Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lost in transmission


Let’s reflect for a moment on some words Cdl. Séan O’Malley of Boston wrote about the recent flap over a church offering a Mass in celebration of Gay Pride Month:

The Church opposes changing the definition of marriage because to do so would weaken one of the oldest and most sacred institutions of human society. The most recent Census revealed that married households are, for the first time, in the minority in our country. The culture of easy divorce, cohabitation and the redefinition of marriage are all threats to strong family life. For this reason, the Church will always defend traditional marriage. This does not mean that we reject anyone.

Before moving forward, we should pay careful attention to what he’s saying. Whatever else can be said about gay relationships — and there’s much that bears discussion — they’re not the only concern the Catholic Church has about the state of marriage and sexual relationships today. And marriage and sexual relationships aren’t the only concern of the Church. Gay marriage simply happens to be one of the hot topics of today.

This is worth underlining because of the impression people have about the Church’s “obsessive concern” over what people do in the sack. If there were a movement to legalize perjury or petty larceny, we’d doubtless hear moans about the Church’s antiquated and unscientific hatred of lying and theft, along with some resentful condemnations of the Church’s resistance.


There’s no denying that public discourse today has reached a viciousness not seen since the pre-war years of FDR’s first and second terms, if not since the Civil War. While social liberals have arguably perfected the art of political bullying through demonization, conservatives are learning just as they learned to accept a politicized Supreme Court.

Moreover, in the MSM’s transition from more-or-less balanced coverage to “infotainment” and “advocacy journalism” (read: nakedly biased reportage), from newspapers to websites and from full coverage to sound bites, and from news of today to news as it happens, the public has to slog through much more “news” to get much less real information. Often, in the case of the Church, what the public finds is three two-sentence paragraphs of abusive hyperbole from activists, a brief statement by an interested onlooker (who favors the activists), and an indirect report of an ineffectual bleat from the local diocesan office.

Anthropologists and linguists who have studied oral tradition and oral history have adopted the electrical engineering term “signal-to-noise ratio” to describe how much solid information is actually packed in a tradition versus storytelling devices and entertaining fluff. While the sources of news have increased almost exponentially, the signal-to-noise ratio has degraded considerably.

In fact, most news today bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the junk food foisted on us by quick-service restaurants — high in calorie and fats, low in nutrition, bland in taste. And for much the same reason: the public wants it fast and cheap. (Remember when USA Today was called “the McPaper”?) However, the MSM hasn’t found the need to offer the equivalent of a salad bar, the QSRs’ window dressing meant to distract the public from the patent unhealthiness of the rest of their food.

Yesterday, I called rote repetition “the technique embedded in teaching and spreading the lies, half-truths and deceptions of the culture of death: Keep it simple; keep it catchy and imaginative; and just bombard people with it over and over again until they absorb it and can repeat it without conscious effort.” The “junk news” phenomenon is simply another aspect of the larger “junk culture” surrounding us, which creates a toxic atmosphere in which culture-of-death memes can and have thrived.

Consider this comment by “bob” yesterday on Matt Bowman’s VoteCatholic.org post discussing the US Conference of Catholic Bishop’s statement on assisted suicide:

This pathetic attempt to marginalize the legitimate right to die is typical of the extremism of the USCCB, one of America’s largest and most powerful hate groups. The argument is like saying we should not allow religion because some ... SOME people may fly planes into buildings. The USCCB has become a mouthpiece for America’s far right. They’re not pro life at all. If they were they’d be focusing on the vast poverty in this country, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and those without healthcare. Instead, they're obsessed with sex. And ONLY sex. This is moral cowardice, not courage.

No real, original thought … just the blind repetition of leftist memes as though “bob” had entered “USCCB and “right to die” on a politically-oriented buzzword generator, pressed the button and copied the result into the comment form. (I’ve seen people who frequent blogs like What Does The Prayer Really Say and Last Papist Standing, who would fall on the floor laughing hysterically at “bob’s” description of the USCCB as “a mouthpiece for America’s far right”.)

Such is the legacy that Lenin and Goebbels left us.

Again, I stress in fairness, the right is often guilty of the same tactics, for the same reasons. But the net result of the static is that the Church’s broader message, especially concerning sex, is being lost in transmission.

This is bad news for us, because the Catholic Church, as most people will admit, is a key player and the steadying force of the pro-life movement. And we still need writers and speakers to lay out the Church’s sexual teachings in their full beauty, just as we need to begin philosophical education earlier and recover the teaching of practical wisdom.

But as a practical political tactic, simplifying the message and making it catchy is morally neutral. We should have no scruples in adopting it. And, as even the mildest of statements will be used against us, we should no longer pull our punches, but make the message both simple and bold.

That’s how the Church taught the Gospel in the catacombs so long ago. We’re being pushed back into the catacombs now.