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Catholics and Modernity
It’s time to find another “narrative” for reporting the Catholic Church.


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George Weigel

Cracow Somewhere on the far side of what Tom Wolfe called the Halusian Gulp, Father Francis X. Murphy, C.Ss.R., is reading the July 11 Washington Post and groaning — if, that is, his purgatorial purification has been effective.

For it was Father Murphy who, covering the Second Vatican Council for The New Yorker under the pseudonym “Xavier Rynne,” concocted the cowboys-and-Indians hermeneutic of all things Catholic that has plagued the mainstream media’s reporting and commentary on the Catholic Church for two generations: There are good-guy Catholics, known as “liberals” or “progressives,” who want to make the Church relevant to contemporary society and culture; and there are bad-guy Catholics, known as “conservatives” or “traditionalists,” who want to retreat into catacombs of intransigence because of their inability to grasp or comprehend a modern (and, latterly, postmodern) world they regard with horror.

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Now, to be sure, a writer like Murphy, trying to explain the 21st ecumenical council in history to the generally secularized readership of The New Yorker, had a problem on his hands. How could even a gifted and witty scribe (which Murphy/Rynne was) explain, let alone make exciting, arcane debates over doctrine, often conducted in a strange vocabulary, for people who regarded “doctrine” as a synonym for “mindlessness” and “intellectual immaturity,” and in a culture where pragmatism and “technique” had conquered all? Murphy/Rynne had excellent inside sources in Rome, where he had long worked; what he needed was what would now be called — cue fingernails scraping down blackboard — a “narrative.” So Murphy/Rynne hit on a brilliant strategy, perfectly adapted to the Sixties and the middle years of Kennedy Camelot: treat Vatican II as a political contest between the forces of light and the forces of reaction; run everything and everybody at the council through those filters; and then watch readers acclaim, with one voice, “I get it!”  

So, beginning 50 years ago this coming October, “Xavier Rynne”/Francis X. Murphy set in analytic concrete an interpretation of the Catholic Church, its internal affairs, and its engagement with public life that is ubiquitous in the 21st-century mainstream media — and not only in the United States. Here too in Poland, the cowboys-and-Indians hermeneutic dominates the national media, although the preferred good-guy/bad-guy categories are “open Church” and “closed Church.” The same nonsense prevails throughout the rest of Europe, even as the European Catholicism that most enthusiastically embraced the “progressive” or “open Church” model shrinks into ecclesial and public inconsequence.

The problem, of course, is that the cowboys-Indians/left-right optic is incapable of grappling with the fact that the Catholic Church is about true-and-false, not liberal-and-conservative. So why its long shelf life? The tenacity of the Rynne hermeneutic is, in a way, quite understandable. In a culture in which people imagine that religious conviction is a lifestyle choice of no more intellectual or moral consequence than the choice of a pet, it takes serious effort to grasp that what the Catholic Church teaches about the nature of God or the requisites for ministerial ordination is entirely different from the choice between a schnauzer and a dachshund. And in a secularized culture in which “choice” is the one sacred word, a Church that insists that its leadership teaches authoritatively is going to be easily portrayed as ham-handed, insensitive, out of step. Yet for all that the Rynne optic on matters Catholic is a perfect fit for postmodern America (as it was a perfect fit for the Sixties), its profligate use is too often a sign of intellectual laziness — and, I would suggest, a violation of a basic journalistic canon, according to which the reporter’s first task, like the historian’s, is to understand the subject as he, she, or it understands himself, herself, or itself.

The perceptual distortions the Rynne optic inevitably creates were on full display in a story in that July 11 Post about teachers at a Catholic Sunday school in the diocese of Arlington, Va., who had resigned rather than profess that they believed, and would teach, what the Catholic Church believes and teaches. One might, at first blush, think it entirely unexceptionable that the Catholic bishop of Arlington, who has responsibility for the integrity of the Catholic “brand” in his diocese, would require that teachers in his parish schools and Sunday schools believe and teach what the Church believes and teaches. But that was not the Post’s view of the matter. Its reporter crafted a narrative straight out of the Rynne playbook and portrayed the dispute in Arlington as one between conscience-driven laity (women, of course) and an ecclesiastical establishment dominated by authoritarian males (who had not learned the lessons of ecclesiastical acquiescence to the Nazis, no less!). That the Catholic Church has not only the right but the responsibility to ensure that what is taught in its schools is what the teaching authority of the Church teaches to be true went completely unremarked in the story.



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