The Times grinds Its ax

We don’t typically spend too much time looking at mainstream movie or book reviews, but I thought the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review was worth looking at. For one, it’s written by Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times. For another, the Review has this curious note from “the editors”:

Through the years, The New York Times‘s coverage of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican has received sharp criticism from practicing Catholics — including the past eight years that Bill Keller has been the paper’s executive editor. Yet Keller, who wrote this week’s cover review of “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy,” by John Julius Norwich, was raised within the fold.

“My parents took their faith very seriously — especially my mother, who had the fervor of a convert (from Episcopalian),” Keller recalled in an e-mail. “My brothers and I had nuns and priests as our teachers through high school, and I look back on that education with real gratitude. I’m now what my friend Dan Barry calls a ‘collapsed Catholic’ — beyond lapsed — but you never really extricate yourself from your upbringing.”

I love that “Yet” in the first paragraph. Why “yet”? I mean, the next paragraph explains that he’s “beyond lapsed” to “collapsed.” If being raised in the faith is supposed to mean something about how the coverage can’t be unfair, what is collapsing from it supposed to mean?

And then we read the first paragraph of the review:

John Julius Norwich makes a point of saying in the introduction to his history of the popes that he is “no scholar” and that he is “an agnostic Protestant.” The first point means that while he will be scrupulous with his copious research, he feels no obligation to unearth new revelations or concoct revisionist theories. The second means that he has “no ax to grind.” In short, his only agenda is to tell us the story.

Since when does being “an agnostic Protestant” mean that ipso facto one wouldn’t have an ax to grind against the Roman Catholic Church or the papacy? But also, how does this relate to the editors note? Are we to presume that Keller does have an ax to grind since he’s a “collapsed” Catholic? I know he’s acted contrary to the faith in which he was raised (he and his wife aborted a son, for instance). Is that playing a role in The Times‘ coverage of the Catholic Church? And then, there’s this famous Keller column — “Is the Pope Catholic?

Here’s the thing: This review is not up to snuff. Many folks across the Catholic spectrum are talking about problems with the review and its uncritical look at the book in question. For instance, the book author gives quite a bit of time to a fictional incident of a female pope — a full chapter. Keller gives another couple hundred words in his short review over to discussion of this fictional character.

The review is stunningly uncritical. I actually laughed out loud at Keller’s kicker — simply a quote from the book:

“It is now well over half a century since progressive Catholics have longed to see their church bring itself into the modern age,” he writes. “With the accession of every succeeding pontiff they have raised their hopes that some progress might be made on the leading issues of the day — on homosexuality, on contraception, on the ordination of women priests. And each time they have been disappointed.”

Wow. It’s almost like the author has the same lack of an ax to grind as The Times, doesn’t it? Brilliant reviewer choice there, editors.

Raymond A. Schroth at America (the Catholic weekly) writes that he’s a huge fan of The New York Times. And I think he’s telling the truth because he even has kind words to say about Maureen Dowd.

He praises the newspaper for its tough coverage of the church. And then he asks “By what standards of journalism excellence, of book-review ethics, of scholarly common sense, did the New York Times Book Review editor select Bill Keller to review John Julius Norwich’s Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy?”:

From my experience as book review editor of Commonweal in the 1970s, my several reviews on religious topics for the Times Book Review (under Harvey Shapiro), and 30 years writing for the National Catholic Reporter and other publications, I recall that the reviewer should be well informed on the book’s topic, preferably should have published on it already and, at least in some way, have a perspective that enables him to know more than the author. He should also be reasonably free of bias–or confess that bias in a way that lets him keep his credibility.

Since Keller has claimed the mantle of “collapsed Catholic” (albeit failing to explain why or whether he has been secretly studying church history), the review suffers, Schroth writes. Then he notes that Keller must not know many modern Catholics since he thinks they’re ignorant of the mixed bag history of the papacy. He lists a few good books of recent vintage on the topic and names several reviewers who would do a much better review than Keller. Finally:

Why Keller was chosen remains a mystery. Maybe he volunteered and, who says no to the top editor? Maybe the book editor thought it would be fun? And if you consider an uninterrupted list of Papal sins fun, it’s fun. Meanwhile Keller has not hurt the church. He’s hurt the Times.

Note the way other reviewers handled the book. Eamon Duffy (Irish Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge) in the Times U.K.:

The Popes is an entertaining book which tells some good stories and embraces a large historical sweep. But its overall effect is curiously trivializing. The papacy depicted here is in the end unintelligible.

John Cornwell, controversial author of “Hitler’s Pope” is even critical in Financial Times:

Norwich tells us that because he is an “agnostic Protestant” he brings “objectivity” to his subject. That’s like Tony Benn penning an “objective” history of the Tory party. And he has steered, he goes on, “well clear of theology”, which sounds like military history with no mention of a war. His interest is political and cultural, he maintains. Hence he fails to address the overarching significance of ecclesiology – the theological study of the spiritual role of “Vicar of Christ” as the ultimate foundation of Catholic unity and authority.

And Michael Pye, a general historian but one who has spent his career in journalism, has a lengthy review. From The Scotsman:

As entertainment, as a book of cues to find out more, The Popes is sharp, fun and wonderfully energetic through its many, many pages. The history, though, is in the archives still.

Keller does not come off well by comparison. So again, why was he chosen for this review? It was a rather odd unforced error. This cover story for the Book Review could have been brilliant. Instead it was rather embarrassing and only served to give easy fodder to Catholic critics of The Times.

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  • Suzanne

    he and his wife aborted a son because of his imperfections, for instance

    If you actually read the link (buried within your first link) you would know that this is an extremely careless and misleading characterization of Keller and his wife’s decision to have an abortion.

    Doctors told them that their son, whom they’d already named, had a 90 percent chance of being born dead or in a vegetative state, and that continuing with the pregnancy threatened his wife’s health. Whether you agree with their decision or not, to say that they aborted simply because he baby wasn’t perfect is callous in the extreme.

  • Bram

    It used to be that you spread out The New York Times to keep the doggy-doo off your floor.

    But we’re at the point now that you spread out the doggy-doo to keep The New York Times off your floor.

  • Bill

    Just as there are religious ghosts in many tories, there are secular ghosts, as well. The Times’ underlying attitude toward religion, especially traditional forms of Christianity, is a sniffing disdain. Religion is the opiate of the masses, junk food for thought for the mindless.

    Keller’s bona fides include being a “collapsed” Catholic. This gives him even more credibility than lapsed Catholics. Practicing traditional Catholics have none; they’re really just papal enablers. Traditional Protestants are just trying to establish a theocracy.

    Keller and his co-secularists have put away their childish toys and are now quite grown-up. They know that religion is not something to be taken seriously… unless there are political points to be scored. The really important issues are not the ones discussed in musty old sexist books like the Bible, but what’s being debated in Congress and in statehouses and centers of thought and culture like the NY Times.

    Moreover, since all religions are the same, what’s the big deal about Iran sentencing a Christian to death for apostasy? It’s not a real death sentence; he can just recant, return to Islam and get on with his life. I mean, if he refuses and gets hanged, it’s just because he’s being stubborn.

    Of course, one can be a faithful religious believer and strongly favor a secular government. But a secular faith means the highest authority in a modern state is the state itself, unchecked by anything more than a branch of government. There are no ancient, unchanging truths, just the truths we declare this week. This principle underlies the viewpoint of the Times and most media. And it shows.

  • Bram

    What Bill said.

  • Martha

    This is obviously not a scholarly work of serious historigraphy, it’s a cheap’n’cheerful canter through the best bits of the post-Reformation propaganda about those awful Renaissance Popes – and probably no worse for it, either.

    There are some dreadful scandals attached to the Papacy (as in all institutions that have been around for a long time): try Googling the 10th-century Roman noblewoman Marozia, or the frankly disgusting 11th century Benedict IX to see an example. However, the regurgitation of the old chestnuts (e.g. Galileo) isn’t up to much.

    However, I can steer you to one Catholic who *was* very happy with the review by Mr. Keller :-)

  • Mollie


    I wasn’t trying to be callous but I can definitely see that’s how it came off. I simply deleted the “because” clause.


  • Julia

    Martha: that post you linked was just too good.

    I took a class on the Popes at a secular university taught by an Episcopalian and I was the only Catholic in the class. Fascinating. We started with the very earliest mentions of the Bishop of Rome and kept going through original documents through time up to the 1800s. Good Popes, bad Popes, mediocre Popes, military Popes, murdered & murderous Popes, kidnapped Popes (I had no idea Napolean had kidnapped one and he died in a French prison)and many Popes with “favorite nephews”.

    The grade depended on the semester paper which was supposed to answer the question: Why is the Papacy and the Catholic Church as an institution still around after 2,000 years? I hadn’t been to church in 10 years and thought hard about all we had read and couldn’t come up with a secular reason – so I got a D, but became a revert. Ironical, eh?

  • Bill

    Thanks for the links, Martha. I agree with Julia. The roster of popes sometimes resembles a rogues’ gallery. Like Julia, I left in my early and came back. Part of it was that the Church endures and perseveres despite having some SOBs sitting in the Chair of St. Peter. (And SOBs like me in the pews.) There is something far grander at work than human nature.

    The Teaching Company has a course on the papacy. Fascinating. Scoundrels and saints. The best and the worst.

  • afreyre

    From G.K. Chesterton:

    IT is not we who silence the press. It is the press that silences us. It is not a case of the Commonwealth settling how much the editors shall say; it is a case of the editors settling how much the Commonwealth shall know. If we attack the Press we shall be rebelling, not repressing.” (‘ILN,’ October 19, 1907).

  • JPnutty

    Anytime someone rests their attack/argument/debate against Catholicism on the fact that they went to a Catholic grade or high school (which smacks of emotionalism, how could it not we are raging against everything at that age) I can read no more.
    Not because of the fact that become clearer every time it is mention that Catholic schools of the last 50 years have not done an especially good job of teaching the real faith, but because anyone that stopped learning about the faith at 18 hasn’t learned a darn thing at all! They are not in any position of commenting on the Faith!
    Would you take advice from a financial advisor who has only studied high school economics? Go to a doctor who only has high school biology? At least I know I’m nuts!

  • Harold

    I wonder why you felt it was neccesry to mention the abortion at all? It seems unnecessarily personal as you piled on the criticisms and attacks.

  • Mollie


    Since the whole post was about how we were supposed to believe that Keller didn’t have an ax to grind against the church on account of having gone to Catholic school for a few years, it was a particularly good example of how that narrative fails.

    And he did write about the abortion of his son in the New York Times.

  • Bram

    I’m going to start describing myself as a “(col)lapsed left-liberal.”

    After all, I went to a secular, public university and then left the fold on graduation day.

  • Sarah Webber

    Martha, you are fabulous, again!

  • Martha

    Julia, I don’t know whether to proffer congratulations or sympathy on the paper and the reversion :-)

    I suppose you could have used, as a conclusion, the old joke (from the Middle Ages) about a rich merchant (of London, or Ghent, or Milan, or wherever you like depending on who’s telling the joke) who, for years, has been trying to convert his Jewish trading partner without success. Then one day, his colleague says he’s going to Rome on a business trip. The merchant is appalled, because once he figures, once this guy sees the state of the Vatican, that’s it for any chance of conversion.

    However, when his colleague comes back, he says “Congratulate me! I’ve just been baptised!” The merchant is overjoyed but curious. “But didn’t you go to Rome? Didn’t you see what the Church is like there? How come I couldn’t convince you, but this did?”

    “Indeed I did,” replies the other. “And let me tell you: I’m a businessman. I know about how to run things successfully. If any earthly organisation ran its affairs like that, they wouldn’t last a decade. So for the Church to survive this long, God has to be behind it!”

    Or, a more succinct summation:

    “Why is the Papacy and the Catholic Church as an institution still around after 2,000 years?

    God knows.”

  • Bob Risacher

    “agnostic Protestant” is an oxymoron.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    I read the WSJ. Guess I miss all the “fun”. Can’t quite stomach the NYT.

  • john

    What did you expect, it’s the New York Times, home to Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristoff and various other cultured despisers of religion in general, Christianity in particular and Catholicism especially. Just look at the comment’s after any article even remotely connected with the Catholic Church….pure lefty anti-Catholicism at it’s most bilious.

    Pure preaching to the choir. The fact that Bill Keller wrote a Church-bashing review of a Pope-bahing book is hardly a surprised…it would be more of a shock if he even attempted to be anything close to objectine. But then he wouldn;t be working at the New York Slimes…

  • Julia


    Love your story. That’s exactly my thinking about 10 years of real antipathy to the Church, mainly because of the actions of some individual church people.

    However, the professor said we couldn’t say it must have been God keeping it together – we had to give an acceptable academic answer. I didn’t think there was one so I just made up some jibberish. I wish I could have read the other students’ papers.

  • Julia

    after 10 years

  • Neil Heyman

    How pathetic to cite the reviewer’s family’s tragedy in confronting his opinions. if that’s the best argument you can muster for your views, younkers lost me and every fair minded reader.

    As professional historian–but one unlikely to read the book in question since it is from my area of interest–I would have appreciated a detailed discussion over the book ‘s merits or lack thereof.

  • Mollie


    This is not the site for such a discussion. We look at how the media handles religion news.



  • Maureen

    If somebody wrote a review of a personal finance book claimed to be totally neutral but spent the review scoffing at people who save and invest, and the reviewer had previously written an article about him and his family’s going broke, losing the house, and filing bankruptcy — wouldn’t that be highly relevant to criticism of the review?

  • Grupetti

    18. john says:
    July 13, 2011, at 4:16 pm
    What did you expect, it’s the New York Times, home to Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristoff and various other cultured despisers of religion in general, Christianity in particular and Catholicism especially.

    You’ve seriously misrepresented Kristoff:

    Hug An Evangelical

    Evangelicals a Liberal Can Love

  • John

    You’ve seriously misrepresented Kristoff:

    Did I?
    Opinion: Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Backhanded Compliments of the Catholic Church
    The Pope and AIDS

    Granted, he’s not as puerile as Maureen Dowd…

  • Grupetti

    John, a few criticisms does not make him a cultured despiser of religion in general.

  • Gabriel Austin

    The NYTimes loves a lord. This is the reason for the favorable review, misleading as it is.

  • Rosemary

    Telling me the Kellers had already named their son doesn’t make me pity them = it makes me even angrier at them. The child might have been born dead or in a vegetative state — did that give them the right to murder him if he was in a vegetative state or to hasten a process that had taken place already? I think not. When Rick Santorum and his wife learned their son Gabriel would not live past a few days, they allowed their son to be born and held him in their arms, telling the silent baby their dreams for him and how much they loved and wanted him. Too bad the Kellers couldn’t have shown the same tenderness, love and compassion.