By Charlie Johnston
Over the weekend, I got into a little dispute with one of our key leaders here, Steve BC. I had written, at one point, in my last article, that “there is no such thing as ‘settled’ science.’ Steve objected, noting that there ARE some areas that are settled. I responded that I know, I was just intentionally using a little hyperbole to emphasize the point. He was astonished – and even more upset that I would intentionally do that. At first, I was baffled as to why he was upset. Using hyperbole for effect is a common rhetorical tool. I thought about it over a day and concluded he was entirely right and I was entirely wrong.
A lot of ideologues on the left constantly engage in scientism. They claim what they want to be true to be “Science!” when it is no such thing, just an effort to dress up their own opinion. This started, I suppose, with Karl Marx claiming his political and economic philosophy of communism to be “science.” It is irritating. Those who engage in scientism routinely ignore science when it completely contradicts them, such as the genetic reality of gender or the actual humanity of the unborn. They falsely claim “settled science” to support their dubious, disputed ideological policies – such as man-made climate change. The truth is, they know next to nothing either of science or the scientific method. It seemed reasonable to me to kick back at their extravagant, ignorant claims – particularly when they are so condescending in their extravagant ignorance.
What got me, as I contemplated the dispute, was thinking of the doctrine of faith. There are people who think the more harsh and severe a practice is, the holier it is – and are constantly identifying things they don’t like as ‘sin,’ – when they are merely things they don’t like. This irritates me. But I realized that if someone of stature tried to combat this by saying that there is no such thing as “settled” doctrine, I would be furious. It would not just be a rebuke to those who try to abuse doctrine to grind their personal axes; it would be an offense to honest people of good will, for it would substitute one ugly false caricature with its opposite – and what truth is there?
There is such a thing as settled science, though not nearly as much as the ignorant want to think. The scientific method is one of the noblest tools at our disposal for finding truth – and is slowly pushing back the boundaries of ignorance of the natural world. There is such a thing as settled doctrine. It is not as extensive as the advocates of a harsh asceticism want to think – but a LOT more than modern enemies of faith, both in and out of clerical robes, acknowledge.
This site was designed to be a place where truth – and the search for it – is pre-eminent and pre-eminently respected. Hyperbole can be a useful rhetorical tool, but only when it is patently obvious to everyone that that is what it is – and is being used for effect. When applied obscurely, it is an offense and a falsehood that compounds the very offensive falsehood it is set against. We have many people from many walks of life who follow this website; scientists, doctors, lawyers, scholars, economists, architects…you name it. Each has devoted himself to a particular discipline – and they deserve a lot better than coming here to see their discipline caricatured. I screwed up – and more badly than I originally realized. I am grateful for the expertise that you all bring to bear here. And I am grateful for a team that, though it treats me with respect, will tell me candidly that I have screwed up when I actually screw up. I will do better on this – though it is a comfort to have people around who help catch me when I fall of my own foolishness.
I watched the movie, “My Girl,” the other night. It is a movie that has a lot of heart, both funny and poignant. My kids and I watched it together and loved it when they were little. I chose it both because I enjoyed it back in the 90’s and because the screenwriter, Laurice Molinari (credited in the movie by her maiden name, Elehwany) had come to a presentation of mine a few years ago with her husband – and said she was a regular reader.
Among the many different folks here, we have a nice little contingent in Hollywood. The creator of the premium TV series, “True Detective,” is the son of a key coordinator of ours in Louisiana. The series is very dark in places, but in the first season, I saw how the creator used the tension between the two main characters as a device to deeply explore his own attitudes to faith and religion.
Peter MacNicol, star of such shows as 24, Ally McBeal, Numbers, Veep, and the movie, Sophie’s Choice, secured and paid for the venue for my first presentation in Los Angeles. At a private dinner for organizers a few years ago, I was delighted to meet his wife of some 30 years – and he proudly told me of the circle of committed Catholics in Hollywood who collaborate with each other on projects for the faith. He was very proud of its history, noting that Gary Cooper had taken the lead in raising money to pay for the erection of a great Parish Church years ago (I forget which Parish). I loved MacNicol in Numbers and Sophie’s Choice, in particular. He has such a quirky, dry, understated sense of humor on screen that tickles me…and I had asked what he was playing in now. He told me “Veep,” but said his character is loathesome and asked me not to watch it because of that. I laughed, but he was serious – so I have never watched it (though I have lately done a reprise of Numbers).
We have people of good will here from across the spectrum of society at large. In Washington (and, actually, in a few other places) I had people from the State Dept. and the CIA in the audience. (Some suggested that the CIA folks were there to assure themselves I am just a nut – but one of our top friends is a retired CIA agent who cut his teeth at the Bay of Pigs. For many of all these people, this site is an island of sanity and good will in a world gone mad with vitriol. My little dispute with Steve BC recollected to me how important it is that we preserve this island in truth and good will for all who value the same.
Rumors abound that Atlanta’s Archbishop, Wilton Gregory, will be appointed to head the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. I was delighted when I heard this.
Why, you might ask, would I be delighted to hear an LGBT-promoting Bishop is heading to one of the nation’s key Archdioceses? Well, it was clear that under this pontificate, only seemingly heterodox clerics need apply for such an important position. But there is more to the story where Archbishop Gregory is concerned.
He was my Bishop when I was in Belleville, Illinois – and I was trumpet player at the Cathedral. He originally was brought in to clean up some of the most hideous cases of sexual abuse in the country. Belleville was a spider’s nest before he got there. He did a good, solid job…and was well-liked in a Diocese that, at first, was not favorably disposed to being headed by a black Bishop. In most Masses he celebrated there, I was in the balcony with my trumpet (whenever the Bishop does a Mass, it is an event). I noticed early on that he had a magnificent way with children. They loved him. He was lively, engaging and natural with them without the annoying condescension or singsong nonsense most take on when trying to relate to kids. He is the best cleric of any type I have ever seen in how he speaks with and engages children.
At the time the sexual scandals erupted in the Church in America 17 years ago (a gentle hill compared to where we are globally today), Gregory was the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I was troubled, for though he was an effective Bishop with a lot of heart, I did not hear much in the way of defending the truths of faith from him.
I lived near the Cathedral then. Often during the week, I would walk to the Cathedral and back, sometimes sitting inside for a bit. I used these opportunities for prayer. One day in the spring of 2002, I was praying specifically for Bishop Gregory – and wondering whether he would help resolve these things in the upcoming Conference of American Bishops in Dallas. Just as I came in view of the Cathedral in the distance, I was internally shown some things about the Bishop. He was overly concerned about image and worried way too much about being liked, but the Lord showed me that he had great depths – and God would use him one day as a hero of the faith in a time of crisis. Now no one needs accept this, but it is the coin I have followed all my life, so I was content.
The Dallas Conference, on the other hand, infuriated me. Jesus was scarcely mentioned and the Bishops acted like the Board of Directors for Catholicism, Inc., coming up with pathetic temporal “norms” that did not address the spiritual nature of the crisis at all. In the aftermath of the conference, I wrote Bishop Gregory an angrily intemperate letter – that touched bluntly on some prophetic things. (Trust me, I can do angrily intemperate with the best of them). I handled it in a way where I was sure he would get it and read it.
A couple of years later, I had to arrange a private meeting with the Bishop and a US Senate candidate. Awkward situation. I called my original spiritual director, a man of
great institutional heft who knew, advised, and was respected by most of the Bishops in the US. I told him the situation and asked if he would give Bishop Gregory a call. My director was curious about what I wanted him to say. “Oh, nothing substantial,” I said, “Just assure him that I am not a nut.” My director howled with laughter and said he would call him that day.
As it turned out, the meeting was just with the three of us…the Bishop, the Senate candidate and me. To my pleasant surprise, Bishop Gregory was very kind and downright affectionate to me. Without letting the other know what was going on, he quoted sections of my letter approvingly to me with real warmth and kindness. It was touching and reassuring. But it was obvious enough that, after we left, my candidate asked me what the deal was with the interactions between the Bishop and me. I just told him, “We have history.”
There are some men in clerical robes who have made themselves enemies of the faith, determined to remake it in their own disordered image. I do not believe that Archbishop Gregory is one of them, even though I often disagree with certain actions he takes. Rather, I think he just does not want to give offense and wants everyone to get along.
He is a gifted managerial Bishop. Yet I am more convinced than ever that, when push comes to shove, he will remember and show that, first and foremost, he is an Apostle of the Living Christ. And the very attributes that lead him to play with heterodox claims will, in that time, lead him to proclaim the faith truly and boldly, but with a gentle kindness that draws people back to it. God has a plan – one that uses both our strengths and our flaws to accomplish His Sovereign Will.