Rejection Slip: National Catholic Reporter

Rejection Slip is a series of pieces I submitted for publication that were rejected by the editors. Oh well.

I submitted the following piece to NCR in December, in response to a multi-part discussion on Catholics who have left the church. The discussion began with Melinda Henneberger’s USA Today column (November 2018) about why she left the church. Henneberger followed up in December with an article in NCR about the responses she fielded from that first article. Then, NCR published a respnse to Henneberger by a priest, Fr. David Knight, that they called “smart” and “thoughtful.” For the reasons I outline below, I found his response to be shallow, arrogant, and fallacious.

Reader Response to Fr. David Knight, by Melody S. Gee (December 17, 2018)

The title Fr. David Knight’s December 13 piece, “Memo to Henneberger: The Logical Thing Is to ‘Hang in There,’” offers a hint of the tone to come, but I was still surprised at the callousness of his response. Fr. Knight tells Melinda Henneberger that leaving was illogical and inconsistent, that she’s “not using [her] brains and education.”

But it is his refusal (or inability) to look at Henneberger’s pain and anguish that is most concerning—and revealing. Fr. Knight responds to Henneberger’s deep sadness and fraught choice with appeals to logic. He dissects all the reasons her reason doesn’t make sense to him, without ever asking, why does it need to make sense to me? Or more importantly, why am I demeaning her intelligence, presuming to know her motives, and unable to engage at all with her despair?

This was not Fr. Knight’s first inability to show compassion in the face of despair. By his own account, he once told a grieving mother “not to feel too bad that her baby had died because her baby was in heaven.” Even worse is that Fr. Knight believes his only mistake in that moment was “speaking reasonably to people under stress,” and not failing to demonstrate any empathy.

Though he claims piece is all about logic, he falls into fallacy and circular reasoning by claiming that leaving the Church in response to pervasive and destructive human sin means you were only there in the first place because you believed church leaders to be sinless. Later, in his extensive list of sinners who nonetheless comprise God’s “public instruments,” Fr. Knight names sins of omission, idolatry, denial, and refusing to eat what God commands. These kinds of failings don’t compare to the grave sins of raping children and covering up those crimes.

Then, with shocking arrogance, Fr. Knight claims to understand why, for the poorly catechized, church sex abuse victims, and Holocaust survivors, it might be “emotionally impossible” to “handle their experiences” with logic—essentially saying that victims of institutionally sanctioned abuses are simply unable to access his level of logical response because they are “blocked by insuperable emotion.” Is emotion a problem to be overcome? Is our encounter with Christ a merely logical event? Fr. Knight makes an idol of logic and ignores the depth and complexity of human experience.

I would ask Fr. Knight to tell me where the logic was in the perpetration of those “experiences?” The only answer is that there is no logic to child rape and its cover up. So why on earth should logic be our response? Our horror, disgust, and—in Henneberger’s case— divestment seem the only responses that makes any sense. If we recoil and disavow the structures that allowed such monstrosities, it’s perhaps because we know that it is a fallacy to think that simply belonging to The Church equals standing with Jesus.

In the end, Fr. Knight wants us to believe that if we just apply his version of reason, we’ll come to the conclusion to “hang in there.” After all his logical acrobatics, he offers nothing more than shallow cliché. As a member and leader of a faith grounded in deep mystery, Fr. Knight’s desperate clinging to logic makes the least sense of all. Our grieving and alienated brothers and sisters deserve more thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and compassion. And we all deserve better discourse than his response offered.