Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Austen IvereighApril 15, 2011

Since Fr Jim's excellent post earlier on the problem of incivility in the Catholic blogosphere, John Allen has written intriguingly at NCR about the need to overcome what he calls "tribal Catholicism" - the fragmentation of the Church which, he says, means increasingly "we're becoming strangers to one another".

He kindly mentions Catholic Voices, the group that with others I set up last year in preparation for the papal visit, as an example of "zones of friendship" he says are needed to restore fraternity. (His other examples were the specialists at building  communio, the Focolare movement, and the Canadian media outlet Faith & Light.)

But even as I was reading John's post, I was being tackled on Twitter on my uncharitable use of the word 'Taliban Catholics' - a term I borrowed, in fact, from John - to once or twice describe in the past those who act as a self-appointed magisterium, labelling others 'dissenters'.

The term is in many ways useful: what marks off the Taliban -- or more accurately, the Wahabi tradition of which they are a sect -- is their mindset. Not only do they regard almost everyone but themselves as impure and fallen, they arrogate to themselves the obligation (they would call it duty) to "purify" the body by calling down punishment on those who they think are defiling the faith. 

But like all analogies, it is far from perfect. If it works in the limited sense above, it doesn't in so many other obvious ways, and it is, of course, insulting. I was challenged on Twitter to accept that it was an example of what Fr Jim rightly objects to -- the labelling of others, which is demeaning and well-poisoning. And I did.

A better term, closer to Catholic home, would be "Jansenist", meaning the eighteenth-century French movement which provoked a major theological crisis in the late seventeenth century. One bishop referred to the Jansenists as "pure as angels and proud as devils" -- an apt description of certain defenders of Catholic orthodoxy who believe it's their job to "determine who's in and who's out", as Allen puts it.

This can reach extremes. I recently learned that one British Catholic blogger, who has regularly described me and my Catholic Voices colleagues as "dissenters", told someone I met recently in Spain that we were "lapsed Catholics". If he were to print that, it would be libel; but clearly he believes it -- which explains the astonishing acidity of his posts. He and others of his mindset describe themselves as "traditional Roman Catholics" who, as one put it recently without any apparent recognition of the irony, believe in being "loyally obedient to the Pope's authority when that authority is exercised in conformity with the Faith." 

But to call such a man a Jansenist, as a tweet pointed out, was tantamount to calling him a heretic - -which is what I object to in him. So even though I've hardly ever publicly used the Taliban word, and can only think of a handful to whom it would apply (in the UK, at least) I've realised my inconsistency and agreed not to use it again -- and to try to avoid labels of all sorts, which have the effect of reducing others. It's never too late for an end-of-Lent resolution.

The ecclesiological question, however, needs to be faced. The object of the Magisterium, exercised by the Pope and his bishops (with guidance from Vatican dicasteries such as the CDF), is to settle arguments over doctrine that might otherwise plunge a billion Catholics into endless energy-sapping disputes and parties. It's the task of the teaching authorities, and theirs alone, to determine who is in and who is out. Once they have declared someone to be dissenting from church teaching, then to call that person is a dissenter is a statement of fact; but if they haven't, no Catholic can assume the right to do so.

My twitter interlocutor raised the question of how, then, people should refer to others whose positions go against church teaching. My answer was: vigorously but with humility and civility, pointing out where what they are saying appears to be in contradiction. After all, many intense and lively discussions go on between theologians over what the Church teaches without labelling each other "dissenters".

But the objection is obvious. The medium - -fast, snappy, prone to monikers and labels -- seems at times allergic to that kind of exchange.

Today's brief discussion curtain-raises some of the issues that could be tackled at the blog conference at the Vatican on 2 May hosted by the Councils for Culture and Social Communications. If Rome makes clear to bloggers that they need to be loyal to the Magisterium and to leave its exercise to those who are qualified, that would be a solid outcome.

But perhaps what's also needed is a "covenant of civility" between public Catholics that lays down some of the ways we can vigorously disagree with each other. In this area, I've realised, we've all got something to learn.



Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Austen Ivereigh
13 years ago
Sure. They advocated a doctrine of salvation which, as it were, narrowed the gate to the point where sheep would have to be squeezed through, if you see what I mean. Salvation of the elect few. Catholic Calvinism. But the point of the analogy is to highlight  the arrogation - they were right, whatever the Church (Pope, Jesuits) said. 
Juan Lino
13 years ago
Austen - Jansenism had many components - would you be kind enough to clarify how you are using that word?  Thanks.
13 years ago
Now, not "Taliban Catholics", merely "proud devils". No doubt, a certain advance in civility.
13 years ago
I think both the "zones of friendship" and "covenant" notion are extremely useful, and was something I was going to write in response to the earlier post by Fr. Jim.  In my view, some of what is happening in the "blogosphere" mirrors what is occurring in the mainstream media.  As with the "MSM", I think a relatively few, left of center publications have dominated and policed Catholic dialogue, at least in this country.  Both the opinions and opinion-makers on the whole have been through the same credentialing institutions, experiences, and shared similar opinions.  I say this as a point of fact, not with any vituperation or conspiratorial intent ascribed to anyone.  But as with the "Big 3" stations, The New York Times, and the news weeklies like Time, America, Commonweal, and National Catholic Reporter have defined the landscape.  I think this has, again without ascribing intentions, left certain voices to feel shunted or ignored, and over time, a resentment and suspcicion has accumulated on their part.  As the web has lowered (eliminated?) the entry barriers to this conversation, many of these voices have flooded out, frequently in very destructive, harmful ways.  I think what is needed, first, is a recognition of the legitimate voices of the other.  This puts a burden on BOTH sides, if you will, one, to recognize and hear the voice without judgment, and at the same time, to express the voice in a responsible, moral manner.  Both concepts mentioned in this post can help that.

A query for Mr. Ivereigh: I understand what you mean by the concept "Taliban Catholicism", but it also brings to mind the phrase "Islamofacism", which of course generated a firestorm of controvery when Pres. Bush, among others, used the term.  How is your term different, in your view, from this term?  And do you see how it might be taken as offensive to some?
Cathy Fasano
12 years 12 months ago
Actually, the term ''Taliban Catholic'' has an ironic precision to it.  In mainstream Islam, it is considered outrageous to question whether another Muslim is a true Muslim, or is a heretic.  As long as a person claims to be a Muslim and recites the basic creed (''There is no God but Allah and Mohamed is His Prophet'') then that person is Muslim.  The Taliban are a radical sect who are ''takfiri''.  A ''takfir'' is the Muslim term for a heretic, and ''takfiri'' are Muslims who call other Muslims ''takfir''.  This is a fascinating characteristic of Islam itself - no other religion has a single-word epithet to describe people who accuse others of heresy - takfiri is NOT a compliment!  The Taliban use their labeling of others as takfir as an explicit excuse for conducting violence against them - while Islamic theology encourages violence against unbelievers (that would be us), murdering other Muslims is utterly unacceptable.  The takfiri excuse is that those Muslims that they label as ''takfir'' are not REALLY Muslims and thus fair game for violence and mayhem.
So, OK, perhaps ''Takfiri Catholic'' would be the most precise term.  But the point remains - the term ''Taliban Catholic'' means something far more interesting than ''I don't like you, nobody likes the Taliban, so I'm going to call you Taliban to express my dislike.''  In Islam, the Taliban are people who are in fact characterized by the belief that they have the right and even the obligation to label others as heretics and are therefore practicing virtue when the blow them up, or otherwise terrorize them.  Islam has a long history of considering being takfiri as being the outrage rather than being takfir.  We could certainly learn a few things from them!
Cathy Fasano
12 years 12 months ago
"No matter what he or she believes? Externals are sufficient?"
Yep - it's an interesting strategy.  You convert people by force, knowing that their statements of faith are shams.  Then in a few decades they are dead, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren believe for real.
Jackie Parkes
12 years 12 months ago
I welcome a lot of Austen's insights. I find the blogosphere increasingly "traditional" in a new way. As Catholics we are all "traditional" but there seems to be a new understanding of the term..
ros p
12 years 12 months ago
This post is a breath of clear fresh air! A great encouragement for us all, for Holy Week. We can start to let the world see 'how we christians love one another'.
12 years 12 months ago
I have posted on my blog about some of the issues Austen raises..

Contact me by email


The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024