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The Emperor and His Clothes

August 28, 2013, marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a civil-rights march that has become a legendary moment in the fight for civil rights in the United States. (Nota bene: Interestingly enough, marches on Washington for civil rights take place every January, and annually post comparable attendance records to the 200,000–300,000 who attended the 1963 event—but these marches go curiously unnoticed in mainstream America.) The golden anniversary of the ’63 March caused my Facebook news feed to light up with tributes, and one in particular caught my attention.

The March on Washington in 1963 was a star-studded event. Quite a few celebrities of the day showed up to lend their names and reputations to the cause. One in particular was a Hollywood legend, and his picture was trumpeted by a Facebook tribute page to his memory, picked up by his fans and shared—which is how I saw it. In the photograph, this man was unshaven, uncombed, and was wearing large sunglasses while sitting amidst many people who evidently did not share his need for them. I commented in passing that it appeared that even Hollywood legends had misspent youths, since this celebrity had chosen to appear at an important civic event looking like he had been pulled from bed, stuffed in a suit, sunglasses slapped over his eyes, so that he could make a promised appearance.

Well. I had miscalculated how many of his fans would take umbrage at such an assessment. I was told that he was not really “unkempt”; that he actually looked quite good; that he was wearing nice clothes; that maybe he was preparing for a movie role; and, anyway, I was being socially biased and judgmental to criticize his appearance. I was amused to note that not only did no one essentially disagree with the objective assessment that he had a scruffy facial shadow, uncombed hair, and sunglasses unneeded by anyone else, but that I was the only person to speculate that perhaps he had been ill and decided to go anyway because of the importance of the event. Everyone else chose to give him a social pass and proclaim his appearance to be Just Fine, at least in part I suppose because of his legendary stature.

After that conversation, everyone went back to their respective corners of Facebook, and I got to thinking about Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. In the tale, two grifters promise an emperor that they can make him a fabulous set of clothes that cannot be seen by anyone too stupid for their position in his empire. The emperor is enthralled by the idea and struts proudly before his subjects in what he has been persuaded to believe is clothing visible only to the worthy. His subjects dare not admit they cannot see their emperor’s clothes and fall over themselves cheering the emperor’s appearance. Only a small child shouts out, “But the emperor has no clothes!” 

When I first read that tale as a child, I thought it silly. Who would be so dumb as to refuse to see that the emperor was naked? It was only years later that I understood the social dynamics that make it possible for people to care more about the esteem of others than with pointing out that a person of high stature has made a fool of himself.

The same dynamic happens in the Church as well. When an influential Catholic, whether or not this person is ordained, does something foolish (or worse), the de facto response is to excuse. “Oh, that’s not really what he meant to say!” and “You’re just misunderstanding how what he did should be understood!” are common refrains. To some extent, this is noble and necessary. We should be willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. After all the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved (CCC 2478).

Not only that, but:

Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty . . . of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor (CCC 2477).

But that does not mean that we turn off our ability to think critically. In the case of the Hollywood celebrity, it is possible to note an unkempt appearance and to question why someone would appear at an important event in such a state—and to speculate that perhaps he was ill that day but decided to attend anyway because of the importance of the event. Doing so acknowledges both that social standards exist, and should not be waved away for celebrities who deign to make appearances, and that there could be a reasonable explanation that does not impute moral fault based only on a photograph.

In the case of influential people in the Church, critical thinking cannot be suspended, but steps can be taken to avoid the dangers of criticism. Here are a few possibilities:

Criticism should be sparing. If your default reaction is to criticize, then make an effort to remain silent when there is a scandal. You need not voice your opinion on every scandalous headline that appears on the Internet.

Do not create a “cottage industry” of criticism. There are Catholic groups out there that have as their raison d’être criticism of the Church. Whether it be from the Church’s left, with groups such as Voice of the Faithful, or from the Church’s right with groups such as Fr. Nicholas Gruner’s Fatima Network, when criticism of the Church becomes your justification for existence, then you find reasons to continue to criticize the Church even after the Church has addressed your concerns.

Be open to correction. Your criticism may be unfounded. It happens. So, be open to evidence that you are wrong. And be willing to admit it when you are.

I’ve often thought that the reason Hans Christian Andersen had a child point out that the emperor was naked was because no one could doubt the innocence and essential honesty of a child. When we criticize, as occasionally we must, we should do so not in a spirit of malice but in a spirit of innocent honesty—a standard to which I must also work to hold myself, since I tend to be a critical person. Not for nothing did Christ say:

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3).


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