As a recovering news addict, I am fond of this amusing aphorism by the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. In particular, I wonder whether we perhaps hear much more news from Rome than is good for us.
This may be a curious point to raise on the website of a Catholic magazine, but it is worth considering. Church politics dominates a lot of Catholic social media. This has been highlighted once again last week by the arguments over the Holy Father’s comments about civil unions for same-sex couples in a new documentary (he stated that “what we have to make is a law of civil coexistence, for they have the right to be legally covered. I stood up for that”).
There is a difference between keeping in touch with Church news and obsessive monitoring and comment which distracts us Catholics from our immediate duties.
This is not the only example, of course. Not long ago we saw the extraordinary allegations against Cardinal Becciu, who has been accused of using Vatican funds to pervert the course of justice in the trial of Cardinal George Pell. A little further back we had endless “running commentary” to accompany the Synods on the Family held in 2014 and 2015, and the acrimonious fallout from 2019’s Synod on the Amazon still rumbles on a year after that event closed its final session. One prominent pro-Francis British Catholic journalist suggested that those concerned about some of the developments in the Amazonian Synod were “isolated from the People of God by their neurotic response to modernity”. Meanwhile the man who took a statue that he considered demonic from a Roman church and threw it in the Tiber said he was representing “those who do not want to bow down to ‘Mother Earth.”
The “Cathosphere”– Catholic blogs, Twitter, and YouTubers – often seems not only riven by disagreement, but unable to manage this disagreement in a constructive and edifying way. In my opinion, this is due to a number of factors: the parties are usually not personally known to each other; they are communicating through media that could almost have been designed to impede civilised and fruitful conversation, and they are discussing matters which are extremely remote from their day-to-day existence.
It would surely be better for all of us to devote a little less time and energy to the intrigues and rivalries of cardinals and archbishops, and instead refocus our energies on ourselves, our own families and parishes. The great French philosopher de Montaigne once wrote, “Not being able to govern affairs, I govern myself.” CS Lewis expresses a similar thought in his brilliant Mere Christianity, reminding his reader that “one soul only in the whole creation you do know; & it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands.” The same applies to households, dioceses and parishes.
The counter-argument to what I am saying here is that what happens in Rome really matters. If the Pope is – or appears to be – misleading the faithful, if the Roman curia is corrupt or the Church is being mismanaged, then we need to speak out for change. If priests are allowing the sheep to go astray, that is a concern for the whole Church. The ongoing abuse crisis has brutally exposed the dangers of complacency about the goodwill, honesty and competence of the Church’s leadership.
It would surely be better for all of us to devote a little less time and energy to the intrigues and rivalries of cardinals and archbishops, and instead refocus our energies on ourselves, our own families and parishes.
All of which is true. But my suggestion is not that we stop caring about the health of the Church. Rather, we need to reflect on what Christ demands of us in the place into which He has put us. There are those, such as journalists, for whom their vocation involves careful monitoring of the state of the Church and ongoing awareness of the bigger picture. It is certainly incumbent on everyone to keep in touch with such matters. But there is a difference between keeping in touch with Church news and obsessive monitoring and comment which distracts us Catholics from our immediate duties, and which may stop us from becoming more patient and gentle and self-controlled.
It’s also worth reflecting on how odd hyper-awareness of events in Rome is in historical perspective. For most of the Church’s history, many Catholics would have never seen a picture of the Pope, could not have picked him out of a crowd, and may not have known who the current Pope was. I’m not saying that was entirely good – it enabled enormous corruption in past eras – and in any case there is no going back to the world as it was before instant communication and global media. I simply note that a great many of our brothers and sisters in the faith throughout the ages lived quite satisfactory lives of piety and charity without any real knowledge of what was happening to the Church outside their own day-to-day experience. Maybe that wasn’t so awful after all.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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