Samizdat, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, was the name given to the clandestine copying and distribution of banned literature; in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, however, it means something very different, a captivating film, also called ‘the Entertainment’, that saps wills and paralyses viewers, leaving them unable to tear their eyes away from the screen.
For Notre Dame University theologian Timothy P. O’Malley, in a fascinating article on churchlife.nd.edu entitled ‘The Addictions of the Catholic Samizdat’, the idea has applications far beyond the novel.
“As it turns out, we have created the Entertainment. It is the endless commentary, the outrage culture that drives social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook,” he says. “When Catholics engage in such cultures, we turn away from that transcendent reality of self-giving love that is the cross. We turn away from the truth of existence, the very real world of flesh and blood where concrete acts of love matter more than 280 characters. Perhaps, Catholics have more to fear from the samizdat than secularisation.”
He cites as an example the furore surrounding the boys from Covington Catholic at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, saying that the episode was marked by a lack of contemplation before judgment.
“We must react immediately. Everything becomes an occasion of instant commentary, whether or not it is newsworthy,” he says.
“The purpose of the commentary is not to seek truth within a community of love but to participate in the endless creation of pleasurable signs for others to read. If we are in a post-truth era, it is not the fault of some nefarious Russian hacker or a President whose connection to the truth is to say the least, a bit loose. It is our own fault. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
It’s an extraordinary and profoundly important article. Anyone interested in what social media means for Catholics should make a point of reading it and reflecting upon it.
(The churchlife.nd.edu site is a treasure trove of worthwhile Catholic reading in general, for what it’s worth. Prof. O’Malley’s piece on how ‘The Liturgy is for (Little) Kids’ is particularly good, while ‘The Wayward Daughters’ by Haley Stewart is a marvellous piece comparing Lady Julia Flyte in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with the eponymous heroine of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdattar.)
Just days before Prof. O’Malley’s samizdat piece, a casebook example of Catholic outrage-bait hit the internet, when lifesitenews.com and ncregister.com jointly published a ‘Manifesto of Faith’ by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the erstwhile head of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog.
Scarcely had it been published before some online were calling it an act of schism, with the controversial German Cardinal Walter Kasper echoing this, claiming at katholisch.de that his compatriot was promoting “confusion and division”.
In truth, Cardinal Müller’s manifesto is really just a summary of the Catechism. Yes, it says nothing about the papacy, but it’s not as though St Paul VI, in his longer and too often forgotten ‘Credo of the People of God’ said much more.
And yet. Content isn’t everything; context, as they say, is king, and truth lies in proportion.
Firstly, the medium is very often the message, and the cardinal issued his manifesto through the two English-language media outlets that in August published Archbishop Viganò’s call for Pope Francis to resign. Utterly predictably, one billed Cardinal Müller’s manifesto “a quasi-correction of Pope Francis’ pontificate”, and now has a petition online calling for Catholics to “support Cardinal Müller’s manifesto amid Pope Francis’ confusion”.
Secondly, when some nowadays claim the Church’s teaching around Marriage and the Eucharist is under attack, they argue as though they, and not the Successor of Peter, are rightful interpreters of the Church’s teaching and tradition. If one thing needs clearly restating in the current Church, it is the authority of the Pope, and on this the cardinal is deafeningly and suspiciously silent.
It still seems hysterical to describe Cardinal Müller’s manifesto as schismatic, but it is certainly not to be taken at face value.