The Liability of Labels

The Liability of Labels

In 2014, a man wrote into the advice column of musician Andrew W.K. in the Village Voice, complaining that he “just can’t deal with” his 65-year-old “super right-wing conservative” father who is “intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.” The response encouraged the reader to go back and read his letter and find a single instance where he had referred to his dad as a human being.

“You’ve reduced your father— the person who created you — to a set of beliefs and political views and how it relates to you,” and in doing so, “You’ve also reduced yourself to a set of opposing views, and reduced your relationship with him to a fight between the two.”

What a withering assessment! And yet Catholics might find that it applies to how we go about our lives as citizens of a country or as parts of the Body of Christ: Too often, our primary way of relating to one another is not through an appreciation of the other’s dignity as a unique human person created and loved by God, but through labels that classify, judge, condescend and ultimately do violence.

The Indian Jesuit Anthony De Mello said that what we judge we cannot understand: “When you say of someone, ‘He’s a Communist,’ understanding has stopped at that moment. You slapped a label on him. ‘She’s a capitalist.’ Understanding has stopped at that moment.”

There are, of course, many other labels: conservative, liberal, ally, adversary. Is this person worthy of my support and agreement? Should I condemn every idea this person puts forth? Do I calibrate my words and actions in accordance with how much I perceive they might placate or infuriate this group of people or that?   These are not healthy binaries.

Even more destructive, when we label ourselves, that imprint carries over to how we approach the Faith. Claiming a mantle of “orthodox” makes our personal preferences normative and risks closing us to growth, even when the challenge to grow comes from the pope. Labeling oneself “progressive” can carry with it the hubris of projecting one’s own wish fulfillment of how the Church should change onto areas of faith and morals that cannot be undone.

The dysfunctional coexistence of these types in one Church underscores why the late Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago asserted that all Catholics should strive to be “simply Catholic,” free of labels that do nothing to advance the Gospel, teach us little and ultimately sow division. Simply Catholic means a life centered on the person of Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist. That is where we go to encounter him, to be nourished and filled with the grace to be Christ to one another in our daily lives.

It’s an existence focused not on labels but on the core of our being and on the God whose grace transforms us. It is focused on treating others like persons, not as handily labeled objects. And it means not reducing others, ourselves or the Faith we hold dear to something small, convenient and informed only by the dynamics of ideological agendas and political conflict. That is not the grace of the Eucharist. That is not living out the Incarnation as members of the Body of Christ.

— OSV Newsweekly Editorial Board, August 6-12, 2017