Book Review: Catholics and Contempt

by | Aug 10, 2023 | Current Events, Uncategorized

In June, veteran Vatican journalist and writer John Allen Jr. released his newest book, Catholics and Contempt: How Catholic Media Fuel Today’s Fights and What to Do about It, published by the Word on Fire Institute. As the title suggests, Allen’s goal is to convince fellow Catholics and those involved in Catholic media to set an example for secular news to imitate. Too often, Allen argues, Catholic media does the exact opposite. Rather than setting the standard, Catholic media outlets often follow the trends of secular media that resort to rage-baiting its audience by attacking individuals or institutions these outlets deem as enemies to their respective ideological agenda. The stated purpose of his book is to articulate “how Catholics might be part of the solution to the ‘culture of contempt’ rather than one of its striking examples.”

In the course of the book, Allen first helps readers understand what is meant by a “culture of contempt.” He does this by defining the phrase and giving particular examples from Catholic media that illustrate what this kind of culture looks like in action. He concludes his book with a well-reasoned call for the conversion of Catholic media and its participants.

What is the ‘Culture of Contempt’? 

Allen notes that a defining trait of the culture of contempt is an individual or group having what Allen calls a “lust to wound perceived opponents…” He then refers to Arthur Brooks’s 2019 book on the culture of contempt, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from Our Culture of Contempt,  which noted that contempt rejects a core principle of Catholic Social Teaching: the dignity of the human person. Contempt not only entails hating others—it means dehumanizing them as well. 

The roots of the term “culture of contempt” provide a powerful example of what this spirit leads to.   The term was first used by 20th-century Jewish Historian, Jules Isaac, who said that the Church’s teaching about Judaism was a “teaching of contempt” that fostered a “culture of contempt” in a predominantly Christian Europe. This, Isaac suggested, is what led to the tragedy of the Holocaust, which will forever be one of the world’s terrible icons of dehumanization. 

The fact that this culture is festering in secular media isn’t surprising. Since the establishment of modern journalism, publications have adopted partisan views and biased ideologies. But Allen notes that something changed in the twenty-first century. The 24/7 news cycle created a demand for attention, and the best way to keep an audience’s attention is by stoking outrage over the actions of an ideological opponent. There is a discernible ideological bias in virtually all legacy media establishments (e.g. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, etc.). Allen, however, isn’t concerned with secular news. He says the culture of contempt is operative in secular media culture but that “Catholicism is called to purify culture, not to uncritically absorb it.”

This calling that the Church has is not just a duty but an expression of our very identity. Allen says that failing to live up to our mission as Catholics is to fail “to be the sacrament of the kingdom of God on earth.” In other words, if we can’t follow Christ’s commandment to “love our enemies,” how do we expect anyone else to?

To fulfill this calling in journalism, Allen provides a mission statement for Catholic media. He says:

“The role of the Catholic press is to bring the best practices of journalism to bear on covering the Catholic Church. Specifically, the Catholic press should strive to do three things: be close enough to get the story right, but far enough away to remain objective; tell the whole story, providing information to put breaking news in context; and create a “Catholic Commons,” [where people with different viewpoints can gather] and friendships can be formed.”

Living out this mission also means recognizing the culture of contempt at work within ourselves and in others. Allen offers six case studies on the culture of contempt’s prevalence in Catholic media. I’ll focus on three examples: Allen’s personal anecdote, the “Ratzinger Narrative,” and the “Bergoglio Counternarrative.” I believe these examples show the culture of contempt isn’t found solely in the conservative or progressive camps but is festering across the socio-political spectrum. 

John Allen Jr.’s anecdote on divorce, nullification, and remarriage

From the beginning of this book, Allen doesn’t ignore the fact that he has a dog in the fight for the soul of Catholic journalism. He offers himself as the first example of what the culture of contempt looks like. In the book’s introduction, Allen shares how he became the target of some Catholic commenters when he and his first wife divorced, remarrying about a year later to a long-time colleague, friend, and coworker at Crux. Even though Allen received a nullification for his first marriage, which he shares was not performed in a Catholic Church, he was the center of a hit piece by the’s polemical conservative commentator, Michael Voris.

After recounting the factual errors in the article, Allen says, “It seemed clear the aim of the column was not dispassionate reporting, but rather wounding perceived professional and ideological rivals” (17). Why was Voris going after Allen, a journalist who usually writes the stories rather than being their subject? Allen suspects it’s because he was named a fellow at the Word on Fire Institute founded by Bishop Robert Barron, who is frequently attacked in posts on Church Militant’s website.

Allen was fortunate that the story didn’t get picked up by other platforms, but he laments that you can still find that article online with no corrections offered by Voris and company. Church Militant, Allen says, is only the “unintentional reductio ad absurdum” of the current state of media in the twenty-first century. That’s because “virtually all Catholic media outlets today in the English language tend to have a clear party affiliation. Consumers know which are the conservative outlets and which are the liberal ones, and they tend to craft their preferences accordingly” (17).

Ratzinger Narrative

Before describing what the “Ratzinger Narrative” entails, Allen defines what he means by “narrative.” He says the word “is widely used today to describe the cluster of impressions, assumptions, and a priori biases that surround a particular figure or issue in media coverage and public conversation” (116). In other words, there are public figures who become poster-children or primary targets of media outlets depending on how these public figures can be used to strengthen a particular agenda. Pope Benedict XVI, whose birth name is Joseph Ratzinger, was both a poster boy and a primary target in his long life in the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy. 

Allen sums up how Ratzinger was used by various ideologues, saying:

“for some, he was the heroic figure with the courage to draw lines in the sand and to call heresy and error by their true names. For others, he became a symbol of all they disliked about the Church, a benighted prelate using the power of the papacy to enforce an archconservative agenda on Catholicism completely at odds with the Second Vatican Council.”

In particular, when Ratzinger was named the successor of Pope St. John Paul II, he became the target of what Allen describes as a “leading leftist” Italian newspaper, which compared him unfavorably against Pope St. John XXIII, who opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 in 1962. 

The narrative against Ratzinger, according to Allen, rests on four points: that he was a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer, he wanted to reverse the Second Vatican Council, he represents the failure of the Catholic Church’s response to the child sex abuse crisis, and he is a “cold, aloof, draconian, and harsh” leader with a thirst for power. 

As a matter of journalistic integrity, Allen spends the rest of this chapter thoroughly debunking each of these false narratives against Pope Benedict XVI. His point isn’t to canonize Ratzinger but rather to “tell the whole story” of someone who, despite “controversial policies and theological convictions,” spent their life in authentic service to the Church.

Bergoglio Counternarrative

Broadly, the narrative around Pope Francis was a reversal of the Benedict era narrative. Benedict was seen as miserly and authoritative, while Francis quickly came to be seen by the media as “a humble man of the people, a progressive reformer and a maverick, and a man of conviction and vision”(137). Allen says that this narrative included those who were considered in opposition to Pope Francis. The narrative surrounding them was this opposition “comes from a Vatican old guard allergic to change, conservative American bishops threatened by a loss of their power, and a disgruntled traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church that’s simply unwilling to move with the times”(137).

In the archconservative camp, a “counternarrative” of Pope Francis quickly formed that held that he was (to varying degrees) a dictator, a heretic, and a socialist. Similar to the previous chapter on Ratzinger/Benedict, Allen spends the majority of this chapter debunking each of these myths. He does this again by “telling the whole story” and providing context for each of the charges entertained against Pope Francis. He concludes this chapter by reaffirming the need to criticize public figures, even if they’re popes, but there’s a difference between critiquing and defaming. Good journalism critiques—the culture of contempt defames. 

What can we do?

Allen proposes a roadmap in the concluding paragraph of his book. He begins by sharing his own experience when his news site Crux was the target of ideological attacks after the publication of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia in 2016. Allen notes different things he’s learned through his work as a journalist amid such a toxic atmosphere—an atmosphere he’s committed to changing. 

To make this change, the final pages provide four steps to combat the culture of contempt: be less contemptuous ourselves, light a candle, have better communications, and tune out what we may rightly call the ‘haters.’ Rather than contempt, Catholic journalists should commit to seeking the truth in love. We can accomplish this vocation by bringing light to others with clear, honest communication that seeks to inform and not inflict harm—to bring light and warmth rather than darkness and acrimony. That’s the mission John Allen Jr. sets forth with this book.

Edited 10.08.23 at 9:32 AM