“Kid, my piles bleed for ya,” said the Dominican priest, after a student had given him a woeful story to explain why he had not yet turned in his paper.
That was a long time ago, at Providence College, when the school was all-male, and the priest in question used to ride around campus on his motorcycle. I got to know him later, when he was an old man. One time we were at dinner, and I was sitting with him and a few of his Dominican brothers, and the topic turned to Lucretius, whose epic exposition of Epicurean philosophy, De Rerum Natura, I was then translating.
“A great poet, but a lousy philosopher,” said Father Fallon.
I replied that I thought Lucretius was on to a few things.
“That’s because you’re a g-damn materialist,” said Father Fallon.
We burst out laughing, and I knew from that moment that he considered me a friend. When he died, I came into possession of his volumes of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologica, in Latin, with Father’s marginal notes. I think of him whenever I use them.
These stories come to my mind, as I consider a recent eruption of anger, at a certain Catholic college in the Midwest. The script is predictable. Someone, a convert to Catholicism who used to be and – in a way still is – a feminist, came to the school to give a talk about sex, daring to say, if I may use my own words, that a boy cannot become a girl and a man cannot become a woman, not even if he shuts his eyes and wishes really hard.
Nor will any fairy godmother appear on the scene, to say to a new Cinderella, “I shall wave my magic wand, and you shall have what you most desire, but only till midnight,” because at the stroke of twelve, the appurtenances will sort of melt away, and the poor dust-girl will be singing soprano once again.
To search for truth, to guard and study it when it is found, and to champion it when it is under attack, is not the work of etiquette. It is a struggle, a fight. In this fight, we accept – or we used to accept – certain impersonal rules of engagement required by the nature of the enterprise.
You do not steal someone else’s work. You do not misrepresent someone else’s opinions. You do not allow personal animus to intrude upon your evaluation of someone’s arguments. You do not consciously claim to know more than you do. You must be careful to sift out the truth from falsehood or from the great mass of irrelevance and noise that often encumbers it.
Your feelings are of no importance. Sure, you may not enjoy working with someone who is rude or obstreperous or vindictive, but as far as the work itself is concerned, personalities are neither here nor there. Even political motives are not pertinent. It is a foul to deflect attention from the work to some motive you attribute to the worker, even when you are correct in your attribution. It does not matter that Smith says a thing because Smith is a communist or a capitalist, a vegetarian or a collector of antlers and deer hides. The only question is whether what he says is true.
Now, there are certain violations of the rules that are grave enough to destroy the game itself, to shut it down in a stupefied silence, or to reduce it to shouting and confusion. Think of how serious a violation it is to plagiarize someone’s work. It is like the stealing of a patent. If I cannot depend upon my work being mine, why should I work at all? Why go through all the trouble of translating Lucretius, if somebody can just rip it off and steal the profits?
The plagiarist is a cheat. But there is something even worse than the cheat. The cheat still plays the game. He uses an emery board to scuff the baseball and make it dip and hop. It’s against the rules, but he does it anyway. Gaylord Perry threw a hard slider, said his daughter once, when a reporter asked her if Dad ever doctored the ball with spit. Perry doctored his way into the Hall of Fame, and I have no complaints about that; in a way, the cat-and-mouse game of pitcher and umpire had become a feature of the unwritten rules of baseball, since what Perry did or did not do was right there on the field, open to discovery.
Worse than the cheat is the spoilsport. You have to keep your eye on the cheat. But it doesn’t matter if you keep your eye on the spoilsport, because what he does ruins the game in the very act. He runs the bases backwards – no game. He swings a plank instead of a bat – no game. He tackles the baserunner – no game. He throws third base into the outfield – no game.
To pout and stamp your feet and demand that someone be punished for saying something you don’t like is to be a petty spoilsport. It is like getting in a huff and puncturing the basketball. How can anybody search for or defend the truth if he has to worry that a college spoilsport will report him to the Ministry of Love? The harm is worse than that some professor here or there will be punished or silenced. The enterprise itself comes to an end. Etiquette demands it, and etiquette governs with an iron glove.
That is the general case. It is worse still, when we are talking about matters of faith, because then souls hang in the balance. You can extend your politically correct pinky all the way to perdition, and take other people with you. Good manners are for social situations, and mannerliness is a minor virtue, one that spoilsports themselves do not show. The Catholic college is not for the pleasantly social, but for truth.
*Image: The Spoiled Child by Joseph Kenny Meadows, 1847 [from The Mother’s Present: a Holiday Gift for the Young by Mrs. Colman: S. Colman Publishers, Boston]
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+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Facts and Truths
Matthew Hanley’s Transgenderism as a Tool of Humiliation