Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Dr. Smith's "Revised" Response

It must be nice being able to be able to choose where you will publish something. I’m sure this thought had to have crossed the mind of Dr. Janet Smith. True to her word, she has revised her hit-piece on Dawn Eden, and this time posted it in a different venue. Instead of Catholic Exchange, she has it up at the Catholic Education Resource Center. Unfortunately, there’s no comments section at that site like there was at CE. Probably best for Dr. Smith, as now people cannot interact with what she said right in public.  The last time the plebeians were allowed their say, it didn't end well. Nonetheless, she prefers the “old media” style of publishing where people cannot interact right away with it, and it takes a more academic tone. Such is her right.

Such is the right of her critics, however, to point out that she still really hasn’t engaged with much of the evidence. I also think she did a little bit of whitewashing the record, and I think this should be pointed out. The article on Catholic Exchange is still there, at least for now.

Unfortunately, I might just be doing an exercise in futility. Dr. Smith hints of even further revisions:

While it may merit even further revision, I need to get on to other projects. In the end, I believe the substance of my critique is sound.

Is it that hard for Dr. Smith to refrain from writing until she is relatively certain what she is writing won’t need to be changed? Why isn’t that caveat also with her main work? Is this meant to inspire confidence in the reader? “The substance is sound” is classic double-speak for leaving enough wiggle room should you end up getting proven wrong yet again. Perhaps Dr. Smith should have never gotten involved. She certainly would’ve saved a lot of people the trouble for trying to figure out if what she says today will be the same as what she says tomorrow!

Ironically enough, Dr. Smith starts out her essay with a footnote, in which she says:

In my initial version of this critique, I critiqued Eden's tone first, simply because as a thesis reader, I work my way through a piece step by step. But I found in presenting the critique publically, readers took my comments on her tone to infer that I focused on the "accidental" features of Eden's work and did not pay enough attention to the substance. The approach also served to display such frustration with her tone that readers were less able to assess fairly my critique of the substance of the work. Indeed, I committed the same offense I accused Eden of: "biasing" the reader before a critique was offered. Mea culpa. I have deleted some portions on tone and added a few general comments. So in this version, I begin with substance, since it is unarguably more important than tone. I do turn to tone at the end, because it, too, is important.

I will only speak for myself. It wasn’t the tone; it was the substance of how she critiqued the tone. Confusing? Allow me to elaborate.

I for one think at times, we are far too genteel a society. Whenever someone comes up with a stinging criticism, it is automatically dismissed as a personal attack. If one reads the great masters of rhetoric throughout history (even the Catholic ones!) they recognized at times that a less than cordial approach was required. When dealing with the followers of Marcion, Tertullian stated the following:

But why call His body bread, and not rather (some other edible thing, say) a melon, which Marcion must have had in lieu of a heart! (Against Marcion)

St. Jerome stated of Helvidius:

If I choose to say, the apostle Paul before he went to Spain was put in fetters at Rome, or (as I certainly might) Helvidius, before he repented, was cut off by death, must Paul on being released at once go to Spain, or must Helvidius repent after death, although the Scripture says In sheol who shall give you thanks?

Lest someone think this was just against a heretic, Jerome answered much the same way during his dispute with Augustine. Sometimes rhetorical wit can prove an argument better than any genteel discussion ever could. St. Frances De Sales knew this well. His The Catholic Controversies was many times a masterpiece of rhetoric. Even in the academic world, then Cardinal Ratzinger worded responses to Cardinal Kasper that many found surprising for a break in the rather genteel decorum such disputes normally have. Neither took it personally.

Their very combative tones never prevented them from being rightly lionized as Catholic heroes. If Dr. Smith wanted to take a combative tone against Miss Eden’s thesis, such is her right. Indeed, if it were as bad as she says it is, such a response would probably be merited. Whenever one employs rhetoric, we must ask ourselves: does it further making your point?

To this I ask:

1.) Does stating your opponent lacks any shame (since essentially they disagree with your assessment) further the discussion?

2.) Does stating they lack any humility or docility further the discussion?

3.) Does insinuating she whines further the discussion?

4.) Does stating that she had a hidden agenda of using her thesis to turn her from an obscure graduate student into a big name on the lecture circuit to get rich further the discussion?

The problem wasn’t tone. The problem was, in making her assessment, she engaged in pure character assassination. There was absolutely no point to any of her charges, other than to sling as much mud as possible. While she may have done this in anger or haste, that does not change it for the fact of what it was. Something tells me if Dr. Smith had alerted her readers to this, they would tend to think rather lowly of her work. As I said, it must be great to be able to choose your own venues!

Dr. Smith starts out her revised critique not looking to assassinate this time, but rather provides personal testimonies of why Mr. West’s work is great. For someone who begged her opponents to engage in an academic discussion, I find this line of argumentation curious.

All the personal references in the world can’t prove a thing one way or the other. I am equally certain Dawn Eden could mention the people whose lives have been changed by her works or talks. I myself am aware of a few personally. Yet does that make her thesis any more or less worthy of belief from the standpoint of the truth? Of course not. No doubt Caesar could say the women around him had their lives transformed and improved. This didn’t take away from the fact that Caesar was still a womanizer and serial adulterer.

While obviously dealing with lesser circumstances, all the personal stories in the world will not make what Christopher West is doing right or wrong. If anything, appealing to emotion is a sure sign you aren’t winning the discussion. After Dr. David Schindler delivered stinging critique of Christopher West, Drs. Smith and Waldstein, a long with Matthew Pinto, essentially made their main argument “but look how many people are change?” This is not a compelling argument.

While watering down her criticisms, Dr. Smith still poisons the well. She keeps the line that, if she were so inclined, she could refute Miss Eden’s entire thesis. If you aren’t going to do it, don’t say it. Stick with the facts you intend to interact with.

As for the majority of the essay, my original work still stands. I refer the reader specifically to parts II through IV. I would like to talk about very briefly one of the subtle but serious changes she makes: the discussion about the Latin in previous works where a sexual nature is discussed.

As readers of this blog were aware, the door was blown wide open on her original argument. It was mocked by many as lacking all seriousness, and rightly so. In short, her original argument stated that since two works had mainly been written in Latin when discussing sexuality, it was evidence of repression from the faithful.

As I and others demonstrated, the work she cites was never meant for the average Catholic faithful. In the preface, the author specifically rejects the idea his work is meant for edification. It was meant for very specific instances of assisting priests in the confessional on how to deal with issues of moral theology.

The only area that was in Latin dealt with sins contrary to nature. One of them listed was bestiality. As Steve Kellmeyer noted (in a mocking tone that Dr. Smith deserved every bit of):

Are lay Catholics being repressed when they are not offered a discussion of how to hear the confession of someone who has had unnatural relations with livestock?

Dr. Smith has changed the argument a bit. Shockingly, she has managed to make it even less scholarly:

Undoubtedly there were some good reasons for that practice, but it suggests some "repression" to me. I believe it is not only because fewer priests today can read Latin, that passages about sex are no longer written in Latin; certainly a willingness to talk about matters of sexuality more openly today, has also led the Church to stop that practice.

In short there is repression because……. Repression because……. Dr. Smith says so, that’s why! She fully concedes now there were good reasons to keep it in Latin. Yet it still suggests repression? She offers no evidence for why this is the case. She just asserts it. If anyone is thinking Dr. Smith is letting her bias show, go to the head of the class.

I’d like to broaden my original argument I made about the sources she cites even further. Since Dr. Smith has provided the link, I was able to do some fact-checking. In the sections that are in English, the following is mentioned:

1.) There is a section on incest and why it is wrong

2.) There is a section on rape, and why it is wrong

3.) “Venereal pleasure” is talked about 6 times, and when it is, and isn’t sinful

4.) “Dirty talk” has a section as well as “immodest touching.”

5.) Finally, a discussion about a dispute amongst theologians on impure touching and kissing, and the gravity of sin associated with it.

What honestly is repressed here? Is Dr. Smith upset that a moral theologian, writing a moral theology manual, didn’t talk about sex in extremely explicit or popular phrases? As I stated before, it’s obvious she didn’t read what she cited. She just saw an area on impurity in Latin, automatically thought that the book was trying to hide the truth from the faithful, and ran with it. In her original, she at least had an argument: Latin equals repression. Now, in her revised work, she doesn’t even have any evidence, it just “seems” repressive. Or maybe, just maybe, Dr. Smith has blinders on. We could just as easily take a page from the playbook of the man she defends. Dr. Smith, if you find this work problematic, perhaps you should ponder deep in your soul and see what hang ups you have that cause you to view a work approved by two august bishops as evidence of repression.

There is one more issues that needs to be commented on. Dr. Smith states:

In fact, if Eden is still confident that her work exposes serious errors in West's work and that he is a danger to others, I believe she has a moral obligation to submit her concerns to bishops (perhaps the committee on catechesis would be a place to start) and they can decide whether they need to challenge the imprimaturs and endorsements that have been given by members of their own rank.

Many have asked me for my thoughts on this, and I will repeat what I told them. There’s no reason to go to the Bishop’s on this. One goes to the Bishop’s when somebody is denying doctrine. For the majority of people in this debate, they are not stating that Mr. West is some heretic. Miss Eden never even implies such in her thesis. Instead, on several occasions she notes the precise opposite, and notes, with Dr. Schindler, that West would “jump in front of a bus” for the Church.

Such a move would poison the well in regards to this. In the eyes of the public, such a move would certainly be interpreted that Mr. West is in doctrinal trouble. Even if he were in the end vindicated, his livelihood would be ruined during the endless investigations, inquiries, appeals etc. Nobody wants to see a faithful son of the Church dragged through such a process when it is not warranted.

No, what we have here is quite different. Since both sides profess to believe the same thing (JP II’s Theology of the Body must be interpreted alongside previous Church teachings), the question is how to achieve that. We have two rival schools of thought on the manner. Church law gives even lay Catholics the right to have these discussions (Canon 212).  How much more so for theologians? If the work is really as poor as Dr. Smith alleges, let the readers compare the work of Dawn Eden and Christopher West. So far, the mere fact that Dr. Smith felt the need to become involved tells you how that one is playing out. 

However, the reverse of this is that people are also under no obligation to do anything in regards to the Bishop, except obey if one gives a ruling that is within their competence to give.  (No such thing has been given.)  Even if they did find him denying doctrine, they are free to denounce him in public all they want.  To say one is under a moral obligation, is to say that someone is committing a sin of omission by refusing to step up.  Church law says nothing of the sort.

Besides, during an on-going inquiry, would not charity require that both sides not speak on the manner until such a formal judgment was reached? If one were to say the intent of some were to sweep this thesis under the rug and engage in damage control, this would be an ideal situation. The Bishops would eventually not become involved or state “West is not a heretic.” Partisans of various ideological persuasions can then spin it into a victory, when it was the wrong battle all along. This is a smokescreen, plain and simple. Provided people engage in this discussion with charity, there need not be one dogmatic way to approach a subject. I myself am comfortable with this approach.  I get the feeling our friends across the way are not. If that’s the case, let them write to the Bishops conferences (which really have no authority to settle the question) then to Rome herself.

That’s really all that can be said. Dr. Smith’s work, instead of being an outright class in character assassination, is now an attempted instructional in how to do it with subtlety. The only problem is that she falls short on both accounts. Furthermore, in her attempt to “tone down” her arguments, she leaves them even more lacking in scholarship than before.

Since she isn’t going to say anymore on the matter, I don’t think either side should, until Mr. West himself speaks. Nothing much has changed. His defenders still have not engaged the actual evidence, try though they might. There’s a reason for this. In the end, the majority of what Miss Eden says in her thesis I believe cannot be assailed. Truth is the best defense.


  1. I don't think it would be inappropriate for Miss Eden to send her thesis to, say, Card. Rigali and Bp. Rhoades, as long as she did it privately and not publicly (i.e., she should not respond to a charge that she isn't trying to address the matter with West's bishops). The thesis is not a denunciation (which would be appropriate if West were actually professing heresy).

    In the end, the majority of what Miss Eden says in her thesis I believe cannot be assailed.

    I think one could make the case not only for Miss Eden's thesis but also for the work of Dr. Schindler, Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, and even (gasp!) Steve Kellmeyer.

  2. I do not mind her posting it at a place where it cannot be responded to because it was not much different than her original. If it was markedly different, I would have an issue with it.

    I think that debate has gotten to the point where the only discussions should be between Eden and West or Schindler and West. I doubt it will be Schindler because West has already refused Schindler's offer to discuss things in his "Communio". So until West speaks, all of us should move on to other things. We do have "bigger fish to fry".

  3. Yeah, for the most part, if I write on the subject, it won't be mentioning any of the gang by name.

    if we were keeping score, I'd score it a resounding victory and light a cigar.

    Since we aren't keeping score against fellow Catholics..... my heart is saddened that the debate went the way it did.

  4. DCS....

    If possible, could you please contact me in private?


  5. Just shot you an email (no subject).


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