The ‘Rhetoric of Rant’ and Religious Controversy

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838) was a scandalous bishop, adroit foreign minister, and quintessential survivor who served the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the restored Bourbon monarchy with equally cold-blooded skill. Slippery character though he was, however, Talleyrand also was a wit. In Earthly Powers, his valuable history of the interaction between religion and politics in Europe from the French Revolution to World War I, Michael Burleigh writes:
Talleyrand put his finger on the limitations of . . . secular cults when the creator of a new religion asked “what would your Excellency recommend” regarding his failure to make many new converts. “I would recommend you to be crucified and rise again the third day” was the deadpan reply.
That story speaks of a time when, sometimes at least, it was possible for people to express disagreement in religious matters with a quip instead of an epithet. Alas, the talent and the taste for doing that seem to be in short supply among today’s Catholics.
Lately there’s been a rush to deplore name-calling and mudslinging in the secular context as well as the religious one. Some of this is me-tooism, but some of it comes from the heart. Speaking of what he calls the “rhetoric of rant,” columnist Michael Gerson notes the prevalence of rant in contemporary political debate and deplores it. “The practice of civility is important to democracy . . . . Respect makes cooperation for the common good possible,” Gerson writes.
If that is true in the secular world, it’s no less true in religion. Unfortunately, abusing people you disagree with is common practice in Catholic circles today. The ongoing argument about how Catholics should respond to President Barack Obama and his pro-choice policies is a prolific source of examples, with the dispute over Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama to receive an honorary degree and speak at its commencement last month notable in this regard.
In his introductory remarks at the graduation, Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., smote critics of the Obama invitation hip and thigh for their harsh attacks. But as Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, Missouri, pointed out, Father Jenkins lambasted the harshness of the critics with “a whole series of very, very hard words . . . division, pride, contempt, demonize, anger, distort, hateful, condemn, hostility.” Name-calling the name-callers is like pouring oil on troubled waters and setting a match to it.
In a display of common ground that’s rare in contemporary Catholicism, traditionalists and progressives alike are guilty of that. Their shared enthusiasm for trashing opponents is poisoning public discourse in the Church and radicalizing the Left-Right polarization that’s spread like ecclesiastical kudzu in the last several decades.
I don’t pretend to be without fault. I’ve been writing for a long time, and after all these years there are things I wish I could take back, precisely because I was excessively nasty about someone I disagreed with. Mea culpa — and let the writer who’s without sin in this matter cast the first stone.
Nor do I wish to discourage vigorous debate and forthright honesty in speech. Quite the contrary. Nearly as bad as verbal nastiness — and, arguably, even worse — is the banal happy talk about the state of the Church in which many people in positions of responsibility insist on indulging. This mindless babble deceives no one even as it sweeps problems under the rug for the sake of an I’m-okay-you’re-okay illusion of unity.
Granting all that, though, it must also be granted that name-calling among Catholics has gotten out of hand. The Left beats up on the Right and the Right beats up on the Left, even as the fault lines in this already divided religious body grow wider and deeper.
There are many contributing factors, but the rise of the blogs is surely among them. Yes, there are good blogs and good bloggers, and I wish them all the best. But there also are those for whom rumor-mongering, questioning motives, and spreading unproven allegations are standard procedure. As Gerson remarks, viciousness like this is “the dominant form of public comment on the Internet, where the pithy, personal, scatological attack has become a minor art form, rather like sculpting in excrement.”
Recall the furor early this year when Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four bishops of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X and it came to light that — to the surprise of the pope — one of them was a Holocaust denier. In the hyped, hysterical uproar that followed, Benedict XVI was repeatedly excoriated — often, by Catholics.
I was among those who pointed out that the pope’s ignorance of Bishop Richard Williamson’s crackpot views about the Holocaust spotlighted apparently systemic failures in the collecting and sharing of information by the Vatican that need correcting. I continue to think that’s true. But the personal tone of much of the criticism was beyond the pale.
The Holy Father’s extraordinary letter to the world’s bishops in the wake of this ugly incident resonates with the voice of a man both shocked and hurt:
At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them — in this case the Pope — he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.
That has application far beyond the Williamson incident. It is relevant to much of what passes for debate among Catholics today. And it’s an implicit call to an examination of conscience. Vigorous debate is good. Calumny and character assassination are not. Have we reached the point where we can’t tell the difference?

Russell Shaw’s 19th book is Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2008).


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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