The Catholic University of America
Apr 23 2010

Dispatch from Edinburgh

Posted by Stephen J. McKenna at 10:47 AM Social Justice | Religion & Culture & Society

I've been more or less nicely stranded in Edinburgh this week, courtesy of an 'act of God,’ or so the airlines demur when you ask them for compensation.  Any port in a storm.  It's a good place to be, though, where I have an office at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh and access to wide and deep archives in my field (18th century rhetorical theory and capitalism) at the National Library of Scotland.  There is wonderful perspective to be had in studying a period wherein people had a much sharper understanding of inconvenience, and Edinburgh is beautiful in the spring (if a bit chilly).
Still, it's fairly depressing for a Catholic to walk around this marvelous city, which, like so many others in Europe, is filled with old churches now operating as community centers, theaters, cafes, offices, art galleries, or simply boarded up.  (At least St. Patrick’s on South Grays Close, I’m happy to report, has two well-attended daily masses.)  As I think of my distance from home, I’m reminded that in my diocese of Baltimore, priests are fewer and fewer, Catholic schools merge and close, and many parishioners are deeply troubled in a moment recently estimated by Hans Küng to be the Church’s ‘worst credibility crisis since the Reformation.’  Baltimore is unexceptional in this regard.  The way things are going, it's hard not to feel as if I'm on a walking tour of the Catholic future.
Küng's open letter to the Bishops last week has great merit in my opinion, but I'd prefer to offer a few reflections closer to my lay pay grade and academic métier, sparked not just by my dismay at the Edinburgh commercial real estate market, but by the news I’ve had time to catch up on in my geologically imposed exile.  I doubt I’m alone in finding that the Good Friday homily by Fr. Cantalamessa referred to by Küng--which has been understandably interpreted by many as entitling priests, the pope and the church to a victimary status on par with that of 20th century Judaism--was as historically in error as it was rhetorically deaf.  Not just tone-deaf, but simply deaf, uncommunicative.  Though some may claim that rhetorical ineptitude is a non-issue for a Church that thinks and acts not in terms of moments but of centuries, I must, as a rhetorician, disagree.  To be indifferent to how one's words are received by one's audience(s) is to be at odds with basic Christian principles, as persuasion is always an opportunity to overcome the human propensity to put self interest before the common good, and replace it with communion and consubstantiality.  This was as well known by Plato, whose Phaedrus is a powerful meditation on the relationship between rhetoric and love, as it was by St. Augustine, one of Cantalamessa's key sources. 

In the fractious aftermath of and media frenzy over this and other recent episodes, few have noticed that another of Cantalamessa’s sources was René Girard, a major but far too little-known twentieth century thinker.  Girard’s mimetic theory, as it is known, drawing powerfully on the social sciences, humanities, and scriptural interpretation, could point to some very promising ways out of this crisis (and all others), and so perhaps there is grounds for hope that he is being read in high places.  This is not the place to present Girard’s anthropology in any detail (good material on Girard abounds on the net).  Suffice it to say, however, that mimetic theory shows that the Christian message is very centrally a disclosure of the danger of claiming special status in relation to others (‘Then you are a king?' 'It is you who say so.').  Thus enlightened, human beings might become free from the violent cycles of victimization and scapegoating that inevitably follow from our desire to desire what others desire.  Usually in human history when people have gone around claiming special victimary ‘status’ (an oxymoron in Girardian terms), you can be fairly certain to find real victims nearby.  In this case, they are children.

I’m troubled by the thought that such a rich theory as Girard’s, one that has increasingly influenced my work in rhetoric (perennially understood to be an art whose invention provided humanity with alternatives to violence), may be dismissed out of association with Cantalamessa’s evocation of it.  Against that possibility, I’ll try to post here occasionally on ways in which Girardian mimetic theory may be useful to those committed to thinking about justice and social policy.  The implications are enormous.  As financial reform and immigration reform loom, we’ll need the very best tools for understanding the rhetoric and the realities with which we’ll be inundated.


Steve Schneck

Steve Schneck wrote on 04/28/10 9:55 PM

Steve writes, "To be indifferent to how one's words are received by one's audience(s) is to be at odds with basic Christian principles, as persuasion is always an opportunity to overcome the human propensity to put self interest before the common good, and replace it with communion and consubstantiality."

We know, of course, that some would maintain almost the reverse. Michel Foucault, for example, famously argued that words were weapons and that rhetoric was an exercise in relations of power. However prevalent such thinking has become (and, alas, I'm a sometime footsoldier in Washington's 24/7 spin wars), Steve reminds us that such an understanding is fundamentally at odds with a genuinely Christian worldview. The first line of John's Gospel crystallizes this. For, we are told, "In the beginning was the Word." Not a weapon deployed to extend relations of power, John's Word is stand in for the constitution of truth and meaning. This sense begs a higher purpose for rhetoric. More importantly—for believers anyway—it weights every argument and utterance with a moral purpose and a responsibility that transcend means and tactics and point toward humankind’s highest end.

Steve reminds us of something extraordinary here, something that has been so much forgotten that it seems strange even now to think. Words and discourse and rhetoric have a divine purpose. Would that we could resuscitate that truth.
Scott Montgomery

Scott Montgomery wrote on 04/30/10 9:08 AM

I don't have the same reaction to Fr. Cantalamessa's speech that Prof. McKenna offered. I got the sense that the father's homily was cautioning everybody not to paint everything with a broad brush and nothing more. I think his rhetoric spells that out very well. Having seen him speak at Mt. Saint Mary's a couple of years ago, I may have a little bit of knowledge about where he is generally comming from and I think his philosophy is comperable to the ancient church than any contemporary philosophy.
Steve McKenna

Steve McKenna wrote on 05/02/10 8:13 PM

Thanks, Steve. The essential linkage between rhetoric and religion is undeniable--Wayne Booth and Kenneth Burke have been especially profound on the subject. Girard discusses the origin of the word religion in latin religare--"to bind back," suggesting both the sacrifice of a victim and the subsequent restraint of communal violence. More on that at some point. Suffice it to say here that if we don't "resuscitate that truth" there's not much hope to be had for humanity.

To Scott, let me say that I didn't mean to sound as if I were simply attacking Fr. Contalamessa, whose spiritual writings I have often found quite valuable. His intentions indeed may have been other than what has been taken up in the media, but that underscores my point, which is that he should have known better. His interpretation of Girard is fairly good, except that it seems, rhetorically, to underwrite a claim to victimage that is simply untenable, both theoretically and historically way off the mark.
Scott Montgomery

Scott Montgomery wrote on 05/05/10 2:40 PM

I still don't see him claiming the mantle of victim..but maybe I'm missing something.I see many people claiming victim status on the news these days but I don't place the Catholic Church or its followers in that category..I think where evidence is clear they have been straight forward, but we should speak out against painting the whole church with a blanket criticism.