A Gadfly in Combat: The Rhetoric of Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh has done it again: driven his opponents (many of whom he helpfully names) into a defensive frenzy, which almost seems to prove the point he is making – namely, that these individuals get worked up too easily.

Our Lord surrounded by converts. (Photo by Joseph Shaw)

I want to say something about Ivereigh’s modus operandi before saying something about the substantive issue, which has to do with the fact that Ivereigh has noted that a number of people who worry about aspects of Pope Francis’s papacy are converts, not cradle Catholics.

I must be frank: I think Ivereigh is a kind of genius. Watching him debate Matthew Schmitz of First Things on Al Jazeera is like watching a gadfly in combat with a sumo wrestler. He has done the same thing in this recent post on Crux about converts. I am interested in the form as well as the content of arguments, and I recognize a master at work. How does he do it?

There is, in fact, a formula.

1. Whenever your opponent raises an objection to something you have said, don’t let yourself be pinned down. Just change the subject.

You have some detailed and nuanced concerns about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia? Let’s talk about converts and cradle Catholics!

This is effective in extended public debate, private conversation, and televised discussion alike. Some years ago, I fell into conversation with the distinguished Church historian Prof. Henry Mayr-Harting – a pretty liberal Catholic – on a crowded train from London to Oxford. He was in a pugnacious mood, and we argued pleasantly the whole way. But he never replied to my objections to anything he said except in such a way that I was provoked into addressing a substantially new claim he was making. By the end of the journey, I felt as if I’d spent an hour wrestling with a ghost. Since then, I’ve seen this strategy in action from Mgr. Basil Loftus as well as Austen Ivereigh.

This works by appealing, in one’s defense, to principles or facts with which one’s opponent strongly disagrees, and that brings us to the next part of the formula.

2. Tempt your opponent into arguing on the issues you want him to by asserting airily what you know he will disagree with.

There are issues, and sub-issues, and specific examples, about which one side of any debate looks stronger or weaker. Why waste your time arguing over the ones where you look relatively weak when you can force your opponent to spend all his time focused on the ones on which you look relatively strong? How can you do this? By provoking him to follow you into these sub-issues and throwing in your favored examples, even if they are irrelevant to the matter in hand. It works best with an opponent who keeps thinking: “I can’t let that claim go unchallenged, particularly on TV! People might think I agree with it.”

Now, if you actually want to persuade your interlocutor of a specific point, you need to avoid appealing to things you know he rejects, so it might appear that this strategy is self-defeating. But that would be to assume that the purpose of debate is to persuade the opponent or anyone in the audience who was inclined to agree with him, and that would be a mistake. Rather, the final part of the formula is this:

3. Provoke outrage in your opponent by outrageous and insulting assertions.

The purpose of the debate, for people like Loftus and Ivereigh, is not to persuade, but to lessen their opponents’ effectiveness. One way of doing this is by moving the debate to places where the opponent looks less good, as noted above. Another is by inducing some degree of spluttering rage. The hoped for result is to infuriate and humiliate him and in this way to silence him and his supporters. This works particularly well where the audience is not well informed on the subject at issue, and best of all when the audience is liberal or secular. Anyone, indeed, who is not following the argument in some detail – and Ivereigh is careful to make the path of argumentation dizzyingly serpentine by constantly changing the subject – is reduced to scoring the debate on the basis of which of the debaters is looking calm and self-satisfied and which is looking defensive and hot under the collar. The result is that Ivereigh comes out looking like the victor even if his opponent has given a series of his claims crushing ripostes. Ivereigh gives no sign of being crushed, and everyone watching is too confused to know what’s going on.

In a standalone article or blog post, the above formula is adapted: the trick here is to make so many outrageous or insulting claims that opponents start spluttering from the start, and onlookers think: Here is the masterful Ivereigh, cool and collected, and there are a bunch of people shouting and getting red in the face.

I realized, in addressing the appalling weekly columns of Mgr. Loftus, that it would take a small book to go into all the asinine claims of just one week’s output. Admittedly, after a while, you notice that he is repeating himself a good deal. But all the same, a thorough response would be a full-time job. And that’s two birds with one stone, isn’t it? A pile of theological nonsense purveyed to the public and a potentially effective opponent tied up in knots looking to most people like a nitpicking member of the Spanish Inquisition.

Ivereigh is an incomparably more sophisticated media operator than Loftus, but what is particularly striking about his latest column is how appallingly rude it is. He doesn’t just casually refer to his opponents as neurotics; he goes to some lengths to suggest he is using the word in a technical, medical sense. He is really, truly saying that half a dozen named Catholic journalists and commentators are mentally ill, for the simple reason that they disagree with him. Outrage is absolutely appropriate, but I fancy that it will get us all nowhere.

It is important to notice that if a conservative Catholic tried this shtick, it wouldn’t work. One important reason is that a conservative who baited his opponents with outrageous claims and insults would not be tolerated by his fellow conservatives. (This happens from time to time.) Liberals, on the other hand, are happy to let each other get away with this sort of thing, not because they all agree with all the detailed claims – far from it – but because they are happy to see them being used in the great war against orthodoxy which they all support. Does John Allen, for example, agree with Ivereigh’s absurd claim that the Pope is “chosen by the Holy Spirit”? I doubt it. But for the duration of Pope Francis’s papacy, Allen is happy to publish Ivereigh’s liberal ultramontanist ravings because they are tactically effective. (I’ve written more about this here.)

I suppose it’s worth stating the obvious: that the approach I’ve described deepens divisions and embitters opponents, and that it is contrary to charity and intellectually dishonest. But hey, all’s fair in love and war, isn’t it?

So, what of Ivereigh’s substantive point about converts? Well, it is very simple. Converts in general view the Church in terms of theology and ideas, because they have come into the Church, usually, because of theology and ideas. Cradle Catholics can fall prey to the temptation to see their Catholic identity as a tribal thing. If the Church were somehow to change her teachings, tribal Catholics would, obviously, be less troubled than intellectual converts. There are in fact plenty of cradle Catholics who understand that the Church is not some quasi-ethnic or cultural group, or a cozy club, but actually a community defined by adhesion to the message of the Gospel and the Church’s authority and sacraments. We are blessed, however, with a particularly high proportion of converts who recognize this reality without any prompting.

So, God bless you, Matthew Schmitz, Rusty Reno, Edward Pentin, Carl Orlson, John-Henry Westen, and Daniel Hitchens! All personally demonized by Austen Ivereigh, but gifts indeed from the Holy Spirit to the Church – the Holy Spirit, which, in every age, refreshes the Church with converts. Heaven knows, we cradle Catholics have done little indeed to deserve your assistance.

Originally published at LMSChairman.orgReprinted with permission under a new title.

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