No More Timidity


When I decided to publish Maureen Mullarkey’s essayNotes on a Road Show, I had no idea that First Things editor R.R. Reno would make the decision to kill off Maureen’s entire blog. The piece first appeared there, but was soon thereafter taken down on Reno’s orders. Over the past year, Maureen and I have struck up a friendly correspondence based in kindred concern, and I was given the opportunity to re-publish an earlier essay of hers, To the Point with Aesop, back in May. When she reached out to me yesterday and told me that her post on the papal visit to Cuba and the United States had become homeless, I considered it a privilege to offer it a place here at OnePeterFive.

Maureen’s obvious erudition is rivaled only by her mastery of the English language, both of which are wonderful in their unpretentious interplay. Her prose is undeniably piquant, but it’s also incredibly refreshing in its raw, unflinching honesty. When I read her words, I sense that they originate in a mind that has seen and experienced a great deal, has grasped the difference between things that are simply disagreeable and those that are actually dangerous, and possesses the innate apprehension of symbol and pattern that one rarely finds in anyone but an artist. Some may see her work as courageous; it is surely that, but it is perhaps more accurate to describe it as vulnerable – a quality far more rare in theologians and essay writers than in poets and painters. When one says what one truly thinks in the public square, it is an invitation to emotional violence, and such invitations are inevitably accepted.

Which brings me back to Reno. He begins his explanation of Maureen’s involuntary departure (entitled No More Tirades) by saying that “First Things stands for something,” though he seems unable to explain what, exactly, other than a vaguely-described “reality-based conservatism,” – to which he clearly thinks Maureen does not subscribe. In what immediately becomes an uncomfortable attempt at public face-saving, he clucks about her “sharp pen and pungent style,” and segues into a therapeutic assessment that “she’s very angry about this papacy, which she seems to view as (alternately) fascism and socialism disguised as Catholicism.”

I speak here often about semiotics, because symbol and gesture and ritual are so innately ingrained in the Catholic ethos. In her final offending piece, Maureen never actually accuses the papacy of being “fascism or socialism disguised as Catholicism.” She does, however, intimate that one can tell a great deal about a person by the company they keep. Even Che Guevara’s own daughter seems to understand this better than either the Holy Father or Reno; she refused to attend the papal Mass in Cuba beneath her father’s watchful image on the grounds that it would be hypocritical. If personnel is policy, then policy is policy to an even more obvious degree, and the policy of this papacy has been to associate with progressive ideologues, to promote the Church’s internal malcontents to positions of power, and to prioritize the concerns of man over those of God.

The conclusion to Maureen’s essay summed up brilliantly the irrelevance of intentions over symbolism in such displays as we have seen: “How much the supremacy of God in Christ had to do with the sponsored product remains moot.” The images and themes of the papal visit gave aid and comfort — and the possibility of inferred approval — to Cuban communists and anti-Catholic Democrats alike. (And remember – it was only two months ago that Pope Francis happily accepted a crucifix in the shape of a hammer and sickle from an outspoken socialist.) If faithful Catholics could also find nuggets of orthodoxy scattered like Easter eggs throughout the various pronouncements of the past week, then the outcome of the spectacle is even more confounding. The image of a Rorschach papacy upon which one can project whatever ideological alignment one wills if they only squint hard enough has become impossible to dismiss.

If, as it seems, almost everyone found something to like about the pope’s American tour, then we’re left with an undeniable public relations coup. Even the revelation of grossly exaggerated numbers at papal events or the hints of what may be on the horizon for marriage in Francis’s warning against the “temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God” can’t dampen the lingering bliss, that warm fuzzy feeling cast like a spell even over many wary Catholics, who have now fallen into acquiescent somnolence on the eve of the Synod’s coming menace. This mass-dampening of legitimate concern, which has spread out from Philadelphia like the shockwave of a spiritual EMP, has made it even more risky to utter a word of criticism about a figure who, despite previously waning popularity, is once again so suddenly and universally loved. Faced with this reality, Maureen’s broadside no doubt echoed even more clamorously in Reno’s ears.

His admonishment that “we need to have the moral and spiritual generosity to enter into our adversaries’ ways of thinking, if but for a moment” appears, in Maureen’s case, to have been a moment too long. His decision to excise not just her post, but her entire blog, highlights the current polarization of Catholics inasmuch as it has already drawn both sharp criticism and glowing praise. Every editor has to make such choices some point, and Reno is well within his purview in doing so. It is, after all, his job to ensure that his readers are getting what they came for.  Sadly, it seems that in his exasperated attempt to distance himself from the passionate reactions prompted by Maureen’s writing, he has opted not to give those readers any more of something that they may actually need. Dispensing with the medicine simply because it is bitter is a very different thing than doing so because it has already effected a cure. Pat Archbold, who received a similarly unceremonious dumping from the National Catholic Register for his own honesty about the present crisis, appeared in the comment box of Reno’s piece with a candid and accurate assessment his explanation for giving her the axe: “Such editorials are only produced by failed editors. Better to make your limits clear to your writers in advance than to your readers after the fact.”

I know for a fact that Maureen’s blog was not edited; she had both freedom and control over her content. But she was hardly an unknown quantity, and if Reno’s discomfort with her approach had grown to the point where he anticipated the need to issue another public scolding, perhaps he should have found a more elegant solution than making a show of slamming a cork into the bottle — to the gleeful clapping of sycophants — after the Genie had long-since absconded.

Some people, as they say, are hammers – and to these each problem is a nail. Maureen Mullarkey is, I think, an exquisitely articulated blade: even when one admires the craftsmanship of her cut, one can’t help wincing to see the point driven home so deeply. But in today’s Church, where heretics rise to power by the will and invitation of Christ’s Vicar, a “sharp pen and pungent style” is a much-needed tonic, slicing through the noise and challenging us to actually think about what is unfolding in our midst before it is too late to make a stand.

Last week, I wrote to Bishop Athanasius Schneider, asking for encouragement in the face of such darkness emanating from within the Church. In his response, he exhorted, “God is using in this time the little one in the Church, the pure faith mostly of the lay faithful to keep the faith intact and to hand it over to the next generations. It is an honour that we can be witnesses and defenders of our dear Catholic faith not only against the enemies outside but also in the face of the traitors inside the Church, even when these traitors are bishops or cardinals.”

Just so. In any battle there are excesses and accidents, and we must take care to minimize them and do penance when they occur. Defending the faith is no different – it can be a messy business at times, and we’re likely here and there to get it wrong, to say too much, to go too far. But against the crushing weight of an overwhelming foe, I, for one, would prefer tirades to timidity.

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