The nasty "Truth"

By  Michael Higgins
  • October 13, 2006

It is nasty and brutish out there. And I am not talking about the world of international politics or the world of colliding ideologies. I am talking about the world of inter-Catholic relations.

There is a new and disturbing rise in aggressiveness among those who fashion themselves the defenders of orthodoxy and the stakes are high. The first casualty is charity. I am not a media naif and I have become accustomed to vilification. It goes, sadly, with the turf. But there has been an increase in the spitefulness, in the determination to damage reputations in the interest of The Truth (as the orthodox police understand it), and this accelerated trend to monitoring and denouncing should be deplored by all who genuinely care for the community of faith.

Let me be specific. During the summer a column I wrote for the Toronto Star on a Jesuit priest who incorporates Hindu dance into appropriate liturgical settings prompted an avalanche of e-mails, letters and phone calls of a particularly vicious tone. One irate correspondent delighted in warning me that the German Shepherd — his preferred moniker for Pope Benedict XVI — would devour me and my ilk. You could scour the contents of the column and be hard pressed to find a hint of heresy, but no matter, the hounds smelled blood.

I was surprised by the fury and the orchestrated reactions — and I mean orchestrated — and marvelled at the irony of it all as I stepped out of solemn High Mass at the Oratory in London, a resplendent liturgy with enough maniples and dalmatics to bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened post-conciliar reformer, although it was perhaps the surfeit of incense that precipitated the welling up.

My point is simply this: there is enough variety in the rich mosaic that is the Catholic liturgical tradition to allow for a plethora of authentic and approved ways of worship. Why the note of outrage? Why is the Indian Jesuit dancer obscene while swinging thuribles are not? Why, more importantly, are both not acceptable?

This unpleasant encounter served, however, as a preview of something far more injurious down the pike. As the entire world now knows, Pope Benedict’s address in Regensburg generated a great deal of media and political heat. I was in Antigonish, N.S., giving an address on Pope John Paul II and his relationship with the Jews (one of the most affectionate and productive in pontifical history) at a conference on Jewish-Catholic relations sponsored by St. Francis Xavier University when the controversy broke. The rabbis at the conference were delighted with what they interpreted as Benedict’s forthrightness and refreshing combativeness, the Muslim scholars present were antagonistic, and the Catholics perplexed and cautious.

I read the address, which I found quite impressive and in no immediately discernible way a departure from the Ratzinger canon, but I deplored the insertion of the controversial passage (the alleged observation by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus that in the teachings of Mohammed “you will find things only evil and inhuman”) without an admission prior to the quoted passage of Christian eruptions of unreason and credal propagation by the sword. A little pontifical humility can go a long way to strengthen an argument that is in part exhortative. In other words, I was concerned with the politics of composition and rhetorical persuasion. It seemed to me that we had a papal blunder on our hands. I attributed the problem to ineffective vetting in the Secretariat of State and I am quite prepared to stand corrected.

Within a couple of days I had also provided a fairly detailed analysis on Michael Enright’s CBC Sunday Edition and with Brian Bethune for Maclean’s, and with the latter “all hell broke loose.” Hilary White, a writer for Lifesite.com (a web site and news source of dubious credibility), posted an article that denounced me for saying that the Pope lacks “even a child’s grasp of Christian ethics,” something that I never said in print or on radio because it is palpably untrue and I would never even think it. I was accused of uttering other things as well in an article in which the author elided what Bethune editorialized with what I said, misrepresented the quoted passages in Maclean’s and proceeded to identify me as one of those prominent liberals ever eager to promote a dissident and secularized Catholicism, a perfect example of my handiwork being the current state of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., where I was president until July of this year. This is an ad hominem argument pure and simple as well as an egregious fabrication. And, sadly, it provides ample evidence to prove my point that it is getting nastier out there.

The culture of delation that has achieved unprecedented intensity in the United States with their polarizing “culture wars” and internecine Catholic warfare (vigilante groups like the Cardinal Newman Society have caused considerable pain for bishops, theologians and university presidents) reminds us of what happens when we depart from St. Augustine’s wise counsel that in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (“in the fundamental issues, unity; in matters of opinion, freedom; in all things, charity”).

The ill-conceived denunciation of Catholics by Catholics is not an exclusively American prerogative. We’re pretty good at it ourselves. It is time to change. It is very hard to see the credibility of the church’s liberating message being well served with Catholics smiting Catholics for love of The Truth.

Increasingly in our society people are lamenting the decline of courtesy and many groups are struggling to restore civility to social discourse. Perhaps as Catholics we can lead the way.

(Dr. Higgins, president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., is the author most recently of Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making [Anansi 2006], currently being re-aired on CBC Radio One’s Ideas.)

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