Scorched Earth

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 in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: