The odd Catholic temptation to obnoxious one-upmanship

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Catholic temptation
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A writer describes a typical social media exchange she had, or suffered, after she wrote “I like priests” in an article for a popular Catholic magazine. “Reproachful cries immediately rent the air,” she wrote. “Didn’t I like nuns? Hadn’t they brightened my life, too?”

The mothers of nuns “immediately demanded a re-deal. What was the matter with me? What did I have against nuns? I’d better make good on this or else.” She wrote a nice article about nuns, “a toast” to them, she called it, and thought she was okay.

She was not okay.

“If I wrote that yes, I did so like nuns, then someone else would say: ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you like’ and name someone else. I can foresee an endless, desperate series: ‘I Like Laymen’ … ‘I Like the Pope’ … ‘I like the Daughters of Isabella’ … “

She called it the “chip-on-shoulder attitude” and said it frightened her. If you write much on social media or for publication, you’ve probably gotten this response, and from your fellow Catholics, too. You just want to commend some worthy group, and “friends” come down on you for thereby insulting some other group.

Oh, I’m sorry, this isn’t from social media. It comes from a Catholic writer named Lucile Hasley, writing in a book published in … 1949. She lived in South Bend, Indiana, where her husband taught English at Notre Dame, and seems to have lived in a very Catholic world. (The book was titled “Reproachfully Yours.”)

An all too Catholic put-down

Catholics were using this line then, apparently often enough that the writer knew it was coming. Rhetorical techniques remain in use once someone invents them. All the chip-on-shoulder people need is a medium, whether it’s conversation, the U.S. mail, or Facebook.

I can imagine one of the disciples saying, “You like John? Why don’t you like Peter? What’s wrong with Peter? He’s just as good as John. At least he’s practical.”

Some of us find it very annoying. I shouldn’t, I know, but I’d be grateful if readers didn’t add to the number of temptations I face.

The question is why this particular put-down has been so popular among Catholics, or maybe Christians in general. (I don’t see it much among the secular people I read on social media, but maybe I’m missing it.)

The question of why Catholics do this is worth asking because the way people talk to each other tells us something about the world in which they’re talking. And that tells us something about the kinds of temptations that world presents. Knowing that, we can try to avoid the temptations or at least refuse to give in to them.

My guess is that this kind of comment offers almost a perfect combination of moral one-upmanship and passive-aggressive indirection. It satisfies the sadly common human desire to put others down and/or elevate themselves and at the same time look good doing it. They’re not criticizing the poor writer, they’re speaking up for others, redressing an imbalance, giving credit where credit is due, and so on.

The release of social media

Why do they do this? Catholics live in a world that expects them to be charitable all the time and it’s so hard to be charitable all the time. As Scripture suggests, we have a lot of trouble controlling our speech, and social media provides the perfect space to let ourselves go, because it makes the targets impersonal and it doesn’t feel like “real speech.”

And, most attractively, this technique gives us a way to smack people down within the rules of the group — and maybe even get praised for it.

Many of us know the temptation to smack someone down in an argument and the disappointing feeling when you remember you can’t do that. They may deserve it, but whatever smackdown you administer must be a “do unto others” smackdown and who can enjoy that? The pressure to smack builds up and needs to be released somehow.

It’s not always easy to remember that charity provides a release, and an infinitely better one. If we do remember, we can still convince ourselves to be harsh. Or “prophetic,” or “speak the hard word,” or “offer tough love,” as we might call it, all of which make us look good.

If you feel this temptation (and it’s only one of many clever ways to speak unkindly), what do you do? First, just don’t do it. Second, follow St. Paul’s instructions to rejoice when others rejoice (cf. Rom 12:15). Just take pleasure in your brother’s taking pleasure in someone else, and your sister’s finding a hero or model. If you do, you won’t even think about trying to one-up them.

David Mills

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.