Read. Read. Read with a critical eye. But read everything — Catholic and not Catholic. Some of the deepest influences on my own adult thought haven’t been Christian or even religious, but I’ve read them through a Catholic lens learned from others and then refined on my own. Read for technique (Ernest Hemingway; Neil Postman; even gifted lunatics like Terry Southern). Read for content (Ratzinger, Wojtyla, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Josef Pieper, Eric Voegelin, Leszek Kolakowski, Christopher Lasch, Roger Scruton, Pierre Manent, George Parkin Grant).
By the way, if you haven’t read Josef Pieper’s little book Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, do it now. Do it this week. It’s an essential text. He describes the political manipulation of words as “the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape.”
Compare journalistic styles and editing strengths: NY Times vs. LA Times vs. Wall Street Journal. Study what gets reported, and how. Study where it gets reported in the body of a publication or website, and with what kind of headline. And notice what gets omitted. An experienced editor can lie without ever speaking a word, just by deleting certain details in a story. A veteran reporter can tell the truth, the whole truth, just by including some relevant context.
Build your vocabulary but commit to simplicity. Be ruthless editing your own material. Burn George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” into your brain. And for sanity’s sake: Stay away from Twitter. At least until you learn how to think and express yourself like a human adult. Twitter fuels conflict. It breeds imprudence and stupid, venomous commentary. We’re already drowning in both.
Finally, and maybe most demandingly: Try to assume the best in others. Critique issues and behaviors, not persons. The spoken word can often be ignored or forgotten.
The written word is forever.
I’ll close with just a few personal thoughts.
For 32 years, starting when I was a young and very green editor, I had four small frames on my office wall. Each frame held a quotation; one from Solzhenitsyn, another from Léon Bloy, another from François Mauriac. I read them every morning when I arrived, during the day between tasks, and every night before leaving for home. They were the pillars that supported my day.
The fourth and final frame on my wall held some words from that great Chinese theologian whose regime has been so politely reconsidered in the last couple of years by the Holy See: Mao Zedong. Mao was a murderous thug, not a saint. Nobody’s perfect. But as a strategist, he had few peers. And for Christians with a very long tradition of spiritual warfare, his words deserve some thought: “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive.”
On that at least, Mao was exactly right: People, not things, are decisive.
We influence the course of the world through our impact on other people. I edited the National Catholic Register for 15 years. I loved the job. It remains one of the great satisfactions of my life. And it was fantastic fun, because nothing in human experience — no issue in science, technology, education, politics, war and peace, religion, or the economy — is alien to the Catholic faith. The Church doesn’t have the answer to every problem. But she does have the wisdom, experience, and moral vocabulary to guide us in finding the answer that best serves both God and human dignity.
Whatever the Register accomplished, though — and I think we managed to do some wonderful things — flowed from the passion and excellence of its staff and contributors. The real joy of those Register years was the people I worked with — helping them grow, learning from them, watching them succeed, and building friendships that have lasted three and four decades.
When times are tough for the Church, as they are now, it’s easy to doubt the mission and effectiveness of Catholic journalism. But that’s a mistake. And C.S. Lewis tells us why. Lewis said that all nations and civilizations, no matter how great they are, sooner or later die. But the human soul — every human soul — is immortal, and therefore infinitely precious. When we help to save one soul, we help to save the world.
When I edited the Register, our weekly circulation averaged, in the early years, around 50,000. Maybe 25,000 people each week opened the paper. Maybe 10,000 browsed a few articles. Maybe 5,000 actually read and considered the content. Maybe as few as 500 had their mind enriched, or their heart touched, or their day redeemed in some serious way by what we published. But that’s 500 persons who would carry what they read into eternity with them. And that’s pretty good results for a week’s labor.
Never doubt the importance of your work. The vocation of a Catholic journalist is to tell the truth; to bring hope; and to sustain faith. The Church and her people — and through them, the world — urgently need all three.
So we arrive at two final thoughts.
The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski began his adult life as a Marxist intellectual in Communist Poland and ended as an admirer of John Paul II at the University of Chicago in the United States. He was never a Christian, but over time he became more and more sympathetic to the importance of religious faith. He once said that, “When a culture loses its sacred sense, it loses all sense” and thus it ends up, inevitably, in “disastrous despair.” He added that “[Today’s] utopian faith in man’s self-inventive capabilities, the utopian hope of unlimited perfection, may be the most efficient instrument of suicide human culture has ever invented.”
J.R.R. Tolkien would agree. We live in an age of men with mechanical minds and clockwork hearts; an age, in Tolkien’s view, “of improved means to deteriorated ends.”
“The Gospels,” wrote Tolkien, “contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories.” But this story, he said, this one unexpected, undeserved, spectacular story, is neither a fable nor a legend. It has flesh and blood, hunger and thirst, happiness, and suffering; it really happened; it entered the everyday, material world. “The Birth of Christ,” Tolkien wrote, “is the eucatastrophe” — the great and jubilant ending — “of Man’s history … This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.'” This story, said Tolkien, “is supreme, and it is true.”
And that story, I’d suggest, is worth giving our talents, our passions, and our lives to — as believers, and as journalists.