Readings: On Bill Keller and the Papacy

Let’s make one thing clear from the beginning.  I am not one of those Catholics—and there seem to be many—who believes that the New York Times is out to destroy the Roman Catholic Church.  A member of a journalism family, I was taught by my father that the Times was the best paper in the country, and I have kept that family faith.  A few years ago, pressed to name some public figure I deeply admired, the first was the Times columnist Anthony Lewis.  To those who deplore its coverage of the church’s sex abuse scandal, I say, “Would you rather not know these things?”  Without the Times and the National Catholic Reporter, the cover-up would have continued. I’m proud that I once had a beer with Jesuit-educated (Marquette University) Gail Collins in New Orleans and bought two of her books as Christmas presents. I appreciate Maureen Dowd’s attacks on the church, because I guess that she deep-down she loves the church and wants to be proud of it—which, from what I read, not enough Catholics feel today.  Finally, four of my best journalism students work at the Times, and nothing gives me more joy than to see their by-lines, sometimes on the same page.

But Sunday’s paper, specifically the front page of the Book Review, hit me with a surprise left hook to the head and has knocked me off balance.

By what standards of journalism excellence, of book-review ethics, of scholarly common sense, did the New York Times Book Review editor select Bill Keller to review John Julius Norwich’s Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House, 512 pp, $30)?

From my experience as book review editor of Commonweal in the 1970s, my several reviews on religious topics for the Times Book Review (under Harvey Shapiro), and 30 years writing for the National Catholic Reporter and other publications, I recall that the reviewer should be well informed  on the book’s topic, preferably should have published on it already and, at least in some way, have a perspective that enables him to know more than the author. He should also be reasonably free of bias—or confess that bias in a way that lets him keep his credibility.

As far as I know, Mr. Keller has been an excellent editor of the Times; he has also worn his moniker of “collapsed Catholic”  like a badge.  In an email to the editors’  “Up Front” column, Keller tells us that his parents, especially his convert mother, took their faith seriously and sent him to Catholic grammar and high schools, for which, as he looks back, he is grateful.  He does not tell us when or how his faith “collapsed,” but if he has been studying theology or church history on the side and retained a lively intellectual interest in the papacy he does not share that.

The result is not an anti-Catholic diatribe but a smoothly written, breezy, summary of the book from the author’s point of view.  He treats it like a beach read, which perhaps it is, and perhaps that explains why it makes the front page in July.  He sees Norwich’s non-scholar background as a plus. For example, he argues, “A scholar or a devout Roman Catholic would probably not have had so much fun…with the tale of Pope Joan,” a 9th-century woman disguised as a man to be elected pope.  Norwich gives her a whole chapter, and Keller—if you include the description of the search for a chair with a hole in it that enabled cardinals to test the testicles of papal candidates—grants her 180 words of Times space.  A quick Google would tell him that she no more existed than Paul Bunyan or Old King Cole and is not worth more than a few sentences.

Keller writes,  “if you were raised Catholic” you may be disconcerted to see the papacy “deconsecrated.”  I suspect Keller may not know many modern Catholics. On the contrary, anyone with a good Catholic education  is well aware that  the history of the papacy is a basket with a lot of rotten apples.  There are several good recent books on papal history by John O’Malley, S.J., author of "What Happened at Vatican II", and Eamon Duffy.  Scripture scholar Raymond Brown has also shown that, contrary to common parlance, St. Peter was not a pope. What does Norwich say about that?  O’Malley or Duffy would be well qualified and objective reviewers, as would David Gibson, an outstanding journalist and author of a great biography of Pope Benedict XVI.

Why Keller was chosen remains a mystery.  Maybe he volunteered and, who says no to the top editor?  Maybe the book editor thought it would be fun?  And if you consider an uninterrupted list of Papal sins fun, it’s fun.  Meanwhile Keller has not hurt the church. He’s hurt the Times.

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Brendan McGrath
7 years 6 months ago
"Meanwhile Keller has not hurt the church. He’s hurt the Times." - Unfortunately, how many peope will understand that?  When it comes to criticism, satire, humor, or generally annoying tones of voice directed against the Church, often the joke is on the person making the criticism, but the problem is nobody realizes it. 

For example, suppose someone were to write in the New York Times or anywhere something like, "With Benedict XVI's new encyclical, the Church is surprisingly talking at long last about social justice - but is it too late, and will rank-and-file Catholics in the pews be open to hearing about something the Church has so long condemned as heretical?"  - Now, obviously that statement which I just concocted is ludicrous for all sorts of reasons.  But the sad thing is that if it were part of a piece in the New York Times or some other relatively liberal outlet, many people would nod, not having any idea that the joke was on them.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 6 months ago
I get it, Brendan.

You're right that many people who read the Times might take your statement as an affirmation of their liberal prejudices and nod a robotic "yes", but I think that most people who read the NYT are more savvy, and would not let a statement like that go by without calling it out as ludicrous.

At least the Times is still open to critical examination of thier journalistic integrity.  That's more than can be said about the vast majority of writing that I come across on the web.
ed gleason
7 years 6 months ago
I love baseball but when my team [Church]throws wild pitches and bean balls for ten years  one ought not blame the other team as they run around the bases.
Molly Roach
7 years 6 months ago
Thanks Ed.
Sean Bannion
7 years 6 months ago
Ed -

That has absolutely nothing to do with the point of Fr. Schroth's article.

7 years 6 months ago


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