Opposition research | Catholic culture

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By Fr. Jerry Pokorski ( bio – articles – email ) | March 29, 2022

In the tumult of political elections, politicians use opposition research to shape their campaign strategies. There may be nothing offensive about highlighting an opponent’s record. But disclosures can violate the Eighth Commandment, when deliberate distortions or unnecessary disclosures unfairly smear an adversary.

In Robert Penn Warren’s book, All the king’s men, the Huey Long figure uses Opposition Research to uncover dirt on his opponents. Willie Stark observes ominously: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passes from the stench of didie [baby’s diaper] to the stench of [funeral] to wrap up. There is always something. In effect. We are all sinners and our personal stories can be ugly. The Church insists on the seal of confession for good reasons. A priest must not reveal the sins of a penitent under pain of mortal sin but also under pain of excommunication. (“The confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a lataessentiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; whoever does so only indirectly will be punished according to the seriousness of the offence. Can. 1388 §1)

The Eighth Commandment protects our right to a good name in ordinary circumstances. We don’t reveal secrets, ugly or otherwise. Traditional Catholic morality textbooks teach that exposing another person’s grave moral failing – even if true – without sufficient and just reason is a mortal sin. Today, biographers and journalists generally do not exercise the moral restraint required by the commandments. They want all the dirt that is fit or unfit for printing.

Biographies can become a form of oppositional research. Many famous and prominent people object to the content of their biographies. The details are often wrong and distort their character and motivations. Most of us are less likely to object to mistakes that place too much emphasis on our positive character traits. Perhaps the false positives will outweigh the negatives.

Famous people are usually long dead before historians publish their book-length biographies. Historians may not identify their work as oppositional research, but critical analysis may bring the same results. The prospect of post-mortem biographies that distort us is troubling. Thus, a wise and famous person learns to identify the biographers favorable to his cause. Court historians report history selectively and prepare accounts that put the best spin on their subjects. Perhaps Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler and Mao lacked friendly court historians to save their reputations.

Saints and popes also have court historians. Beware of these halos. Personal affection for a great person can subtly influence even the most honest biographers and editors. In her diary – written under the obedience of her superiors – Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote of her dissatisfaction with the eating habits of one of the sisters – the chattering of her teeth, if I remember correctly. After his death, editors put the finishing touches to his story. You can’t have a saint suffering from small aggravations, they thought. So they changed the account to read that the tapping of the beads on the chapel pew distracted the tall young Doctor of the Church!

Honest memoirs have significant value, documenting motives, triumphs and mistakes. Memories help historians put together the many pieces of the puzzle of a great man’s life. US Grant’s memoirs are among impressive works of autobiographical honesty and historical reliability. (He called his bloody frontal assault on Confederate positions at Cold Harbor his most significant mistake in the war.) Saint Augustine’s confession is not just a self-revealing spiritual masterpiece; it is also a classic of great literature. John Henry Newman attempted to set the record straight against the attacks on his character in his Apology pro vita sua. Personal memoirs, honestly written, provide a lot of important information about a person’s life.

We who lack fame and fortune, even though we are probably not candidates for best-selling biographies, have similar concerns. We hope our families will have kind words for us at our funeral. We value a good reputation and are generally unhappy with even the smallest insult. Detraction, gossip and slander are common in biographies. The same violations with misunderstandings and misrepresentations are also common occurrences in our family circles. In times of confrontation, it is also all too common for us to field supporting factions within our families and workplaces. We all feel the need for allies to protect our reputation from abuse and distortion.

After returning to his family, the prodigal son needed such an ally. His brother was furious with him. The former’s “opposing research” on his temperamental brother was accurate. The prodigal son had squandered his share of the father’s inheritance, and he was back for more. His return to good graces probably meant a further reduction by the older brother in the father’s estate. Didn’t dad realize that his son played him like a violin? Most of us can agree with the brother.

No doubt the father recognized the imperfections of his prodigal son. He knew his son was a work in progress. He realized that there is nothing wrong with coming to our senses when we recognize how much our stupidities have caused unnecessary pain and suffering. So for the time being—and as long as the son remained in good conduct—the old man rejoiced at his son’s return, defending the young man’s reputation: “For this my son was dead, and he came to life ; he was lost and he is found. (Luke 15:24)

Whether we are rich and famous or poor and obscure, the best biographer we have is the Father, as we know him through our brother, Jesus. If we maintain a conversation with Jesus and are sensitive to the graces of the Holy Spirit, He will always plead our case. He will inspire us with honesty and goodwill, and unreserved charity. He will bring us to repentance. He will put away our reputations.

Jesus will protect our reputations even when we are under attack from the devil’s opposition: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and speak all kinds of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. (Mt. 5:12)

Prof. Jerry Pokorski is a priest in the Diocese of Arlington who also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Educated in business and accounting, he also holds a master’s degree in theology and a master’s degree in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply committed to authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full biography.

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