... used by a self-described Catholic to explain how wonderful "The Golden Compass" is and how narrow-minded are critics of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, I'll eat my hat, throw myself in front of a bus, scream, and tear out my hair. See? Even nitwits are brilliant enough to use clichés.
If, dear reader, you are tired of hearing about Pullman and related matters, I feel your pain. But I simply cannot stand by as people utter steady streams of annoying inanity and act as though name calling has been officially declared the highest form of argumentation. And leading the pack is that most mindless and pointless statement of reactionary nonsense: "Question authority!" It is what might be called argumentum ad captandum. Or, better, argumentum ad captandum vulgus. A variation is offered by Sister Rose Pacatte, "a proponent of media mindfulness (media literacy within the faith community)"—what, you think I'm making this up?—who chastises critics of "The Golden Compass" by referencing, in a most misleading manner, my patron saint:
One commentator said that the film has been stripped of its religious references and now attacks the power of all big organizations and institutions. I don’t think it is ever a mistake to question those who hold power that touches peoples' lives. St. Thomas Aquinas, a good patron of critical thinking (an attitude of inquiry), was never afraid of any question. And neither should we be afraid.
True, St. Thomas was not afraid of any question, but I bet he would question why he is being referred to in this context. And I'd also bet he might enjoy the ironic humor at work here. Sister Pacatte, in another post about "The Golden Compass," opens her post by remarking, "As a media literacy education specialist I know that a media mindfulness strategy can be very helpful when analyzing books and films such as The Golden Compass." She, in other words, is an authority on "media mindfulness." She apparently holds power that touches peoples' lives. But I say (on the basis of my authority, of course), in the spirit of silly bumper stickers and pins, that we question her authority, especially since the good sister would have critics of Pullman's work know that they are a fearful, mean spirited lot. This, of course, is another of the clichés used by Pullman's Catholic Pals, who resort, in this case, to simple argumentum ad hominem. A shiny and high profile example can be found in a recent Boston Globe column, "God in the dust: What Catholics attacking 'The Golden Compass' are really afraid of," written by Donna Freitas, a self-described "Catholic theologian" and visiting assistant professor of religion at Boston University (see my previous post).
Today's winner of the Clichés on Steroids Award, however, goes to Mary Elizabeth Williams, who is the host of Salon Table Talk. Williams is Catholic—the sort of Catholic who writes in detail about using sex toys, disagrees with the Church's teachings on sexuality (sensing a theme yet?), and—well, you get the picture. Her December 4th column, "A Moral 'Compass'", takes obligatory pot shots at the Catholic League (and mentions Pied Piper of Atheism), and indulges in a variation of the "yer just a chicken!" argument:
My daughters go to school with kids who are Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and atheist. They know that people believe and don't believe in different things, and I'm raising them to respect that. If faith is so fragile that it can be shaken by the introduction of challenging ideas, what good is it?
And if your faith is so fragile that it can be irritated by other Catholics who are concerned about anti-Catholic literature (Williams admits that His Dark Materials is "a series that makes generous and undeniably negative use of Catholic imagery") what good is it?
Yet there's no official Church position on Pullman, and not all Catholic outposts have been so vehement. Catholic Digest, the nation's largest magazine for Catholics, suggests parents use the film as a springboard to "encourage your children to reflect about the issues the book raises in a thoughtful and intelligent manner." A review from the venerable reporting agency Catholic News Service notes, "This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' or 'The Da Vinci Code' ... this film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment."
Ah, yes, that review. What a winner.
While not as direct as the books -- director Chris Weitz removed references to the Church from the script, saying, "I thought it would be unnecessarily provocative and hurtful to certain individuals" -- the film's potentially subversive message of the power of truth telling and independent thought remains intact. I think the dwindling number of us who still call ourselves Catholic can handle it -- it's the folks hoping for a harsher critique of the Church who will likely be more offended.
Just a quick aside to Williams, in case she ever decides to use facts in her columns: the Catholic Church is "dwindling" in such a way that in 2005 it was the fastest-growing church in the United States. Just a little "power of truth telling" to help a fellow Catholic keep up the appearance of being an independent thinker.
I want my children to understand that human beings and institutions are fallible.
"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it." That's from a guy named Jesus. He's actually pretty good at the whole truth telling thing, what with being the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
That sometimes those who claim moral authority can traffic in corruption and abuse. I want them to be angry at every wrong perpetuated in the name of God.
Except for entertainment that attacks God's Church. That's different.
To question authority.
Argumentum ad captandum vulgus.
To be feisty troublemakers for positive change.
Argumentum ad populum.
I've told my daughters that no one knows for certain that there's a God or a heaven.
"By natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his works." — Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 50. I'm telling the readers of this blog that I'm fairly certain Williams does not know much about the Catechism or basic Catholic doctrine (but she has read the Kama Sutra).
I hope that my daughters will find contentment and community in their religion. But I would rather they grow up to be kind, generous unbelievers than sanctimonious, blindly dogmatic Christians.
Argumentum ad hominem.
Finis. Dei gratias.