Touchstone Magazine HomeHome
Touchstone's Editors on news & events of the day.with Patrick Henry ReardonOrder our publications...Speakers bureau, Chicago Lecture Series, and more...Browse back issues...All the information you need



Touchstone's editors on news and events of the day.

E-mail your comments

Saturday, August 2

A JEWISH DEFENSE:

A nice short piece by David Horowitz on the attacks Mel Gibson's movie The Passion: "Mel Gibson's Passion". Horowitz - who is Jewish, for those who didn't realize it - was the new left leader of the 60s who now sees the world rather differently and hosts Frontpage Magazine.

Anyway, he describes the

campaign [of] villification and book burning by a committee of Christians and Jews who want to shut it down before it is shown, or edit it to their own politically (or religiously) correct standards. Paula Fredriksen is a spokesman for this committee. The New Republic has shamed itself by printing her ill-informed and bigoted attack on the film.

He has seen the movie and says:

an awesome artifact, an overpowering work. I can't remember being so affected by a film before. It is extremely painful to watch and yet the violence is never gratuitous. You never feel like you want to take your eyes off the screen. It is a wracking emotional journey which never strays from its inspirational purpose. It is as close to a religious experience as art can get.

It is not, he says, anti-semitic. And he concludes:

This is a Christian parable. The cruelty, intolerance and lack of compassion of human beings is limitless -- and we who have lived through the Twentieth Century know this all too well. The moral of this Christian story - of Mel Gibson's film - is that we all killed Jesus - Jew and Gentile alike - and tortured him, and we do so every day.

But if you believe the vision that Gibson has rendered so searingly and so well, Jesus forgives us for that very act. Whosoever will give up cruelty and love his brother will enter paradise. That is the message that Gibson has framed in his extraordinary work. The effort to shut down his film before it opens is just another station of the cross.


My thanks to Mark Shea's blog for the link.


9:59 PM


MORE BAD GENCON NEWS:

Daniel Crandall, one of our readers, writes:

I've been reviewing the news posted at the link you've provided and, while homosexual issues are dominating most folks attention, I was struck by an item that was passed by the Episcopal Church's Social and Urban Affairs Committee (see the story here. They have decided that embryonic stem cell research is OK as long as those who created the embryos, in the course of IVF procedures, are OK with it.

The language of the resolution passed supports "the choice of those who wish to donate their early embryos remaining after in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures have ended." The story linked above summarizes the Committee's findings as " giving guidelines and recommendations for couples who plan to donate their unused embryos for research on genetic and other debilitating diseases."

Is it just me or does this seem to echo the liberal position regarding abortion? That is, while one may personally oppose abortion, one should not interfere with others choice to destroy their own offspring; in the case of embryonic stem cell research the destruction is carried out in the name of science.

How is it that this has been missed by many commentators who are focusing on homosexual issues?


9:45 PM


ISSUES OF JUSTICE

Of possible interest: the 2003 meeting of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, to be held in Arlington, Virginia, September 26th to 28th. It is titled "The Catholic Citizen: Debating Issues of Justice."

The conference features a keynote address by the Oxford philosopher John Finnis titled "Secularism, Faith, and Public Policy" and lectures or panel discussions on:

- Meeting the Just Demands of non-Traditional Households;
- Debating the Personhood and Rights of the Early Embryo;
- An Exchange on the Ethics of Embryo Adoption (featuring William Saunders of the Family Research Council);
- Problems of Formal and Material Cooperation with Evil in Healthcare, the Legal Profession, and Military Service;
- Pacifism and just war; and
- Capital punishment.


10:54 AM


Friday, August 1

BISHOPS ARE BISHOPS:

As I was writing on Sydney Smith's experience in the Church of England in the 1830s and 40s (see the next blog, "Singular feelings") I began to reflect upon the life of bishops, and indeed of the CEOs of any religious body, whatever they call themselves. Evangelical friends have told me horror stories of the most prelatical behavior among their elders, even if they call them names like "Brother Jonathan, chief area enabler and facilitator (two year term)," and the Orthodox sometimes joke that the Catholics are lucky in having only one infallible bishop.

This reminds me of a story about Hensley Henson, who managed to be named Bishop of Durham despite being nearly as great a smart aleck as Sydney Smith. When, some time in the 30s, the Archbishop of Canterbury complained to him that his (the archbishop's) portrait made him look "proud, pompous, and prelatical," Henson sweetly asked, "And to which of those does your grace object?"

In my own recent career as an analyst of such things, I found that bishops could take being criticized - they have to get used to it if they're going to do the job they'd pursued so energetically - and they could take charges that they'd failed though they did not like them at all, but they could not tolerate having the dynamics of their life exposed. A sociologist annoys them much more than a theologian. You could say "Bishop Smith is wrong" and get a polite letter in response; you could say "Bishop Smith is a hypocrite" and get an offended letter; but if you said "Here's how the system works and why things happen as they do," you could leave them apoplectic.

I suspect part of the problem is the religious self-identity. If you spend your life assuming that you're doing God's will and following the leading of the Holy Spirit, you do not like being told that you are a social creature influenced by social forces and (speaking of bishops en masse) being moved by them in rather predictable ways. Religious CEOs have too high a view of their own independence to like the sociological view of their office, especially as it suggests that they act more in self-interest than they want to admit. (I understand this perfectly.)

In "Singular Feelings" I talked about the bishops of the Church of England, but the effects of the episcopal situation upon episcopal action apply to the CEOs of any religious body. It applies to the Catholic bishops and I think helps explain many of the bishops' gross mishandling of youth-molesting priests. Put simply: they run a big organization, and of necessity must delegate responsibility and take advice from a limited number of people while trying as much as possible to satisfy the different and often competing interests of the people under them. Being fallen men, and in some cases rather mediocre men, they tend to do the easiest thing.

Think about the typical bishop's life. He works long days and all day long has lots of people plucking at his sleeve demanding attention. The calls come in. The letters come in. People come in.

Some people and their interests will be more pressing than others - or rather, will press upon him more than others, which is not the same thing. In the normal course of institutional life, a busy man will tend to attend to those who needs press upon him more often and more sharply. Offered a choice of solutions to any problem, he will tend to choose the easiest. Given an array of advice, he will tend to listen to the one that justifies choosing the easiest solution. Squeaky wheels do get the grease. People who offer the grease do get listened to.

This is the way such organizations work. Their being religious does not change that.

It is usually easier, for example, to put off with windy sentiments about unity the parishioners of St. John's church upset because you assigned them Fr. Billy Bob, who is doing horrible - and you have to admit to yourself, blatantly illegal and heretical - things to the liturgy, than annoy the priests of the diocese by removing one of their own, who's only doing what some of them do or would like to do. And you never disciplined Fr. Guido for doing the same thing a few years ago, which some people who don't understand the responsibilities of your office (this is what you say to yourself) took as a precedent and permission, and if you discipline Fr. Billy Bob people on both sides will bring up Fr. Guido, a sleeping dog you'd rather let lie.

And you've known Billy since seminary anyway, and he's got a good heart, and anyway you can't think of anywhere else to put him, and to try to make him stop screwing up the liturgy would cost you more than you're willing to pay in time and effort and bad publicity. And the people won't really mind, these things always take a little while to work themselves out, and (after two or three years of getting such complaints) you begin to blame the people who keep bringing up such things who are obviously troubled people who can't adjust to change.

So with so many bishops' protection of predatory homosexuals. The life of the institution - all the people, with all their competing needs and interests - and the forces it created encouraged them to "handle" the problem, which usually meant to transfer the predator or send him to counseling and then transfer him. It encouraged them to take the easier path because they could always blame any failures on the size and complexity of the diocese, as Cardinal Law did. It tempted them to take the easier path and a lot of them took it. Now they may say, "Oh we didn't know any better," but they did. They didn't act because the price of acting rightly was too high. Sorry, not too high: higher than they were willing to pay.

This, friends, is just the way things are in a fallen world. Every observant churchman can tell similar stories about the CEOs of their own bodies. (Which is not to say God has not also given us some extraordinary bishops and elders.) For that matter, each one of us can tell similar stories from our own lives, however lowly in status we might be. Most of us have done in our own hierarchies what the bishops did in theirs.

This is why, though I believe in the possibility of repentance and revival, and the ability of good men to resist these dynamics, I think the Catholic Church will suffer such problems until her structure changes. I am not, please do note this, advocating the ordination of women or married men or the creation of lay councils that usurp the bishop's proper authority or any other of the usual liberal solutions - solutions that advance an agenda the liberals hold anyway. I was an Episcopal activist for almost twenty years, and know that all these things simply cause other problems, as shown by the debates at that body's General Convention, going on now. And the problems are rather worse, because institutionalized and intractable.

I am suggesting that the Catholic Church in America needs to be restructured so that these dynamics are not so powerful. Of course, they cannot be entirely removed. For example, a bishop will always tend to favor his priests over his people because they will always be the squeakier wheel and because he is supposed to be close to them, as a father to his sons.

But two things might be done: 1) subdivide dioceses, so that the bishops knew more of their people and knew their clergy much better, and 2) make dioceses more dependent upon voluntary giving, so that the bishops would have practical reason to pay more attention to their people. These two changes would change the dynamics so that the costs of not acting against predatory priests would be much higher than they had been, which, in a fallen world, means that more bishops would do something about them.

There is no theological reason to keep the enormous dioceses that have grown up through history, and I think theological reasons for dividing them. Bishops and others will talk about the ministries of the diocese, but there is no reason many of these could not be done in smaller dioceses or in a group of dioceses. There is no theological reason for the legally enforced contributions from parishes, and I think theological reasons for making them voluntary. Bishops and other diocesan officials will go on about "our mutual responsibility" and the like, but I do not see any reason, besides convenience, that these mutual responsibilities must be exercised under duress.

To restructure the Catholic Church in America in this way would be only to do for her life what each of us should be doing for ourselves. We recognize that we face certain temptations from our position or status or situation. If you need money, don't take up the offering and count it where no one can see you take the occasional twenty. If you are troubled by lust, don't take a job handing out towels at the pool or buy Playboy for the articles. You try to arrange your life to minimize the temptations. The Catholic bishops should do this as well. (I know they won't, but it's still an idea worth raising.)

A few months ago I was sitting with a group of conservative Catholics after a meeting we'd all attended, and one man, who had worked in a diocesan bureaucracy (a chancery, in Catholic talk) excused Cardinal Law's writing a letter praising one of his youth-molesting priests - it said "God love you, Jack," if I remember rightly - by saying that someone else had written the standard retiring priest letter, duly personalized, and the cardinal hadn't even read it before signing it. (This does strike me as a form of lying.)

This suggests the problem, that a bishop can't read the letters he writes to his own priests. Would the Church's ministry in eastern Massachusetts have been harmed if the cardinal's diocese was small enough that he could know his own priests well, and other bishops led the other dioceses and knew their priests well? I don't think so, and I'm rather sure it would have been helped. Perhaps it would not have suffered the public humiliation its distant cardinal inflicted upon it.


2:31 PM


SINGULAR FEELINGS:

I was flipping through the World Classics edition of the Selected Letters of Sydney Smith (see "Holoplexic Preaching" for a description of the Rev'd Mr. Smith), and came across his open letter to the Bishop of London, C. J. Blomfield, published in The Times on 5 September 1840. It is one of those things that remind you that truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Smith quotes a speech by the bishop, I think given to the House of Lords, in which Blomfield goes from noticing how much the clergy at St. Paul's Cathedral were paid to implying - in that careful episcopal way - that this money would be much better spent on the poor. Blomfield was defending a needed reform of the distribution of income among the clergy - some clergy had livings (parishes) that paid them a lot, some had livings that paid them almost nothing - which did not include a reform of the privileges of the bishops who pushed it.

Six years earlier Smith had written the bishop (letter number 658 in the book) that

I observe in bishops a great readiness to break in pieces the larger livings of their diocese, but none in those who have the better sees to dedicate any portion of their own superior emoluments to the improvement of smaller Bishoprics, but on the contrary a perfect readiness to mount up into the still higher and more wealthy offices of the Church. . . . the Reformer of abuses on one side of the hedge is the same person who Enjoys them to a much greater extent on the other.

In his speech of 1840, Blomfield had said:

I am continually brought into contact, in the discharge of my official duties, with vast masses of my fellow-creatures living without God in the world. I traverse the streets of this city with deep and solemn thoughts of the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. I pass the magnificent church which crowns the metropolis, and is consecrated to the noblest of objects, the glory of God, and I ask of myself, in what degree it answers that object. . . . I proceed a mile or two the the E. and N.E. [of the cathedral], and find myself in the midst of an immense population in the most wretched state of destitution and neglect, artisans, mechanics, labourers, beggars, thieves, to the number of 300,000.

Smith responds by pointing out that had the bishop walked in another direction, toward the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth,

you would soon in that case have perceived a vast palace, containing, not a dean, three residentiaries, and 29 clergymen [called prebendaries, clergymen who came to take services for a couple of weeks a year], but one attenuated prelate with an income enjoyed by himself alone, amounting to 30,000 l. [pounds] per annum, twice as great as that of all these confiscated clergymen put together; not one penny of it given up by act of Parliament during his life to that spiritual destitution which he so deeply deplores.

And of the Bishop of London himself, Smith writes that he could walk first to his palace in St. James's-square (Smith's spelling) and then on to his other palace in Fulham, where he enjoyed an income of 20,000 pounds a year, "not a shilling legally given up during life to īthe masses who are living without God'." And he concludes:

But these feelings upon spiritual destitution, my Lord, are of the most singular description; they seem to be under the most perfect control when bishops are to be provided for, and of irresistible plenitude and power when prebends are to be destroyed; such charity is the charity of my poor dear friend, Old Lady C----, who was so powerfully affected (she said) by my sermon, that she borrowed a sovereign of some gentleman in the pew and put it in the plate.

You will see why Smith, though talented and with friends in high places, never became a bishop. His sin was not just criticizing the bishops' ideas, but pointing out their self-service in proposing them.

The bishops of the Church of England behave as badly as they did in Smith's day. They have steadily eroded the parson's freehold, the security of calling that protected a parish priest's position, for all sorts of reasons good and bad, with the effect that they have greatly increased their own power over the clergy without becoming the least bit more accountable to the clergy or the people; they pay the priests employed in their diocesan bureaucracies much more than the parish clergy are paid; the bishops keep "rationalizing" the parishes but never their own dioceses; they have started demanding that parishes pay a lot more of the cost of the CofE while maintaining their own high levels of spending; etc.

For more on this, look through the last two or three years of the English magazine New Directions. Look especially at the articles by the Rev'd Robbie Low. The magazine also, by the way, carried the fifty "Letters from America" I contributed as their American correspondent until the end of the year 2000, some of which dealt with similar matters.

Anyway, I tell this story in part because Smith's closing line is so funny and in part because it gives an introduction to the blog I am going to post in a minute, "Bishops are Bishops."


11:53 AM


Thursday, July 31

THE VATICAN ON HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGES:

Catholic World News' summary of the Vatican's statement on homosexual marriages, "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons." The full text, from the Vatican website, appears here. The end of the introduction notes that

Since this question relates to the natural moral law, the arguments that follow are addressed not only to those who believe in Christ, but to all persons committed to promoting and defending the common good of society.

The arguments are worth reading - it is a short statement, by the way - but of special interest is what the fourth and last section say about the duties of Catholic politicians. Here it is, in full:

10. If it is true that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians. Faced with legislative proposals in favour of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are to take account of the following ethical indications.

When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.

When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible for him and make his opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth. If it is not possible to repeal such a law completely, the Catholic politician, recalling the indications contained in the Encyclical Letter
Evangelium vitae, "could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality", on condition that his "absolute personal opposition" to such laws was clear and well known and that the danger of scandal was avoided.(18) This does not mean that a more restrictive law in this area could be considered just or even acceptable; rather, it is a question of the legitimate and dutiful attempt to obtain at least the partial repeal of an unjust law when its total abrogation is not possible at the moment.

Of course this statement says the right things about Catholic politicians, and Christian politicians in general. But to be effective, the bishops have to discipline Catholic politicians doing something the report calls "gravely immoral" and thereby causing public scandal. The Church has to do its own part, which is not just to teach but to witness in its life, and it cannot witness in its life if it lets Catholic politicians support such things and remain - for all the world to see - Catholics in good standing.


8:38 PM


GENCON:

Those wanting to follow the news of the Episcopal Church's General Convention, which started yesterday, should see GC03, a special report site provided by CANN (Classical Anglican News Net). The site includes links to stories from a wide range of sources, including the official ones. Which are, let me tell you from experience, mainly propaganda exercises.

This is the first General Convention I have missed in fifteen years, as I worked as a reporter for one of the conservative alternative newspapers at the last five, first for a group called the Evangelical and Catholic Mission at Detroit in 1988 and finally three years ago in Denver for its successor, Forward in Faith/North America. I usually covered the House of Bishops and the early morning hearings, though I sometimes covered the House of Deputies (the clergy and laity combined) and I wrote a number of features.

This gave me a good look at things. And looking back, the Episcopal Church has suffered a long downward trajectory. In 1988, only the then-Bishop of Newark, John Spong, spoke openly in favor of homosexuality. A few of the other liberal bishops got up and said things like "I'm not where Jack is, but I think we need to listen to our homosexual brothers and sisters," etc. Most people I knew thought they were lying - a number were known quietly to ordain men and women they knew to be homosexually practicing - but it is significant that they felt they had to be so cautious in public.

My main impression of the House of Bishops was the mediocrity of its debate. I had thought I was going to hear the leaders of America's ruling church, who however liberal they might be as a whole would argue and speak well. I was wrong. What I saw was an example of the Peter Principle run amok (the Peter Principle, a bit of pop sociology, says that everyone is promoted one level above his competence). I had just been called to the seminary then, but we had not moved, and as a friend said later after I got home, "Your wife said you were ready to slit your wrists."

At the next Convention a few more bishops agreed with Spong. I think it was at that Convention, or it may have been the next, that the then-bishop of Connecticut, Arthur Walmsley, held up one hand and said (I am quoting from memory) "heterosexuality is one truth," held up the other and said "homosexuality is another truth," and sweeping his hands together and interlacing his fingers boomed "And we have to find a way to combine these truths." He had, I remember, a very earnest look on his face.

This scene has stayed with me as a perfect example of what I call the pseudo-profound: those phrases that sound at first hearing as if they reveal deep truths but upon second thought are found to mean nothing much at all. But they sound impressive. A certain sort of mediocrity loves them, because they spare him having to think while making him sound, to the trusting, the gullible, and the foolish, like a sage or seer. And one who has risen above the simple-minded appeals to Scripture and Tradition of the fundamentalists. Indeed, the application of the term "fundamentalist" to anyone who asks what Scripture says is a cruder form of this.

But back to the trajectory. I think it was at the third Convention I covered that Spong got up one day and read a statement in favor of the homosexual cause, and a flood of bishops flocked to his table to sign it. Eventually about a third of the bishops signed it, and if I remember rightly about 40% of the active bishops. In just six years, the pro-gay position had gone from having one lonely advocate to having nearly a majority of the active bishops.

The number has grown through the last two Conventions. It is clear from the debate in the House of Bishops and the life of the Episcopal Church that a large majority of its bishops favor the approval of homosexuality, but have been restrained by their fear of the consequences of doing anything official about it. And encouraged, I think, by the realization that if they only keep doing what they are doing they will so change the Episcopal Church from the bottom up that when they do officially approve it, the approval will have no great cost.

The last Convention voted by a large majority to accept a resolution that, though somewhat ambiguously worded, approved of homosexual and other sexual behavior outside marriage without quite saying so. I will look up the wording and report later. Among its strongest supporters was the Bishop of Central Florida, John Howe, who had once been among the conservative heroes.


12:06 PM


Wednesday, July 30

MY MEED OF FAME:

A rather good self-obituary written by Lord Holland in 1840, found in his room when he died, and printed in one of Sydney Smith's letters (number 822 in the World's Classics collection):

Nephew of Fox, and friend of Grey, -
Enough my meed of fame,
If those who deign'd to observe me say
I tarnished neither name.


2:43 PM


BLIND JOURNALISTS:

Another helpful response to "Journalistic Indiscipline", this one from Daniel Crandall:

Just before visiting the MereComments website I was browsing the website of Hugh Hewitt, radio talkshow host, who has been commenting on the anti-Catholic bigotry on display in Congress over the Pryor nomination. Hugh writes,

"Are big media asleep or purposely ignoring the big story? Helen Dewar's
Washington Post story this morning on the Senate clashes over judicial nominations covers the bitter charges and countercharges flying on the Alabama Attorney General William Pryor nomination. Incredibly, the account quotes a "made-for-the-media" press conference defending the Judiciary Committee Democrats' bigotry toward Pryor, but does not mention that the charge of anti-Catholic bias has been picked up by Archbishop Chaput of Denver."

The Archbishop's statement can be read here.

The only quote from a religious voice that Ms. Dewar includes in her story is from a Baptist minister defending Democratic opposition to Pryor and attacking anyone who would even question whether or not religious bigotry was an issue. Archbishop Chaput or the perspective he represents, is nowhere to be heard in Dewar's story.


10:14 AM


ELUSIVE OBJECTIVITY:

A very interesting response to yesterday's blog "Journalistic Indiscipline" from Andy Scott:

Based on my own (rather humble) experience as a reporter, Mr. Bartley's critique rings true. At the same time, I have found that one of the "few simple methods" you propose as a corrective actually contributes to a skewed view of the world.

Reporters who wish to think themselves "fair" and "objective" typically do "quote figures of equal weight on both sides" of a given argument. The problem is that by quoting "figures of equal weight," the writer leaves the impression that reasonable people might come down equally on either side, and more importantly, that both sides are equally acceptable. I've seen reporters - in an attempt to be "objective" - spend two days trying to track down someone who will go on the record in support of anonymous gay sex in truck stop restrooms. I've seen reporters fret that they have no "pro-paedophile" sources. After all, both sides have to be given a fair chance.

Religion stories are, as you indicated, the classic case-in-point. The obligatory quota of quotes in the average local religion story includes one each from a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, and usually a Wiccan or some other fringe group. Lined up side by side, the quotes distort reality in two ways:

1) They leave the impression that Presbyterian, Quaker, Sikh and Buddhist are merely varieties of a larger, coherent whole called "religion". By inference, inter-religious conflict (defined broadly as disagreement) is not only tragic, but absurd.

2) They suggest that each group is equally representative of American society, despite the overwhelming preponderance of Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.

"Get both sides of the story" is, despite it all, a good rule of thumb. But like any good rule, taken by itself and set up as an absolute guide, it becomes an abomination.


This is very helpful, though I didn't mean the rule to be taken to the extremes he describes. (Other journalists have told me about their peers carrying the search for "balance" to absurd lengths. Some journalists seem to live at the poles rather than the middle.)

Mr. Scott's insights make it clearer - clearer than I did - that no method can make a reporter truly objective, because any method must be applied within to the world as the reporter sees it, and he sees it through his view of the world. For a journalist just to decide what the proper alternatives are he must make a number of judgments that are ultimately philosophical and religious.

Most of us would say that anonymous sex in truckstop bathrooms is not an alternative that needs to be presented, because it is a bad thing to do, but of course we can only say this because we have a certain view of the human person, sexuality, and society. Someone with a different view of these things will see such adventures as simply a point on the spectrum of human sexuality, to be enjoyed without guilt by those who enjoy it.

Which proves once again the lesson that we tend to forget, so used are we to living in a society with some moral consensus, that we can never get away from God.


9:56 AM


MOVIE HISTORY:

An example of why you should not get your history from movies "Hyped Horse
Has Seabiscuit been overtouted as a '30s hero?"
from today's issue of the Wall Street Journal.


9:49 AM


HOLOPLEXIC PREACHING:

For what it's worth, a comment on the preaching of his day by the great Anglican divine Sydney Smith, written just at the end of the eighteenth century. Smith was a leading broad churchman of his day, which doesn't quite equal "liberal" in ours, and an extraordinarily funny writer. Some of his letters (published in Oxford University Press's World Classics series) read as if they were written by the Monty Python troupe.

I've taken the quote from Hesketh Pearson's biography, The Smith of Smiths. Pearson, a close friend of Malcolm Muggeridge's, was a biographer of the older, entertaining, literary variety. He obviously mastered his subjects, but unlike so many modern academic biographers didn't feel the need to tell you everything he knows, and told his subject's story as a story.

There is something to be said for the academic biographer, of course, when you want to know everything about the subject, but if you are reading for pleasure and general knowledge Pearson's your man. Though everything he wrote seems to be out of print.

Anyway, here is Smith on preaching (I have broken up what was a single paragraph in the original):

Is it wonder that every semi-delirious sectary, who pours forth his animated nonsense with the genuine look and voice of passion, should gesticulate away the congregation of the most profound and learned divines of the Established Church, and in two Sundays preach him bare to the very sexton? Why are we natural everywhere but in the pulpit?

No man expresses warm and animated feelings anywhere else with his mouth alone, but with his whole body; he articulates with every limb, and talks from head to foot with a thousand voices. Why this holoplexia on sacred occasions only? Why call in the aid of paralysis to piety?

Is it a rule of oratory to balance the style against the subject, and to handle the most sublime truths in the dullest language and the driest manner? Is sin to be taken from men, as Eve was from Adam, by casting them into a deep slumber? Or from what possible perversion of common sense are we to look like field-preachers in Zambia, holy lumps of ice, numbed into quiescence and stagnation and mumbling?


"Holoplexia" is not in the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, by the way.


9:44 AM


Tuesday, July 29

JOURNALISTIC INDISCIPLINE:

In "The Press: Time for a New Era?", the editor emeritus of the Wall Street Journal writes that the ethic of objectivity among the major newspapers and journalists is

a more powerful influence than disgruntled readers and viewers often seem to believe; it's simply not true that journalists conspire to slant the news in favor of their friends and causes. Yet it's also true that in claiming "objectivity" the press often sees itself as a perfect arbiter of ultimate truth. This is a pretension beyond human capacity.

Their ideological confomrity, Robert Bartley argues, comes naturally from their

astonishing uniformity of viewpoint. Certain types of people want to become journalists, and they carry certain political and cultural opinions. This self-selection is hardened by peer group pressure. No conspiracy is necessary; journalists quite spontaneously think alike. The problem comes because this group-think is by now divorced from the thoughts and attitudes of readers.

I think, from my own observation and from journalists I know, that he is right. Talk to a journalist or editor at a major newspaper and you will find that he thinks all his opinions - from the impossibility of divine revelation to the goodness of raising welfare payments - so obvious and commonsensical as not to count as opinions at all. They respond with the same bewilderment that the rest of us would show to someone who seriously argued that our belief in the foolishness of eating ground glass was an opinion open to serious debate.

This, of course, makes the problem worse, not better. You are not dealing with people who know themselves to be partisans for the Democratic Party, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the NAACP, etc. You are dealing with people who think they are the least partisan and most objective people around. You might bring a partisan to admit that he is a partisan and promise to try to be fairer, but you cannot bring the partisan who thinks he is perfectly objective to admit that he could improve.

Though I think Bartley is right about the major journalists, I also think he lets them off too easily. He ignores the fact that so many of these journalists do not try very hard, if at all, to observe what might be called the methods of objectivity. Journalists can use a few simple traditional methods to be fairer and more objective than they would be left on their own - the sort of methods most of us learned about in high school.

Methods like balancing the quotes from either (or all) sides of an issue, and making sure you quote figures of equal weight on both sides, and asking the people closest to story if they think your summaries accurate. (In my observation, it is when journalists try to explain the background or significance of a story in those two or three paragraphs that come after the lead, that they make a hash of things. I have rarely seen a story on religion that got the details right, unless the story was written by one of the better religion writers.) And methods like calling people what they want to be called (now Pro-choicers are pro-choicers but pro-lifers are anti-abortionists, for example).

When we were in Washington last week, and I turned on the news on the hotel tv (and remembered why we gave up watching television), I saw several stories on the possibility that the Supreme Court of Massachusetts would rule in favor of homosexual marriages. Typical was one that quoted several authorities in favor of the innovation, who all spoke the elegant and seductive sophistries of moral liberalism, and quoted against it one middle-aged black woman who apparently had just come out of church, who said that God didn't want it.

I would not rule out unconscious racism in the choice of the opponent, or at least the idea that she would be a more marginal figure to present to their viewers. I may be wrong about this, but nevertheless the imbalance in the number and social authority of the witnesses for and against was so striking - and this news story was, as I said, typical - as to constitute culpable bias. The journalists were not trying to be objective, they were making a point.

Grant them the excuses Bartley gives them, they still did not bother to follow these few simple methods that would have produced a more objective story. People of that level, with that degree of influence upon others, must know themselves and human nature well enough to follow such disciplines as are needed to do their job well. All these writers must have had the same lessons in high school that I had.


12:59 PM


Monday, July 28

NOT OFFBEAT, JUST SAD:

From CNN's "offbeat news" section, an article titled "Divorce by mobile phone?" on a ruling by an advisor to the prime minister of Malaysia that Sharia (Islamic) law allows men to divorce their wives by text message. "Islamic law permits a man to divorce his wife by declaring 'I divorce you' three times," the article says.

CNN must have thought this "offbeat" because it can be done by text message, but as the advisor sensibly explained: sending text messages by phone "is just another form of writing." What ought to cause comment, but doesn't, is the barbarity of allowing a man to so easily divorce his wife and thereby cast her (if she has not reasources of her own) into poverty and danger. That modern technology makes doing so easier is not "offbeat" but distressing.


10:28 AM


CONSISTENT LIFE:

We've just finished working on a very interesting article by Dr. Rachel MacNair,
She is the director of the Institute for Integrated Social Analysis, the research arm of Consistent Life. The article examines the effects of performing abortions upon abortionists and will appear in the October issue.

Consistent Life, formerly the Seamless Garment Network, describes itself as "the international network for peace, justice, and life." The group's mission statement reads:

We are committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today's world by war, the arms race, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment, and euthanasia. We believe that these issues are linked under a "consistent ethic of life". We challenge those working on all or some of these issues to maintain a cooperative spirit of peace, reconciliation, and respect in protecting the unprotected.

Among the interesting things I found on the site:

- Wendell Barry's "The failure of war";

- Dr. MacNair's own Achieving peace in the abortion war; and

- The group's open letter to Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice (though this link didn't work for me).

You can find Consistent Life's Winter 2003 newsletter here.


10:17 AM




For previous blogs, click here.


Home - Mere Comments - Daily Reflections - Store - Speakers & Conferences - Archives - Contact Us

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?