Press Ignorance Points to Deeper Problems

In The Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman writes, “Men whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it, and are startled and despond if it happens to fail them.  They are ever in alarm or transport.”

I write these words a few days or hours or minutes before the crier at the Vatican will call out to the faithful gathering in the piazza below, Annuntio vobis gaudeam magnam!  Habemus papam!  The spiritual man judges all things, says Saint Paul, but cannot be judged rightly by the world, because the world’s vision is too narrow; the world, granting it all the good will we may, will simply not grasp the essence of what it seeks to judge.  We have seen evidence of Saint Paul’s assertion in the last few weeks.  Reporters for the media mundi see all things in the light of the politics of celebrity.  They make it the measure of the Church, which is in her essence utterly foreign to that pagan cult—one well known to the master propagandist Augustus Caesar, whom Jesus may have had in mind when he observed, dryly, that the rulers of the pagans lord it over them, and have themselves called “benefactors” into the bargain.  “But it shall not be so among you,” he warns his apostles.

Many Catholic writers have remarked on the obtuseness of the media mundi—on the teary-eyed secular advisors warning us that the Church must get with the times (evidently The New York Times), taking up Doctor Freud’s Moral Elixir, or she will go on coughing and sputtering to death; as if the Church had not long buried Dr. Freud, and Mr. Hume, and Professor Kant, and Emperor Napoleon, and the humane favorite of well-heeled and citified laymen Arius, and Viking raiders and Madame Blavatsky and apostate nuns and gold-hungry conquistadores and Manicheans addled by sexual license or by celibacy or by each in turn.  “You’d best come to terms with the authorities, Cephas,” says the reporter for the Roman Tribune, “or you’ll end up suffering just as your Master did, and then what will happen to your Church?  I have only your good in mind.”

But I believe we are encountering something both more pardonable and more problematic than mere ignorance of the Church.  We are encountering a broad and deep ignorance generally.  Newman had in his sights the quackery of his day, hawked by political economists of the school of Jeremy Bentham, and given institutional potency by the new University of London, a school wherein theology was neither to be preached nor decried, but simply ignored.  Bentham the liberal was the perfect type of the illiberal mind, as he cramped the human world into the formulae of the one object of his pursuit, political economy.  Yet Bentham still had something of an education.  Adam Smith may have been a questionable moral philosopher, but nobody would accuse him of being ill-read.  Ernest Renan read the gospels wrong-side-out, but he did read them.

But we have not now to do with a Bentham or a Renan.  We have to do with the media mundi, themselves distinguished from the mass only by a superficial facility with words, and very often not even by that.  It isn’t just that our reporters do not know the Church.  They don’t know the Roman Empire.  Do they read Thomas Aquinas?  They do not read Alexis De Tocqueville.  Can they make their way intelligently through the chapels of Notre Dame de Paris?  They are lost in their national monuments; their history is the labyrinth at Cnossos; the grammar of their own tongue is hieroglyphic; Lord Nelson looking out over Trafalgar Square is as blank and mysterious as a monolith on a South Sea atoll.

They lack what Newman championed in his work, the good solid substrate, the foundation of nature upon which theology can build its cathedral—a liberal education.  For the man who studies the humane letters is, Newman suggests, seldom surprised.  It is not news to him to learn that nations can snatch defeat from victory, by the arrogance of ambitious demagogues; he has read his Thucydides.  It is not news to him that license invites, as by violent reaction, the strictures of puritanical restraint; he has read Measure for Measure.  He is not going to rave about the intellectual profundity of a scrap of political doggerel; he has read Homer.  Such an intellect, says Newman, “cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another.”

Hence it should not surprise us that the new schools and colleges that are most determinedly Catholic are usually also those that are most determinedly liberal, in Newman’s sense of the word.  They seek to invite young people to scale the high hill of learning, in history, poetry, the arts, and philosophy, so that they will have at once a clear vantage to survey the all-too-human countryside, and an unobstructed view of the stars above.

And now, between the end of that last sentence and the beginning of this, that great joy has been announced to me and to the Catholic world: habemus papam, who has taken the name Francis.  With one stroke he has called to our minds the work of the holy poor man of God, Francis of Assisi, and the work of the great Jesuit evangelizer to whose order he belongs, the Iberian Saint Francis Xavier.  Peter, the man of Assisi, the evangelist of India, and a bishop from Argentina: those are the figures we, but not our opinionators, see before us on this day.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Bob

    My favorite comment from last week was how the secular media is always shocked, when the Catholic Church elects a Catholic as pope.

    • Joe DeCarlo

      The secularist think that a pope can make changes like an elected US President. They don’t understand that there are dogmas of the church that can’t be changed. They are an ignorant group.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    What is odd to me is how the secular media claims that he was complicit with the dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s (based on a few complaints that he “did nothing” in response to kidnappings, where in fact Amnesty International claims he did everything possible) when they themselves are spreading Argentine Government Propaganda:

  • Ford Oxaal

    The amount of press you consume is inversely proportional to your desire to learn.

  • JERD

    Isn’t it delicious justice that the man chosen Pope was never thought by the media prognosticators to be “in the running.”

    And as this pontificate moves forward, imagine how often we will witness the irony of media personalities whose cocky confidence suggests a self delusional infallibility, be so terribly wrong about the man who can rightfully claim to be infallible.

  • There are so many things to mention as the reasons for this sad state of near-general ignorance we live in: the replacement of thinking by feeling (emotionalism), the overabundance of qualitatively unfiltered information, too much of the easily available entertainment, the tyranny of “rights” and the abandonment of duties, the glorification of individualism, etc., etc. The great traditionalists – Guenon, Schuon, Evola, Lings – have described the origins and symptoms of our decadence in detail. It almost seems that the only way of preserving higher culture is by hiding it away and cultivating it in secret, waiting for better times to come. Welcome to the Neo-Dark Age!

  • John-ONeill

    Ecclesia Catholica in aeternum praevalebit; America est patria diaboli et non praevalebit.

    • John

      Translation for us plebby Catholics who don’t speak Latin (nor read Flannery O’Connor, etc.)?

      • Patrick

        The Catholic Church will prevail in eternity; America is the homeland of the devil and will not prevail.

        • jacobhalo

          Interestingly, Cardinal George was in a pensive mood when Pope Benedict was elected. He was photographed in a brown study, staring at the horizon. When asked what he was thinking. He said he was looking at where the emperors ruled and was thinking, where are the successors of Augustus Caesar, Nero, etc? There are none. But I’m in the presence of the successor of St. Peter.

  • John200

    Today’s reporters? Expect nothing and you will get it. They are both culturally ignorant and incompetent. Professor Esolen makes a good case on the one, so I’ll try the theme of incompetence.

    These reporters do not write good news stories because they cannot; a fortiori, the opinion pieces. They were educated at journalism schools, where the average student is weak. Their test scores are quite low, among the lowest in the university. Their “education” shows them that work consists of reading a computer screen, followed by a session of cut-and-paste composition. Pull it off the wire and spell your own name correctly in the byline.

    They have the ability to do secretarial work and are trained in secretarial [clerical, if you prefer] skills. If a real news story comes along, they will blow it. For instance, it should be easy to write something useful about a new Pope; so many angles, theological points, the process, traditions, current events in Argentina, personal histories, and more. But for these worthies, no dice. They haven’t got the well-stocked mind that would enable them to see interesting similarities to and differences from other situations.

    Expect nothing and you will get it. I say cultural ignorance and incompetence.

  • Lee Johnson

    I guess my liberal education failed. I am, and have been, at a loss for about 10 years. Perhaps I shall take up some serious reading again. Jambe d’Argent: Your list is true. Thank you for it.