Parting Thoughts on the Hand/Mockeridge Debate, Conditions for Dialogue

This past week, Stephen Hand had posted a rant to his blog (‘TCR Musings’) which was directed at yours truly. TCRNews isn’t exactly high on my reading list, and the text of the rant was emailed to me by a reader. You won’t find it there any more, as it was since removed. But as said removal does not in itself constitute an apology, I will take the liberty of responding to a few of its criticisms. (After all, this is not the first occasion he has made such remarks):

. . . You know, the fellow who used to run the stupidly named “Ratzinger Fan Club” even as he praised works in reviews which bludgeoned that same Cardinal, and who today opposes that same man—now Pope—on this war (Blosser went out of his way to say John Allen’s “biography” of Cardinal Ratzinger was essentially –ahem– fair, though Allen now repudiates his own work saying it was bad reporting and that he made Ratzinger out to be a “villain”! Christopher didn’t have a clue.)

Stephen’s referring to this review of John Allen’s book, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican Enforcer of the Faith. Readers can judge for themselves my assessment of his book. I never said it was “fair” — in fact, I disagreed with Father Greeley’s endorsement of it as “cautious, objective and fair”; but, neither did I think it was a “hatchet job” or a “partisan indictment masquerading as a biography” (to quote another Amazon.com reader). Having followed Allen’s work in the National Catholic Reporter, I thought it was a genuine and yes, laudable effort on his part — howbeit not without its deficiencies — to get beyond the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ stereotype of the Cardinal.

At any rate, John Allen Jr. had in fact has “repudiated” his early work — something which Stephen and I have both noted (“John Allen Jr.’s Turnabout” April 26, 2005), and which I agree is a very good thing indeed. So, there’s something Stephen and I can agree on.

. . . Well, we used to think Blosser was at least trying to be a serious “America First!” Catholic. But in the last year or so he has has gotten more and more oddly, and given to succor the most crass blog “writers,” war apologists, and all around pretentious blogheads out there on the Internet; the ones who write like high school student paper reporters, crude debaters with Protestants in a style more appropriate to 1612 AD, etc.

Stephen refers here to my recognition of an editorial by Greg Mockeridge and I. Shawn McElHinney back in April, in which they confronted Hand/TCRNews on his unfair misrepresentation of the positions of those who disagreed with him on various issues. The substance of their editorial was not an ‘apology for the war’, or capital punishment, or a defense of capitalism and the free market, but rather the challenge to Stephen to recognize that good Catholics could, in fact, hold different positions on such matters, even going so far as to disagree with the positions of certain Vatican curia, and yet remain “within the bounds of orthodoxy.”

Furthermore, it was a caution against wrongful identification of personal opinions with the magisterial teaching of the Church (and likewise, failure to properly distinguish between different levels of Catholic teaching). Being in completely agreement with their criticism, I joined Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong and blogger Lane Core, Jr. in publicly concurring with Greg’s editorial. Suffice to say Stephen didn’t take kindly to this challenge.

But this was not merely the concern of a few “pretentious blogheads.” As Catholic laity took sides in heated public debate over the war and other controversial issues, a number of well-known Catholics judged this to be a lesson worth reiterating — among them: Oswald Sobrino, Karl Keating, James Akin, Russell Shaw, George Weigel, Fr. Michael Orsi (Ave Maria School of Law), Cardinal Avery Dulles, Archbishop John J. Myers, and Pope Benedict XVI — to dismiss this legitimate criticism, then, as the motivation of “war apologists” would be futile.

. . . One gets the impression Blosser pathetically pretends to high-brow culture (a carefully studied above-the-fray pose while calling in his dogs) but will sell any Cardinal or Pope down the river who opposes the men he hopes will—we must say it—notice him (Weigel, Novak, Fr. Neuhaus). Sad stuff. His attacks on the Zwicks through the years (“poor apologists for Dorothy Day”)—seasoned with faint praise— at his blog and his parroting of the Neo-con style is simply embarrassing.

Regarding the Zwicks, see “The Zwicks vs. Fr. Neuhaus & Michael Novak” (August 19, 2003) — which, to my knowledge, has yet to receive a response or retraction. I admire Dorothy Day, and reading her biography was an instrumental part of my conversion, and while I appreciate the witness of the Zwicks in their works of charity at the Houston Catholic Worker, I do not think Dorothy Day would have taken kindly to some of the unfair tactics they’ve used in attacking Neuhaus, Novak and Cardinal Dulles.

That said, like Stephen, I expect some of my other readers are probably curious as to why the maintenance guy for “the Cardinal Ratzinger fan club” publicly expresses an appreciation for Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, in light of the Holy Father’s prominent disagreement with ‘the First Things crowd’ on the matter of U.S. military engagement in Iraq. So, Stephen’s sniping aside, perhaps an explanation is in order.

Nearly a decade ago I went through a period where I developed an infatuation with radical politics and anarchist philosophy (inspired by Jacques Ellul, Leo Tolstoy and Noam Chomsky, among others). I could probably have out-done Stephen and the Zwicks in my fulminations against the U.S. military-industrial complex and selfish capitalists gorging themselves on the blood of the working class. Even as a young Catholic convert, my understanding of ‘Catholic social doctrine’ was limited to what little I gleaned from the pages of the Catholic Worker and the distributism of the New Oxford Review. It was some time before I encountered First Things — and through that, discovered the writings of Michael Novak, George Weigel, and of course, Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus.

To make a long story short, coming across Michael Novak’s The Catholic Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism (Free Press, 1993) in a library, and subsequent readings of Fr. Neuhaus’ Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (Doubleday, 1992) and George Weigel’s Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (Oxford UP, 1987) — the latter recommended to me by my father post 9/11 — were what I consider calls to intellectual maturity, forcing a long-overdue critical assessment of my “anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-warmonger” naiveté. While Stephen might construe such a discovery as a seduction to the dark side, I call it a necessary corrective to sloppy thinking.

Hence my public recognition and appreciation for Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, along with the likes of Walker Percy, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day . . . and those who Hand loves to deride as “the neocons.” Call it peculiar, but I’ve learned and benefited from all of them in the course of my spiritual and intellectual journey, and I certainly think the Church is big enough to accomodate them as well.

* * *

I will not rule out a return to this topic in the future, although I will likely refrain from conversing with Stephen Hand. If authentic dialogue consists in the effort to listen, to place one’s self in the other’s shoes and see from their perspective (see Shawn’s post on the conditions for true dialogue), I get the feeling that the discussion has run its course, or perhaps run aground. As indicated by his decision to publish Carol O’Reilly’s diatribe last week, together with his increasingl shrill postings and personal attack on Dave Armstrong, it seems to me the necessary preconditions for further discussion and a civil, rational and charitable exchange on this topic are sorely lacking.

* * *

To close with a timely excerpt from Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum in 1914 — discovered just today on Stephen Bogner’s Catholicism, Holiness and Spirituality:

“As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline – in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See — there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion. But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline.”

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