- At that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying: Who, do you think, is greater in the kingdom of heaven?
- Matthew 18:1
I like streetfights. Lots of fun; in an ideational way, that is. Nothing like those upper cuts, right hooks and broadsides that go into the forging of character and demonstration of truth. Not for everybody, that is true; but they do form a part of the history of the Church. They do. Really. Just read about some of the saints: "Like dogs they returned to their vomit", Athanasius wrote in reference to bishops Ursacius and Valens and their political machinations. Quite vicious phraseology, many would contend. Now if the great saint were alive today and operating his own blog I would venture to say that, firstly, it would be named something like "Arian Abominations" or "Arian Vulgarians" or "Against the Arian Heretics and their Asinine Idiocies" (Athanasius was "perhaps, somewhat too unsparing in debate"); and, secondly, that not a few orthodox Catholic readers of it would castigate him being as "uncharitable", "mean", "hateful", "not Christ-like" and so forth (judging by the various comments I have read in response to, let us just say, those more "intense" postings in the Catholic blogosphere). As Peter Hitchens (brother of atheist Christopher) said in a recent interview (H/T Lola): "If you don't like arguments and intellectual combat then don't join." And this will inevitably involve severe language: "You brood of vipers", said the Lord of History.
Thus we come to the subject of this analysis: Polemical streetfights.
But I run too far ahead of myself. Some background and context first before we get to the guts.
On July 26 the canon lawyer Edward Peters, at his blog In the Light of the Law, issued a post defending his personal friend, Janet Smith, against the criticisms of Steve Kellmeyer (The Fifth Column, Notes on the Culture Wars). In one of his forum posts, Kellmeyer argued that Smith, a defender of Christopher's West interpretation of the "Theology of the Body", was unqualified to teach at a Catholic seminary (Sacred Heart Seminary, Detroit, MI). As some of you may know, Kellmeyer is a polemicist who goes for the jugular and is a harsh, vehement critic of West. Peters used his expertise to disqualify Kellmeyer's argumentation, additionally writing that: "by personally attacking Janet Smith, Skellmeyer has done a disservice not only to Smith, obviously, but also to the other critics of Christopher West".
Now I am not going to address this matter from a canonical perspective as I am totally unqualified and thus out of my league. Moreover, Peters was recently appointed as Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura (news I was glad to hear), so he is now untouchable anyway.
For the record, I find the whole Christopher West TOB industry analogous to that past schoolgirl obsession with the Bay City Rollers. So far as I am concerned, West advocates a bizarre form of Manicheanism. But that's just my opinion stated bluntly. I'm allowed to do that... right? Or was that an "uncharitable" remark? Ooops, TH2 is jumping the gun. Anyhow, it was welcoming to read the corrective measures applied to West by Alice von Hildebrand (in an essay last month), and to hear about Dawn Eden's recently completed thesis.
Okay. Now to the guts...
Once upon a time there were two Catholic polemicists. Archenemies to one another they were and the blogosphere was their battleground. One of them, the abovementioned Steve Kellmeyer, and the other, Mark Shea. In the particularity that is the orthodox Catholic blogosphere, Kellmeyer is the so-called "uncharitable", "vicious" underdog, whereas Shea is the darling megastar adored by many (more or less). Now I have been watching these two guys for some time from the sidelines and, whenever they have gone at it in the com boxes, I'll make a batch of popcorn, crank up By-Tor and the Snow Dog, and observe the engagement. Needless to say, the day after Peters did his post on Kellmeyer, Shea wrote a post entitled Steve Kellmeyer Just Keeps on Keeping On:
The label for this post was "JERKS". You know, I now have this picture in my head of Shea (after reading Peters' post on Kellmeyer) performing cartwheels across the room whilst laughing in unmitigated joy: "He he he he he... I win. You like me. You really, really like me!" Accordingly, we have Princess No. 1.The Judge of all Mortal Flesh [i.e. Kellmeyer] decides to hold forth on some more cherished enemies, because he knows a thing or one about canon law and feels himself called by Self Most High to (yet again) attack and wantonly destroy somebody's reputation. Unfortunately, Ed Peters, an actual canon lawyer who knows what he's talking about, neatly, cleanly, and without fanfare, hands him his head.
Shea's glee was similarly echoed by Patrick Madrid. Two days after Peters' criticism Madrid typed a post with this title: Don't you ever feel like telling someone to shut up and sit down? After summarizing the situation and ascribing Kellmeyer's approach as "acrimonious", Madrid still "wish[ed] him all success". Conciliatory? Sure - and Cornelius Jansen is now a candidate for sainthood. Madrid here rings disingenuous because, firstly, Peters never told Kellmeyer to "shut up" (although Madrid said Peters "basically" did, "a much needed service", a linguistic escape hatch), secondly, using the phrase "shut up" is exactly the type of language to which Kellmeyer accused (i.e. hypocritical) and, thirdly, a large photo of Mr. Spock choking Dr. McCoy plasters the page. Shea's response was expected, Madrid's came out of left field, at least from my seat here in the bleachers. Accordingly, for the purpose of this analysis, I reluctantly designate the latter as Princess No. 2.
"But TH2, you verbose buffoon, at the outset you stated that severe language forms a part of polemical streetfighting. So shut up ya jerk".
Yes I did, and things are dished out roughly in these here parts as well (I certainly have no problem with "jerk" and "shut up" used in argumentation). I'll admit to being a jerk, but will not shut up because misdirection was not intended. The point being made here is that Princess No. 1 and Princess No. 2, both of whom comprise that (you know) clique of lay apologists doing the book/lecture/newspaper circuit, can ascribe someone as a "jerk" or tell them to "shut up", but - "charity" being their supposed norm - are not called out on being "uncharitable" or "acrimonious" themselves when employing such phraseology. Therefore, they are automatically excused from doing the very same thing they condemn and get off scot free. Why is that? Hmmm... I wonder. Why is it that Princess No. 1 and Princess No. 2 can get all hissy and pissy whereas others must remain happy and clappy, otherwise be damned with that dreaded word "uncharitable" (we'll return to Kellmeyer in a moment). At first glance, when Innocent Smith is pointing his gun down at you, he appears the villain. In the final analysis after the court proceedings, however, it is revealed that all his drollery was misinterpreted. He meant well. He is innocent. He is acquitted. Therefore all his hijinks are excused. It turns out that everyone else was wrong. They were jerks and should have just shut up in the first place.
So remember Catholic peoples: happy clappy.
Meanwhile back at the ranch there is Steve Kellmeyer (don't know the man from Adam). Yes, yes he is a fierce polemicist. No question about it. You don't want to meet this guy in some back alley and argue over how much Duns Scotus influenced Heidegger. Don't like the "tone"? So what? There is a righteous venom is his discourse that, not only do I find exhilarating to read, but is much needed in the blogosphere where too many Catholics are so afraid of being "uncharitable" (I'm starting to hate that now abused and frequently misapplied word). Regardless of this, his orthodoxy is unquestionable, he is like a one-man army of knowledge, and I have always found him to be right on the money in his variegated commentaries (by the way, Kellmeyer, if you are reading this, don't let it get to your head, ya punk). The evidence shows that an attempt is now being made to marginalize him, casting him as Public Enemy No. 1 in this pathetic melodrama. The emotional responses of his opponents to his harsh critiques overshadow the facts he presents. The public stature of a Shea or a Madrid (even with their merits, and I'm not condemning them absolutely) does not in the least mitigate these facts.
Basically, this post boils down to not so much a defence of Kellmeyer but as a warning. Cardinal Newman portentously spoke these words to a group of seminarians: "Dear Brothers, you are entering a world such as Christians have not known before." In the 21st century we have reached that horizon delineated by Newman and, unless you have been ignoring the headlines, paganistic nihilism is now near to total eclipse in modern society. The consummation of anti-Catholicism is not a pretty thing. Yes, the Holy Church is comprised of many personality types and uses various modes and methods to encounter the "spirit of the world". But if an effort is made to nullify that sector of persons who speak in a so-called "uncharitable" manner against the enemies of the Church, within and without, then an important organ is lost. For some reason unknown to me there has always been that group of Catholics appalled by, say, the "brutal polemics" of Belloc. Why is that? Well, I'd rather have a Belloc or a St. Athanasius in the battlefield rather than some uptight princess, so easily slighted, void of the skin thick enough to take it like a man.
NOTES / REFERENCES
1. Quoted in H. Rahner, Church and State in Early Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), pp. 52-53. Originally published in 1961. Athanasius was making reference to 2 Peter 2:22 / Proverbs 26:11.
2. C. Clifford, "St. Athanasius", The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), vol. 2. LINK
3. "An Interview with Peter Hitchens" / www.zonedervan.com
4. Matthew 3:7.
5. E.g. J.E. Smith, "Christopher West’s Work is 'Completely Sound,' says Dr. Janet Smith", Catholic Exchange, May 28, 2009. LINK Subnote that Mark Shea is the Senior Content Editor at this site.
6. As reported by Dawn Eden here at her blog The Dawn Patrol. Ms. Eden also records other bizarro "tweets" disseminated at the conference. For example, a Fr. Brian J. Bransfield wrote: "I am the best thing that ever happened to me". Later it was claimed his statement was taken out of context.
7. See A. von Hildebrand, "Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage and Sex", Catholic News Agency, July 2010. LINK J.H. Westen, "Christopher West and Company vs. 'Custody of the Eyes': Thesis argues West’s story of two bishops is misleading", LifeSite News, July 27, 2010. LINK Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste, is making her thesis available at the the CNA website. LINK Incidentally, Kellmeyer is mentioned in the acknowledgements.
8. J. Oliver, "Christopher Dawson: An Appreciation", In: C. Dawson, The Gods of Revolution (New York: Minerva Press, 1975), p. xiv. Cf. also J. Hitchcock, "Apologists - With Angst and Without", Crisis, March 1996, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 34-38.