The Overlooked Middle

An Attempt to Start a New Dialogue


Gender issues, among other issues, are squeezing out debate

In conversation at a recent cocktail party, a wise and elegant lady told me that Catholic publishing (or the publishing of Catholic thought) is a club with strict membership. One “must be an academic” to be considered for membership, she said. This took a while to sink in for me because I was of a mistaken notion that “academic,” “intellectual,” and “writer,” were, obviously, not synonymous, but interchangeable. The gestation of this wisdom brings me to the page today. The academically intellectual writer, Rusty Reno of First Things, recently defined what I am after here as one who sees “things as they are, in themselves and together… one who desires the fullest kind of knowing” which Reno went on to describe as knowing “across” fields, “about” fields, and even “among” interrelated disciplines, and otherwise alienating worldviews. The following essay seeks to occasion a new dialogue, a new way of knowing across cultures, which aims to renew what we all know is the only antidote for what desperately ails all of humanity today.

I recently wrote this, and have been reluctant to send it, but I recently viewed George Weigel’s address on “Murray’s Critique of the American Future,” given to the Thomistic Institute (First Things, on May 6, 2016). I was encouraged by his conclusions with which my concerns are aligned. The prognosis of our times is in activating the Messianic People of God, which even though a “tiny flock,” is the “seed of unity, hope, and salvation of the whole human race (Lumen Gentium §9.)” A movement of communio, a “creative minority” (cf. Rabbi Sacks 2013 Erasmus Lecture), in the world, but not of the world, sanctifying the world from within, outwardly from our smallest circles of community. Obviously not proselytizing, nor direct evangelization per se in the classic sense, but in a pastoral movement in care of humanity.

Mr. Weigel has put forth the challenge, although in a somewhat subdued, articulate manner, seemingly leaving it to others to get this thing started. Subdued as it may have been, it is a challenge to the academics (and possibly the intellectuals) of our times to do something. And I concur whole heartedly, and desire to put my own Baptismal Certificate on the line to participate in this new movement, called for by Mr. Weigel. My dis-qualifications, however, are clear in the attachment. Others who are more so qualified, and equally Baptismally called, now have the challenge given, not by me, “just a deacon,” but by our pre-eminent scholar, academic, and intellectual, Mr. Weigel himself, who knows me not.

This essay reveals my dis-qualifications quite clearly, but if you can overlook the personal lamentation of ambition unfulfilled, you will see a real challenge to: (a) continue the diagnostic articulation against our deconstructionist opposition; while, (b) a new movement begins going into the “overlooked middle,” the population of humanity itself, to give them (pastoral) comfort against the dry heat of fragmentation being imposed upon them from afar. So I am writing this, not to a reading public, nor as an attempt to gain membership in “the club;” I am writing this to the academics who are writers, as a challenge for them to begin writing into a new dialogue that has an intentionality of articulating a moving and efficacious renewal of human culture(s). It is a dialogue that is not dominated by diagnosis, but by prognosis. We have a wealth of superb, and ongoing, diagnosis which is certainly necessary for the cultural confrontations and (hopeful) renewal. The confrontational rhetoric must continue. However, prognosis is slim and difficult to excerpt from any of the essays that have attempted any semblance thereof. Obviously, as a writer in potentia, this essay would not suffice to be the “first shot,” but it does have an intent to prompt our writers to “fire a first shot” and start a new dialogue that does have a clear and efficacious strategy

Prognosis and Diagnosis
We are currently living in a milieu of cultural breakdown; a deconstructionist breakdown like we have never seen before. It is not a transition of culture, one that can be confronted by tradition. Rather, it is a shattering of culture, a non-culture, a denial of any grand narrative with a banner of diversity and multi-culturalism. A demand for tolerance of diversity with no tolerance for anyone who is diverse from the banner-carrying crowd. Deconstructionism is always self-contradicting; e.g., “There is no absolute truth, and this is absolutely true.” I digress here because this is merely a condensation of all the wonderful rhetoric of diagnosis that we are all very familiar with, and I must say, the deconstructionists are becoming familiar with as well. The diagnosis is clear. What we must find as we “read across” it, is that the problem is a moving, shifting phenomenon which has learned to slip away from, and dodge, any static solution imposed upon it.

This is a phenomenon that has only just become dominant in the past five years, although it can be said that it is a 21st century generational phenomenon. In the past five years, however, we have seen a more profound fragmentation of culture, which is becoming more and more difficult to pin down, or even to sit at table with for dialogue. Prior to this second decade of the third millennium, there were specific demands easy to debate. The most prominent demands such as the “right” to abortion and same gender “marriage,” were static, and our academics rightly and finely stood their ground, with valid arguments of natural law and human nature. We lost those debates, unfortunately; not because the arguments of our academics were weak or off target, but because the targets quickly became moving targets. This was the first trend towards what we are now dealing with, which is a flux of waves and winds of movement and demands that any static solution, even in salvo, is merely a casting of our anchors into a turbulent and deep sea.

The first indication that the playing field had shifted was (among others) an essay written by James Kalb in Crisis Magazine, “The Left vs. Human Nature,” March 27, 2015. In it, Dr. Kalb accurately states that:

The Left does not like any of that and they have been very successful turning their dislike into accepted dogma. The result is that if you talk about human nature today you are not going to get anywhere. People will say you are stereotyping, you are denying Hope and Change, and you are presenting existing power relations as natural and unchangeable. You will have to prove every detail of every claim and the standard of proof will be infinitely high. Also, none of your arguments will stick—next time the matter comes up, you will have to go through every issue all over again at the same level of detail. (Italics are mine)

The focus of Dr. Kalb’s essay is gender as a choice. The opposing argument is that gender is an obvious given of human nature.

The Left’s response is basically to say “that doesn’t apply to me,” (paraphrase). In the essay, the actual quote is that the Left says “gender is a social construct” imposed on society. Dr. Kalb asks us the question, “If the point {of gender and human nature} looks obvious, why is it not generally accepted, or at least generally acceptable as something to consider? As it is, people dismiss it without discussion.” Hence, the moving target that is our opponent in the cultural debate. A moving crisis requires a moving solution.

The Overlooked Middle
As debates go, there are two opposing views, if not two particular opponents. Traditionally, the salvos of rhetoric go back and forth until one side accepts the validity of the other, or until an outside observer declares one side to have given the more valid set of arguments. I suppose what I am describing is actually the scenario of a collegiate debate team competition, but collegiate debate teams foster and form our future academics for the cultural and political battles of real life. In the current milieu of cultural crisis, our articulate Catholic academics are on one side of the debate “net” and the cultural deconstructionists (The Left) are on the other side. Although as previously pointed out our opponents often change courts, and our salvos land in an empty court. Let’s step back for a moment into the comfort of Catholic thought. “{I}t is one of the properties of the human person that he can achieve true and full humanity only by means of culture” (Gaudium et Spes, §53; see Pontifical Council For Culture’s Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, Libreria Editrice Vaticanna, Vatican City, 1999, §1). The object of the Left and the Right is the human persons in the middle. We are trying to save the souls of the persons caught in the middle from secularization and denial of transcendental salvation (as opposed to temporal liberation) while the Left sees itself as trying to save the people, as individuals, from any form of authoritative (especially religious) imposed collective institutionalized morality. The Left is building their house on the shifting sands of lies and fads, and we are building ours on solid rock. (cf. Mt 7:24-27)

Although we are trying to shore up and renew culture (i.e., the human persons in a given collective culture), we are not directly addressing their cultural safety, nor directly, their dignity, even as the human person and human dignity is foundational to our arguments. These are notional elements of our objective. The “real apprehension,” to quote Cardinal Newman, of human culture is the human beings that make up culture. No human beings, no culture. Someone on our side must begin, not only an articulation, but a grass-roots movement into the population of the middle. A pastoral movement supported by encouraging articulation and formation, but ultimately face-to-face in a real cultural evangelization. We must go to the people and tell them that it is okay to be good and virtuous, to accept the givens of what it means to be human, a person in community. We must assure them that there is such a thing as objective morality, and that any form of morality relative to popular opinion is destructive to the community. We must go into the community and tell them that it is okay to be in community. We must go into the middle, while our academics continue to speak truth into the public square. We need pastoral articulators, and formators, to give strategy in creating an efficacious movement of virtue and love.

There is so much already out there—Pope Francis’ call for mercy and accompaniment, the true pastoral care of families, new forms of evangelization calling people back to the Church—many elements that need cohesiveness to form a whole, rather than various mini-pastoral movements that translate into dormant diocesan “offices of pastoral care.” Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Letter, Amoris Laetitia, says that the parish is the place where affective movement has to take place, in his words, “the parish is a family of families, where small communities, ecclesial movements, and associations live in harmony.” Pope Francis goes on to say that “this shows a need for a more adequate formation of priests, deacons, men and women religious, catechists and other pastoral workers” (AL, §202). As academics, intellectuals, and writers, some of us need to turn our perspectives toward the people themselves, to see them as they are, in themselves, and as a whole. We must lead the leaders into an authentic and true pastoral movement, which by its very dynamic, will permeate and renew human culture. While the salvos of Left and Right continue, and must continue, a new dialogue and movement must be started. This essay is not the first in that new dialogue, but it is an attempt, as I have said, to prompt our academics to write that first essay that will, indeed, begin the new dialogue. It is the middle that is the object of this movement, not the Left. The defeat of the Left will be to give them an empty court to serve into. The people will not be there.

Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh About Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh

Ordained in 2008 to the Archdiocese of Miami; MA Theology from The Augustine Institute, Denver, CO; Master Catechist with the Archdiocese and Coordinator of Adult Faith Formation at St. Bonaventure Parish. Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.


  1. Avatar Timoteo Saldana Honesto says:

    One speaks of the deconstruction of culture, but yet in the American Indian community the struggle is to preserve the culture and traditions. There is still many in the American Indian community with animosity towards the Church and recently with the canonization of Junipero Serra it has even caused more division. But my point is that we need to make the effort to heal this and there are some of us who are both American Indian and Catholic that are trying to build a bridge of reconciliation. We are those in the middle!