The Corner

One Last Time

A note, particularly for our Christian and even more particularly for our Catholic readers: I suspect that many of you think that when someone is spouting misinformed, foolish comments about your faith, you should try to engage him with an assumption of good will. You should write on the assumption that he is sincerely interested in clearing up misunderstandings, figuring out your position, and if necessary critiquing it intelligently, at which point you can continue the conversation.

So you might point out, for example, the Wikipedia does not adequately capture the nuances of theological issues related to the development of doctrine. That Benedict XVI, in assailing “relativism,” did not mean “the claim that people’s understanding of truth varies with time” but rather something like “the claim that there is no such thing as truth and that people who believe that there is are incipient dictators who must be repressed.” That even if Catholic teaching had changed over time, that fact would have nothing to do with Benedict’s criticism. That William F. Buckley Jr.’s quote manifestly had to do with liturgy and not doctrine. That the consistency of Church teaching on birth control cannot be judged on the basis of the practices of self-described Catholics, any more than the consistency of Church teaching on the Trinity (a rather more important matter) could be judged on the basis of a comparison of the results of a fourth-century poll and a current one. (My guess is that only a minority of Catholics, then or now, would be able to give a coherent account at all—proving that the Church has no teaching on the Trinity?)

So you send in thoughtful emails, sometimes ones you have spent some time working on. Congratulations: You have given John Derbyshire an opportunity to call the Pope a hypocrite on the basis of one badly misunderstood Wikipedia entry. Derbyshire says, openly and repeatedly, that he is not interested in learning anything about the church he is criticizing. He sneers at how long your emails were. I say to you again: It is a mistake to engage Derbyshire when he writes in this vein. He is trying to provoke, irritate, and wound you, not to join in a search for truth. And then he will complain that people have been provoked, or suggest that people are being thin-skinned about a bit of jollity.

Civility does not mean volunteering to be a punching bag. We should give people the benefit of the doubt. But when we have concluded that their intent is malign, charity does not obligate us to pretend otherwise or even to refrain from saying so. In short, my letter-writing and posting friends, consult Matthew 7:6.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.