Dispatch from Edinburgh
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.