When a 375 Word Rebuttal is just not Enough – UPDATED


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A few days ago I received an invite from a major US newspaper (one I like and even count among its contributors a friend or two) asking if I would be interested in writing a 375 word rebuttal to an editorial; its publication next week will apparently identify the problems within the Catholic church, as this editorial board sees them, and would proceed (I presume) to make its recommendations as to what the church should do in order to (again, I presume) get into the good graces of the world.

I say presume because, while the editorial board wanted my very brief rebuttal, they chose to send me only an excerpt of their piece.

An excerpt was enough for me to realize that accepting this invite would be at best a futile endeavor and at worst, a sucker’s bet. The former assumes invincible ignorance on the part of the paper’s writers, which can be taken in good faith; the latter assumes malice.

I have no idea whether the editorial meant to be malicious so I will prefer to think the best and believe that the writers meant well, but were overwhelmed. After all, it is a daunting (impossible, really) thing to attempt to both diagnose the ills of the Roman Catholic Church and also prescribe the remedies — with anything resembling real wisdom — in 700 words.

So try doing a rebuttal in 375.

I wrote 600 explaining why I would not be accepting their invite, and decided to post it here, for the sake of everyone who writes about the church (either for secular or religious venues) because a great deal of the friction between the church and major media stems from a simple fact: the history, reasonings, profound sins, and unappreciated accuracies of the church are such that volumes are required to expound on even their most minute points, while television allows three minutes to break it down, and print media likes it under 1,000 words.

Anyone interested in understanding Catholicism, in all of its faults and all of its greatness, needs to invest time in serious readings from many sources; the New Testament, the Catechism, the documents of the Second Vatican Council; the writings of the Church Doctors and the lives and writings of the saints. One cannot understand the Catholic church — not in the least — unless one can comprehend how persons as disparate in background and outlook as G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day would willingly refer to themselves as Catholicism’s “obedient” children, and be beloved within it.

That’s just to start. More modern overviews like Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism would help. Any of the writings of layfolk like Alice von Hildebrand, Paul Claudel, Elisabeth Leseur or Heather King would help. Some time spent amid the writings of Joseph Ratzinger would help.

Absent that, the press — really all media venues — cannot help but fall short. But an absence of knowledge should not preclude a fair attempt at understanding or, at the very least, a few cursory nods to the notion of balance.

It was the absence of any evidence of the slightest attempt at balance, in the excerpt the newspaper provided, that prompted this response:

Thanks for inviting me to participate in this, but I’m not sure how I could take it on with any sense of personal integrity. Quite honestly, I don’t think 375 words, no matter how clearly or artfully written, could be useful in response to that excerpt, the very first line of which so overgeneralizes and pollutes the discussion that it would require the full word limit you’re offering me to begin to rebut it.

Then there is the next line. And the rest of it. I couldn’t possibly convey in 375 words why Catholics understand — as do Buddhists, by the way — that while a monk or priest might be in a sinful state, the sacraments and duties he participates in are not rendered void because of his personal flaws and faults, because his office is something separate and beyond the natural man; it is supernatural, as is our belief that the Holy Spirit has a say in these proceedings, however slowly we may understand.

Would it be better if someone like Cardinal Mahony withdrew from the conclave, as O’Brien did this week? Sure, but Mahony’s ego (burnished all these years, btw, by a press that adored him) isn’t having any of it. Neither a pope (nor the camerlengo who is now nominally in charge) are CEOs who can just fire these guys. The church does not operate like the world. I could attempt to explain to you, from a supernatural point of view, how the holy and the profane are always side-by-side, or even suggest to you that, in a way of thinking, the presence of some dubious Cardinals in the conclave might well be a very good reminder to the college that our messes and penances are not behind us, which could both keep the Cardinals humble and be the impetus for deep prayer before they make their votes. But not as part of a 375 word rebuttal.

Do you see the problem? I would need 375 words to rebut almost every line of this excerpt!

I’m not sure what your writer means by “fresh start” but the suggestion that immediately follows those words (that the church has apparently done nothing to “confront the sex abuse scandal”) is so dishonest and demonstrably false that it illustrates how little good faith exists in this editorial — or at least in what you have shown me; if there is nothing of good faith here, how could anyone possibly respond in good faith — which is how I would want to — or to any fair effect?

“Nothing in these cardinal’s histories…” seems to imply that none of the Cardinals are worthy (something none of us could possibly know) and if it’s not implying it, then it’s painting, once again, with such a sloppily over-generalizing brush as to not mind leaving that impression. And the whole “restore her moral authority” bit is laughable because for secularists, at least on pelvic issues, her moral authority has been discredited since approximately 1968.

I’m not trying to be rude; I’m actually trying to demonstrate that it’s much easier for you to assert something in a single line than it is for anyone to (in rebuttal) foment understanding — not agreement, mind you but simple, clear understanding — in a corresponding sentence. This editorial appears to be seeking reaction, not genuine response. It is an attempt to throw every sin, fault and failing of the church into the mix, sentence-by-period-hammered-sentence with no attempt at balance. I imagine the rest of the editorial consists of the writers telling the church what she needs to do to become relevant and acceptable to the secular culture, and that it’s the usual stale stuff. That I have to make that assumption because you would not offer me a chance to read the whole is yet another reason I wonder about good-faith. I prefer to assume accident to malice, but there it is.

So, with all due respect, I think I will take a pass; I have a very full plate and frankly didn’t need to stop everything to write a 700 word response to you, but I thought it fair to explain my thinking, and perhaps I am hoping that your editorial writers will take a second look at what they’re putting together, find perhaps one or two urgent issues on which to give balanced address, and save the rest for another time.

The conclave, after all, will not be over in a day. You could probably pull one sentence a day — from that excerpt alone — and build an interesting, more thoughtful and useful editorial out of it.

All the best,

UPDATE:
Remember the part where I wrote, “an absence of knowledge should not preclude a fair attempt at understanding or, at the very least, a few cursory nods to the notion of balance“?

Well, Father James Martin, in a rare rant, expounds on a similar theme on Facebook:

…the number of misinformed articles I’ve read about celibacy, the priesthood, the papacy, the church in this country, the causes of the sexual abuse crisis, church authority, papal infallibility, the role of the magisterium, life in a religious order, the vow of chastity, and Benedict XVI, just boggles the mind. Or at least my mind, which perhaps is too easily boggled. Needless to say, I don’t expect commentators to know everything about the church. (I sure don’t.) But I think it’s a reasonable to expect that people should refrain from commenting (especially publicly) on stuff that they clearly don’t know much about.

In response, I’m going to start writing pieces and submitting op-eds about the most recent developments in quantum physics, the challenges of the last three months of pregnancy, the most efficient way to install a dishwasher…

There’s more, and you’ll likely enjoy it.

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