As we near the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, George Weigel considers the legacy of Fr. Francis Murphy (alias Xavier Rynne), who covered the Council for The New Yorker, and who (it is argued) gave birth to the “good guys vs. bad guys” hermeneutic.
Weigel sees a journalistic impulse to simplify and excite as partly to blame:
Now to be sure, a writer like Murphy, trying to explain the 21st ecumenical council in history to the generally secularized readership of The New Yorker, had a problem on his hands. How could even a gifted and witty scribe (which Murphy/Rynne was) explain, let alone make exciting, arcane debates over doctrine, often conducted in a strange vocabulary, for people who regarded “doctrine” as a synonym for “mindlessness” and “intellectual immaturity,” and in a culture where pragmatism and “technique” had conquered all? Murphy/Rynne had excellent inside sources in Rome, where he had long worked; what he needed was what would now be called — cue fingernails scraping down blackboard — a “narrative.” So Murphy/Rynne hit on a brilliant strategy, perfectly adapted to the Sixties and the middle years of Kennedy Camelot: treat Vatican II as a political contest between the forces of light and the forces of reaction; run everything and everybody at the council through those filters; and then watch readers acclaim, with one voice, “I get it!”
Weigel goes on to identify the lamentable and distorting effects of such an interpretation, arguing that a fresh (and more honest and insightful) look at both history and contemporary affairs will be far more newsworthy:
So, as we approach the golden anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, perhaps it’s time to lay “Xavier Rynne” to rest once and for all. There are a virtual infinity of interesting Catholic stories available to inquiring journalists; virtually none of them makes sense if parsed in liberal-vs.-conservative terms. Rynne/Murphy had a good run. But the days when that optic on all things Catholic made even a modicum of sense are long past. Only the intellectually lazy or ideologically besotted will fail to recognize that — and to move beyond it, into that real engagement with history for which Blessed John XXIII rightly called.