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!