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“Debate or Else”

In Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution, one of the characters says there are thirty hours in every day, “if only you know where to look for them.” Lucky man. I guess I don’t know where to look. I’ve never found more than about eighteen useful hours and normally far fewer than that.

What I find myself forced to do—what you undoubtedly find yourself forced to do—is to undertake some things and let others slide. We aren’t clever enough to find those thirty hours, and we aren’t saints who can bilocate, thus being in two places at once and getting twice the work done.

Worse, when it comes to choosing which tasks we will tackle, the choosing often is done for us. Our own preferences are subordinated to the demands of family or school or workplace.

Your spouse lays out your routine, and you risk peril if you resist. Your children are even more demanding, since they figured you out long before you figured them out. Your professors take evil glee in assigning you work that no human can be expected to complete in the time allotted, and you have learned that, while you may be attending a party school, you never have time to party.

Even in the workplace freedom is circumscribed. The enjoyable tasks must take second place to the daily routines. We have to please the boss before we can please ourselves, and often enough we never even please the boss.

The day flits by without giving us an opportunity to turn to the things we really enjoy, and the rest of the week promises more of the same. (If that leaves you disgruntled, tough. As that great American theologian, Jimmy Carter, once observed, “Life’s unfair.”)

These thoughts come to mind as I review e-mail messages. Having intruded myself into the public forum, occasionally people ask me to give a seminar here or attend a conference there—not so often as in times past, since I’ve been pretty good at keeping a lower profile, but it still happens.

Until recently, I’ve had to turn down most invitations, not having discovered those thirty hours. I wish that, over the years, I could have accepted every invitation that came my way (well, most of them anyway), but that wouldn’t have been possible even if I had forsworn doing any “real” work, and usually there was plenty of “real” work to do—not that I always managed to do it, of course. 

Normally inviters accept a declination with good graces. They understand the constraints. Besides, there’s always someone else who could be asked. “Keating can’t make it? No problem. Here’s a list of ten people who probably would give a better talk anyway.”

Years ago, I could give as many as five parish seminars a week for several weeks running and not collapse. Then came middle age. Even if I were inclined to return to such rigor, I wouldn’t be able to, physically. The heart may be willing, but stiff joints will overrule it. You come to realize that certain ascetical practices are for the young. In college you had no trouble “pulling an all nighter,” but now, you think, no exam would be worth skipping sleep for.

Even though most people are good sports when an invitation is declined, not all of them are. Some just won’t take “no” for an answer. This is especially the case with folks associated with groups at the farther ends of the spectrum and especially those who want you to debate. They think every challenge to debate must be accepted because a declination implies a mental or moral lapse.

A negative answer can’t be based on reasonable considerations, such as not planning to be in that section of the country any time soon, or not having the time, or not wanting to give encouragement to troublemakers. To decline such a challenge is to condemn oneself—sometimes literally.

“Please debate the issue so that your soul may not be condemned.” That’s how one woman phrased it. She insisted that I take up a challenge issued by a group that promotes Fr. Leonard Feeney’s rigorist interpretation of the dogma “No salvation outside the Church.”

The members of that particular group interpret the dogma to mean that there is no chance of salvation for anyone other than a formal member of the Catholic Church. Not a single non-Catholic operating under “invincible ignorance” can hope to get to heaven. (Sorry, C. S. Lewis! Too bad, John Wesley! Sorry, all you Eastern Orthodox!)

Even so conservative a pope as Pius IX had a different interpretation, but that doesn’t faze such people: like liberals, they say Pius wasn’t issuing an ex cathedra definition, so it didn’t count and can be ignored.

This particular challenge to debate was prompted by a web site run by “Feenyites.” The site published my e-mail address and asked visitors to contact me, apparently on the theory that it is proper to try to annoy someone into debating.

Another woman took the hint and wrote, saying, “Your refusal to respond to the challenge leaves one to suspect that you are not as confident about your position as you would have others believe.” That comes about as close to a catch-22 as a quondam debater is likely to get. If you decline an invitation, it must be because you think you’ll lose. What other reason could there be?

It never seems to occur to such challengers that, while the issue itself may be worth debating, their standard-bearer may not be or that you have other things to do. Debates take much preparation—much more than a lecture—and, after a while, by necessity you find you must discriminate.

Will a debate on this topic, with this opponent, help people understand the faith? If so, accept the invitation, other duties permitting. If not, or if you just don’t have the time, then decline. This strikes me as a sensible approach—but some folks just keep sending e-mail messages.

Written By Karl Keating


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