Late last week, National Public Radio came under scrutiny for the controversial firing of their longtime analyst, Juan Williams, over remarks he had made while guesting on Fox News. While political pundits and personalities on both the right and the left seemed to find common ground on the issue (both Whoopie Goldberg and Bill O’ Reilly called the firing “ridiculous”) a few rightwing bloggers—recalling that NPR had last year “suggested” to correspondent Mara Liasson that she reconsider her association with the cable news network—wondered if the publicly-funded radio outlet was conducting a covert “purge” of Fox-affiliated employees.
Anything is possible, I suppose, but “purge” is a strong, dramatic word; considered through the lens of history, it should be used with care. Unless a writer wants to be greeted in the morning with dozens of emails containing Richard J. Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he or she should either be ready to produce evidence that a co-ordinated conspiracy of cleansing is afoot, or find another word.
The Associated Press, for instance, should have perhaps thought twice about this headline, which appeared over the weekend: “Catholic Bloggers Aim to Purge Dissenters.”
Had they omitted “purge,” however, readers would nevertheless have encountered words like “enraged,” “dissecting,” and “hunting,” as the AP’s Rachel Zoll painted a harrowing picture of the conservative Catholic blogosphere, using broad strokes. A reader unfamiliar with religion-focused blogs could be excused for taking from the article a vision of more traditionally-minded Catholics as demons disguised as haloed saints, their red, bifurcated tails just showing beneath their snow-white robes as they thrust out the Flaming Finger of Faith and cry “Heresy! Heresy!”
In fairness to Zoll, she did quote John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, who seems sympathetic to the portrait—it was he who invented the term “Taliban Catholicism”—but also mentioned that “liberals can fit the mindset, too . . . [S]ome left-leaning Catholics are outraged by any exercise of church authority.”
So, it seems we have a Catholic blogosphere riddled with vengeful self-appointed guardians and the anti-authority raspberry-blowers who call names and make faces at them. Zoll’s piece borders on caricature, but we should think seriously about it, because it marks the state of the Body of Christ, and not becomingly.
Caricature can be cruel—it is the bigot’s most-effective weapon—but it only works when the cartoon retains some recognizable elements of the subject, which, sadly, it does here.
Yes, there are extreme Catholic bloggers, “progressive” and “conservative,” who tread recklessly upon their fellow Catholics, and whose motto should read ego usus a blog quod ego sum fortis utor is. Yes, there are a handful of extreme Catholic bloggers to whom Jesus might say, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy. . .’.”
And, because they are extreme types, they will each assume that that line is meant for the “others”—the ones against whom they burnish the swords of righteousness; the ones they lampoon, often, unto snotty incoherence.
In fact, the line is meant for every one of us writing in the Catholic blogosphere, for no one manages perfect charity all the time. I am too cognizant of my own failings to believe I have any business drumming anyone else out of the church and I would venture that most Catholic bloggers, either “progressive” or “conservative,” feel similarly.
We add to the broken body of Christ when we try to judge who is the “better sort” of Catholic, or who is doing damage to that body. We all do impressive jobs of bringing “scandal” to the church by our very passionate need to see things “made right” (as we see it) and by the ways in which we indict each other’s imperfections.
See how these Christians love one another, making lists and assigning labels to the nefarious “others.” What an odd, ungenerous thing to do. Better, I think, to actually correspond with an individual one believes to be in error. To become acquainted with the person one has publicly named a “heretic” or a “yahoo” is to admit that “other” into a shared humanity, which should be the very least Christians can do for each other.
That carries a risk, though. Actual dialogue with an “other” might not only soften one’s edge, it may actually affect one’s own cherished point of view in surprising ways. To engage is to say you are willing to be a little bit open, and to be open is to be vulnerable. Entrenchment feels so much safer, but is ultimately so limiting.
But perhaps that is agreeable for some. Comfy in autonomous little empires or enclaves, it becomes very easy to disassociate from the “others”—to feel vindicated in one’s wrath, or entitled to judgment, especially if our sites are little echo chambers where, like the New Yorker's Pauline Kael (said to have been baffled that Nixon won the presidency, because no one she knew voted for him) we are unexposed to opposing views and “everyone we know” thinks exactly as we do. All 100 or so regulars at our favorite websites.
We are not meant to agree with one another all the time—what a boring world that would be—and to disagree is not automatically to be rude or insulting. Civil disagreement and debate is a very good thing. Sometimes impassioned fury is fine, too, as long as we can keep the overt sneering and the consignment of our foes to various flames of woe to an absolute minimum.
We Catholics are a raucous family. In families, as within marriages, people will disagree on very important matters, but they can still speak of and to each other with charity, for the sake of abiding love.
If we who claim Christ cannot, then what the hell is the point?
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.