Friday 27 June 2008

Against mushiness

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting debate going on over at The New Republic about Sally Quinn's admission that, though a non-Catholic, she took communion at the recent funeral of her much-mourned fellow-journalist (and staunch Catholic) Tim Russert. Quinn says she did it 'for Tim'. She concludes: 'I'm so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him.'

The Catholic League's Bill Donahue has responded that in Quinn's 'privileged world, life is all about experiences and feelings.' He continues:

Moreover, Quinn's statement not only reeks of narcissism, it shows a profound disrespect for Catholics and the beliefs they hold dear. If she really wanted to get close to Tim Russert, she should have found a way to do so with trampling on Catholic sensibilities. Like praying for him - that's what Catholics do.

Responding to the response, Quinn has said that she was 'baffled' and 'completely blindsided' by it, adding: 'I'm very pluralistic about religion.' Andrew thinks Donahue's statement lacks Christian charity, but most of the commenters at the TNR site seem to disagree - including a fair number of non-believers and ex-believers. Many of them, including some who claim not to have much time for Donahue or his organisation, accuse Quinn of naivety and of having a 'mushy' attitude to belief.

Perhaps surprisingly, my own reaction to Quinn's confession was rather similar. I've been trying to work out why this is, given that I'm an extremely lapsed Catholic and a secularist who has frequently argued in favour of the right to offend religious sensibilities. But I think there's a difference between offence that is caused (or taken) in the course of reasoned argument about the truth, and deliberately (or ignorantly, in this case) setting out to disrupt the practices of a religion to which you don't subscribe. 

If I'm honest, though, what really that gets my goat about Sally Quinn's actions, and her interpretation of them, is the touchy-feely, new-agey attitude that both Donahue and the TNR commenters detected. Quinn co-edits the 'On Faith' column at the Washington Post. Like Libby Purves' 'Faith' section in the (London) Times, this tries to cash in on the supposed revival of interest in matters of belief and exemplifies the 'all faiths are equally valuable and certainly better than no faith at all' approach that I criticised here. Honest belief, or unbelief, I can take, but not this lazy, muddle-headed 'we all believe the same thing really' stuff.

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