- The Catholic Thing - https://www.thecatholicthing.org -

Our Tribal Warfare

We have already all heard enough – and more than enough – about the Covington Catholic boys involved in one of the morality plays that social media these days conjure up instantly, out of thin air. White Catholic boys wearing MAGA hats, marching in Washington to end abortion, from a “prep” school in the South? They just had to be racists and smugly affirming “white privilege.” And don’t forget: denying women reproductive rights.

So what, in reality, began near the Lincoln Memorial as an attack on the boys by Black Hebrew activists calling them “faggots” and worse (it’s on the tape); followed by the encounter with an Indian activist that (again to judge by the full tape) shows no more than some confused interaction, pointing to absolutely nothing; we have, once again, full-blown tribal warfare in America.

Social media are largely now a sewer of outrage – your virtue signaling is greater the more it’s sensitive and offended, outraged and violent towards the other side. Worse, the mainstream media now also get into this shameful act. Outlets like the New York Times and CNN repeated the slurs about the boys – and then were forced to admit that further video “changed the context.”

Serious media are supposed to get context and balance right before they enflame the kind of social divisions already only too evident now. None that I’ve seen has issued a retraction and apology.

The Times did run a very good column by David Brooks [1] about the shameful way the “incident” has been publicized. He concludes that the Covington boys displayed the least objectionable behavior among the actors.

The result: Commenters on his column have basically said, yeah, but it doesn’t matter because the basic point, white privilege vs. disrespect for an elderly Native American, is the Truth. Justice – the concrete guilt or innocence of specific individuals – is thus unimportant compared to “Truth.”

Our tribal warfare would be less distressing if Christians themselves refrained from this sort of stereotyping, but they don’t. I see it quite often when moderate liberals, whom I know personally, are accused of connections to radical groups and views, which I know they don’t share.

I myself, for example, have strongly criticized things that Pope Francis has done and said over the past five years. But it’s appalling to see how some people then go on to speak about him. A Christian has to be scrupulous about the truth, which is one of the names of God. One consequence of launching wild attacks is that, when there’s really something that calls for loud denunciation, critics are dismissed as cranks.

* “Off with her head!”

TCT no longer allows comments on columns on the site because it often led to angry, uncharitable exchanges that staff wasted far too much time trying to monitor and manage. And we’re not the only site that’s had to limit comment. Others may indulge that kind of behavior. We do not, and will not.

In this context, it’s worth saying something about another incident, at Notre Dame this week that’s distressing because the university is America’s most prestigious Catholic institution of higher learning and ought to know – and act – better when it gets involved with questions of truth and injustice.

The university recently decided to cover up murals on campus depicting Christopher Columbus, the Cross, and Native Americans. President Fr. John Jenkins offered a confusing rationale for the move. He clearly wanted to respond to Native American protests while at the same time “to preserve artistic works originally intended to celebrate immigrant Catholics who were marginalized at the time in society, but do so in a way that avoids unintentionally marginalizing others.” Especially since Columbus represents “exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions.”

He doesn’t. I actually wrote a book on the controversies surrounding Columbus in 1992 [2], the 500thanniversary of his first voyage. There are things to criticize, though nothing like these broadbrush charges. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Bartolomè de Las Casas, O.P., the famed “Defender of the Indians”: “Truly, I would not blame the admiral’s intentions, for I knew him well, and knew his intentions were good.” The Admiral, says Las Casas, simply did not know what to do in the unprecedented circumstances of the encounter of two worlds previously unknown to one another.

And there’s another side to this story, because slavery and human sacrifice were common in the areas the Spaniards first explored. As Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican novelist and no great friend to Christianity, put it: “One can only imagine the astonishment of the hundreds and thousands of Indians who asked for baptism as they came to realize that they were being asked to adore a god who sacrificed himself for men instead of asking men to sacrifice themselves to gods.”

Still, I would not much defend those murals. They’re mediocre portrayals of a fantasy version of Columbus bringing the Faith to the New World. In purely historical terms, the cringing and humiliated Native Americans correspond to nothing.

My worry is that something larger is afoot.  Because if Notre Dame is going down this path, it might just as well also cover up all the crucifixes and depictions of Christ on campus: Some might feel excluded and marginalized by them, in our current dispensation.

Jesus, after all, was a “homophobe” who warned, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law.” (Matthew 5:17) The Mosaic Law calls homosexual acts an “abomination.” It also says “male and female he created them,” clearly the source of that widespread mental illness “transphobia.”

A certain type of progressive, including Catholic progressives, would even regard thinking you have to “preach the Gospel to all nations” as intolerant.

A Catholic – anyone committed to truth – needs to come at such questions from a very different perspective, with the courage to stand up – in public and all our culture-shaping institutions – to stereotypes of all kinds, but especially in conflicts less concerned with seeking justice about wrongs in the past than marginalizing Christianity in the present.


*Image: The Queen of Hearts by Sir John Tenniel (from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), 1865 [“No, no!”said the Queen. “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.