File this one under the heading “defending the indefensible.”
Author and blogger John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter (not the Register, just to avoid any misunderstanding), is a competent and insightful journalist whose pieces I enjoy reading.
A thing that occasionally mars them is his desire to play waggish phrasemaker, a role in which he can display a tin ear.
For instance, in today’s column he writes:
I may have inadvertently added fuel to the fire by introducing something new to fight over: My phrase “Taliban Catholicism” to capture a certain trajectory within the church. (At least I think I coined the term, though for all I know somebody else got there first.)
In my brief remarks Monday night, I applauded [Bishop Kevin] Farrell’s vision, underscoring it with a bit of rhetoric that’s become part of my standard stump speech. A defining challenge for the church these days, I said, is to craft a synthesis between entirely legitimate hunger for identity on the one hand, and engagement with the great social movements of the time on the other.
That synthesis, I said, has to involve striking a balance between two extremes. Here’s how I described them:
“On the one extreme lies what my friend and colleague George Weigel correctly terms ‘Catholicism Lite,’ meaning a watered-down, sold-out form of secularized religiosity, Catholic in name only. On the other is what I call ‘Taliban Catholicism,’ meaning a distorted, angry form of the faith that knows only how to excoriate, condemn, and smash the TV sets of the modern world.”
Allen then recounts how he was politely taken to task by a member of the audience he was addressing and offers two defenses of his use of the term “Taliban Catholicism.”
First, he says that he uses the terms “Catholic Lite” and “Taliban Catholicism” not to describe specific people but states of mind. Second, he says that he doesn’t use them to refer to the left or right portions of the theological/political/whatever spectrum and that both exist on both sides of the spectrum.
These are pretty weak excuses to my mind.
Unless one has the linguistic bullheadedness of Humpty Dumpty, it should be recognized that words do not just have stipulative definitions where you get to use them the way you want to, with no thought to the real-world consequences.
Words are used by communities, and when you create compound terms like “Catholic Lite” or “Taliban Catholicism,” they’re going to suggest particular things to the community. In this case, no matter what Allen might subjectively mean by these terms, they’re going to be taken by contemporary English-speaking Catholics of the type found in his audience as references to the Catholic “left” and the Catholic “right.”
That’s what the audience is going to automatically assume.
Perhaps, with a lot of explanation and exposition and disclaimers by Allen, he could overcome that initial perception, but that’s what the initial perception is going to be.
But there’s an even more fundamental problem.
There is just no parity whatsoever between Weigel’s term “Catholic Lite” (incorporating a reference to low-calorie food products) and Allen’s own “Taliban Catholicism” (incorporating a reference to murderous thugs with whom we are at war).
It is as if Allen had used the phrase “Al-Qa’eda Catholicism” or “Nazi Catholicism.”
Now matter how many Humpty Dumpty games you play with these terms, they are just going to generate more heat than light.
Allen is smart enough to know that.
I chose the picture that I did for this post to call to mind the kind of murderous thugs that the Taliban are. But this picture doesn’t tell the half of it. In searching for it, I came across far more disturbing and violent pictures of the Taliban. People they had killed. People they were about to behead. People about to be shot in the head. I don’t suggest that anyone go looking for such pictures, but they underscore the force of the word “Taliban” and just the kind of evil with which it is associated.
Allen’s “Taliban Catholicism” is said to “excoriate, condemn, and smash the TV sets of the modern world.” The real Taliban has done far, far worse acts than that, which is precisely why his use of the term to refer to people who—however much they rage against certain things in the modern world—do not actually commit Taliban-like atrocities is disgusting.