Clusterfake Comes to First Things

 

EvidenceBy now, most readers are aware that the Rolling Stone article about gang rape at the University of Virginia was a hoax.  Steve Sailer– one of the earliest skeptics — now puckishly calls the story Clusterfake.

One would think that journalists would stick to the standards that Isaac Asimov once proposed: “I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.”

In order to be credible, the UVA needed three pieces of evidence, all — as it turned out — conspicuous by their absence:

  1. Medical evidence that the rape actually happened;
  2. An accuser willing to put her name forward rather than hiding behind anonymity; and
  3. A willingness to name the rapists.

With these standards in mind, let us turn to the anonymous story in First Things about the shoddy faith at a Catholic school. It ought to raise hackles because serious allegations are being tossed about unseriously:

We are in Southern California, so most of the boys at St. Dismas [a pseudonym] wear short pants year-round. Students are required to attend one Mass per month with the school, but it has never occurred to anyone, not their parents, not the pastor, not the teachers, and certainly not the students, that they should wear pants to Mass. The girls wear skirts that in 1966 would have been described as “micro-minis.” When I told the boys’ parents that I expected them to wear their uniform pants to Mass when they become servers, the school principal—a genial thirty-something man who insists on the rigorous use of the title “Dr.” but often wears sweatpants and flip-flops to work—cornered me outside his office for a talk. He warned me that I might get some pushback from parents on the pants requirement. “We are only a medium-Catholic school,” he informed me. “We’re not really that Catholic.”

Describing St. Dismas as being “in Southern California” is sufficiently vague as to make it essentially impossible to identify. As of the 2010 census, there are only 12 counties in the United States with more than two million people, and five of them — Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino — are in Southern California. Good luck ever confirming this. For comparison’s sake, imagine that the UVA story had opened with “We are on the Eastern Seaboard.”

The anonymous author has been confessing to Father Dave for six years, and admits that — in the confessional, — the priest is orthodox; Dave also apparently takes mass seriously. But the author feels free to confess Father Dave’s homily style and ministry:

[But] Fr. Dave knows better than to suggest to his flock how to live as Catholics. He does not speak of sin. Ever. He does not discuss the saints, devotions, the rosary or prayer of any kind, marriage, death, the sacraments, Catholic family life, the Devil, the poor, the sick, the elderly, the young, mercy, forgiveness, or any other aspect of the Catholic faith that might be useful to a layperson. His homilies are the worst sort of lukewarm application of the day’s Gospel reading—shopworn sermons that sound very much like they were copied word for word from a book of Gospel reflections published in 1975. No one in the pews ever discusses his homilies as far as I can tell.

The author then goes on to admit he doesn’t know many of his fellow parishioners and that he doesn’t talk to the few he does know about the shortcomings of the mass. It’d be nice if there was some independent confirmation of the author’s take on mass. He mentions prayerful and reverent Filipino and Latin Americans — who have many other choices for mass, if this is indeed Southern California — so perhaps the problem is not the message but the listener.

It isn’t clear why First Things published this. Many churches around the country are awkward, troubled, and terminally mediocre. Anybody who’s done theological tourism knows that some churches are in better shape than others. But if this particular church is so bad that the most important theological magazine in the country must take note of it, why not name it? Why not name the author? We’re in Rolling Stone territory: an anonymous accuser, no independent observers confirming evidence of serious problems, and people who might be doing bad things aren’t actually given real names.

To be fair, there is one thing in Rolling Stone’s favor: they at least gave us the name of their author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely; First Things has not.

The author entitled his piece “Who Am I to Judge?” Given the shakiness of the piece, no wonder he chose to remain anonymous.

Published in General
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 15 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Well-said and “Fie on you, First Things!”  Cannibalism and snarkiness doesn’t become you…

    • #1
  2. user_130720 Member
    user_130720
    @

    This, according to Rod Dreher in his blog at American Conservative:

    I’ve been wondering when First Things was going to publish this story. Its author is a Catholic friend of mine. I know the name of the school. The writer is not making it up. Read on:

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/dismal-st-dismas-catholic-school/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=dismal-st-dismas-catholic-school

    • #2
  3. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    DS, you lost me at “Rod Dreher”, sorry…

    • #3
  4. user_130720 Member
    user_130720
    @

    Rod Dreher, a Catholic conservative writer/blogger knew of the subject story and knows the author who First Things published anonymously. For me–that was enough to take it out of the category of “unvetted” fantasy pieces noted in the original post. The fact that there are true stories that at least plausibly need “anonymous” sources is–for me–the reason why the Erdelys of this world find an audience broader than their advocacy/agenda base. And–for me–why I find such stories automatically suspect when they do not have the evidence “checklist” Mike Hubbard so correctly notes should be part of real journalism.

    • #4
  5. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    DS, I’m aware of Rod Dreher, I just don’t find much of what he does all that interesting or persuasive; it comes across as focusing on his point of view, primarily.  As well, it has a flavor of puritanical smugness about it, it seems to me.  Mr. Dreher’s Catholicism can be rather convenient/cafeteria-style when it supports his  view of whatever point is at issue…I absolutely concur re: journalistic standards and practices.

    • #5
  6. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Is Dreher Catholic? I thought he got special permission to form his own Orthodox congregation or something like that so that the memory of pedophile priests wouldn’t offend his delicate sensibilities.

    Not that I’m knocking Orthodoxy, being myself more likely to swim the Bosphorus than the Tiber.

    • #6
  7. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:Is Dreher Catholic? I thought he got special permission to form his own Orthodox congregation or something like that so that the memory of pedophile priests wouldn’t offend his delicate sensibilities.

    Not that I’m knocking Orthodoxy, being myself more likely to swim the Bosphorus than the Tiber.

    Nope, no longer Catholic. He couldn’t bear American Catholicism’s turn toward moralistic therapeutic deism. As a Catholic, I’m not unsympathetic.

    • #7
  8. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Not that I’m knocking Orthodoxy, being myself more likely to swim the Bosphorus than the Tiber.

    Both tributaries of the Water of Life, Midge…

    • #8
  9. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    Perhaps the author’s anonymity should bother me more, as it does Mike, but it doesn’t because the First Things essay is too much in accord with my experience of churchgoing in southern California.

    A few times I accompanied a neighborhood friend, who was going to be baptized Catholic, to the parish’s rite of Christian initiation of adults (RCIA) meetings. The few I attended were utterly weak in teaching Catholic doctrine; it seemed the emphasis was community bonding. My friend was preparing to become Catholic without being taught what Catholics ought to believe about life or marriage or sexuality or the Real Presence. It was as though such matters were optional or inconsequential.

    I don’t think they’re evil people. I have gotten to know a few with whom I do parish volunteer service. From conversation, I know they either dissent from orthodoxy or are largely uncatechized on such matters as marriage or the priesthood. These are the leading or active members of the parish laity. I cooperate with them in works of service, though I disagree with them silently on doctrinal matters. To out myself in the parish as orthodox is to become further alienated from the community of worship. The Catholic faith requires public worship; for the First Things author and me, that often means keeping our heads down.

    • #9
  10. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Snirtler: The Catholic faith requires public worship; for the First Things author and me, that often means keeping our heads down.

    So sad to hear this…Our pastor considers it his duty to catechize/remind us of the essentials – and to help us break open the Scriptures.  Not to mention bringing life issues to the fore…Conversations in the parking lot cover other important matters, too.  We’re singularly blessed.

    • #10
  11. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    Nanda Panjandrum:

    Snirtler: The Catholic faith requires public worship; for the First Things author and me, that often means keeping our heads down.

    So sad to hear this…Our pastor considers it his duty to catechize/remind us of the essentials – and to help us break open the Scriptures. Not to mention bringing life issues to the fore…Conversations in the parking lot cover other important matters, too. We’re singularly blessed.

    Thank you for commiserating, Nanda. On another thread, Aaron explains nicely how I’m able to carry on, “… [A] Catholic gets the heart of the Mass (Eucharist) unblemished at any church, regardless of how silly a particular priest might be.” Or how badly catechized his flock is. 

    • #11
  12. user_88846 Inactive
    user_88846
    @MikeHubbard

    Derek Simmons:This, according to Rod Dreher in his blog at American Conservative:

    I’ve been wondering when First Things was going to publish this story.

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/dismal-st-dismas-catholic-school/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=dismal-st-dismas-catholic-school

    If the anonymous author was using the terminally mediocre parish as evidence that illustrated a trend, then the author and First Things would be on significantly firmer ground.  For example, after detailing things at St. Dismas, if the author had gone on to explain how this church, rather than being an anomaly, was standard practice for too many Catholic churches, then it would make more sense as an article.  (It also would probably mean that the author could put his or her name on the work, since the trends at St. Dismas are broader.  Under those circumstances, anonymity for Father Dave and St. Dismas would be commendable.)

    As it is, though, it’s a bitter screed about one particular church.  If Rod Dreher knows the author, great.  Has Rod also been to this parish so he can independently verify the accusations, or is he taking the unnamed author at his word?  For all we know, the Rod’s anonymous friend is clinically depressed, which would explain his isolation, his lack of contact with other parishioners, and his hostility not just to the church but also to seemingly everybody who works there.

    Hence, the article is still in Rolling Stone territory: no comments from other people about the mediocrity of the mass, along with accusations against pseudonyms.  Does it seem weird to anyone else that in order to get verification about a story in First Things, we must go the The American Conservative?  To my knowledge, they’re not the same company, nor are they owned by the same people, despite some overlap in writers and readers.

    • #12
  13. Matthew Hennessey Contributor
    Matthew Hennessey
    @MatthewHennessey

    Say wha?

    The First Things piece does not purport to be journalism. No one is being accused of committing a crime here. Comparing this personal reflection to Rolling Stones’s wild-eyed and irresponsible accusations of a REAL CRIME is rather over the top, don’t you think?

    I liked the First Things piece because it elucidates and confirms the experiences of many Catholics, like me, who are on the traditionalist spectrum. Totally valid. That the author took pains to obscure the specifics is wise and understandable.

    • #13
  14. iDad Inactive
    iDad
    @iDad

    One of these things is not like the other . . .

    • #14
  15. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Matthew Hennessey: Catholics, like me, who are on the traditionalist spectrum.

    The ‘ist’ in this makes me want to ask whether we’re one Church or two…The proliferation of self-applied labels (similar to those in political discourse) is troubling…

    • #15
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.