Olson’s Nitpicking, Persnickety Guide to Gaudete et Exsultate

Carl E. Olson is the editor of The Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. I like his writing a lot. He’s written several great books. And he seems to have liked my work as well (e.g., a glowing review of my One-Minute Apologist). But I’m not very fond of this effort of Carl’s. Nothing personal . . . 
 
Today we are blessed with both pope bashers (the usual suspect reactionaries and also non-reactionaries like Phil Lawler and Ross Douthat), and non-reactionary “papal nitpickers.” Carl is in the latter category. He’ll say that this, that, and the other in the document is good and helpful, but then proceeds to pick it apart, as if he were writing a mere (negative) film or musical album review. I don’t question the sincerity of the compliments, but I have grave doubts about both the propriety and accuracy of the criticisms (not that no one can ever criticize a pope, ever: that is not my position).
 
The amazing thing to me is that we can even be in a sad place like this today: with papal documents routinely being treated in such a fashion. This is the lamentable sea change that has come about in the last five years. Of course, Pope Francis is blamed for that. But it’s not as if his endless critics have a perfect record in either conduct or logical acumen in argument. I’m in a position to know a bit about that, since I have defended Pope Francis for five years, and have seen the types of (very often) shoddy, inane, insipid, illogical criticisms utilized.
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There used to be an automatic sublime level of respect and deference given by Catholics to papal documents, and even to General Audiences, etc. No more. Those days are gone with the wind (at least among the bashers and the nitpickers). Never mind the rather elementary (heretofore, casually assumed)  scriptural admonitions about showing respect for leaders. We’re far beyond that, I’m afraid. The pope is accorded no more respect (if even as much) than is, say, the Speaker of the House.
 
Thus we are informed in the title of Carl’s article in Catholic World Report that Pope Francis “misses” with his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. Maybe we shouldn’t even read it then, huh? Why waste our time? Isn’t that the purpose of a book or film review? If a review pans something, many won’t bother reading or watching or listening  to it. If Carl had panned my book that he reviewed, many would simply bypass it on his word. And that would be fine. This is why we have book reviews. Lots of books exist, and there are only so many hours in a day, and we have to make choices. I’ve written negative reviews myself (of Phil Lawler’s book).
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But should we approach a papal document in the same way? That’s the question. It would be interesting to see if Catholic World Report even publishes scathing reviews of this sort of Carl’s own books.
 
The subtitle reads: “The many good qualities and substantive passages in Gaudete et Exsultate are often overshadowed, or even undermined, by straw men, dubious arguments, and cheap shots.” It’s Carl’s “word” against the pope’s: which one should we heed?
 
Carl opines: “Unfortunately, the document also contains more than a few remarks or suggestions that are either puzzling or disconcerting—and not, I think, for the right reasons.” I hate to be so crass and blunt, but it is duly noted that Carl thinks he knows better than the pope. We papal defenders are routinely accused (and usually falsely) of being ultramontanists or “papolaters.” But the opposite excess, I submit, actually occurs far more often: the glaring flaw of being “more Catholic than the pope.”
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If we think it is dangerous to hang on the pope’s every word (making his choice of socks or Vatican decor infallible), it is, I think, far more spiritually poisonous to relentlessly nitpick and second-guess the pope’s words (and even interior dispositions: as is increasingly going on now). In the one error, the pope is placed too high in the scheme of things; in the other, we are placing ourselves way, way too high in the overall picture, and becoming in effect, “mini-popes.” This is also, of course, the Protestant “rebellious” error and the theologically liberal Catholic’s “pick and choose” / “cafeteria Catholic” shortcoming.
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Carl criticizes another portion of the document and then reaches the extraordinary conclusion: “the overall impression is that rules, boundaries, limits, dogma, and tradition are almost always impediments.” That’s a classic example of second-guessing: attributing to Pope Francis things that he has not directly asserted. Rather, it’s merely assumed that he thinks certain things. This approach is absolutely rampant now among the bashers and the nitpicking naysayers. And of course it’s wrong.

Assertions must be documented and proven: not merely insinuated. Even an otherwise good and thoughtful writer like Carl Olson can (in the current toxic atmosphere) casually toss out the accusation that Pope Francis wishes to convey in his new Exhortation, the notion that “rules, boundaries, limits, dogma, and tradition are almost always impediments.” One can only shake one’s head in perplexity and move on to the next charge being made . . .

Carl then cites a paragraph and records papal critic Sandro Magister’s judgment upon it: that it “seems to wipe out two millennia of contemplative monasticism, male and female.” I hardly think that is likely. It’s yet another hysterical, extreme conclusion (made in the service of opposing alleged extremity) rendered about something or other in the Holy Father’s writing, that is misunderstood and misinterpreted. But of course, the problem must be in the alleged heterodoxy and lack of clarity (and increasingly now, good ol’ “deliberate ambiguity”) in the pope’s writing; never ever in the wrong assumptions and hostile presuppositions that the nitpicking or bashing interpreter of the writing brings to the table.

Carl informs us that “these sort of personal jabs are very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ personality and style.” That may be. Pope Francis is not perfect, and we are not promised impeccability in popes. He certainly has any number of faults, even glaring ones (though it is a separate and quite arguable issue whether we should be carping on and on about them in public). But it’s also true that the same shortcomings are seen (in my opinion, far more) in the papal bashers and nitpickers. After all, Carl has accused the pope in this article of caring little about dogma and tradition, or “two millennia of contemplative monasticism”.

Those are not “personal jabs”? They are certainly personal, and I contend that they are untrue, which (if I am correct) would make them instances of bearing false witness. And bearing false witness (in this instance, against a pope!) is a particularly heinous form of “personal jab.” These methodologies are very common among the papal bashers and nitpickers, but we’re not supposed to notice that, you see. The critics are above reproach, because (so we are always told if we dare criticize them) their hearts are in the right place. Only the pope is screwing up. He’s the scapegoat for anything and everything these days, or so it would seem. It’s open season. Carl opines, near the end:
My point, in conclusion, is that while I certainly have benefited in some ways from reading Gaudete et Exsultate, the good qualities and substantive passages in documents and texts such as this are increasingly overshadowed, or even undermined, by the grave tensions and growing conflicts within the Church.
He then concludes with the following edifying words:
Especially since, sadly, Pope Francis and his closest collaborators have not only failed to address those tensions and conflicts, they have played a significant role in exacerbating and deepening them. They do appear to be take pleasure in “taking aim” at Catholics they deem to be too dogmatic, rigid, and focused on liturgy.  It is a shame that this has continued in this apostolic exhortation on holiness but it is not, I’m sorry to say, too much of a surprise.
How could we get through the day without having Carl E. Olson nitpicking to death and picking away at an Apostolic Exhortation from a pope? In one corner we have the Holy Father: the supreme leader of the Catholic Church: Pope Francis. In the other we have opposing opinions of Carl: good writer and good man and good Catholic, but, alas, not the pope, and possessing exactly zero authority in the Church (in technical terms, he ain’t the magisterium). As the old saying goes, “ya pays yer money and ya makes yer choice.” And there is another saying I’m quite fond of: “we are what we eat.”

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If someone wants to think and act (in terms of this criticism of the pope; not all respects) like 1) a Protestant opposer of Catholic ecclesiology and the rule of faith, and/or 2) a cafeteria Catholic: picking and choosing arbitrarily what to like and dislike, I can’t stop them. But I can sure inform them — and my readers — that this is indeed the way they are acting, and that these tendencies and mentalities and mindsets did not come from nowhere. They have a long, unfortunate pedigree.

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Addendum: Responses and My Counter-Replies (words of others in blue)

Carl Olson replied in the combox for this post:

“Thus we are informed in the title of Carl’s article in Catholic World Report that Pope Francis “misses” with his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. Maybe we shouldn’t even read it then, huh? Why waste our time?”

I’m surprised, Dave, that you didn’t “get” the headline, which is quite obviously playing off the opening section about Fr. Martin’s quote. For what it’s worth.

“How could we get through the day without having Carl E. Olson nitpicking to death and picking away at an Apostolic Exhortation from a pope?”

An example of why it’s hard for me to take these sort of posts seriously.

Yeah, it was playing off of Fr. Martin. But it’s also in the title, and it is unseemly in and of itself.

Ah, so if I dare use a bit of sarcasm (something, of course, you yourself never ever do!), that allows you to dismiss the entire thing and avoid dealing with the many non-sarcastic, “serious” critiques in it. Nice move there.

My approach remains what I wrote a few minutes ago on my Facebook page: “I’d love to have a good, honest, open, civil discussion on these matters with Carl or anyone else who wishes to do that.”

Your reply here makes that goal appear quite a bit less likely, but I still hold out hope.

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[the following is from the combox of Carl’s article for The Catholic World Report. I simply left a link for my critique. If Carl hadn’t unfriended me on Facebook, I wouldn’t have even done that. I was just letting him know, out of courtesy]

Fr. Peter StravinskasI am afraid to have to disagree with you mightily. Francis missed a golden opportunity to build a bridge with this document: 90% of it is good and solid traditional Catholic spirituality. Then, like Trump, he can’t resist broadsides on his real/perceived enemies and goes on the attack. The Left will have no truck with the traditional spirituality; the Right will dismiss it all because of his dismissive attitude toward them/us.

Hi Fr. Peter,

Always good to hear from you! Hope you are well these days.

I don’t see that he is attacking people; rather, false ideas and tendencies. He’d have a long, long way to go to equal the vehemence in which St. Paul criticized the Galatians and Corinthians, or the fiery sarcastic rebukes of our Lord towards the scribes and Pharisees. So I see it as simply following the biblical model.

Such rebukes were controversial then and remain so today because no one likes to be criticized or told they are wrong. It’s almost the cardinal sin in our current postmodern secular society.

I don’t view the Holy Father as “against” myself or anyone else as people. I see him as on my side: telling me hard truths and timeless truths in a fresh way.

God bless,

Dave

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Paul: Your critique of the article is pathetic. What sort of neurotic egomaniac would advertise his infantile tantrum on this web site?

Sol: One relative papal maximalist hasn’t given up yet!

Timothy J. Williams: narcissist… like all the Patheticos “writers”…

Chris C.: I read it. The title says all one needs to know about what to expect. Whereas Carl’s piece is a serious attempt at an objective critique of the Pope’s work, the “review” by Dave is replete with personal barbs and ad hominem and little else. One won’t actually find an accurate and fair portrayal of Carl’s work in it.

The same old same old, when anyone dares to disagree in a combox. Only Fr. Peter (who graciously gave me my first break as a Catholic writer in 1993) disagreed with me without personal attack.

I didn’t “attack” Carl Olson. I disagreed with his position. There is a difference. In fact, I said “I like his writing a lot” and that “He’s written several great books” and that he was a “good and thoughtful writer” and a “good man and good Catholic.” That’s a lot of compliments in a critique!

As usual (and almost always), — apart from Fr. Stravinskas — there is not one single substantive, reasoned interaction with anything I have written. It’s 100% ad hominem attacks.

The combox contains this note:

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

Thus the above attack-comments all passed muster, and were thought by the moderator to be helpful and civilized, not personal attacks and not combative or inflammatory. This is how things go today. Like I’ve been saying over the past year or so: Dialogue is Dead. It’s certainly deader than a doornail in that combox.

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Photo credit: Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) [Flickr CC BY 2.0 license]
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