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By David Warren   
Saturday, 11 January 2014

Help me with this: for I am more and more confused. The issue is the social teaching of the Church, which at one point I thought I understood, vaguely. But it is becoming a thick fog. Or, smog, for the mist seems increasingly poisonous.

I have written before, and perhaps too often, directly and indirectly about the new pope; and of course he has made many off-the-cuff remarks that were “controversial.” Whenever he does, the controversy is enhanced by ignorant media reportage. Malice the journalists may have (believe me), but mostly they have ignorance, sometimes poignant and heartbreaking.

To those without religious formation or any coherent religious belief, nothing a pope or any other faithful Christian says can make much sense, except in the context of political power. When the pope reminds that, “The teaching of the Church. . .is clear and I am a son of the Church,” it doesn’t mean anything to them, and cannot to anyone who has no idea what Church teaching might be.

The confusion was sharply demonstrated in the case to which I am alluding. The pope was saying that the teaching is broad, that it cannot be restricted to “abortion and gays,” and there is danger in obsession. The media reported this from out of their own obsession with abortion and gays. It is their Gestalt. We say, “Church” and they think: abortion, gays, pedophile priests, Galileo, Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition.

That was in September, as I recall, and we now have four more months of blood under the bridge. By now, TIME magazine has had to fact-check its explanation for why it put Pope Francis on its cover as Person of the Year. They’d said he had “rejected Catholic dogma.” And in Rome, and with a straight face, the Vatican press office found itself correcting an Italian newspaper that headlined that the Church had “got rid of sin.”

Meanwhile we have had the “trickle down” crisis, and a few more. And of course, it is not just the pope, for we have bishops in and out of proximity to the Curia, venting fairly freely on topics that play to the same media gallery. And, given the promotion of certain men to certain stations, there is no end in sight.

As I have discovered, the hard way, from trying to change the subject in journalism from time to time, the world is currently a lot more interested in politics than in religion, poetry, or philosophy. That modern media of communications have made it that way, might almost go without saying. But here is something I do not think “critics of the media” fully appreciate: that their criticism is only possible from within.

This has come home to me once again, in the couple of months since I tapped into Twitter. It is evident everywhere, but to keep it personal, I notice that if I want to have “followers,” I have only to get political, and strongly take sides. Ambiguity, in drollness or in depth, is not likely to be rewarded; sarcasm is what sells. It is an aphoristic medium, but mass participation determines what kind of aphorism will flourish.

And into this, the pope’s tweet-handlers project a consistent volume of “uplifting” remarks, dutifully re-tweeted by well meaning devotes, but falling like snowflakes into the cauldron of this world.


     Jesus Before Pilate, First Interview by James J. Tissot, c. 1890

What the world wants is sound bites for mouth-to-mouth combat. Its attention span continues to shrink, and so the density of the smog is constantly increasing. Those entirely innocent of the historical and philosophical background of what we call “Catholic social teaching,” now take it phrase by phrase from sources themselves comprehensively misinformed. And so, we have what we have by way of public discussion.

Books are still published, to be sure, but these are less read than hurled, like bricks. An example this week arrested my attention. It was the memoir of Robert Gates, the retired U.S. Secretary of Defense, which from the excerpt I read in the Wall Street Journal, seemed rather interesting.

Mr. Gates was, principally, it appeared to me, drawing attention to the dysfunctional political culture in which he had spent four-and-a-half unprofitable years. He had a few of the standard revelations to impart, about the clowns actually making decisions, but these seemed fairly gentle. He was far more vexed by the environment in which those clowns were operating.

At the outset, he mentioned a private fantasy he probably shared with other office holders. He had often wanted to say, before one Congressional hearing or another: “I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else.”

To the phenomena he observed, he lent the phrase, “scorched earth.” Turning to Drudge, I saw that his book itself was already being used for ammunition in fresh scorched-earth campaigns.

In the United States, but also in every other Western country of which I am aware, “scorched earth” is a good enough description of the contest between Left and Right. It probably accounts for the growth of “independents” revealed in polling of political affiliations – that, and the increasing, total confusion about what is being discussed, and the stakes.

The Church, we pray, remains neither Left nor Right; but there’s a war on, and those are the sides. Both are concerned, ever more exclusively, with questions of material Power. It is an environment in which I often think, wrongly, that there is no blood left to be shed. The mere abbreviation of a phrase such as “blessed are the poor in spirit” to the more twitterable “blessed are the poor” becomes a flame-thrower.

But into this scorched-earth environment, in which only Power counts, what is a pope to tweet?

The more I think of this, the more I am convinced that, whether or not anyone is listening, he must tweet and repeat, “My. Kingdom. Is. Not. Of. This. World.”

 
David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: http://davidwarrenonline.com/
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (30)Add Comment
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written by Randall, January 11, 2014
This Tower of Babel, too, will fall.
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written by Brendan Roberts, January 11, 2014
"To those without religious formation or any coherent religious belief, nothing a pope or any other faithful Christian says can make much sense, except in the context of political power."

Is there really so little common ground between those with faith and those without? What are the barriers to communication? Are the questions asked by non-believers different to those asked by believers, or is it that we cannot find an agreed set of terms by which to discuss them?

Perhaps the following questions might provide a starting point for discussion.

1. Is it the case that humanity is inherently disordered on a number of levels, including existential and moral?
2. If so, can humanity overcome this disorder by means of its own resources, or must we look beyond humanity for the solution?

These questions have a specifically Christian response, however they are not framed in traditional Christian terms. This might make it easier for the discussion to get going in the first place.
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written by DeGaulle, January 11, 2014
Very pertinent article. It leaves me asking how does one evangelise in such a world? With words between men simply being used as a form of ammunition in what is primarily a debate about power and largesse, it strikes me that perhaps prayer(words between man and God)and deeds(attempting to live as a Catholic should)might be the best method, leaving the rest of the job to God.
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written by Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz, January 11, 2014
"And into this, the pope’s tweet-handlers project a consistent volume of 'uplifting' remarks, dutifully re-tweeted by well meaning devotes, but falling like snowflakes into the cauldron of this world." But perhaps if we do it enough and consistently enough, there will be enough snowflakes to cool down that cauldron. Perhaps that's a naive thought, but it is not impossible to imagine or believe.
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written by Pam H., January 11, 2014
"The Church, we pray, remains neither Left nor Right; but there’s a war on, and those are the sides." The war is not "between the Left and the Right". The war is between Christ(ians) and Evil/Satan. Both "Left" and "Right" have a piece of the truth (some more than others).
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written by Chris in Maryland, January 11, 2014
Brendan:

Find the common ground with people of 3 these ideas:

1 - "undesirable people" should be aborted;
2 - "the age of consent to sexual intercourse should be changed to 12 years old"; and
3 - "faith-based" public speech should not be tolerated in America.

#1 and #2 from Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice; and
#3 from Gloria Steinem, 2013 winner of Medal of Freedom from the current POTUS, at a speech at Harvard's JFK School of Govt.

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written by Sue, January 11, 2014
Read "Lord of the World" (a Francis favorite) written in 1908 and follow the (pre)script: Eucharistic adoration.
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written by Mack Hall, January 11, 2014
Citizen Gates is precious in his condemnation of a falsehood he supported, rather like the fellow who watches hours of porn and then condemns the pornographer. Citizen Gates assisted in the destruction of young people, but assures us that he felt bad about it -- felt bad while living and working in luxury, while the lads were gasping out their lives in dust and mud and blood.
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written by Sam Schmitt, January 11, 2014
I too am disturbed by Catholics seeing other Catholics not simply as mistaken, but as stupid, dangerous, a threat - as enemies - and this about matters which do not touch upon faith or morals. And then these same complain that people are repelled by the divisiveness they see in the Catholic Church.

Perhaps they're unaware that Catholics really do have freedom of opinion about those things which the Church has not taught authoritatively? At any rate, a far more fruitful plan of action would be to ask relevant questions much as Mr. Roberts has done.
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written by DeGaulle, January 11, 2014
Brendan, I see your point and your questions are very reasonable. However, it would appear that the portion of the population most hostile to our point of view would consider the proposition that "humanity is inherently disordered" wholly untrue and even offensive, contradicting their cherished belief that Man is progressing and evolving into a superior being who can dispense with all the obsolete traditions of medievalist mindsets. In short, they worship Man, not God. It is very difficult to find common ground.
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written by CCR from Buenos Aires, January 11, 2014
The best way to evangelize a world like ours is by example. Look around you and see that people are hungry for truth. Gadgets and perversions are not making anyone happy; politicians are nothing but fodder for the gallows. The end of the game is very close and people can feel it. Only 120 Christians aided by the Holy Spirit conquered the Roman Empire. There are more Christians than that today.
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written by Randall, January 11, 2014
Brendan Roberts asks valid questions. I'd like to read what some people with far more intellectual kilowatts than I think.
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written by Kevin Middlebrook, January 11, 2014
"The media reported this from out of their own obsession with abortion and gays. It is their Gestalt. We say, “Church” and they think: abortion, gays, pedophile priests, Galileo, Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition."

You forgot residential schools and the attempted and intentional cultural genocide of any native peoples that they came across.
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written by grump, January 11, 2014
It's very hard for a fat and lost people to fit through a skinny gate. '...small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." Matthew 7:13-14
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written by Stanley Anderson, January 11, 2014
"Bundlemen, bundlemen..." -- Mr. Wither in ch 16, "Banquet at Belbury" from C. S. Lewis' book "That Hideous Strength"

I would love to quote a whole series of N.I.C.E. gibberish from that chapter as examples of where we are headed, if not already there, as David Warren suggests in his column. But I am quite aware of my own proclivity for overlong posts, especially in a twitter-fed world. Either extreme, 140 characters or 140 pages, I suppose, can be abused or profitably used, and it seems that Jesus himself went with profit (I can hardly resist punning with “prophet”) in both directions, long or short, as the occasion called for (sometimes even using, as a most effective reply, a tweet consisting of zero characters).

The key, as David Warren notes in the seven last sentences of his final quote in the article, seems to be that the point of any utterance must be to point away from this world and toward the Kingdom of God. (This also seemed to be the point of his miracles, i.e., they were not meant to simply “fix” things here in this world if their primary purpose would not point to the Kingdom; thus the meager showing of mighty works in his own country due to unbelief).

In any case, I can only end this comment with the pithy gibberish quickly scribbled in Frost’s note to Miss Hardcastle from the same chapter of That Hideous Strength: “Blunt frippers intantly to pointed bdeluroid. Purgent. Cost.”

Purgent, indeed!
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written by Jack,CT, January 11, 2014
Fantastic Article and Beatifully said! thanks
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written by Ruth Joy, January 11, 2014
Chris in Maryland and De Gaulle are exactly correct. There are some issues—the fundamental ones—that do not allow for compromise. Brendan Roberts seems to say, perhaps unintentionally, a pox on both their houses.
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written by Bridget, January 11, 2014
If humanity were inherently disordered, then, by definition, it would not be able to overcome the disorder.

If humanity is disordered, but not inherently so, then there must be an objective standard of human orderliness by which the actual disorder may be measured and recognized. 

Why should I believe there is such a standard? How would I come to know what that standard is? Why should I believe that any such standard is immutable and not historically conditioned and open to change? Why can't I and my buddies come up with our own standard and oblige everyone else to conform to it?

Over to you, Brendan.
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written by DeGaulle, January 11, 2014
@ Kevin Middlebrook:

I suggest you refrain learning your history from Neil Young and Crazy Horse or wherever you got it. Are you inferring that Montezuma should have been left unhindered from sacrificing his people? Has it never entered your head to wonder how Cortez and a mere 300 'conquistadors' managed to conquer a quite advanced civilisation nowadays considered to number in the millions? Could it be that the ordinary people were only too glad to follow their lead? And to convert to a God that didn't demand human sacrifice, but actually loved them?
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written by CCR from Buenos Aires, January 11, 2014
Yes Ms. Bridget: There is only one set of rules and those are divine rules. Disorder within - inherent or not - can only be corrected from the outside. A rotten tree cannot bear good fruit. Babel is not the way to Heaven. To quote That Hideous Strength again... "Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis."
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written by Rich in MN, January 11, 2014
Hi Bridget,

I am not Brendan, but may I interject? Your question, "Why should I believe there is such a[n objective] standard [of human orderliness]?" seems to imply you do not believe there is such a standard. However, if there is no standard whatsoever, then is all law simply raw judicial power?

There was a famous 20th century scholar of jurisprudence named Hans Kelsen who, according to Prof Charles E Rice, was a proponent of "positive" law. The problem with positive law was aptly pointed out by the phenomenon known as Nazi Germany. What if some legitimate governmental body enacts laws that say, "This group is really a pestilence, like an infection." (Or our modern day version: "This group is unintended and a burden for me.") The Nazis were the legitimate government of Germany. Positive law had no answer to the question posed by legitimately-instituted evil law. All you need to enact evil law is a good helping of raw judicial power, then everything becomes legal. (Or, if I may pick on our 37th President: "If the President does it, it is not against the law.")

So may I turn the question back to you? Do you think what the Nazis did was good, or do you hold to some sort of "objective standard"? If you hold to an objective standard, why should I believe you? What is your reasoning? What are your criteria? What are your presuppositions about the human person?
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written by George in NY, January 11, 2014
Interesting article and discussion. This did pop out at me though: "The mere abbreviation of a phrase such as “blessed are the poor in spirit” to the more twitterable “blessed are the poor” becomes a flame-thrower.

But if it comes from Luke rather than Matthew, it is not an abbreviation...
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written by Bridget, January 11, 2014
Hi CCR and Rich,

Brendan proposed a set of questions that he thought might be used to get those with and without faith into discussion to help establish common ground. 

The first question asked if it was the case that humanity was inherently disordered. I tried to point out that the question itself was flawed because logically incoherent, and it needed to be reformulated. Disorder cannot be inherent to an entity, for if it were, it wouldn't be disorder. Christian thought itself doesn't regard man as inherently disordered; it regards man as inherently ordered to the Good, but disordered by the Fall, an event in history.

This being the case, I proposed that the first question should now be: is humanity disordered? Now to answer this question affirmatively, it would mean that there would have to be an inherent human order and that humanity had fallen away from this order. 

On the other hand, one could deny disorder on the basis that there is no inherent human order in the first place; that men are free to adopt whatever order they choose, and so there can be no question of disorder. 

This being the case, the first question to be addressed should now be: is there an inherent human order? 

Now many of faith and of no faith, to use Brendan's terms, believe that at a physical and biological level there is a human order: man must eat and sleep and move and so on. And that if a man doesn't eat, or sleep, or move, then he is disordered. 

But, when it comes to the life of man that is distinctive to man, and apart from what he shares with other forms of life, their is disagreement between those of faith and those of no faith. Many of the former believe there is an immutable order than man must strive to abide in, while many of the latter believe that human order is a mutable, historically conditioned phenomenon; and that man, through his will to power, is free to develop his own order as he wishes and as best he is able. 

So Rich, to your question I would reply: For Nazis, it is meaningless to ask if Nazism is a "good" thing; for Nazis do not acknowledge an order beyond them that can make that judgement. I might say that Nazism is not good, but not because it offends an objective, immutable standard that I hold to, rather because it offends my current, subjectively held, but always liable to change, standard. 

How about you?
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written by Kevin Middlebrook, January 11, 2014
@DeGaulle:

Yes, many native tribes practiced human sacrifices. As did Europeans of the day. But we called them executions and justice. The result was the same. And I wouldn't underestimate Cortez' gunpowder and European diseases in the ease of the European conquest.

But you are skirting the issue. The church played a willing and active role in the Canadian government's attempt to destroy native culture by operating many of the residential schools. The current estimate of dead children is over 4000 through this misguided policy.
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written by DeGaulle, January 11, 2014
@ Kevin Middlebrook:

I am not skirting the issue, rather I took your response to Mr Warren's general point about the accusations constantly thrown at the Church to be a general one in turn rather than an attempt at a specific domestic quarrel. Like a lot of people in the world, I know little of what happens in Canada but I can glean from your comment that you consider the Church to be responsible for what you explicitly declare as the actions of the Canadian government and, for all I know the Church may have ameliorated those actions. However, I am at a disadvantage on this issue as I don't know the details, except that for some the Catholic Church is always wrong, no matter what.

@ Bridget:

You are a text-book example of a moral relativist. I doubt very much if I could find any common ground with you, but even if we succeeded it wouldn't be worth our while, because, as you say yourself, you are "always liable to change".
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written by CCR from Buenos Aires, January 11, 2014
I was born very close to the earliest inhabitants of the Americas in one of the spots that was, and still is, quite "wild". I have seen Canada but I am more familiar with everything south of Panama. Anyone familiar with the work of the Jesuits in Argentina/Paraguay/Brazil; or the work of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas; or with the work of San Francisco Solano; Fathers Mascardi and Fagnano will have to agree that those champions of the indigenous peoples wrote a glorious page in the history of the Church. Of course if one wants to accuse, one can find Mary Poppins guilty of child abuse.
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written by Matt, January 11, 2014
In the West, writings and speech were ineffective;currently they are counter-productive. Is it too much to acknowledge that the Church's ocean of verbal and written efforts, including social media, will fail to persuade the Enlightenment’s man? Can we hear in our own day the instruction “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words: going forth out of that house or city shake the dust from your feet”. Modern man, in his rejection of the Triune God; has chosen to adore his own creation; a new god that reflects his personal proclivities. The One True God has been known and is presently rejected – Man has moved on. It may be time to adopt a different approach toward this “Enlightened World” as writings and speech are quickly converted into grist for pagan's mill. A quiet and joyful living out of a Catholic life should be the emphasis; not more text or speech - for an interview with an atheist does not yield fruit. The effort of the scribe and rabbi should be replaced by the efforts of a monk for we are living in the new Dark Ages.
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written by Rich in MN, January 12, 2014
@Bridget,

Thank you for having the courage and moral integrity to answer the "Nazi" question -- these are objectively good qualities. Although might I suggest that your answer itself has some tensions within it. For you seem to maintain that the Nazis could not judge Nazism as objectively "good" (or "bad") because Nazis do not acknowledge an order beyond themselves. Whereas you "might" say that Nazism is not good, yet you too do not acknowledge an order beyond yourself. If the judgment of "good" is meaningless for the reason you state, I would suggest that it would be globally meaningless for all who hold to that position.

As for my position, may I answer with one very general argument. First, we can start with a question -- whether there is some real thing called "objective order/good" or not. Let us presuppose that there is something called "objective order." Next, we see if our assessments of empirical reality substantiate or contradict that presupposition. Let us take, for example, the general statement that life is an objective good, that living things are ordered to keep on living, living things want to keep living. I remember many, many, many years ago in high school when our biology teacher was feeding our boa constrictor. It put a live mouse into the terrarium. Now, I am no mouse psychologist but it seemed to me that that mouse knew it should not be in there, that it knew it was in mortal danger, and it was doing everything it could do to escape. But there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. That mouse wanted to live (an objective good) but the current [dis]order of nature would not allow it. Now, philosophers and theologians have spilled volumes of ink explaining how a boa constrictor's "good" of living is inextricably connected to the mouse's "bad" of dying. Some would say that the material world has always existed (the Second Law of Thermodynamics be damned!) and that it is a capricious mother (Dawkins), some would say that the material world is some kind of mistake or the creation of an evil deity (Gnosticism, much New Age philosophy), some would say that the gift of life is the standard and its intertwining of suffering and death is the anomaly, the disorder (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Each group has its own logical puzzles. The first group needs to explain existence itself, which currently might include the very mechanism of "macro-evolution" (which I don't think has yet been adequately explained); the second group needs to explain why an evil deity would create a world with so much good in it (e.g., why is my entire life not one constant episode of getting yelled at by Sister Marie St John in second grade?); the last group needs to explain why a world created good has so much natural evil built into its very fabric and operation -- which, for Jews, Christians and Muslims includes the time paradox of how an initial "sin against God" perhaps 200,000 years ago would affect from its inception a universe created roughly 17 billion years ago (I think it will be exactly 17 billion years next June 25th...). Philosophers and theologians within the last group have written volumes on "the consequences of Original Sin" and various paradoxes. And, regarding the "time paradox," there are certain types of "empirical testimony" that complement quantum physicists' empirical observations that linear "time" as we experience it truly is part of our physical Universe.

So, getting back to the "objective order"/"objective good" question, when I hear of "Dr." Josef Mengele performing surgery on twins without anesthesia (and then escaping to Brazil), or other "doctors" submerging prisoners in 40 degree water to chart the process of death by hypothermia, or Nazis throwing young children in pits with their dead parents and burying the children alive, there is something in my soul that just cries out to Heaven, there is something in my intuition that can label this as objectively "diabolical" and "heinous." Then I have a standard, a frame of reference, with which to understand that ALL SIN is evil, even MY SIN -- the hurtful things I have done, the times when I have bought some new "toy" for myself rather than donating to "Cradle of Hope" or Catholic Charities or some other worthwhile organization, the time when I have been consumed with my own pleasure (not to be confused with my own good) to a degree beyond which God desires. There is good and there is evil and, for Christians, they intersect -- and there is a dead man-God hanging at that intersection.

Peace, Sister!
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written by Louise, January 13, 2014
David, re your comment, "but mostly they have ignorance, sometimes poignant and heartbreaking"
I wonder what professional expectations there are for journalists. Are they expected to understand, at least in a rudimentary way, the subject matter which they are covering? So if they are covering a pope who makes reference in a short hand way to Church teaching while also saying that he should be interpreted in light of church teaching is it ok for a journalist to stay ignorant of that teaching if he or she is going to cover these comments; especially if the column will provide any analysis, or are they expected to undertake some self-study say of the catechism or something like that?
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written by Kevin Middlebrook, January 16, 2014
@DeGaulle

I understand that the church gets blamed for many things that they are only marginally involved in. But with respect to the Canadian residential schools they were actively complicit in forcibly removing native children from their parents and boarding them at schools that they operated. Children were physically punished if they spoke their native language. When disease broke out, they were denied the treatment that children in any other school were afforded. They were physically abused to the extent that would be unacceptable in any other school at the time. And there were numerous examples of sexual abuse, at a rate that was orders of magnitude higher than in any other schools. The result was that over 4000 children died and many more times this were physically, sexually and emotionally abused.

All of this in institutions that were being operated by the Catholic church. These are facts, not conjecture or rumour. Yes, the Canadian government came up with the policy of forced integration, but it was the church (other denominations as well) that implemented it. If you will pardon the analogy, because I admit that it is extreme, but the holocaust was designed by a few people in the Hitler government, but it took hundreds, if not thousands, of others to implement it.

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