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Bluster masquerading as reason


If we are to have an adjudication on the Pontiff s complicity or innocence in the matter of coverups or evasion by the Catholic Church in the sexual-abuse scandals that have rocked it, Im not sure Id go to Christopher Hitchens to get it.

Christopher Hitchens

On this matter, he is, in a manner of speaking, an interested party. The man who "did in" Mother Teresa has made anti-religious rage a great theme of his career. This week's Hitchens column – headlined "The Great Catholic Cover-Up" in Thursday's edition of the National Post – is a case in point.

The author of God is Not Great is one of the most militant, abrasive secularists of our time, perhaps only second in renown to the increasingly tedious and tendentious Richard Dawkins. Militant secularism is a peculiar phenomenon. It prides itself above all on reason, but reason in a very shrunken capacity – a kind of blustering, blistering, angry half-logic that perpetually targets the anachronistic straw-man conception of God as a big, bearded White Guy in the sky.

This is the kind of stuff that gives caricature a bad name. It may be that the very simply devout, in the very simplest of times, held such an obviously incomplete understanding of the concept of the Christian God. But to ascribe so fatuous and infantile an understanding of the Deity to the majority of adult believers is not so much a misrepresentation as a kind of wish fulfillment. It is the kind of puppet-image God that Richard Dawkins imagines crowds the cramped minds of those dolts (as he sees them) who don't agree with Richard Dawkins.

The mischaracterization is adolescent in tone and substance, something of a Dawkins' speciality. There is something fatally supercilious and egotistic in the scorn of the professional atheist/agnostic, as in Dawkins' sneering description of those who order their lives in conformity with belief, faith – Christian or otherwise. "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence." Well, that's, by Dawkins' standard, a fair reading of say, Pascal, or Chesterton, Bernard Lonergan, or John Paul II. By his self-satisfied reading they were all cowards, not brave enough for "real" thought, intellectual and moral shirkers. He, of course, is a moral tower, a veritable G.I. Joe of fearless inquiry.

The same dismissive scorn showed up in Hitchens' piece, particularly in the coda to his loose pseudo-arguments about Pope Benedict's "responsibility" over the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in Germany: "Ratzinger himself may be banal, but his whole career has the stench of evil – a clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel."

"Stench of evil," you'll admit, is a nice touch, even if it violates his long-time confrere Martin Amis' anathamization of clichés. The phrase is almost as old as the evil it describes. In fact, it is precisely the kind of overstretched and melodramatic phrasing mostly to be found, in early and more primitive times, issuing from the mouths of those very fundamentalist "religionists" Hitchens has made it is his specialty to denigrate.

Pope Benedict may be many things, but banal is hardly one of them. Even the obsessionally anti-Catholic will have noted – if they've paid any serious attention at all – that his mind is subtle, exercised, scholarly and profound. Now, what one-word adjective can claim all those qualities I'm not sure of, but I know that "banal" is not it.

The major part of "The Great Catholic Cover-Up" is animus persuading itself it is logic, and bile lathered on for the amusement of Catholic or anti-Catholic bystanders.

As for this "stench of evil," why does Hitchens choose to tell us it's beyond "the power of exorcism to dispel"?

I presume the affected belief in exorcism is a display of tormented irony, but I still hold it curious that Hitchens – who would throw exorcism together with the Sacraments, the Mass, and the power of prayer into the bucket of outdated idiocies – calls "exorcism" into service for his rhetoric. It may be that what he strains so mightily and vociferously against has, still, some forbidden and irresistible allure for him.

The major part of "The Great Catholic Cover-Up" is animus persuading itself it is logic, and bile lathered on for the amusement of Catholic or anti-Catholic bystanders. And the piece's chief function, at least for me, is as yet one more instalment of the remorseless insult-hurling at Catholics in particular and Christians in general that the class of professional agnostics and atheists is so pleased to make its standard fare.

There's a touch of uncouth high-schoolism in all this, that callow bravery of the 15-year-old knocking daddy and mommy's most sensitive beliefs. But while a little coarseness and some impudence is, in a sense, almost proper and certainly unsurprising in 15-year-olds. It's a little more than tiresome, and certainly a hell of a lot (if that conception may be allowed here) less than brave coming out of the mouths or flowing from the digital pens of the pack of adult reason-worshipping evangelists who make such a good business out of harsh and mean assessments of their differently-believing, more pacific brothers on this good earth.

But by all means, read Mr. Hitchens' column. And then send a donation for the peace of his soul to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.



Rex Murphy, "Bluster masquerading as reason." National Post (March 20, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

The Author

MurphysmRex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column for the National Post. He is the author of Points of View.

Copyright © 2010 Rex Murphy
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