The newspaper stories that appeared Sunday have the authentic whiff of modernity. One of these concerns the earthquake that hit Al Asnam, Algeria; the other, a bitter public scuffle between the Chicago Sun-Times and the archdiocese of Chicago. In that one, the church is accusing the newspaper of being "engaged in a program of clandestine character assassination that would perhaps win the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan." The blast comes in response to some snooping that the newspaper has been doing into the church's finances, and seems to be an effort to keep the results from ever hitting point.
This struggle, where the church claims in essence to be above the law, and the Sun-Times seems to be insisting that it is the law, would have been unthinkable a generation ago. And the root cause of it, one suspects, is not unrelated to our modern preoccupation with catastrophe. And in fact, both press and pulpit -- at least in their present manifestations -- are to a large extent catastrophe institutions -- a circumstance that is due fully as much to the way we think as it is to the way they behave.
During the past few decades, as we have become increasingly obsessed with catastrophe, our ideas of it have subtly changed. This can be illustrated by comparing the real one that took place at Al Asnam with a fictional calamity set in Oran, just week of there -- wherein an Algerian city, in a 1951 novel by Albert Camus, is ravaged by the bubonic plague.
In Camus' story, which caught the imagination of its time, the catastrophe is a leisurely one. The plague takes several months to run its coure, and the people have plenty of time to philosophize over what it all means, and how they ought to behave. Their conclusions are simple ones: that neither sermons nor newspapers are of much help when real troubles come; and that in bad times, the best a man can do is to try and maintain his common sense, and to pitch in and help wherever he can. Obviously, this is an antique tale with an old-fashioned moral.
We moderns, on the other hand, no longer anticipate the kind of slow-motion catastrophe that leaves men time to collect their wits, but seem braced instead for the great white flash -- a cataclysm more sudden and explosive -- a bigger version of what took place in Al Asnam, where according so a survivor, "it was all over in six seconds. The dogs didn't even have time to bark."
If dogs don't have time to bark, men don't have time to think. And as a result, thinking is much less prized among us in these apocalyptic times than it used to be. What we are looking for instead, it seems, is either forewarning or escape: in other words, news or salvation. And because we have come to value information and unction far more than we do reason and good will, we have handed over an precedented lot of power to institutions that provide us with those, and seem disposed to let them get away with murder. Modern churches and "television ministries" raise gigantic sums of money without being obliged to give any accounting of what they do with it. And the modern press, which gorges itself on the corpses of America's public figures, repeatedly asserts its right to pry into anybody's affairs at any time, with no more than "Opps!" for apology when somebody gets slain.
It is a puzzling situation. Informing men, and providing them with religious consolation, have always been honorable and worthwhile chores. But these professions had humble beginnings, and it is sometimes difficult to figure out how we got from the town crier to the corporate character assassin, or from the carpenter of Nazareth to the video evangelist in the pink Cadillac who claims that a dollar for him is a dollar for God.
What legitimizes these "rights" that big media and big religion have come to insist on? Partly, the First Amendment, and, partly, their power. And this, in turn derives from our own obsession with catastrophe, in all its forms, which the one institution supplies us with, and the other promises to shield us from. Thus, interecine strife over who is going to have the catastrophe concession is the real basis for the scuffle in Chicago, and others like it throughout the land. The battle isn't over whether the church's finances get disclosed, but over who will assume the role of public protector for those of us who are tired of thinking for ourselves, and would like to be led around like little children.
The press, in its relentless hunt for unrighteousness (in others), has come to consider itself as no less a religious organization than the church itself. And the contest between them is like that of two cursing, cassocked priests, wrathfully wrestling in the mud over who is going to make monsignor. May it go on forever! One hopes the ludicrousness of the fray will restore a sense of perspective, or at least some sense of humor. Maybe, with our guardians loudly battling between themselves like that, we can grow up and go about our business. At the very least, their strident voices tend to cancel each other out, and there's a lot to be said for that.