An apology for needless offense -- and how to disagree better

An apology for needless offense — and how to disagree better

An apology for needless offense — and how to disagree better

(Credit: Stock image.)

Recently I used the term “convert neurosis” as a metaphor, and then — because we journalists feel compelled to substantiate our assertions with good evidence — listed a number of people as examples. That offended some, and many others on their behalf. For that I want to apologize. I shouldn’t have given names, and I shouldn’t have used the term “neurosis”. Sorry.

Commentary

Well, that didn’t work out so well. I tried to slip in an inflammatory article under the cover of what in the UK the media calls the “silly season” — that news-lite time of year, when readers are assumed to be on the beach — but managed to instead to provoke a chorus of fury.

The article, in case you were on the beach, highlighted an issue that is much discussed by many Catholics I know but has seldom been addressed in public, namely, the fact that many of Pope Francis’s prominent critics have come into the Catholic communion from other backgrounds.

My hypothesis was that what they disliked in other Churches may have conditioned their perception of the papacy, predisposing them to see natural organic developments as ruptures or compromises with relativism and modernity.

That last, rather leaden, paragraph was what I should have written if I had been respectful, sensitive, and measured. Instead, I used the term “convert neurosis” as a metaphor, and then — because we journalists feel compelled to substantiate our assertions with good evidence — listed a number of people as examples of vigorous critics who are also converts.

That offended some of them, and many others on their behalf, who saw me as pathologizing or psychologizing, or going after them personally rather than their ideas. For that, I want to apologize. I shouldn’t have given names, and I shouldn’t have used the term “neurosis”.

Sorry.

By way of explanation rather than self-defense, I was inspired to use the phrase after reading a 2015 interview with America magazine by the editor of First Things. RR Reno said there that many conservative Catholics who suffered from “post-traumatic stress disorder” if they had attended a Catholic university in the previous 20 years.

“So every time they hear something that reminds them even remotely of the Jesuit priest they had in theology class in 1985, they hear alarm bells going off,” Reno said.

I thought that was funny and likely to be true, and wondered if a similar metaphor could be applied to some of the vigorous papal critics who have entered into communion with the Church.

Judging by what used to be called a postbag, a large number of people – converts as well as the native-born – believed I was onto something and were glad the issue was aired, as I continue to hold.

Coincidentally, the question is also discussed in a recent piece in the Irish Catholic and raised as an ecclesial issue in a Commonweal article just before mine by Professor Massimo Faggioli, so maybe there really is something to it.

Of the many criticisms my piece received, what I see as the most unfair was that in some way I was being hostile to those who join the Catholic Church, or was seeking to belittle their gifts and contribution. That’s crazy. I like converts so much I married one.

But more profoundly: My Church is famous for luminaries such as Ronald Knox, John Henry Newman, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, and is constantly enriched by those who join from other traditions or none. Recently, we’ve incorporated the ordinariate, which allows former Anglicans to share the gifts of their liturgical and cultural tradition, adding to the rich plurality of the Church in England and Wales.

And that’s the point. When Pope Francis speaks in Evangelii Gaudium and elsewhere of recognizing the gifts that the Holy Spirit has bestowed on other Churches — gifts that Catholics might have lost along the way — he surely refers not just to ecumenical dialogue, but also to those who enter into communion with the Church.

Some of them can be challenging precisely because of their baggage, as Father Dwight Longenecker, also of this parish, has passionately pointed out. But the challenge is part of the gift, and integration of difference always enriches and expands the host.

Separately from the question of whether previous ecclesial or cultural experiences condition responses to the papacy or other issues, some of the responses to the article also contained a plea for Pope Francis defenders (as I am seen) to be more understanding of the anger and frustration of those who see discontinuity with the magisteriums of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

“Sure, some can be terribly intemperate in their criticism of the pope, which is unfortunate,” wrote one, “but to me it highlights the anger and frustration that these people’s concerns are not only being ignored, but they’re being ridiculed and personally attacked for what are perfectly logical and reasoned positions.”

Of course, the anger and frustration are equally felt by those who see in the criticisms not just a failure to grasp the deep continuity of the Francis pontificate with previous pontificates, but a disrespect for the papacy as such.

Still, the point should be obvious. Both sides feel anger and frustration, and that’s what fuels the discord and polarization.

Pope Francis likes to say that while differences are divine, division is diabolical. He also says that the Holy Spirit creates unity out of differences while respecting diversity, and that without the Holy Spirit you get either stifling uniformity or polarizing division.

We need diversity in the Church, and a vigorous public discourse. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis observes that differences in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, “if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word.”

Such variety, he adds, “serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.”

Respect and love and openness to the Spirit — there’s the basis for dialogue. How to disagree without dividing; how to be one, yet different — there’s the challenge for querulous Catholic commentators.

It’s one Crux has taken up, and I support that effort. But I guess we’re some way from achieving it — and as one of the contributors here, I realize I haven’t always helped.

As ever with disagreements, you need to listen to the positive intention of the other (what do they believe in that they feel is threatened?) and, before disagreeing, respect their feelings.

I didn’t do that, and will try harder in the future.

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