It is a short walk between linguistic priggery and the verbal bows and scrapes expected of us in talking about the great and the good.
That thought nagged at me some months back at a symposium on “Freedom of Religion in the Age of Pope Francis.” To kick-start discussion, panelists were asked to say two things about Francis. Each was allotted a single yea and a single nay. A double yea might have been okay but, please, no double nays. Not even a stand-alone one. There must be no nay without its redemptive yea. The mated pair was obligatory.
Nay carried a lively variety of responses. But the yaes congealed in common agreement that Francis was—beyond question—“a holy man.” No doubt about it. In point of fact, though, only the pope’s confessor can claim a reasonable clue to Jorge Bergoglio’s holiness quotient. And he is not telling. Nevertheless, all five speakers declared themselves free of any taint of incertitude, cross their hearts.
Panel rules were a ceremonial compromise between manners and veracity. What George Santayana, a century ago, called “the Genteel Tradition”—a lingering orthodoxy that tilts toward the smiling aspect of things—remains our residual posture toward the Better Sort, particularly the grander clerical kind. In the parlor of guarded souls, perfume still fogs the air.
In a recent column, the ever-acute David Warren made this critical distinction: “We owe respect, and obedience to the office. The man himself must earn it . . . .”
There we have it: The man himself must earn it. This is achieved, Mr. Warren continues, “by teaching the Faith, unaltered. If he is serving warmed-over Zeitgeist from the political Left, for instance, or playing little subversive games with sound bites and footnotes, he must be held to account.”
So, my brothers and my sisters, let the nays fall where they may.
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If you are a lover of crime fiction, you know the novels of Walter Mosely. In his Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, ex-con Socrates Fortlow scolds a young boy for answering a simple question with a casual vulgarity:
Keep your mouth clean, lil brother. You keep it clean an’
then they know you mean business when you say sumpin’
I like that. Street-wise and philosophically minded, Fortlow is sparing with absolutes. In service to the truth of things, he takes a cadenced approach—the pitch and rhythm of candor—that owes something to Ecclesiastes. Strong language, too, has its season. Timing is . . . well, if not everything, certainly much.
Think of music: meter has its stressed and unstressed measures. Similarly, there come moments when profanity, even invective, provides needed emphasis. It jolts sleepy faculties out of denial before the monstrous, the misshapen. It lays stress on some larger, looming obscenity impervious to urbanity and undeserving of courtesy. Not to use an expletive under certain circumstances—as when time for deference has expired—is itself an abuse of language.
• • • • •
Condescension masked as folksiness is one of the hallmarks of this pontificate. It produces such curiosities as Pope Francis’ 2015 interview with Argentina’s La Voz del Pueblo in which he claimed not to have watched TV in fifteen years. He said that on July 15, 1990, the eve of Peru’s extravagant festival in honor of the Virgin of Carmen (variant of Carmel), he promised the Virgin to forswear TV forever after. He can always check with the Swiss Guard for news of this or that.
I winced when I read it. Which is more dispiriting—his estimate of the intelligence of his audience, frivolous application of the obedience entailed by a solemn vow, or the profane misuse of the Virgin? On a level of seriousness, the Bergoglian vow was analogous to my pledging Mary that I would stay off Lindt’s 90% dark chocolate for the rest of my days.
It hardly takes a promise to the Virgin to rid ourselves of TV. Besides, YouTube, Netflix, and iPhones—to say nothing of the Vatican’s proprietary bevy of news gatherers and producers—have removed whatever sting there might once have been in loftily unplugging the thing back in Buenos Aires.
Did Francis expect the world to believe that he avoided all television coverage of the horrendous 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires? It was the deadliest bombing in Argentina’s history: 84 people killed, hundreds injured. Investigation into Iranian involvement continues today. It strains credulity to think that Bergoglio treated news of such bloodied import with no more sense of urgency than a soccer game.
What might a stout-hearted, Galilean country girl—one inured to the common sight of Roman crucifixions, raised on thrilling tales of the Maccabees and the fall of Jericho—think of such an oath? Miriam—Maryam, our Mary—named her son after a warrior who knew the value of an oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho.” Commitment to the power and will of the living God resounds in Joshua’s oath. But a promise to turn off the telly?
I think of the Mother of God—the woman who enfleshed the Lord of history, endowed Him with the material for suffering. I imagine her greeting such a two-penny oath with a play on Rhett Butler’s long-in-coming, welcome dismissal to Scarlet O’Hara: “Frankly, Jorgito, I don’t give a damn.”