Pollyanna Among the Prophets

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Gerbert of Aurillac and Bi Sheng of Hubei were roughly contemporary (946–1003 and 990–1051), but Europe and China are far from each other. It is a pity that these men could not meet, for it would have been a unique match of minds. Gerbert became the first French pope—as Sylvester II—with an intelligence “off the charts” by any standard, and certainly so as an inventor. He introduced Hindu-Arabic numbers to the West, improved the celestial sphere, and invented the pendulum clock and what we would now recognize as a pipe organ. By constructing the first counting device to function digitally as well as an abacus that mimicked the algorithm used today for arithmetic computations, he has claim to being the father of the modern computer, centuries before Pascal. During the Song dynasty, several decades after the death of Sylvester, Bi Sheng developed a moveable albeit cumbersome type, due to its porcelain blocks.

Johann Gutenberg seems to have developed his own printing apparatus by 1440, and there followed a slow improvement to the rotary press in 1843 and offset printing in 1875. Gutenberg’s invention opened the way for propaganda in the best and worst senses. Gutenberg spent his last impecunious years in the court of Archbishop Adolf of Nassau and was buried as a Franciscan tertiary, but his invention was eventually appropriated for spreading the new Protestant apologetic. Along with Martin Luther, pamphleteers such as Urbanus Rhegius and Philipp Melancthon made adroit use of the printing press to describe in lurid detail the low moral state of Rome. The appeal of the vernacular was particularly effective since Catholic apologists such as Hieronymus Emser and John Eck were mainly defensive.

These several centuries later, “social media” has changed culture in ways that even the brilliance of Sylvester II and Bi Sheng could not have imagined, and the invention of the Internet has multiplied incalculably the impact of Gutenberg’s mechanical innovation. As with the sixteenth-century pamphleteers, the present reality and potential test the virtue of prudence. Sometimes aggressive journalism tells the truth in ways that embarrass defensive apologists. The idle mind might wonder whether Charles Borromeo or Francis de Sales would have used “blogs”, but the prolific correspondence of saints like these comes close to “tweeting,” their intellectual and literary superiority notwithstanding. Later, the saints Anthony Mary Claret in Cuba and Maximilian Kolbe in Japan would study printing and become exemplars of effective Catholic journalism.

This simply is a reminder that the scandals, vulgarities, and inarticulate thought that bombard social media may falsely give the impression that the present confusion in the Church is unprecedented. It may be singular in some ways, but it is certainly not without antecedent disgraces. It is fortunate that in the days of the Papal States, for instance, investigative journalists were rare. This is not to excuse the current state of affairs, but there might have been similar—or perhaps even worse—temptations to despair of had earlier ages had access to the Internet.

 

There is a false and ephemeral piety that would deal with bad news by pretending it does not exist, or by censoring it when it cannot be ignored. This would be the Pollyanna complex: “Oh, yes, the game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ‘twas.” Pollyanna Whittier started out well as the fictitious young orphan heroine in the 1913 novel by Eleanor Parker. Pollyannna’s gossamer optimism was not unlike Wodehouse’s Madeline Bassett who held the view that “the stars are God’s daisy chain, that rabbits are gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen, and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born.” But the relentlessly cheerful debutante of positive thinking was so irritating that Pollyanna’s name became a byword to less blissful souls, rather like Voltaire’s Pangloss, a satire of Leibnitz skipping through “the best of all possible worlds.”

Pollyanna lives on in a parallel ecclesiastical world of new springtimes, new evangelizations, second Pentecosts, conferences of “diocesan leaders” with mic’d up motivational speakers “celebrating the life and dignity of the human person”, and Falstaffian clergymen bereft of sense and burdened with unction. Catholic writers who confuse innocence with naïveté may print anodyne words that in the storms of the day become fatal to fact. They are to theology what Barney the Dinosaur is to paleontology. Thomas Paine, that most effective pamphleteer (his Common Sense still holds the record as America’s best-selling printed pamphlet), wrote of the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.” Although he was no friend of religion, his disparaging words take on a deeper mordancy when applied to anyone who enlists in the Church Militant without putting on the armor.

In Pollyanna’s illusory ecclesiastical bubble are the Rex Mottrams of the frequently cited Brideshead Revisited scene in which he declares that the pope can forecast the weather (today that would be “climate change”). Flattery is Pollyanna’s protocol. There even was a clergyman in the service of the pope who said that the Church “is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.” Flattery is an etiquette that sustains the transparent bubble which is popped with dangerous ease by the cynic. Disraeli was a master of that: “Everyone likes flattery, and when you come to royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.” Update that to the evangelist Billy Graham comparing President Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount. And, of course, there was the ridiculous attempt of the Pharisees and Herodians to “trap” Christ through insincere praise (cf. Matt 22:16).

Human respect sometimes makes objective criticism difficult. I once insisted that my Korean violin teacher abandon his oriental politeness and criticize my mistakes, but the best he could manage was: “You are now holding the bow like Jascha Heifetz… but you do not sound like Heifetz.” In Ancient Greece, parrhesia was a rhetorical form of frank speech correcting “those to whom one owes reverence, because we feel justified in pointing out some fault.” As a dialectical device, Plato would simply call it a kind of “speaking truth to power.” Those secure in themselves should welcome it. It is said that in 1670 King Louis XIV appointed the court preacher Bossuet tutor to the Grand Dauphin precisely because he did not want his heir coddled by “flatteurs.” Saint John Paul II—successor to St. Peter, who was “just a man” (Acts 10:26)—told the effusive biographer André Frossard, “You are more of a papalist than I am.” And in a rougher diction, made more poignant in the light of later curial turpitude, Pope Francis spoke in 2013 of prelates who “have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers.” “The court,” he said, “is the leprosy of the papacy.” Whatever he meant by that, and this Holy Father can be opaque at times, there certainly is a manipulative instinct in the sycophantic types like Dickens’s Uriah Heep and Trollope’s Obadiah Slope. And slick Iago used unction to ruin Othello. If humility is the ground of all the virtues, this pastiche of humility is their annihilation. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).

Famous from its source in Japanese culture are the “Three Wise Monkeys” known as Mizaru (See no evil), Kikazaru (Hear no evil) and Iwazarua (Speak no evil). It is easy to make them models of human wisdom, as Gandhi did when he adapted them to Hindi and claimed them as his only possession: Bapu, Ketan, and Bandar. But they can also be the Evil One’s mockery of wisdom as willful ignorance, like idols before whom fools bow in delicate groves (Psalm 135:6). When the Three Wise Men entered the court of King Herod, they did not do so as those blind, deaf and mute monkeys. Though they were from “a foreign land” they were familiar with the prophets whose words in Sacred Writ they had pondered, and thus they easily saw through the king’s coyness. By one count, the Old Testament has forty-nine prophets, and none of them thought that the stars are God’s daisy chain and rabbits are gnomes. And there were seven prophetesses—Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther—but none was named Pollyanna.

In her own day, Flannery O’Connor grew impatient with the “happy news” of church newspapers. In contrast today, there may be an overabundance of muckraking print media, but the same prudence that disdains it should not altogether ignore it. As was first said in the eighteenth-century, in an issue of the daily print publication The Spectator of Addison and Steele, a broken clock is right twice a day.

We have the hard lesson learned from the Legionaries of Christ scandal. In 2006, the Holy See abolished their special vow of “charity” which had forbidden any criticism of the Order’s superiors. Its culture of impermeability was an esoteric camouflage for corruption. In recent months, the Holy See changed the name of its Secret Archive to Apostolic Archive, to avoid misunderstanding, and the practice of the “Pontifical Secret” has been lifted in cases of sex abuse.

In the Historical Sketches, St. John Henry Newman distinguished detraction from discernment and remarked: “the endemic perennial fidget which possesses us about giving scandal; facts are omitted in great histories, or glosses are put upon memorable acts, because they are thought not edifying, whereas of all scandals such omissions, such glosses, are the greatest.”

King David was prophetic; he was not Pollyannish. As he approached Bahurim, a man named Shimei pelted the king with stones: “Get out, get out, you murderer, you scoundrel!” David restrained Abishai and his other officials from killing Shimei, saying, “Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. 1It may be that the Lord will look upon my misery and restore to me his covenant blessing instead of his curse today” (2 Samuel 16:5-13).

Prophets are not reeds shaken with the wind, nor do they glide whistling through history, inoculated by innocuousness. Rather, they are patient because the Master said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away but my words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). And heaven and earth include cyberspace.

Image: Esther Denouncing Haman by Ernest Normand

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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