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Information and Deformation

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A recent article in OnePeterFive suggests that zealous reading of the news – which the author implicitly equates to neck-craning as we pass an accident – is dismissed as, at best, a worthless enterprise and as, at worst, a sinful one. In support of his thesis, the author, Dr. Andrew Peach, appeals to St. Thomas Aquinas, whose admonition against curiosity we ought to accept and apply in both our public and private lives. Dr. Peach contends that wise and virtuous political life does not depend upon frenetic news reading.

He is correct, of course – to a point. It was, after all, Thomas Jefferson who, in 1807, wrote that “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper [and] truth becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Imagine, if you can, what Jefferson would say about news on the internet or television. Much of what passes for news is tendentious ideological refuse or pornographic sewage, attractive only to our baser instincts. The counsel of Psalm 101:3 is surely germane: “I will refuse to look at anything vile and vulgar. I hate all who deal crookedly; I will have nothing to do with them.”

It was, though, the same Mr. Jefferson who told us that if he had to

decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

I believe that we must be well informed about the events and people of the time but being well informed means “being capable of reading,” which, in turn, requires being sufficiently educated and well formed to distinguish between the prudent and the profane.

Similarly, the Thomist warning against curiosity concerns an officious or intrusive or overbearing information edacity, much akin to gossip (see CCC #2492). By contrast, the curiosity which inspires scientific investigation or philosophical reflection (e.g., “What is God’s nature?” or “How do I judge right from wrong?” or “Why am I here?”) is a virtuous and valuable yearning—and one to be commended, not criticized, from both ambo and podium.

As is true of the word prooftext, which may be either positive or negative, the word curiosity or the institutional media themselves may be virtuous or vicious. Consider that Dr. Peach chose to post his article on what he (correctly) perceives as a trustworthy medium: OnePeterFive. Such excellent media do, thank God, exist. About the existence of morally corrosive media, though, we surely have no doubt. That there are poisoned wells, however, does not mean that we must refuse all liquid. To do so, after all, would result in our deaths.

And so it is with the sources of the information we require in order to make reasoned ethical and political judgments. Here, I am not trying to provide lists of commendable and trustworthy media, but we know they exist, and our task is to seek and to support them. The principal principle – forgive the wordplay – is to know whom to trust as we develop our faith, our understanding, and our view of the people and events swirling around us. We must abjure and repel the “information wolves” (cf. Acts 20:20-30), but celebrate and bolster the reputable information sources, both sacred and secular  (See, e.g., Luke 6:40, 1 Timothy 4:2, 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 2:7-8, 2 John 1:10, James 3:1-2, 2 Peter 2:1-21, and Jude 1:4). As there are legions of deceitful media, so are there many fraudulent “Catholic colleges.” One can consult, with trust, the analysis and advice of the Cardinal Newman Society about genuine Catholic colleges.

That there are so many counterfeit Catholic schools and, even more egregiously, so many treacherous leaders does not tell us that we are to forsake the reliable schools or to denounce the trustworthy leaders who “fear God, in whom there is truth and [who] hate avarice, and [whom we should] appoint . . . [to be] rulers of thousands, and of hundreds, and of fifties, and of tens” (Exodus 18:21 DRB).

One prepositional phrase—”in whom there is truth”—is key to finding the good journalist, the good priest, the good politician, the good teacher, the good lawyer, the good doctor, the good plumber. We live in a world—as Dr. Peach rightly explains in his jeremiad—in which, if we bother at all to know the truth (cf. CCC #1791), its discovery will make us flee, for truth obliges us to conform our words and works to what is good and true and beautiful (see Rom 12:2). We much too often run from that duty.

Knowing that there are wise and conscientious priests and professors; that there are trustworthy colleges and universities; and that there are honest and authentic sources of news and information delivered by morally meticulous journalists “in whom there is truth”—we do well, regularly, to read, to watch, and to listen to those who do wear the “belt of truth” (Eph 6:14). To think Eucharistically (CCC #1327) means having the formation to know how, why, and where to differentiate between the virtuous and the vicious, the noble and the noisome, the sacred and the sordid. Knowing such truth, and serving such truth, leads to legitimate freedom, which, in turn promotes “what is good and just” (CCC #1733) in and for the Church, our society, and our families.

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