A lack (perhaps) of charity

I respect Mark Shea, and do understand that zinging him in this forum might be as impolite as Steve Earle's assertion that he would stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in his cowboy boots to proclaim Townes Van Zandt the best songwriter in America.

But as Jay D. Homnick helped me to see,  Shea was too hard on Ann Coulter in a recent column for Inside Catholic, and not hard enough on the CNBC TV host who took her to task for daring to call Christians "perfected Jews." You wouldn't know it from Shea's ad feminam attack, but it was Mr. Deutsch, the host, who claimed he could make an argument for "more hate, more divisiveness, and a bigger gap between rich and poor" if Coulter's "dreams" of an America dominated by Christians came to pass. Ms. Coulter graciously decided not to remind her host that any such argument would be both ahistorical and ignorant.

True, her unfortunate labeling of Christians as "perfected Jews" should not have been past tense, as Shea points out. But what Shea does not note (because he's already dismissed Coulter as a "professional bomb thrower" and "Hannitized Fox News pundit" with a "tenuous" grasp on what the New Testament actually says), is that the unfortunate comment was a direct result of a charitable impulse gone awry: Coulter wanted to reassure Mr. Deutsch that he had nothing to fear from Christians. She's more practiced at doling out vinegar than at doling out honey, and she's no theologian, so her attempt fell flat.

Enter Shea, asserting on the basis of the Epistle to the Romans that Saint Paul would have responded with gales of laughter to Coulter's summary of how Christians see themselves.

The woman is fully capable of wielding a rhetorical lance on her own, but she's not likely to be reading Shea, so it falls to me to say that I do not think she meant to deny the reality of sin.

Moreover, the "bomb throwing" in which Coulter engages, while not irenic and not ministerial, nevertheless puts her in the good company of Paul himself, not to mention Simon the Zealot and Saint James and Saint John, whom Jesus nicknamed "sons of thunder" for similar enthusiasms. She may not be all that good at comforting the afflicted, but she knows a thing or two about afflicting the comfortable, and who's to say she doesn't sometimes function as a hound of heaven?

Shea's chief gripe with Coulter is that she invoked perfection imperfectly, and in the wrong forum. Why that rates the heavy sigh or the slap at Coulter's invocation of Jerry Falwell with which Shea responded, I'm not sure. Some reputable Catholic bloggers like my friend "The Anchoress" agree with Shea. But Coulter's comment about Falwell struck me as politically astute: the late preacher is someone whom a secularist like Deutsch would recognize, more so than, for example, the name "Joseph Ratzinger." Whether Coulter would have appealed to another authority than Falwell in a different conversation, I don't know.

I was tempted to jump on the anti-Coulter bandwagon, until I read Homnick, and remembered that Teresa of Avila had wrtten a classic called "The Way of Perfection," and John Henry Newman developed "A Short Rule to Perfection."

Among Protestant writings, you'll also find John Wesley's "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection."

Each of these authors, and multitudes of other Christians, wrestled with the implications of Jesus's call to "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." On a TV show called "The Big Idea," wouldn't that qualify as one such?

That Coulter remembered some of this but could not explain it properly in a sound bite is not surprising. That a media head like Deutsch would miss the point, and be huzzahed by other media heads, is not surprising, either. Shea should have cut Coulter some slack. In spite of her manifest inadequacies as a theologian, Coulter has actually moved religious discourse in America forward, whether she meant to or not. I think Saint Paul is laughing with her rather than at her.

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  • Guest

     As someone who has worked with Mark Shea for years let me emphasize the "perhaps" here and add a big salt shaker of the benefit of doubt.  Mark and I have had our share of disagreements, but the charity always shines through. And Patrick, your expression here was in no way lacking on that score. We aim for a real Catholic Exchange and this is one.

    Mary Kochan, Senior Editor, CatholicExchange.com

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