What’s in a Label?
3/1/2017Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori
As Christians in the world, we must replace divisiveness and snark with charity and civility
LABELS ARE USEFUL. When buying milk, I look for a label that tells me it contains 2 percent milk fat. If I’m shopping for a shirt, I read the label to see the size and material. When taking medicine, I read the label to find out the dosage and possible side effects.
However, labels don’t tell us everything. They won’t tell me if a particular food is actually good for my health. They won’t say who designed a product, how it was manufactured or how much it cost to make. In truth, labels often provide more hype than help, and many are misleading.
Labels can be even more inappropriate and misleading when they are applied to persons. Our society rightly rejects labels that demean or humiliate a person on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, looks, mental capacity, illness, disabilities and so on.
The Church embraces societal efforts to speak with charity and goes further by teaching that a person is not the sum of his or her weaknesses or sins. No one’s humanity should be reduced to and summed up by labels such as “cheater” or “liar” — even if one may be guilty of those offenses. Such labels do not do justice to the whole person, nor do they recognize the possibility of repentance and reform. Rather, they are a way of writing off that person as unworthy of our consideration.
IN THE TRENCHES
All around us, we find disparaging labels applied to others with little hesitation — and sometimes with outright enthusiasm. We saw this in the bruising 2016 political season and have sadly seen it even in some Catholic journalism. We who are consumers of the news media — both secular and Church-related — too readily apply pejorative labels to other people.
In the heat of political battle, for example, candidates often hurl epithets at one another and their supporters. Last year’s presidential race in the United States gave us many painful examples of this. Ad hominem insults such as “crooked” and “deplorable” took the place of the reasoned political discourse that candidates owe to one another, to the electorate and to the country.
Of course, the fault for the negative personal tone of politics does not lie entirely with politicians. Rather, it reflects a society already accustomed to snarkiness.
Added to this are two other currents in political life. The first is to reduce an opposing point of view to a malevolent ideology. For example, Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality is increasingly labeled as bigotry, especially when Christians seek to live according to their beliefs. Indeed, a host of “isms” and phobias are tossed about and attributed to people with minimal regard for what these terms actually mean or for the persons so described.
Related to this is another current: so-called identity politics. It is, of course, reasonable that people with common backgrounds and interests who feel oppressed would come together to improve their lot in society. That has always been a part of politics. Yet this form of politics, which involves self-labeling, is now pursued so vigorously and single-mindedly that it has deepened divisions in the country along lines of racial, ethnic and sexual identity. It’s as though we’re all consigned to World War I-style trench warfare. This sort of “self-branding” actually discourages tolerance and compromise, especially when it slaps disparaging labels on those who seem to hold contrary views.
Unfortunately, the Church is not immune to all this. While not “of the world,” the Church is most assuredly “in the world.” The style and content of the speech all around us affects us deeply. Yet, if we are striving to follow Christ and live the Beatitudes, our regard for others should be markedly greater than what we find in the secular media. We should be very reluctant to pin labels on others.
Labeling a Church leader is a way of putting that person in a box so that one does not have to deal thoughtfully with what the leader actually says or does. For example, some parishioners may readily refer to their priest as “conservative” or “liberal” without ever really talking to him. Though labels may contain a grain of truth, they often short-circuit important conversations. And, sadly, ideological labels readily degenerate into uncharitable, ad hominem attacks on the integrity, abilities and worth of fellow Christians with whom we are supposed to be united in the Body of Christ.
The net effect of labeling our fellow Christians is to weaken the Church’s mission by weakening the Church’s unity. This unity is based on truth — not only the revealed truth but also basic truths about our common humanity and what constitutes a just and peaceful society. If, instead of building bridges, we find ourselves obscuring the truth by pitting Church leaders and fellow parishioners against one another, we are breaking down that oneness that the Lord willed for his followers — so that the world may believe (cf. Jn 17:21).
So, here’s an idea for Lent 2017. Let’s abstain from labels. Let’s abstain from snarky, uncharitable speech. Let’s contribute to making our society a less divisive place by making the Church less divided. Doing so will take a lot more grace, self-control and self-sacrifice than giving up candy, liquor or caffeine. Yet, as winter gives way to spring, such a sacrifice will yield a harvest of truth, joy, peace and love.