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Balanced Commentary and the Irish Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 25, 2011

Today I received the following email:

Why are the articles in this website so vitriolic against those who dare to speak out about the obscenities that have occurred in the Irish Catholic church? Defending the indefensible happened in Nazi Germany, in the Pol Pot regime and in other incidents of genocide…. The most faithful of Catholics in Ireland are tired of traditionalists trying to whitewash what has happened.

This sort of email is not uncommon. Almost every day somebody accuses of ignoring or justifying evils in the Church for its own insidious ends. Usually—as in the present case—these complaints take the form of insisting that we’ve said exactly the opposite of what we’ve written in our commentaries On the News and On the Culture. Just the other day, to take another example, I received an angry email condemning for claiming to be Catholic while supporting gay marriage. As near as I can guess, the correspondent had seen the title of one of my commentaries, Why Gay Marriage is Straight Business, and leapt to a conclusion without reading it.

In similar fashion, I wonder if our Irish correspondent took one look at the headline on Phil Lawler’s latest commentary, Why the Irish government attacks the Catholic Church, and decided “the articles in this website” are “vitriolic against those who dare to speak out about the obscenities that have occurred in the Irish Catholic church.” One must assume, of course, that it is vitriolic to point out the hypocrisy of politicians and the grave error of arguing that the seal of confession should be subject to the will of the State.

But of course Phil does not need me to defend him, having been in the forefront of combatting the evils which have infected the Church in the modern period, including the horror of clerical sexual abuse. He even wrote a book about it, using Boston as a case study, called The Faithful Departed. I suspect that’s more than most of our critics have done.

What is at stake here is balance, and the need for balanced commentary. Because we decry clerical sexual abuse, it does not follow that we think the Catholic Church is an evil institution, or that those who attack the Catholic Church have no skeletons in their own closets. Because we battle against clerical sexual abuse, it does not follow that we favor every proposal to minimize it, especially proposals that throw the baby out with the bathwater, or proposals that come from those who hate the Church on principle, or proposals that are self-serving, or proposals which attempt to use the problems of the Church not to improve the Church but to strengthen the State.

Members and even leaders in the Catholic Church have certainly done evil; but it is impossible for an unbiased observer to fail to see that the Church is also unrivalled among all other institutions in history for the immense good her members and leaders have done. It is equally impossible, I think, for an unbiased observer to say of any State at any time that it has clearly done more good than harm. However great its positive achievements have been, the glowing histories must always be written by excluding as unimportant or justifiable the grave evils by which a State has gained and maintained its power. Think of those subjugated by the Roman Empire, or the history of Indians and Blacks in the United States—to name two widely-divergent States which have made grandiose claims and arguably done a great deal of good.

Certainly in recent history, the greatest and most widespread evils have been perpetrated by totalitarian States—States which, on principle, do not recognize that certain other institutions, such as the Church and the family, are prior to themselves and must under all circumstances be respected as such. But, to take the current question of the Irish Church and State as our model, those who seek to exalt the State at the expense of the Church seem never to dream that their own State could be a vessel of such evil. And this is because they have not yet learned that evil does not exist only “out there”. They ignore the palpable fact that we experience it deep within ourselves.

The pot so easily calls the kettle black! Each of us must struggle with blindness, temptation and sin. We may see the evil in another person, or another institution, very clearly; unfortunately, we seldom see with equal clarity the faults we harbor within ourselves, or within our own favorite institutions. In the broad cultural context, this also usually means those in the ascendancy see themselves as proponents of sweetness and light, because they are so far sunk in fashionable vice that they can no longer distinguish good from evil in their own attitudes and programs. Unfortunately, the fact that I see the grave evil that all my friends and associates see does not mean that I may safely put myself in charge of everything without fear of doing grave evil in my turn.

There is a double irony here in the matter of clerical sexual abuse. On the one hand, it is ironic that the one institution which has consistently taught the need for sexual purity and virtue has been so deeply betrayed by sexual perverts (let us be frank) who have risen through the ranks. But on the other hand, it is ironic that the surrounding culture, including the modern state, which has favored and supported every form of selfish sexual expression against the teachings of this same Church, more or less deliberately encouraging citizens to loose all sexual restraints, now finds it convenient to suspend the logic of its own sexual amorality in order to attack the Church for the sexual perversities of some of her clergy.

These are terrible ironies; they deserve serious reflection. Part of that reflection suggests that it is not those who are down whom we should most fear.

As I said, these things are a matter of balanced commentary. When balance is read as vitriol, it is really the reader’s attitudes which are vitriolic. If a writer acknowledges some goodness in those who are under attack, or some evil in those with the whip hand, he will be read as vitriolic by—and only by—those who hate. Sadly, when hatred is perceived as balance, the result is always an even graver evil masquerading under the name of good.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wmadonovan4215 - Jul. 27, 2011 7:57 AM ET USA

    Why not write a column about the different forms of faulty argument (such as are flying in every direction so prolifically these days). Is accusing someone of vitriol "poisoning the well"? Or "ad hominum"? We must sharpen our skills in analyzing rhetoric.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Jul. 26, 2011 10:21 PM ET USA

    Vitriolic? Insightful, thoughtful, I would say. Yes, your reader is indulging in projection.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 26, 2011 8:15 PM ET USA

    This whole thing is a mess, and it is the faithful who are bearing the financial, political, psychological, and spiritual repercussions. After $2 billion in damages in the US alone and other consequences these wolves have jeopardized all of us. It makes no sense to bicker amongst ourselves. The dangerous reactions in Ireland merit our concern, but it is clear that there were far too many monsters among the clergy who went unpunished. As the saying goes, "Don't give your enemies ammunition..."

  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - Jul. 25, 2011 6:50 PM ET USA

    We are not creatures of restraint. In less “netted” times, we had our families, friends and the measured pace of the U.S.P.S. to retard our less-reflective outbursts. Consider if a button suddenly appeared that allowed you to send an email to everyone in the world. Assuming you recognized your moral peril, how long could you hold out? Would you need a Mount Doom to destroy this “Button of Power”? I reflect on it this way. God has such a button, and yet no one has received His email.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 25, 2011 5:31 PM ET USA

    It is unjust for readers to chastise this site without merit. However, the abuse scandal has been so astonishing to both sides that one almost cannot blame those for the indignation that has been expressed. It is simply not emotionally possible during the acute phase of this process—as is the case in Ireland—to engender among most people antagonism for the hypocrisy of the Church's critics. Human nature is what it is. As the saying goes: Timing is everything. Try again later. Much later.