A number of Catholic media outlets have chosen this week to issue their regularly scheduled calls for civility and charity. They’re right to do so — when anathemas are flying hard and fast, the easiest way to hate or mourn for the Catholic Church is to read or write about it. But it makes sense to pause and acknowledge that the temptation to go flamboyantly negative is strong for a very good reason. Catholic media is still media. Winning the page views (collecting the donations, selling the subscriptions and ad space) necessary to survive and grow means fighting for readers’ interest. Snark and colorful overstatement may be interesting for all the wrong reasons — they turn readers into ghouls — but they’re not boring.
And boring is one thing writers on Catholic subjects find it all too easy to be.
Just so nobody thinks I’m trying to bury National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters, let me pause to praise him. Winters is passionate and principled. In any given day, he can crank out thousands of words of high-quality copy. Dipping into Church history, U.S. history and constitutional history to place current events in context, he seems to be poking the 24-hour news cycle in the chest and telling it, “You’ll make me into a hack over my dead body.” To hear him tell it, he’s the sole surviving bearer of Catholic orthodoxy in a mob of partisan sell-outs, and at times he’s convinced me he really is.
And yes, he’s civil, and to a point even charitable, at least in the sense that he’s never snide or gloating. Instead, the man is a pedant and a scold. His words tramp with feet of lead, like a giant booming, “Fie, fie, fie, fie,” instead of “Fee, fi, fo, fum.” Winters can’t even praise without a scowl. Just today, in writing of John Carr, who retired after 25 years as a policy adviser to the USCCB, he declares Carr’s success in advocating for the poor a remarkable feat “in this hyper-consumerist, spread-eagle-capitalist, acquisitive, brutish culture of modernity.” No curate’s eggs in Winters’ world; they’re all rotten, he’s green at the gills from eating them, and he’ll tell you so and tell you so with funereal gravity until you’re ready for an antacid of your own.
Winters might take clenched-jawed earnestness to an extreme, but he’s also working from an established template. All over Catholic media, you’ll find writers who are thoughtful, sober, hyper-competent in their specialty fields…and going almost unread. Today in America, Fr. Francis X. Clooney argues that the Church should follow the advice of the late Cardinal Martini and find things to learn from all faith traditions — including the church of the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon. It’s a bold thesis, but as of this writing, it’s gotten 16 responses — not a terribly impressive number. Samuel D. Rocha’s essay, which appeared yesterday in First Things’ On the Square feature, has drawn 8 responses: far from a crush.
By contrast, you’ve got the veritable circus (Roman circus?) ginned up by the recent conflict between Patheos blogger Mark Shea and Human Life International’s vice-president for missions Fr. Peter West. The beef’s been squashed; the goal here is not to revive it, but to perform an autopsy to determine why, exactly, it generated so much interest, both on social media and the blogosphere. In fact, that won’t take much cutting. Shea v. West was a perfect storm of hot button issues: What attitude should good Catholics take to openly gay people? In what tone should priests rebuke prominent laymen over social media? When does a Catholic organization’s political activism become too obviously partisan?
Finally, all these issues came to the public through two XXL-sized personalities. Shea has a singular gift for the catchphrase and the sound byte. For some time now, he’s had both Our God-King and Our Ruling Class (caps his) fixed in his crosshairs. I don’t know whether he actually coined the term “Gay Brownshirts,” but by now he’s certainly made it is own. Fr. West’s gifts don’t run in precisely that direction, but in calling out Shea on his Facebook page, before a mob of hundreds, he demonstrated a genius for something no less important: in the art of grabbing people’s attention, he could have given lessons to Evel Knievel.
Both players had their loyalists, and each stood accused of having committed acts of uncharity, or at least incivility. And sure enough, the back-and-forth, painful and ugly though it was, ended up creating a minor windfall for a number of bloggers. Thomas McDonald’s defense of Shea has attracted 61 comments, and been shared 327 times over social media. (“The Panopticon Awaits,” his next post, has drawn one comment and been shared four times.) “Holier than None,” the piece where Joanne McPortland refers to West, is standing on 45 comments and 479 shares. Though Facebook posts aren’t quite comparable to blog posts, Fr. West’s initial assault on Shea got over 850 responses.
My point here isn’t that either blogger grabbed at the subject chiefly in an opportunistic spirit, any more than I’m doing now. The feud upset us all very deeply. But the fact remains that, when it comes to reporting on Church affairs, controversy and scandal sell. If the reporter isn’t uncivil or uncharitable, if helps if someone is, at some point down the line,. Bluntly, uncharity is good for business. For that reason, I’d beg a little charity, both for Catholic media figures who are uncharitable, and for those of us who must record and spread their uncharity by way of exposing and condemning it. Bottom line: charity or no charity, there ain’t so such thing as a free lunch.