“Number 14,” a prisoner shouts and the prisoners in the cells around him laugh. “Number 4,” yells another and everyone laughs again. It’s an old joke. Instead of telling the same jokes over and over again, the prisoners save time by numbering them.
Amusing, as a joke, but it helps explain the way Catholics talk to each other these days, and not in a good sense. Shout out “Fr. James Martin!” or “Scott Hahn!” and your friends and fans know how to respond. Everything they think wrong or right with the Church has been encoded in those names. And everything they think wrong with others has also been encoded in those names.
They’re a kind of a rhetorical amphetamine. You become addicted to using them for the rush, and when you use them they ramp up everything you do.
*Readers will know the kind of attacks Fr. Martin gets. Dr. Hahn gets the same kind, though not as often from people with such large readerships. He’s often patronized, which I think is worse than being insulted. In a Facebook discussion I saw a few weeks ago, he was put down as “very fundamentalistic and simplistic,” also “shallow.” His fans are “Republican-rite converts.” He’s one those converts “from extreme Evangelical fringe denominations who join the Catholic Church and then attempt to make it as batshit as their ‘moral majority’ churches.”
To some, “Fr. James Martin!” means care for a marginalized group, pastoral sensitivity, and openness. It says “I’m like him.” The invocation of his name conveys opposition to “bigotry, fundamentalism, and homophobia.”
To others, the name means rejection of Church teaching, and dissembling rejection at that. It says, “I’m not like him.” The invocation of his name conveys opposition to “compromise, dissent, and heresy.”
This happens with Scott Hahn as well. To some, “Scott Hahn!” means “orthodoxy, biblical seriousness, excitement about the faith.” It says “I’m like him.”
To others, it means “the infection of Protestantism, fundamentalism, and enthusiasm” in the old, bad sense. It says, “I’m not like him.” To both groups, it means “EWTN Catholicism” or “Franciscan University Catholicism.”
Polarized Catholic discourse
I know both of these men slightly. I’ve had a couple of talks with Fr. Martin and longer talks with Scott Hahn. I don’t exactly agree with either of them, though I respect what they’re trying to do. In the polarized state of Catholic discourse today, that admission of respect is enough for partisans on both sides to throw me in with their other enemies. You have to be all in or you’re out. Worse, you have to be completely against the other side or you’re out.
You can easily come up with many other examples. People choose symbols for their side, and symbols for the other side — heroes with whom they will identify themselves and villains they will battle. Sometimes they divide people who would not want to be divided, like Pope Francis vs. Pope Benedict and St. John Paul II. Other times they encourage divisions that shouldn’t be encouraged, like “Novus Ordo Catholics” vs. “Traditionalists.” It’s a Catholic version of identity politics. It’s an ancient version too, having vexed St. Paul (see 1 Corinthians 1:12).
Some will object that these arguments appear among Catholics engaged on Twitter and Facebook, and that social media encourage such division. But that’s only to say that the problems with the way Catholics talk to each other appear among Catholics talking to each other.
In any case, the same division into opposing sides appears in almost every Catholic publication and among Catholics of public weight and stature, and I don’t exaggerate the bitterness with which some on both sides speak of the other. These are not random people on Facebook, but Catholics with a name and following. (I could quote examples, but then someone would google them and I’d find myself in an argument with people I don’t want to argue with.)
Everyone laments division
Everyone laments division, even those who contribute to it. I’ve done this. It’s very hard not to. You write about the importance of Catholics listening to each other, and then see a Catholic saying something you think absolutely, dangerously wrong. He needs to be put down now and you’re just the man to do it.
What can we do about this? Not write would be one answer, but not a practical one. Discussion is a good thing. And there are good ideas to be promoted and bad ideas to be knocked down. There are debates to be had.
I have one suggestion. It’s a rule of rhetoric as we have rules of life. Don’t invoke any of those names or movements that have become common symbols. Don’t say “Fr. James Martin!” or “Scott Hahn!” unless you have a genuine need to say something about them and can engage them with generosity even in disagreement. About 98 percent of Catholics who currently use those names as slogans do not need to mention them at all.
They are real people. The controversial priest and the controversial scholar are human beings with inherent, God-given dignity and worth. Also fallen, selfish, inadequate, worldly — like the rest of us. None of us would like to find ourselves a symbol of stupidity and wickedness. We might be happy to find ourselves symbols of wisdom and goodness, but that would be worse for us.
Those most committed to inventing and dividing identities won’t stop doing that. Battle flags like “Fr. James Martin!” and “Scott Hahn!” are too useful. But the rest of us can do better. If all of us who write did this, even if only on Facebook and Twitter, we’d find ourselves less divided. We might start having useful exchanges. We’d present a better face to the world, of people who love truth but love each other as much.
[*Editor’s note: Added for clarity.]