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

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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.

  • David S.

    Well said, Mr Shaw. Every Catholic on the blogosphere should read this. Discourse has taken a dive into the gutter, and this is particularly true among otherwise-faithful Catholics.

  • Jerry L. L.

    Thank you so much for writing this , Mr. Shaw. I’m sure I’m not the only one weary of all the name-calling in politics and religion. I hope many read this and take it to heart. First, respect towards each other as human beings is necessary in order to love.

  • Bob

    Wonderful, wonderful. Couldn’t agree more. For an example of internet hate speech, one need look no further than this very website. Witness the posters on the current thread on “The Actual Constitution”, where I have been accused of being a Nazi or a Soviet sympathiser, simply for calling for tolerance and understanding among Catholics for fellow churchmembers who may not agree with us. And this is a moderated website! For truly awful, and uncalled for, venom, go to many, many other sites. Kudos to the moderators at Inside Catholic for keeping a lid on the worst offences.

  • Austin

    Many of the attacks on Pope Benedict over this lifting of Bishop Williamson’s excommunication had little to do with Williamson and his oddball views. This was an opportunity for some people who don’t like the Vatican to attack Pope Benedict, who I think has overall been a very good Pope. Williamson was just an excuse to go on the attack.

    Likewise, I have seen some Traditionalists attack people who are fundamentally conservative [against Abortion, against ordaining women], but who are in favor or ordaining married men, accusing us of being “heretics” which is nonsense.

    A little more civility would go a long way.

  • JC

    But the salient question becomes, “What is the difference between ‘name calling’ and ‘calling a thing by its name'”?

    For example, flippantly calling George Tiller “Tiller the Killer” is rhetorically catchy but not perhaps the most charitable thing to say.

    But many people say it’s name calling or vitriolic to say, “Abortion is murder.”

    Then there’s the problematic term “pro-abortion,” which would seem to be up to the person, but someone who, for example, favors government funding of abortion seems to favor abortion and would thus be “pro-abortion,” versus someone who sincerely thinks it’s none of the government’s business, either way.

  • Zoe

    Vigorous debate is good. Calumny and character assassination are not. Have we reached the point where we can’t tell the difference?

    I think we have. I’m honestly not sure people understand the difference anymore between attacking persons and criticizing positions. There’s also a tendency to collapse categories and fail to make distinctions. I can only chalk that up to poor education and loss of virtue. And the fact that with modern media, all manner of reactions and opinions can be aired immediately.

    There is a serious breakdown in basic manners and civility all around us and it has infected religious circles, too. The “us” vs. “them” mentality, particularly relevant among religious people who often have political agendas, never builds up the Body and doesn’t reconcile or convert.

  • D.B.

    The call for “Civility” and “Charity” is all to often used as a way to shut down debate or discussion, by playing on such feelings to guilt or fault the person into silence. I yearn for the time when a man could destroy his opponent in argument, making him look like the biggest ass in the world while maintaining the courtesies of old. What happened to the Wit?

  • Mark

    One of the reasons I have for not responding as politely as I should (and I’m not excusing it) is the fact that over the years, folks on the left have learned the “skill” of the sneak attack/sniper form of arguing. They typically site an exception to make the rule rather than prove the rule which is intellectually dishonest. They then paint with a broad brush so as to vilify anyone who disagrees with them.

    Two quick examples:

    – Catholic priests are pedophiles and Catholics endorse it by finacially supporting them.

    – Waterboarding proves that America tortures. (Implying as a rule and not the exception)

    The most frustrating element of the equation is when a sincere question is posed, those on the left have the cowardly habit of running away without answering because they know that they have been defeated. This happened to me twice THIS week alone. I asked a person on a Drudge thread why he was more concerned about the children abused by Priests than those abused by public school teachers since they are 3 times more likely than Priests to engage in that behavior. This question was received with silence. I also asked a question on this site … how can we use Catholic Just War theory to prevent Iran from nuking Israel. Again, crickets.

    It has gotten to the point that I assume those on the left will run away without answering (because the arguments of the left are almost all fallacious) so I make a smartass remark before they get the chance to show off their bumper sticker like talents… read it and drive away.

    So I will be so presumptuous as to speak for everyone on the right and make an agreement with those on the left:

    If you commit to actually debating in a mature and honest manner by actually answering the questions, then we will commit to being more civil.

    Oh, one more thing. Humor is usually a sign that the person debating does NOT want you to take his position as a sarcastic personal attack… those on the left would understand this better if they didn’t take themselves so seriously and weren’t so sensitive. Short of abortion, virtually every discussion leaves room for humor.

  • John2

    I

  • John K

    The need for humor in religous discussions reminds me of the story of two ministers that were having a pointed argument about the best approaches for ministry. Finally one summed up the discussion by saying “We’re both trying to do God’s work – you in your way and I in His.”

    So be diplomatic keeping in mind that “A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.” according to Caskie Stinnett.

  • therese

    got rid of my pc. After a few hours on the web, I felt like I needed a bath…& this was only after going to “Catholic” sites! The devil’s calling card is division so its not too difficult to see what’s behind the virulence. Sad though.

  • Mark

    If we would only base our points of view on Sacred Scripture,
    there would be no need to retaliate, or attack; no reason to involve personalities and pride

  • Dan

    This is all so true. You can have all the facts on your side. You can have the most brilliant arguments. But if your opponent can detect the least bit anger or contempt, his pride will be up. And no amount of facts or brilliance of argument will be able to dent this armor.

  • Kevin J Jones

    This is good advice, especially for someone just starting out as an armchair argument-factory.

    Yet complaints about civility or “tone” are often dodges. They block out one’s worthiest opponents by only addressing one’s worst opponents. (This is Obama’s “beyond partisan bickering” shtick.)

    Arguably, Fr. Jenkins’ attack on his critics was such an example. Did he ever respond to a single intellectual criticism of the Obama invitation?

    It’s no good arguing that we always have to put our best face forward. The oversensitive will always be with us, as will the artful dodger.

    The mental energy expended in making one’s commentary most presentable for sensitive or mendacious company might often be used better elsewhere.

    I’m partial to Caleb Stegall’s comments in his essay “Blog Flu”:

    “To put it simply, people want to be able to say whatever they want and still feel accepted, liked, and respected. But the truth is that many opinions are worthy only of contempt, disgust, mockery, or at the least, disapproval…

    “It is a severe fact that one cannot take clear stands on many critical issues without expressing contempt for the deeply held convictions of others with whom one disagrees. The proper attitude toward a person or position one regards as contemptuous of, say, human life, is contempt

  • Aaron

    I’m all for substantive debate over juvenile shouting matches, but the problem I have with calls to civility is that we live in a relativistic age when speaking the truth can be considered uncivil. Thus I was amused by Mr. Shaw’s use of the phrase “mindless babble” to describe certain churchmen, a phrase plopped down in the middle of a piece on the rhetoric of rant. It wasn’t wrong of him – he hit the nail square on the head – but he said exactly the sort of thing that often occasions a request for greater civility (/respect/openness/etc.) in dialogue. That, of course, raises the question: if describing your opponents position as mindless babble is in bounds, when exactly has the truth-telling crossed the line?

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