The Thoughtfuls and the Roughnecks

There is a way of argumentation that academics use. It goes something like, “Thank you for your valuable contribution to this exchange. You have allowed us to consider more deeply the issues before us. If I have one quibble it might be…” They could be talking about a house-fire and it would go something like that.

And then there are the Roughnecks. They would shout. They would pound on doors. They would tell you there was a fire and not that the fire has a good point.

In the colloquy over James Martin SJ one can see a fairly stark divide among his Catholic critics, between the Roughnecks and what I’ll call the Thoughtfuls. There are overlaps: some Roughnecks can demonstrate thoughtfulness, and some Thoughtfuls can show Roughneck tendencies, but there is this distinction nonetheless.

The Roughnecks are direct, plainspoken, often aggressive, not afraid to show emotion including anger, including charges that “you are a heretic leading others straight to hell.” The Thoughtfuls speak in more honeyed tones, grateful to their interlocutors whom they profusely thank for their contribution to the debate but “there is this small quibble where we might disagree.”

The Roughnecks speak in ways familiar to everyday Americans, the way debates happen in bars and sports arenas, across the kitchen table, and at backyard cookouts. The Thoughtfuls speak like you might hear at academic conferences.

Roughnecks are often accused of incivility—one of the great rhetorical crimes of our time—that and worse, arguing ad hominem! To the Thoughtfuls, there is nothing worse than being accused of incivility. We have come a long way since Athanasius referred to Arius as “effeminate” and that he and his followers “wallow in their own mire and vomit.” In fact, for his Roughneck tendencies, that Athanasius might not be welcome in Thoughtful circles these days.

Allied to the thoughtful tendency among some Catholic pundits, there is the question of what is considered “Christian.” Athanasius would be considered uncivil and even “unchristian” by the standards of the present day. One hears a great deal of tut-tutting against the Roughnecks for their “unchristian” tone. When I said James Martin SJ’s behavior was “pansified,” that is, not manly, I heard from a small handful of church-ladies—female and male—who said things like “Is this really how Christians should speak to one another?” I had to remind them of that “whited sepulcher” thing Jesus said to the Pharisees.

Another thing you might hear from Thoughtfuls is that a particular comment is not “helpful,” said in a sometimes-condescending tone, as if the Thoughtfuls have the more important job and it is the Roughneck’s job to help the Thoughtfuls in their task. What the Thoughtfuls tend not to see is a division of labor. They have their job and the Roughnecks have theirs and if the Roughnecks make the Thoughtfuls work a little harder, then so be it. The Thoughtfuls and the Roughnecks have different jobs and different audiences. The Thoughtfuls want to convince other Thoughtfuls, and the Roughnecks want to sound the alarm and get people moving. The biggest difference is the willingness of Roughnecks to cause trouble. They are happy causing trouble for their enemies.

I wrote some months ago that men do not march for the natural law. They don’t. They march for many other reasons but never for the finely nuanced arguments of thoughtful academics. They march because they are angry and for them a thoughtful piece in the Times just won’t cut it.

Roughnecks think that Thoughtfuls tend to pussyfoot around a bit and sometimes nearly miss the target. Professor Robert George’s very welcome column about James Martin SJ was effusive in his praise of Martin and then barely got off the shot. George very cleverly came at Martin sideways and even, always kindly, gave Martin an out. Even then, Martin brushed him aside like this great man was no more than a gnat or, dare I say, a Roughneck.

Thoughtfuls sometimes do not want to address the harder issues in a debate because they deem them not to be helpful. In the marriage debate, they would not touch “sodomy,” for instance, or the health problems associated with the homosexual way of life, or even homosexuality per se. One Thoughtful does, Robert Reilly, and other Thoughtfuls have resolutely refused to engage him.

Here is the thing. I love the Thoughtfuls. I truly do. And their contribution to our common causes is incalculable. There is enormous value in Thoughtfuls engaging others at a high level, of showing our best arguments with the right amount of light rather than heat. Convincing other intellectuals, journalists, and policymakers on the issues and that we are not nuts is a very good thing. I also know full well that the rootin’-tootin’ Roughnecks make this much more difficult, make it much easier to dismiss the polished arguments of the Thoughtfuls.

And there are so many Thoughtfuls I greatly admire. Ramesh Ponnuru effortlessly taking apart his opponents’ arguments is a wonder to behold. I respect how gentlemanly Robert George engages his interlocutors. Sherif Gergis is simply amazing in debate, even and most especially on the most controversial topics. Robert Royal is another excellent Thoughtful; one I personally know has Roughneck tendencies. Others do, too. I think of Anthony Esolen.

Anthony Esolen is among the Thoughtfuls I admire the most for he is not only thoughtful, he does not pussyfoot around. In his profound column the other day, Esolen actually said, “Father James G. Martin, S.J., is either a cruel or a foolish man.” Esolen clearly has Roughneck tendencies.

Another Thoughtful I admire greatly is canon lawyer Ed Peters. In a series of columns, Peters has very directly taken Martin to school on—some would say, demolished—a number of his claims; that his book is officially approved by the Church, that Church teaching is invalid since it has not been “received,” and that he holds no “heretical” views.

So, who are the Roughnecks, the sounders of the alarm? The whole gang at LifeSite, who do remarkable work and are now regularly maligned by some faithful Catholics on social media. I admire the relentless bravery of Michael Voris and Christine Niles at Church Militant though in some instances they have gone too far on too little evidence. The great John Zmirak at the Stream is another one. He could go full-on Thoughtful if he wanted to, but he understands the fire this time and that people have to move. The folks at Catholic Vote are certainly among those I admire the most.

It is unfortunate the Thoughtfuls look down on the Roughnecks. It is too bad they do not recognize the valuable role the Roughnecks play in riling up the folks. So be it. The Roughnecks are not in this for praise, and certainly not from the Thoughtfuls.

So, what am I? Do you have to ask? Proudly Roughneck, with occasional though largely accidental Thoughtful lapses.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a statue of St. Athanasius on the south side of Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire, England.

Austin Ruse


Austin Ruse is a contributing editor to Crisis Magazine. His next book, Under Siege: No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic, is out from Crisis Publications in April. You can follow him on Twitter @austinruse.

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