Father Jim Martin is Wrong!

The news keeps getting in the way of a blogpost I have been meaning to write in response to my colleague Father Jim Martin’s request for civility in the blogosphere. (Unfortunately, I can’t find his original posting in the archives.) Father, we love you to death, but have to give you a noisy, blatty, Bronx cheer on this one.

I think the blogosphere has restored happily some of the rough-and-tumble esprit of democracy, buried so long under Victorian notions of propriety. Surely, the nastiest election in American history remains that of 1800, when John Adams accused Thomas Jefferson of being a radical and an atheist and Jefferson charged Adams with being a closet monarchist and worse. The attacks were ad hominem as well as political, and vicious in the extreme.


Now, of course, Jefferson has a memorial on the Tidal Basin in D.C. and Adams has a biography by David McCullough (a different kind of memorial, but not that different). They are revered as Founding Fathers and such they were. But, these men who helped birth our nation were not averse to throwing sharp rhetorical elbows.

Father Jim is undoubtedly correct that as Christians we are called to charity first and always. But, that does not mean we must become anodyne. Take ad hominem attacks. I think they are fine so long as they are playful, designed to prick but not to punch. If they are merely vicious, they have no place in a Catholic blog.

In 1946, then-Father John Tracy Ellis was in Richmond doing research on his biography of Cardinal Gibbons when the chancellor of the diocese mentioned he was enjoying reading the correspondence of Bishop Denis O’Connell, who had served as Gibbons agent in Rome and rector of the American College before returning to the States as rector of Catholic University, auxiliary of San Francisco and finally bishop of Richmond. The next day Ellis and a colleague headed up to the two trunks in the attic and recognized they had in their hands the greatest single treasure trove of American Catholic historical correspondence ever found by happenstance.

The letters show well that even within the Church, holy men and women have not been above an occasional sharp elbow. Cardinal Gibbons wept when he learned that William Henry O’Connell (no relation to Denis) of Boston was to be made a cardinal. When the 1903 conclave elected Giuseppe Sarto as Pope Pius X, Gibbons cabled to Archbishop John Ireland, "Pope man of God." Ireland wrote to O’Connell that his friends cardinals Rampolla or Vanutelli "would have done me for ‘a man of God’".

The letters of Ella Edes, a lay woman who worked as a secretary at the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, at the turn of the century are similarly rich. She referred to Cardinal O’Connell as "Pomposity" and recalled the story of an Irish bishop who, with his mind, would place the names of stubborn clerics in his chalice at Mass. "[T]hey die off like flies," Edes wrote. "What a pity one could not put Pomposity, Satolli (cardinal and former apostolic delegate to the U.S.), Merry del Val (the cardinal Secretary of State), Falconio (another curial cardinal) & a few others in that celebrated chalice & leave them to God’s disposition and will!"

My point is not to commend Ms. Edes for her charity. It is to point out that there never was, and never shall be, a Golden Age in the church. There is never a time when our human desire to triumph in argument, support our friends and frustrate those who oppose us or our ideas, will lead all to frolic in cheerful and harmless prose. There should be a time – and the advent of the blogosphere makes it more likely – when we can tweak each other in print without demonizing each other, when it is okay to be a little arch, a little over-the-top. I yearn for the time and the means when the realm of the humanly sacrosanct is lessened, e.g. some episcopal pronouncements, and the realm of the genuinely holy, e.g., God’s Word, is just so enlarged.

There are limits, to be sure. But, I rejoice in the blogosphere’s ability to re-vivify discussion and debate within the political and religious arenas, to engage people and their opinions, even when sharply worded. It is not good for the church when issues are only hashed out in the hushed tones of chancery conversations. So, Father Jim, stay on my good side ‘cause I’m gunning for you!


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8 years 11 months ago
Dear Michael, Gunning for me?  Uh oh.  I guess I agree with you that we should not be afraid of controversy, or calling people to account for their actions or words.  But by the same token, the blogosphere often seems to elicit the worst from us, Catholics included-snotty, unfounded, mean-spirited, anonymous, ad hominem attacks that call people's faith and humanity into question.  I'm all for playful, but when's the last time you saw playful in the blogosphere?  Vicious is more like it: you should see the comments we delete before they're posted!  Anyway, I take your point, but, on the other hand, I reserve the use of the Bronx cheer only for those who live within a subway ride of the Bronx. James Martin, SJ
8 years 11 months ago
I struggle with this issue myself and having read some of the "Fathers of the Church" such as St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Gregory of Nyssa I can assure you that the published comments on this blog are relatively mild compared to their angry diatribes. Why were they and their style preserved through the centuries over perhaps milder approaches? I do not take them as a model in all that they do or did but they can provide a good bad example!
8 years 11 months ago
Marie, I didn't attack anyone.  What I gave was an explanation of what I think is at work based on experience. I've noticed that when one cannot confront an argument, one either confronts the individual making the argument through attacks or changes the subject conveniently to avoid the claims being made. 
8 years 11 months ago
There are many John Corapis for every one Jim Martin talking in the media today. The problem with that is that the Corapis of the world preach to the choir and don't engage those who disagree with them, those who don't understand Catholicism or those who question Church teaching. That doesn't do much good. Martin, however, reaches a much broader audience and does so effectively, rationally and in a likable manner that encourages people to listen and not switch him off. It's very important for the Catholic Chruch to have priests bridging those divides.
8 years 11 months ago
Perhaps men and women who debate in the blogosphere resort to ad hominen attacks because the issues that should be addressed are not.  I don't mean to excuse the attacks.  I'm merely saying that I can understand one's frustration, especially in blogs that are so politically biased like this one.  Indeed, the very name "America" for this publication is indicative of the real religion the writers here seem to endorse. 
8 years 11 months ago
Poor Patrick.  You do not realize that it is possible to state opinions that others find offensive while not engaging in attacks against them.  Would you have more respect for Father Jim Martin if he "suggested" that you were not sufficiently or appropriately "Catholic" because you critiqued his perspecitve on civility?
8 years 11 months ago
Well, count me in and saying Fr. Jim is right! I can't help it but I really do agree with him. I actually go through periods where I avoid the Catholic blogosphere for days, weeks at a time, but then I get sucked back in, only to be driven away by the uncharitable comments of Christians again.
8 years 11 months ago
Patrick, bless your soul, you are a wierd dude!
8 years 11 months ago
Mr. Winters' argument in this blog for freewheeling debate seems inconsistent with his blog entry at the National Catholic Reporter's NCR Today blog,''Abortion and Inflammatory Rhetoric '' (http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/abortion-and-inflamatory-rhetoric).
8 years 11 months ago
I think what's going on here is actually something different than merely a call to civility.  It is a cowardly call to compromise.  Many of the protests against Obama's award at ND, to take an example, were civil, reasonable and measured replies.  Not all were, of course, but then, neither were all of those on the other side who were for the award, so that collective blame game is out.  The beatitude calling us to meekness has been raped of it's actual meaning, which is to say it's been stripped from the face of the one who is the model of all beatitudes, Christ, and what we have left is a dull 'niceness', the result of which is the emptying of the "sword" of the word to penetrate the evil that so lingers over our world.  Nearly everything is justified and tolerated today according to the ethical code of 'liberal' Catholicism.  How does one identify this?  Look for the code words, such as 'dialogue'.  If you take a sharp stance on the basis of principle, and not against the person, you are against 'dialogue'.  Again, see ND 2009. What this movement of liberal 'let's all just be nice, now' Catholicism does not see is that it has been hijacked, in point of fact, by dissenters from the Catholic Faith, rendering those who are in the middle refereeing the niceness tools for the cause.  The result of this, as evidenced consistently on this blog and elsewhere, is that we now are told the word "Catholic" (note that it must have the quotes so as to make it effective: 'Catholic') is really just a mystified label that we use to identify our faction of the faith.  The faith is so 'diverse'-another code word-we are told, and we are so political and petty, it is implied, that to take a stand on principle in the context of the Catholic Faith is to be 'divisive'-code language yet again-and hence, by a remarkable irony that is inescapable, you are not being 'Catholic'. What 'Catholic' seems to mean in the minds of many so-called 'liberal Catholics' such as Fr. Jim Martin is a doctrine of absolutely, positively, never ever ever offending anyone, even you plainly state the truth of the faith-an act of authentic love, mind you-so as to care for the soul of the person in question.  This kind of 'niceness' is meaningless if it is devoid of the truth of the faith-uncompromised and unapologized for. 
8 years 11 months ago
This here puts it better than I could originally: [url=http://pblosser.blogspot.com/2009/06/fascinating-francis-footnote-preach.html]http://pblosser.blogspot.com/2009/06/fascinating-francis-footnote-preach.html[/url] I quote: ""Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words," St. Francis is supposed to have said. That, at least, is the widespread sentimental conceit. Is it just me, or does that slogan also strike you as a perfect contemporary pretext for not preaching anything at all? As luck would have it, we just received this timely email - straight from the free promotional Blackberry of our HBCU (Hist. Black College & University) Correspondent on site in Assisi, Italy: No, he was not the Christian answer to Euell Gibbons, nor a Birkenstock-sporting spouter of America Magazine- or Fr. James Martin-like platitudes. In fact, I wonder if he might even find the Crunchy Cons a bit too eager to embrace their 'Can't We All Just Get Along' Monday morning water cooler pacifism. ... But one thing is certain, and not at all surprising to me: all the folks who so eagerly eulogize Saint Francis' feed-the-birds, lawn-ornament affinities seem to have it more than a bit skewed in terms of the saint's celebrated rhetorical soft gloves. The same man who preached to the air threw himself in a fire. He was hardly harmless, in word or deed.
8 years 11 months ago
As a non-practising Catholic, I tentatively ventured into the Catholic blogosphere thinking I might find some 'answers' or some inspiration. I quickly came to realise that i would find neither, and that in fact, reading most "Catholic' blogs was actually detrimental to my spiritual health. I would have to say I was quite shocked at the vitriol I encountered. The 'ad hominem' attacks were not those of people engaged in any kind of helpful discussion: they were just shocking examples of unkindness and bitterness. So I agree with Fr Martin.
8 years 11 months ago
I've commented to just one blog on this site. Apparently, my final comment on that blog was moderated out. I had spent about an hour composing those eight or nine sentences. I precomposed in a word processor to make sure that I didn't unintentionally hit send prematurely. Since then, I've re-read my comment about four or five times, replaying it many more times in my mind - wondering what might have been seen as too directly offensive or inconsiderate. To be honest, I am still troubled by this. In my own religious journey, I've found that I've been very wrong many many times.  I don't know of any way to progress through this life without addressing misconceptions - even those misconceptions taken as fact by Aristotle, Descartes,  the Catholic Church, and the Jesuit community. I don't see this as anit-Catholic. My education at a Jesuit University included an understanding that the Church and Jesuits are not God, but a ''representative'' of God. Perhaps that leads to inappropriate comments and censure? I've often thought that if God or Prophets were to appear in this existence, they could not be heard. Not because the Catholic Church is not true, but because their judgment would appear to contradict the simple understanding of truth embodied by our current understanding.
8 years 11 months ago
"Take ad hominem attacks. I think they are fine so long as they are playful, designed to prick but not to punch." I commend the spirit of your comment.  However, the line between "pricking" and "punching" is extremely difficult to discern, especially in writing.  Unless, of course, one wants to attach smiley faces to one's ad hominem attacks (in which case, something seems to be lost). Besides, ad hominem attacks are too often leveled against people whom the "attacker" does not even know.  Thus, making it difficult to know what would be interpreted as a "prick" rather than a "punch."  This is not to mention how it might be perceived by the outside reader, or how it might embolden the less charitable or prudent to far more vicious attacks. I agree that in the context of a debate in which the adversaries know, respect and even like each other such "attacks" might enliven debate, but note that this presumes the very kind of civility which Fr. Martin is calling for and which, unfortunately, is too often lacking in the "debates" which take place in the blogosphere.


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