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Prisoners Of The Narrative

It is heartening to see so many Catholics denounce and distance themselves from Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s inexcusable remarks about the child sex abuse scandal. As you may have seen by now, the Archdiocese of New York protested them, and both Fr. Groeschel and his Order have apologized for them. The National Catholic Register, where they first appeared, pulled the interview and apologized for having published it.

In some places — on the Web, on Facebook, and in my e-mailbox, for example — there are folks saying that people are piling on Groeschel disgracefully, as if his physical and mental feebleness and the life of service and all-around goodness he’s led somehow obviates the repulsiveness of his remarks. They don’t. Neither cancels the other out. Fr. Groeschel has been a marvelous servant, and Fr. Groeschel is old and out of it. But what he said was disgusting, in the main, and ought to have been repudiated. The man’s career, and his life, ought not to be defined by these remarks, however, and I doubt they will be. He should retire from the public stage now, though.

One reason people find these remarks of his so shocking is they clash with the received image of Groeschel as a Good Guy, at least among conservative Catholics. It’s the same reason, on a vastly smaller scale, why so many people for so long could not accept the fact that Pope John Paul II handled the Scandal badly. The Preferred Narrative had it that JP2 was a Good Guy; when evidence suggested a more complicated narrative — e.g., the possibility that JP2 really was a Good Guy, but that he had a tragic blindness on this particular issue — many partisans ignored the evidence and doubled down on their devotion to the Preferred Narrative. Hence my coining of the term Mottramism, after the character in “Brideshead Revisited” who, eager to become a Catholic in good standing, twisted himself in to all kinds of knots. Rex Mottram’s frustrated father-catechist said:

“Yesterday I asked [Mottram] whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.'”

Some bloggers have wondered why it was that the conservative National Catholic Register failed to see what was so outrageous about Fr. Groeschel’s comments, and published them, and why it was that the paper’s reporter didn’t challenge Groeschel on them in the interview. I’m betting they were so deeply invested in the Groeschel-As-Good-Guy narrative that they simply couldn’t see what was right in front of their faces until others pointed it out.

The Mottramist mindset can be found everywhere. Most of us, I’d wager, know liberals who give Obama the benefit of every doubt for things over which they excoriated George W. Bush — and conservatives who do exactly the opposite. I was talking via e-mail with a friend this morning about the way the mainstream media have averted their gaze from the role of homosexual networks in the Catholic sex abuse scandal. I’m directly aware of a current situation in which a major media outlet — one that is no friend of the Roman Catholic Church — is sitting on documented evidence that a particular cleric has been a serial gay sexual predator, but is refusing to publish. Given certain factors surrounding this publication and its editors, I would bet my next paycheck this is yet another example of media gatekeepers ignoring relevant evidence to protect the Preferred Narrative saying that homosexuality per se has nothing to do with the Scandal.

We are all susceptible to this sort of thing, prisoners to the narratives we construct in our heads. Narratives are unavoidable; nobody but God knows the full truth about anything at any moment, which means that the rest of us have to come up with a theory, a story that puts facts within a comprehensible context. Narratives are useful insofar as they give us a reasonably reliable model through which to interpret evidence and events. They cease to be helpful when they become an impediment to seeing the truth. The trick is determining when a narrative tips from being enlightening to, well, endarkening.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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