In my previous column for The Catholic Thing, I took to task the editors of our hymnals for permitting the sloppy and the stupid to build for themselves a permanent liturgical establishment. In that article I glanced at the young lady who embarrassed herself – for anyone with ears to hear, who knows anything about political thought and English literature – when she recited a dreadful bit of sloganeering doggerel at the inauguration of Mr. Biden.
I received many a good slap on the back for the article, but also some criticism, which took three forms:
– I was called a racist, though I had not referred to the race of the poet, nor did it have the slightest thing to do with what I said.
– I was called a misogynist, though I had referred to the sex of the poet only by mentioning her name, and using feminine pronouns. Should I have been chivalrous, in any case? I don’t know. Politics is a blood sport. When you enter the arena, you implicitly agree to take punches to the gut and the head (though I was nowhere near as severe with the young lady’s poetry as I might have been). Those include ridicule. Your feelings are not pertinent. Stupidity in high places can do a lot of harm, and plenty of stupid utterances and proposals may be shot down by laughter. It is healthy for politicians to be reminded that at best they are a few false steps away from the mountebank, the confidence man, the demagogue, and the blockhead. Call it an occupational hazard.
– The third charge I do take seriously: it was not Christian to mock the bad poetry, at the inauguration or in the hymnals.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” cried Jesus. “For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity.” (Mt. 23:25) “You brood of vipers!” cried the Baptist, when he saw Pharisees and Sadducees presenting themselves for baptism. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father.” (Mt. 3:7-9) “O foolish Galatians!” writes Paul to the would-be legalists whom he had baptized, adding, “I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!” (Gal. 3:1, 5:12), that is, that they might take a knife for circumcision and apply it a little lower down.
My point is not that Christians enjoy a freedom to insult. Very little of what I have ever written takes any specific person to task, and I do not approve of internecine war among Catholics who are trying to take the faith seriously. My point that public mockery of bad public actions is not necessarily unchristian.
We must tread with care. “No one was ever won over to the faith by shame,” they say, and it sounds true enough, until you think more soberly. Sometimes a man may be shamed out of cowardice. Sometimes shame shakes the conscience out of bed, where it can usually be found, snoring.
I remember a couple of occasions from my youth when it worked that way with me. I grant that there is grave spiritual danger to the person on the offensive: we are dealing with dynamite. But as far as the object of the criticism is concerned, or the observers, the motive of the critic is irrelevant. Better the enemy who tells you the truth than the friend who does not.
I believe with all my heart that we should interpret a person’s words and deeds in the best light they can bear. Calumny is a grave sin. So is exposing the sins of others when there is no need. I do not doubt that the bad poets I criticized wanted to write well. Their sincerity I do not question.
Nor do I admire it: the worst poet in English, the teetotaling William McGonagall, was nothing if not sincere. But the inauguration of a president and, Lord help us, the sacrifice of the Mass are not pumpkin patches on Halloween. Sincerity indeed. These are public matters, and they call for public evaluation and criticism.
“It’s all well to mock politicians, and poets who play the political game,” a sensitive soul may say, “but won’t God accept our intentions? Won’t a bad rhyme ring like music in his ears, if it comes from a loving heart?”
No doubt – but that’s not to the point. Your child at the violin is flaying a cat, while you hear the strains of Heifetz. Your approval will not keep your poor audience from bleeding at the ears. We are not judging souls. We are judging art. God may bless the bad poet for his good will, and punish the people who let him loose.
“But who are you to judge bad art?” A human being, that’s who. To cease to make judgments, whether moral, intellectual, pragmatic, or aesthetic, is to cease to be human. God gave us minds to use, not to anesthetize us. I judge those arts that I know a great deal about: poetry above all. Would you let someone paint a mural in your house, without seeing his work first?
“Grant that the hymns are bad. Does it hurt? People like them, and that’s enough.” Who is the snob here? I believe that ordinary people can learn to appreciate the goodness of a solid work of art, and the greatness of a masterpiece: think of Italian cabbies, arguing about who was greater, Pavarotti or Caruso. Think of the farmers of Chartres, going to worship in a cathedral bathed in glory. Good art and great art are for everyone, nor are truth and beauty separate in the soul: truth may fall upon the mind, but beauty is the soil in which it grows.
A hymnal should not be a trash heap. Get with it, my fellow Catholics.
*Image: The Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple by Giandomenico Tiepolo, c.1760 [Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid]