Clarity can be overrated. Or an excuse that lets us avoid difficult and divisive questions. That’s what it was last week, when the Guadalupe Radio Network pulled the popular EWTN show, Morning Glory, after the hosts started talking about racism and the police and kept talking.
The network said it was happy the show talked about racism, but not with the way it did so. “During these last couple of weeks we have heard a ‘spirit of contention’ growing among the hosts live on-air,” the GRN statement said. “We do not feel that this type of exchange is edifying, nor is it clarifying for anyone, especially a Catholic radio listener who wants clarity.” Listeners complained.
Critics attacked GRN for either endorsing racism or hiding from the issue. They were especially angry at what they thought the intentional silencing of Gloria Purvis, the African American host who pressed the issue. She’s been talking about it for years in other places.
I disagree with the critics. Christian institutions of the network’s sort tend to eschew conflict. I have no trouble believing the exchanges really did upset GRN. Works like that exist to comfort and encourage, not to challenge. They build identity. They don’t complicate it. And cheers for them, within limits.
Two of the episodes in which the subject came up (to which GRN provided clips in their statement) were a little heated. Though firm in making her point, Purvis was the voice of Dialogue. Msgr. Charles Pope, who reliably offers the conservative argument, loudly talked over her without even trying to respond to what she said. He threw out a string of questions of the sort meant to show how obviously wrong she was, but of course could be answered, only not when they’re thrown out like that. The third co-host, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, like Purvis African American, spoke more calmly than Pope, but also spoke over her and dismissed her claims.
It’s the phrase about clarity that I want to talk about, because it says something about the way public Catholics talk. The broadcast, GRN said, especially failed the “Catholic radio listener who wants clarity.” They said more than they intended, because by “clarity,” I think they meant “answer.” That gives a criterion impossible to fulfill. If they really demand clarity of that sort, either they broadcast for children or they do not want to address the Church’s relation to the world, except in the most abstract (and unhelpful) way.
Nothing we need to talk about leads to clarity, if the discussion is a serious one between Catholics who come from different places. And they must come from different places, if they hope to find a useful answer. Every important issue requires so many judgments of fact, so much evaluation of witnesses, so many prudential judgments, that only the collective insight of people who see the world from different places can hope to get at something like the truth.
If they come from different places, they will argue. Sometimes heatedly. The only way to reach such clarity as we can reach is through discussion and argument. It may not clarify anything very much. It may do no more than clarify the range of possible answers or the options open to us. It may elevate some voices who have more authority to speak and demote others who have less. It may well expose problems between us we need to address before we even get to the matter at hand.
But it will probably bring no final clarity about the specific right thing to do. It won’t produce clarity of the simple sort the Guadalupe Radio Network—again, probably quite rightly—feels its viewers want. It won’t be clear enough for the Catholic radio listener who wants clarity, meaning answers, especially comforting, encouraging, identity-affirming answers.
That clarity might not be much, but it is something. It’s infinitely better than not talking at all or talking generally. And it’s our job to talk. As the Second Vatican Council’s Apostolicam Actuositatem put it: “[The laity] exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. … Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere.”
“Act” means thought, which requires debate. How to penetrate and perfect the temporal order is not obvious. It requires much discussion and much disagreement. Since we are human, it will be contentious. It will involve raised voices.
People contend when they’re serious about something important. The Guadalupe Radio Network has chosen not to foster that needful work.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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