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Writing for Why Readers Matter

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 17, 2007

To say that I am astonished by the intelligence of users sounds condescending. It is better to stress the truly edifying generosity with which this intelligence is shared. I rarely write anything without receiving comments which enrich my understanding of the topic. This feedback is vitally important not only to our work but to myself.

The Ups and Downs

It’s true that we also get some very odd, naïve or even annoying messages. Occasionally we hear from people who are convinced they are the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, or who refuse to accept any developments of doctrine since the 19th century, or who insist, when I speak out about abortion, that we must be shills for the Republican Party. Some correspondents are convinced that we have the ear of every bishop and Cardinal in the world. (These of course usually want us to pass on their comments.)

Another difficulty is purely personal. Invariably I’ll receive some messages which contain careful and patient criticism of what I’ve written. These often tempt me to protest until I slow down enough to recognize how they push the discussion forward in new and fruitful ways. Such comments stretch me a little, showing me I could have made a more careful point, or one that is deeper and clearer. The natural man rebels, but it is all to the good.

I am particularly indebted to the messages I get from equally committed Catholics who, owing to whatever mysteries of personality control these things, tend to respond to many situations differently. This is quite common in political discussions, but there can be startling (and illuminating) differences in emotional attachments, theological perspectives, modes of expression, and points of emphasis in almost any discussion. Sometimes our instincts are sufficiently different as to make communication difficult at first. What is the other person trying to say? What am I trying to hear?

The majority of messages I receive in response to my columns and blog entries are brief expressions of agreement and encouragement. It takes a generous spirit to write such messages, and I am not too proud to confess that these comments inspire me to keep writing. Recently the volume of messages has increased to the point that sometimes I don’t have time to answer them unless they offer a criticism or raise a question. This was especially true with my recent column on Eucharistic adoration. I prefer to thank people when they are kind and, when I can’t, I hope these remarks will show how much I appreciate it.

The Problem of Humor

I wish I had a better wit, but perhaps it is just as well that I’m not more often tempted to humor. Experience has taught that it is an inherently divisive approach to serious subjects, though it does seem to me there are many people, events, and ideas out there that deserve to have a little fun poked at them. When I do so, however, I inevitably hear from those who, despite their agreement with my position, find my unkindness something of a scandal. Mockery, I suppose, is always uncharitable, but I like to think that one can sometimes be a little tongue-in-cheek without being guilty of that sin. Undoubtedly this depends on whether there is any bond between the humorist and his target…er, subject.

It is true that certain kinds of humor are inherently exclusive. Ridicule can be used to rally the troops against a common enemy. Lord knows we need some troop rallying, but the price can sometimes be too high. For this reason it generally works better to poke fun at a situation rather than a person. Alternatively, a caricature of an imaginary figure may enable someone to see his folly without taking personal offense. In any case, the right kind of humor can help us see the folly with which we are all afflicted; the wrong kind can erect barriers that inhibit conversion; it takes a deft hand to get it right.

My greatest dread as a writer is to be wrong when I urge some point regarding Faith or Church. I pray always that I will not write anything which Our Lord would rather I left unsaid. Here humor itself can backfire, for it is profoundly embarrassing to be found funny when one does not intend it, to say something laughable while attempting perfect seriousness. I have already commented on the positive side of some of our differences, but there is also the negative. Individually, and often even collectively, there is so much that we do not know, so much that we do not see. Sometimes we aren’t aware enough of our own gaps or our own perspectives. Surely I have written things that deserve an unintended smile, or a grimace.


My favorite topics are those which permit me to elucidate some point of Catholic faith or life. Judging by reader reactions, the most popular topics are those which do this with a bit of bite, in response to a real problem brought to the fore by recent events. I may be misreading this popularity. After all, just because more people feel moved to write in about a current controversy does not mean they like such topics better. But I suspect there is at least a correlation between reader response and the urgency with which each topic is received.

My own particular perspective is, as much as humanly possible, the perspective of the Church. For the Catholic, if he but understand it, the Church contains everything desirable for life with God, including God Himself. The Church is not only the extension of Christ’s body through time and space but the means by which He is made really present as His sacrifice on our behalf is continually renewed. The Church is the surest guide to understanding the totality of reality, in the context of which all special studies will bear maximum fruit. The Church is the simplest guide to the good life, saving us from enormous shadows, errors and voids. When the incomparable wellsprings of the Church’s grace meet the inevitable failings of her members, she presents a continuous drama of God’s love and our response. She gives us the opportunity to extend this drama of mercy to all the earth. I want, everywhere and always, to be a child of the Church.

In the last analysis, this is why I write, and why your responses mean so much. Relying on the many insights readers supply, my own thoughts mature, along with my ability to express them. Nor does it hurt to be reminded that the audience is extraordinarily intelligent and articulate. This tends to keep one honest. The hasty and the slipshod, the erroneous and the mean, are found out immediately—which leaves so much less, I pray, to be found out in the end.

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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