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By 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:
- Medical evidence that the rape actually happened;
- An accuser willing to put her name forward rather than hiding behind anonymity; and
- 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