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,

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.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • vox borealis


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  • http://abbey-roads.blogspot.com/ Terry


  • David Naas

    Good response to an impossible situation (heads we win, tails you lose). And they thought you would jump up and furnish them with edible bits?

    My sheltered experiences with anti-religious people are that they seldom understand religion any better than non-religious people. One would presume that “know thy enemy” would apply, but, alas, the concept of incredible invincibility applies. They cannot, or will not, understand ideas like humanity, sin, and (shudder) grace. They Do, however, invest Those-Not-Themselves with all the attributes of EVIL.

  • Maggie Goff

    The epitome of Charity in Truth. Thank you!!

  • Patti Day

    I could guess which paper you refer to, but maybe not, because the Conclave will be a field day for the whole secular press to throw out their vitriolic trash. Thank you for your well-edited response.

  • Mary Melissa

    BRAVO!! I thank God every day that the Church has members (minds & tongues) with your skills. I bet your a great Mom, me I usually just resort to “don’t make me stop this car”.
    Awesome, just Awesome!

  • Diane


  • Cathy

    I found it difficult to read the response. The use of the word ‘except’ when I think you meant ‘excerpt’ was distracting.

    But the fact that the media misrepresents and attacks the Church, suggests that it is doing something right.

    [that was a weird kind of brain hiccup, thanks for the headsup. admin]

  • Victor

    ((( 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. )))

    Come on Anchoress! Don’t YA know that LOVE believes all things NOW!

    How many times must me, myself and i tell YA to leave The Anchoress alone sinner vic cause you’re nothing butt a troll NOW!

    Be nice Victor! Don’t be like that! “I” was just about to agree with her this time butt ya never gave me a chance so to hell with YA all NOW!



    Anchoress! “I’M” going to read the rest NOW!

    Go Figure! :)


  • http://upyetnotnorth.blogspot.com Rev. Nick Blaha

    Elizabeth, thank you for posting your response. I continually pray for a better way to respond to so many of the difficulties you mention, something better than “you’ll understand when you’re older” or something else that comes across as disingenuous, but I haven’t come up with it yet. The danger I think we face is that we don’t ever manage to get it out there at all, and with the media culture being what it is, there are less and less reasons for those who are unfamiliar with the core of Catholicism to dismiss it as unworthy of further investigation.
    At any rate, publishing this response is very helpful. Thank you for doing your part.

  • http://blog.derherralipius.com/ Alipius

    Man, you’re good!

  • Margaret Rose Realy

    My Lord, but you’re gifted! Your thoughts, your words… What a blessing you are to read. Thanks.

  • Victor

    OK Anchoress! We 92% gods of Victor know that “IT” is LENT and we’re starting to think that these so called 7% Cells of “JESUS” and U>S (usual sinners) don’t want to take a chance that “ONE” soul cell does really exist and that The HOLY SPIRIT is on this little retardo’s side so long story short, I was going to tell YA that they didn’t really mean 375 words, they forgot to tell YA that they were, were thinking that each words were really “ONE” click and for example, here’s “ONE” NOW! http://shirtofflame.blogspot.ca/

    “I” better stop Victor cause “IT” is WAY too complicated for normal “MAN” and Wo Man to understand NOW!

    Glad YA cleared “IT” all UP sinner vic!

    Go Figure NOW! :)


  • Victor

    Got to go to Saint Victor’s town of Mattawa with my wife to see our Baby Daughter perform but before me, myself and i go, “I” was just wondering what is really important to YA NOW!


    Got to go cause she’s yelling at “ME”, “ME” and “ME” NOW!

    Go figure Wo man! :)


  • Ann

    How can you write a rebuttal to something that they aren’t even letting you read in full? That makes no sense to me.. Good for you for taking a pass.

  • http://www.thecatholicbeat@gmail.com Gail Finke

    That was a wonderful reponse.

  • http://www.brotherpriests.com Benjamin

    This is an impossible task because you assumes that you must rebut the article by entering the vermin infested swamp that it has created.

    In the Gospel of John, Jesus defends himself before Pilate against all the charges of the Jews with 134 words.

  • http://none joe d

    I have just finished writing the Editor in Chief, the Editorial section Editor, our local Archbishop and my Pastor about the coverage of the Pope’s resignation in the daily St.Louis newpaper. It has been horrific and the last piece by a so called Catholic editorialist, initials ej d, on “The next pope should be a NUN”, helped me lose my cool and tell them exactly what I thougt of their choice of stories.

  • Peggy Coffey

    Your response to a no win situation was beautiful. I hope they think about what they wrote and maybe do a more thoughtful rewrite. (I know, this is today’s press)

  • Jean Pergande

    My Hats off to You. Thanks for the clear thinking and generosity in your answer.

  • http://pilgrimchronicle.wordpress.com/ Kevin

    Cute. By only letting you see and respond to parts of the diatribe, it would give the reader the impression that you had the opportunity to rebut a lot of stuff (that you actually never saw) and were simply unable to do so. This is on the same level as a certain cable news network’s recent penchant for substantively altering audio and video clips to mislead viewers.

  • Caroline Walker

    Thank you so much, Elizabeth, an elegant challenge. It may indeed be futile; what I have to remind myself of several times a day these days is that we are not called upon to be successful; we are only asked to be faithful. “Well done, my good and faithful servant, well done.”

  • Bertha

    Oh my, the Holy Spirit must have taken a break from the Cardinals and came to reast on your shoulder because your response was inspired.

  • Bertha

    Oh my, the Holy Spirit must have taken a break from the Cardinals and came to rest on your shoulder because your response was inspired.

  • Bertha

    Oops, sorry for the double entry. I was trying to fix the word “rest”.

  • Oregon Catholic

    Don’t ignore the message because you didn’t like the way it was couched. The secular world is telling us loud and clear what every Catholic already knows – the Church has lost her moral authority. They are rejecting the message because the messenger has fouled themselves. And they have fouled themselves with the same “pelvic sins” the secular world and lay Catholics didn’t like to begin with. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

    How can the Church carry out the New Evangelization when every truth it teaches will be met with jeers of “Hypocrite!”? I would hold on to the message that they would like to see it’s moral authority come back and are asking us insiders how we think that can happen. Maybe they aren’t totally sincere yet but I think the world is hungry, no starving, for it and we need to give it to them because no one else can or will.

    We should all be letting the cardinals and bishops know in no uncertain terms that their first priority is to do whatever it takes to clean up the disaster THEY have made and rebuild credibility, among Catholics and the secular world.

  • Adam

    Any serious debate with a seasoned Catholic is going to require the opponent to accept that Catholics believe the following:

    1) God exists. Not just “God” in the abstract, but an all-knowing, loving, powerful God with a real personality who directly intervenes in human history and cares about each human life. Without God, the religious aspects of Catholicism become empty ritual and any morals and laws are a simple agreement of the majority.
    2) Sin exists. Sin has to be not just what makes humans angry, but what directly angers God due to its contravention of why He created us. Without sin, God’s involvement is irrelevant and the morality of all human nature is subject to debate.
    3) Jesus Christ exists and was God incarnate. Without Jesus, Catholicism is the false worship of either a fictional character or a really nice but not-divine guy.
    4) The Bible–to include the deuterocanonical books–are a divinely inspired and normative account of human history and God’s plan. Without Scripture, we are at a disagreement as to the true account of Jesus’ life and God’s plan–any Gospel or other book is as valid as the others.
    5) Jesus Christ established an institutional Church to carry on his work after his ascension. Without an institutional Church, each man and woman becomes his or her own successor to Christ–your interpretation of the Word is no better than mine.
    6) Scripture and apostolic tradition are on equal footing and complimentary. Without the authority of the Church, one can cherry-pick any part of Scripture to find holes in Church teaching, or raise the mere complaint that Scripture doesn’t address it so the Church’s claims are all relative.

    Your secular opponents lack any or all of these foundations, or at least, they haven’t thought very seriously about any of them. Most people who want to debate the church are in that position. We should continue to preach the truth and spread the Gospel, realizing that most people are almost literally speaking a different language when it comes to these matters. The Church is simply wrong on issue X, because they have no concept of God, or his Son, or that his Son created that Church in the first place. Pray for them–perhaps God can speak to them in that inner-language that our own poor words cannot translate.

  • Matt

    Oregon Catholic, we are all hypocrites! You, me, and everyone in this Church of ours. Why? Because we are all sinners! We belong to a Church that says don’t sin and, damn it, we do it anyway. What sad sacks we are. You see, though, the Church has not lost her moral authority because it’s really God who has the moral authority. It’s just the Church’s job to communicate God’s moral authority to the world. The church does a poor job of that sometimes. Why? That’s right… She’s full of sinners. But hey, if we weren’t sinners then we’d have no need of a Church, now, would we?

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  • Margarita

    The Vatican suffers from those who have entrenched themselves in powerful positions who have done nothing to advance evangelization of the faithful who are leaving. They (like all people with powerful positions) cannot fathom of a church let free. Let the power go to the cardinals who know their people and let the Vatican exist as nothing more than an office of the pope. He alone should guide the church and hopefully to a new and more vibrant church. I would like to see a St. Paul scolding but reminding us of the essential truth of Christ. The entire structure of the Vatican should be swept away leaving only those who truly have the desire to bring life and joy back into the church. There is no place in this modern church for prelates who place their own lust for power above the good of the church.

  • I M Forman

    Thank you for sharing this wth us. Dentistry on an alligator is better than dealing with some of these newspaper editoril boards. At least an alligator has more integrity.

  • http://marycatelli.livejournal.com/ Mary

    Hmmm. One thinks the possibility of vincible ignorance, even affect ignorance, is also real.

  • Bill M.

    This is you at your best.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Good for you!!!!! That was outstanding and courageous. And thank you for posting this.

  • Tzard

    It seems many in the modern-day media are stuck in reactionary mode. Articles reacting to situations and rebuttals reacting back. Reactions are seldom well thought out in the best circumstances – at the very best, they’re mere first impressions.

    What I miss are the formats sometimes found in the newspapers and magazines of my youth – Pick a topic – two or more people write articles on it independently and they’re presented side-by-side. No response yet (hopefully) – then start a back and forth discussion. (some of these even made it into books). Were this what was offered, you’d avoid the tendency for reaction, and get people to think, and compare well-thought-out explanation to trolling.

  • http://www.diddly.wordpress.com Wim Chase

    I am really glad that you posted this and sent that response. I think that Roman Catholics might try just sticking to describing what they do and why they do it, be it theologically or in how they govern themselves. In other words, transparency should be the rule whenever possible. And if you are going to ‘strip down’ , it is only fair that your audience give you time to do it thoroughly. ( See ‘elephant in the dark’ wisdom story) Perhaps the Vatican’s history as a nation state and its exclusive us of Latin in the Mass until Vatican 2 put them behind the curve in terms of developing this ability to be comfortable in its own skin in all settings, even hostile ones. Being transparent requires faith. Christ didn’t hide his divinity or his humanity . He was completely transparent, and it was absolutely necessary for him hom to be so in order to accomplish his mission, and it was extremely dangerous.
    I think that is true for the RCC too.

  • mama j

    Clear, concise, to the point…..a knock-out punch.
    Tutor Boehner.

  • Michael Corriveau

    GKC would raise a toast to your insights and piercing, yet magnanimous

  • Howard

    Of course, they had you in a catch-22 from the beginning. Here’s how I expect them to treat your explanation of why 375 words are not enough to respond properly: ‘Catholic blogger and “Anchoress” Elizabeth Scalia was asked for comment, but declined.’ In other words, not as though you had too much to say, but as though you had nothing to say.