Entry from April 6, 2012

Long ago, when I was a teacher in England, I used to have to teach something called General Studies. It would be a General Studies essay in itself to explain what General Studies is, or was, as the thing was bound up with the history of British postwar education and the curious sort of shame that crept over virtually everyone involved in it for at least a couple of decades — shame not about what the system did badly but almost invariably about what it did, or had done, superlatively well. That is a story for another day. But I still often see things that I think would make great General Studies questions, especially if they were to be found on the old Oxbridge entrance examinations’ General Papers.

That’s what happened when I saw the following headline to a story by Rachel Donadio of The New York Times: “Pope Assails ‘Disobedience’ Among Priests.” The quotation marks around “Disobedience” are like those around “dumb blonde” in the headline from Foreign Policy the same day, “How a ‘dumb blonde’ took on the Serbs” — which is to say, they are the headline writer’s way of distancing himself from the view expressed within them. This is what somebody else thinks, not what I think. And, by extension, it’s not what you should think either. But in the body of the Times story, Ms Donadio tells us that it’s not just the pope’s view that is being held out to us by the tongs of those inverted commas. “The pope,” she writes, “was clearly referring to an Austrian group called Preachers’ Initiative, started by Father Helmut Schüller, which has issued a ‘Call to Disobedience,’ asking the church to allow the ordination of women, to remove the obligation of priestly celibacy and to permit priests to allow divorced people to receive communion.”

That kind of dissension within the Church may be old news to the rest of us, but it is evergreen material to the perennially anti-Catholic New York Times. In the same day’s issue, for example, there was a story about how the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, has threatened to cut off funds to a nonprofit organization called Compa eros over its affiliations with activists for causes opposed to Catholic social teachings. It is as obvious that the Times is on the side of Compa eros and its left-wing friends as that it is on Fr. Schüller’s side on the question of “Disobedience.” What made the latter especially worthy of being reported, however, was that ironic use of “Disobedience,” which fit in so well with the Times’s outlook on things.

My General Paper question, therefore, would have asked clever pupils to explain that outlook and that ironic use of the word in terms of inferences which could legitimately be drawn from that use of quotation marks. I would expect the better candidates to identify and discuss at least five or six of the following:

  • It is possible to speak of a culture of belief among those who toil on the editorial pages of The New York Times and, therefore,

  • the name of the newspaper can be used as a collective noun subject of verbs involving thought or belief, approval or disapproval.

  • Thus, The New York Times does not approve of the concept of “obedience” and “disobedience.”

  • The New York Times does not like the sound of those words either, and is made uncomfortable by them, since it regards them as belonging, like “righteous” or “virtuous” or “pious” or “Godly,” to a bygone age.

  • The New York Times does not believe what those of the bygone age believed.

  • The New York Times is made uncomfortable by much of the vocabulary of approval and disapproval belonging to that bygone age.

  • The New York Times does not believe that the words “obedience” and “disobedience” can properly be used unironically in the 21st century and that, therefore,

  • the use of the words unironically — that is, in approval of obedience or disapproval of disobedience rather than the other way round, as in Father Schüller’s case — merely indicates a habit of mind which clings to the values and concepts of that bygone age.

  • The New York Times does not approve of the Roman Catholic Church, which it regards as belonging to that bygone age and in need of a massive modernization more or less along the lines suggested by Fr. Schüller.

  • The New York Times believes that the Bishop of Rome has assumed virtually dictatorial powers over the Roman Catholic Church.

  • The New York Times strongly disapproves of dictatorial powers, even when wielded over those of whom it disapproves.

  • The New York Times believes that the willing submission of those who take vows of obedience to their Church superiors — or, probably, anyone else — must be somehow coerced and that, therefore,

  • Any such vows should be regarded by the liberal-minded, as by those supposed to be bound by the vows, as null and void.

  • The New York Times believes that the Pope’s failure to understand all of the above exactly as The New York Times does means that he is delusional.

I don’t know. Maybe that last one is going just a bit too far in the direction of speculation, but I wouldn’t deduct marks for it if I found it on a General Paper essay. You have to take it in the context of the editorial culture at the newspaper, whose columnist Paul Krugman has lately been setting the tone for the confidence with which the paper holds all its opinions. That confidence constantly suggests that it regards anyone who does not share them as delusional. Or perhaps just too thick for anything more demanding than General Studies.

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