instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The purging impulse

Fr. James Martin, SJ -- who often has interesting things to say about Catholic culture -- makes a disappointing foray into the "tone of the Catholic blogosphere" melee. (To call it a "debate" would be an insult to televised senatorial and presidential debates.)

It's "disappointing" in the empirical sense that I was disappointed by it, on three counts:
  1. Fr. Martin calls the AP's Rachel Zoll's article on conservative Catholic bloggers a "fine piece." I'd say, rather, that a very strong case can be made that the article is an objectively lousy piece of reporting. There's the use of Pavlonian phrases -- e.g., "the usual liberal suspects" -- where the reader is expected to fill in who or what is alluded to. There's the assertion of fact without any supporting evidence (even when the evidence couldn't be hard to come by). There's the ever-popular "unattributed 'some say'" trick ("Critics of the bloggers contend"). There's a laughable nod toward balance ("Some left-leaning Catholics are outraged by any exercise of church authority."). There's the editorializing ("dissecting...combing through...hunting for" vs "has advised church leaders for four decades," "known for his humility"). And of course -- though Zoll can't be blamed for this -- there's the standard editorializing-unsupported-by-anything-in-the-article headline ("Catholic Bloggers Aim to Purge Dissenters").

  2. One of the reasons Fr. Martin gives for what makes what he calls "web-based McCarthyism" "disastrous" is this:
    the focus of their blogs is almost risibly narrow. Here are the sole topics of interest, in the order in which they cause foaming at the mouth (or on the keyboard): homosexuality, abortion, women's ordination, birth control, liturgical abuses and the exercise of church authority. Is this really the sum total of what makes us Catholic?
    Setting aside questions about his ordering of topics, his final question misses the point so badly it's embarrassing.

    First, a blog need not address "the sum total of what makes us Catholic." (Frankly, I'd doubt the prudence of any blogger who tried, and I'd doubt the humility of any blogger who claimed to succeed.)

    Second, irreformable doctrine on these issues does, in fact, proscribe what makes us Catholic. That they do not constitute "the sum total" does not mean they are not included in the total, as Fr. Martin is well aware.

  3. Finally, Fr. Martin seems blind to the irony of his call for civility from people whom he describes in these terms: "Taliban Catholicism;" "both craven and cowardly;" "little theological knowledge;" "someone barely out of college;" "McCarthyism at its worst;" "devoid of any sense of Christian charity;" "they don't seem particularly Christian."

    Now, I've been criticizing pharisaism in the Catholic blogosphere for eight years. Not only do I have questionable time management skills, I think much of Fr. Martin's criticism is valid and on target.

    But he had a choice. He could attempt to correct those he disagrees with, or he could call them "the 'Catholic Taliban.'" One or the other. Not both.

    Yet, based on his replies to the comments on his post, he seems unaware that, as a blogger himself, he is in no position to tell people to shut up and take it. After 50 comments, he writes:
    I give up. Calls for civility met with people crowing over who got the last word. The blogosphere really is dangerous to your spiritual health.
    Yes, Father, it is frustrating to speak the truth and have it ignored.

    That's sort of the point, isn't it?