• We all gathered in the editor’s office when the white smoke appeared, setting his computer to the NBC website, otherwise known as the network on which George Weigel appears. As we waited, and it seemed to take forever, one junior fellow stood, the other perched on the end of the couch close to the computer. For a while, the editor lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling. Several of us sat editing or writing, because deadlines are deadlines, new pope or no new pope.
Then the doors opened and Cardinal Tauran came out. When he announced the new pope’s name, we said together in chorus, earnestly and energetically, with millions and millions of Catholics around the world: “ Who?” It would have been nice had the cardinal spoken clearly.
Articles on Cardinal Bergoglio taken from the web were quickly passed around, and hearts were cheered and spirits raised.
• Not everyone felt like this. Within seconds of the announcement, displeased Catholics started blogging and tweeting, and the result was not pretty. Rumors were taken as facts, and facts were given the most negative possible reading. Ad hominem remarks abounded. Even the secular press waited a day or so before starting in on Francis, but not a certain segment of Catholics.
Others besides us found this rush to discontent a problem. On Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s popular weblog, someone who calls himself “the Masked Chicken” (he must have a reason for the name, but it’s hard to imagine what it could be) chided the critics. “When St. John Vianney was asked by some priests why their churches were losing members, he asked them, point blank, ‘Have you fasted for them? Have you prayed all night? Have you done penances?’”
If, said Mr. Chicken, “for every criticism of the Pope you wished to make online, you were to pay for the privilege by first performing an act of real charity for someone in secret (for you cannot be certain that the comment you planned on making is such), then we would have a holier Church and a lot more gentle comments.”
“I have not earned the privilege to speak about what I think the Pope should or should not do,” he wrote. Learning to say the right thing at the right time “is a gift that comes only after you have learned to die to self and the best start for that is humility, detachment, and charity.”
• In their description of an upcoming exhibit titled Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art, the curators of the Morgan Library & Museum explained that the Eucharist had a “sometimes cult-like hold on medieval life and medieval imagination.” Someone must have protested, we found when we double-checked the website. Now it says “For medieval Christians, the Eucharist (the sacrament of Communion) was not only at the heart of the Mass—but its presence and symbolism also wielded enormous influence over cultural and civic life.”
• A scholar who recently returned from Germany writes: “Have you heard about the political crisis between Germany and Italy, resulting from a major German politician officially stating that the Italians have voted for two clowns? The funny thing is, not only the Italians are complaining, but also the head of the most famous German circus, who does not want the serious work of his employees to be associated with the crazy things going on in Italy.”
• There are a lot of problems with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, not least the fact that, as he later admitted, he made up the climactic graveyard conversation between a detective and the murdered girl’s best friend. He promised to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in his “nonfiction novel,” and it was a lie that made his career.
The book first appeared as a series of articles in the New Yorker and years later, writes Ben Yagoda in Slate, the fact checker reported that “he had never seen such an accurate account and that whatever the fiction veneer, In Cold Blood was a scrupulous non-fiction report.” The book was scrupulously accurate because it got right mostly unimportant details (the distances between places, the dates of events like hunting season).
I suspect the effect over time is that since only certain facts can be checked, the facts that can be checked come to be the facts that matter. In other cases, by nature the more important ones, ideology rules. Our friend Matthew Boudway, an editor at Commonweal, observed that the New Yorker is, and maybe always was, “selectively punctilious about their facts, better with dates than with (for example) doctrines.”
He points to an article on Pope Francis in the then-current issue. John Cassidy, one of their regular writers on things Catholic, explains that “if Pope Francis were to strike out in a new direction, he would theoretically have plenty of leeway. Whereas a Supreme Court Justice has to persuade a majority of his colleagues to go along with his views, the doctrine of papal infallibility allows the Pope to declare his interpretations of dogma beyond challenge.” This could, shall we say, have been put more accurately.
Or take another recent story on Francis, which referred to “Rome during the Second World War, when the silence of Pope Pius XII was understood as a tacit admission of Vatican acquiescence with the policies of the Axis.” That “silence” and “was understood” are both wrong and wrong to the point of being lies, but they survived the supposedly rigorous fact checkers because everyone in the New Yorker knows that Pius was one of the bad guys. But if the writer had included dates, those would have been right.
• “It is probably too much to hope,” John Cassidy says wistfully at the end of that article, “that Francis will change the Vatican’s stance on issues like gay rights, the ordination of women, and celibacy in the priesthood,” those positions being “absolutist” and “doctrinaire.” How these positions are more absolutist and doctrinaire than his own commitment to the approval of homosexuality, women priests, and married priests is, as per usual, not made clear.
More trying, and also typical, is Cassidy’s twisting of history. Following St. Francis, for example, means being “more interested in alleviating poverty and helping the afflicted than in staking out doctrinaire positions on things like contraception.” Hence his hope that Pope Francis will lead the Church to . . . we would say look just like the rest of the world and thereby begin to put itself out of business, but he would undoubtedly put it more positively.
St. Francis was, of course, rather fiercely orthodox, a check-off-all-the-boxes type of guy. Were he here today, he would have been helping the afflicted, yes, and he’d be teaching against contraception, and he wouldn’t be seeing any difference between the two ways of serving God, and of serving the poor. And John Cassidy would be wistfully looking back to some other hero of the past he could remake in the preferred shape of the present.
• Social constraints helped civilize ancient man, professor of psychiatry Jeffrey P. Kahn tells us. But unfortunately, “these same lifesaving social instincts didn’t readily lend themselves to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation—the other human drives that make for a vibrant civilization.” For that, he says, man needed beer.
“With the help of the new psychopharmacological brew, humans could quell the angst of defying those herd instincts,” with the advantage that the next morning, sobering up, “instincts to conform and submit would have kicked back in to restore the social order.” Beer made our ancestors “more expansive in their thinking, as well as more collaborative and creative.”
Though presented with this evidence, the editor declines to set up an office tab at Molly’s, our favorite Irish pub nearby. He’s shortsighted that way.
• A friend who corresponds with prisoners on death row sends one prisoner’s poem describing the horrific abuse he endured as a child. He tells her that most of the men on death row with him suffered that kind of abuse. The poem, titled “Spare the Rod” and addressed to his father, begins with the story of his sister’s beatings, and continues:
Then came a son to intercede,
a five-year-old you caused to bleed;
he would not flee your spit and roar,
you smashed his face into the floor.
And those were just the better years.
What shall you find at heaven’s gate?
What shall be a father’s fate
who reveled in his children’s screams
who haunts them still in all their dreams?
You took your children meek and mild,
and beat them feral, stomped them wild.
You’ve now moved on to spar with God,
Who spares the child and breaks the rod.
• “What Nostra Aetate failed to do was to tell the truth about the essence of God’s Grace and Mercy, the truth about our Salvation,” writes a reader of our weblog First Thoughts, responding to something I’d written about our Jewish brethren. Jesus said “No one can come to The Father except through me,” she concluded, therefore “the Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians do.” It seems an air-tight argument—only those who know Jesus see the Father, therefore people who don’t know Jesus, don’t—but if so, what was Jesus doing worshipping in the synagogue?
• In this issue, the normally irenic Ephraim Radner offers a pointed rebuke to Notre Dame historian Candida Moss’s new book on martyrdom in the early Church. He is not pleased, in a way and to a degree he is rarely not pleased. Which tells you something about the book.
After reading the publisher’s description, I had written something critical about the book on our weblog First Thoughts, citing the publisher’s description. Moss tweeted to some of her fans “Why are you all so fixated on reading the book before judging it? @firstthingsmag @newman_society weren’t.”
Well, yes, but a writer can’t shrug off responsibility for what her publisher says about her book, especially when the publisher is HarperOne. As the saying goes, he who lies down with the dogs wakes up with fleas, and she who publishes with the publisher of Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, and Starhawk, not to mention books like Afterlives of the Rich and Famous by the “psychic” Sylvia Browne, finds her book being pushed as another devastating blow to traditional Christianity.
Moss could have found a smaller publisher that would not have promoted the book this way, but it would also have sold fewer books. Which reminds us of a line from A Man for All Seasons: But for sales, Candida, for sales?
As it happens, I was, as Ephraim shows, also right about the book.
• The publisher’s description, in case you’re wondering, went: “In The Myth of Persecution, Moss . . . exposes that the ‘Age of Martyrs’ is a fiction—there was no sustained three-hundred-year-long effort by the Romans to persecute Christians. Instead, these stories were pious exaggerations; highly stylized rewritings of Jewish, Greek, and Roman noble death traditions; and even forgeries designed to marginalize heretics, inspire the faithful, and fund churches.”
• “For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter,” writes Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic, commenting on the assault on the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel had, in his new book Mind and Cosmos, the “impudence” to doubt neo-Darwinian materialism, and such impudence could not be left unpunished. The “materialist left,” Wieseltier notes, “teaches skepticism but not self-skepticism.”
Nagel “is being denounced not merely for being wrong. He is being denounced also for being heretical. I thought heresy was heroic. I guess it is heroic only when it dissents from a doctrine with which I disagree.”
• Wieseltier goes on. The biologist H. Allen Orr, writing in the New York Review of Books, “has the decency to concede that it is not at all obvious how consciousness could have originated out of matter.” And then, Wieseltier notes with apparent pleasure, he “proceeds to an almost comic evasion. Finally, he says, we must suffice with ‘the mysteriousness of consciousness.’ A Darwinii mysterium tremendum!”
Orr “then cites Colin McGinn’s entirely unironic suggestion that our ‘cognitive limitations’ may prevent us from grasping the evolution of mind from matter: ‘even if matter does give rise to mind, we might not be able to understand how.’ Students of religion will recognize the dodge—it used to be called fideism, and atheists gleefully ridiculed it; and the expedient suspension of rational argument; and the double standard. What once vitiated godfulness now vindicates godlessness.”
• Ideas have consequences, and stupid ideas have bad consequences. In 2000, the Dutch decided to legalize prostitution, apparently thinking that making it legal would make it respectable and safe. Naturally, as Julie Bindel writes in the Spectator, things have gotten much worse.
“Pimps, under legalization, have been reclassified as managers and businessmen. Abuse suffered by the women is now called an ‘occupational hazard,’ like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe. . . . As the city has become the brothel of Europe, women have been imported by traffickers from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to meet the demand. . . . Support for the women to leave prostitution became almost nonexistent.” Organized crime has moved in. And even towns that don’t want a brothel have to allow at least one, because—wait for it—“not doing so is contrary to the basic federal right to work.”
The government, she writes, “hoped to play the role of the honorable pimp, taking its share in the proceeds of prostitution through taxation. But only 5 percent of the women registered for tax, because no one wants to be known as a whore—however legal it may be.”
And good for them. The prostitutes have more sense than the Dutch government, which did not realize what it was doing when, trying to make prostitution a job like any other, it made “the buying and selling of human flesh acceptable.” It was not, of course, the politicians and idealists who suffered. It never is.
• In 1996, Bindel notes, the Netherlands allowed streetwalking, legal nowhere else in the world, and created “tolerance zones” for the business. “This being the Netherlands, there is a special section for cyclists. Keep prostitution green.”
• He’s a friend, let me say, but I think I’m being somewhat objective in commending Rod Dreher’s book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, now out. It’s the story of his younger sister’s death from cancer, the small town in which she lived all her life, which took care of her and her family as she suffered, and his relation with his family, his hometown, and the wider world in which he had made his name, and his move home after his sister’s death.
Though the book’s about his sister, it gets better the more autobiographical it gets. Rod offers a moving reflection—a middle-aged reflection—on making a life and then living the life you’ve made and on learning that things work out and yet they don’t. It’s a book I kept thinking about for weeks after I read it. Very much recommended.
• Gives you hope, these little platoon enterprises like Angelico Press, in which small groups of dedicated people do what needs to be done, shrewdly using the new technology to do it. The press employs a staff connected by the web and prints its books (very nicely produced) on an on-demand printing press.
“We are committed to bringing tradition forward into modernity, without failing to conserve its essence, in an attempt to help till the soil of a new age of evangelization and Christian discipleship,” one of the founders, John Riess, tells us.
The press “adverts to the fullness of the Church’s tradition in ways not commonly found in the contemporary Catholic world. The mystical, metaphysical, esoteric, and symbolical dimensions of our faith are too little known by many, and yet are the very things so many hunger for.”
They started out to reprint important works either out of print or available in cheaply made and/or expensive copies but then saw the need to publish new books as well. On my desk as I write, for example, is The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk, a very helpful survey of the subject (among its other subjects are Swift, Samuel Johnson, Newman, Chesterton, and Eliot) commended by Roger Scruton as “finely written and highly erudite” as well as “original and persuasive.”
Their list already impresses. For more information, see angelicopress.com.
• Those interested in the Catholic News Service reviews mentioned in Brad Miner’s “Lost Legion of Decency” can find them at old.usccb.org/movies/b/b.shtml .
• The Forum Letter recently quoted an essay from the first year of this magazine’s life, Gilbert Meilaender’s “I Want to Burden My Loved Ones,” and it’s worth quoting here. “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other—and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?” he asks.
“Families would not have the significance they do for us if they did not, in fact, give us a claim upon each other. At least in this sphere of life we do not come together as autonomous individuals freely contracting with each other. We simply find ourselves thrown together and asked to share the burdens of life while learning to care for each other.”
We don’t like these burdens, he continues, but if we reject them, “we cease to live in the kind of moral community that deserves to be called a family. Here, more than in any other sphere of life, we are presented with unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans and projects. I do not like such interruptions any more than the next person; indeed, a little less, I rather suspect.
“But it is still true that morality consists in large part in learning to deal with the unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans. I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.”
while we’re at it sources : Mr. Chicken’s rebuke: wdtprs.com, March 21, 2013. Medieval cults: themorgan.org, n.d. Italian clowns: personal message. Selective facts: slate.com, March 20, 2013; newyorker.com, March 25, 2013; newyorker.com, March 15, 2013. Wistful Cassidy: newyorker.com, March 25, 2013. Civilizing beer: nytimes.com, March 17, 2013. Moss’s sales: twitter.com/candidamoss, February 21, 2013. Persecution myths: amazon.com. Denouncing Nagel: newrepublic.com, March 8, 2013. Orr’s concession: ibid. and New York Review of Books, February 7, 2013. The Netherland’s blunder: The Spectator, February 2, 2013. Meilaender’s burden: First Things, October 1991.
wwai tips : Dave Eden, Anne Barbeau Gardiner, Matthew Schmitz, Bradford P. Wilson.