of resolving conflict and those who feel that war is sometimes justified. All are welcome as members of the Body of Christ; those who reject the death penalty and those who cling to the death penalty as an expression of justice. All are invited to the Lord’s Supper; those who work to make abortion illegal as well as those who believe that criminalizing abortion is not the answer. All are brothers and sisters at the Table; those who believe that the needs of the poor and laborers have a priority over capital, as well as those who believe that the unfettered free market is the best way to distribute wealth and resources."

The trouble with this litany is that the reasoning behind the various dichotomies is not altogether clear. As Tom points out, the latter position expressed in the first dichotomy - i.e. 'those who feel that war is sometimes justified' - is simply the Catholic position (though this is being disputed), and it is curious as to why those who hold it should feel the need to defend their right to receive the Eucharist. It is odd, then, to find the Catholic position standing alone on one side of a rigid dichotomy - one wonders why this dichotomy should exist at all, much less why the first position should set on a par with the second. And clearly, this is the purpose for positing these positions in the form of dichotomies - to set contested positions up against established positions (it is not clear in every case that the latter is the 'Catholic' position, but it is at least most clear in the first) in a way that both appear to be legitimate positions on either end of an imaginary spectrum, at any point between which in which one might legitimately find oneself. And this is clearly a case of an illicit dichotomy, using one where it doesn't belong. It would, in fact, be more appropriate to allow each position to be examined on its own grounds in relation to some objective criterion, i.e. conformity to Catholic teaching.

I recently came across a similar case of illicit dichotomies in the thirteenth century. The context is the classical Greek concept of virtue being a mean between two vicious extremes, which was taken up by scholastic churchmen. The problem with 'virtue as mean' paradigm is that, though useful, it seems to lend itself to distortion if unhinged from concrete norms. The thirteenth century saw the rapid ascendancy of the mendicant orders, those of Sts. Francis and Dominic in particular, whose ideal of voluntary poverty was seen by many intellectuals as a threat to the established social and moral order (hard to imagine in retrospect, but it happened). Thus, the theologians of these orders quickly took to penning apologiae of their way of life.

St. Bonaventure, Minister General of the Franciscan order, deals with this question in his Haexameron. His opponents are claiming, it seems, that absolute poverty is a morally 'extreme' way of life, opposite another extreme of extravagant luxury. In other words, true virtue, which is always found by 'holding the mean,' ought to be found somewhere right in the middle of luxury and poverty. Absolute poverty, in this paradigm, would be absolutely vicious, since it does not hold the mean. But, as St. Bonaventure points out, this approach is far too superficial. It would be akin to concluding that, if one extreme were sleeping with no women (celibacy), and the other sleeping with all known women, the virtuous mean would require sleeping with half of all known women! (v, 5). On the contrary, he says, the mean is a matter of the soul's desire: "If you desire these things in order to be sustained by them . . . you keep the middle way. If you overestimate them as if happiness were to be found in them, you are at one extreme; if you spurn them as being wicked, you are at the other" (v, 4).

Be wary of dichotomies in the midst of polemic. Too often, as Bonaventure shows, they can be a smokescreen which prevents genuine rational treatment of the positions involved.

# posted by Jamie : 1:30 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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