Team RC: Black and Moore

For many Americans the travails--very public and relentless in their expression--of the hounded press baron and onetime Canadian Conrad Lord Black must seem both familiar and untoward. The prosecution of rogue CEOs has become a bit of a national pastime and the recent Chicago court case ivolving Black and several of his corporate allies has captured attention worldwide.

LAffaire Black is about schadenfreude, ideological skullduggery, fiscal mismanagement, misalliances corporate and personal, hubris, and media fodder by the trainload. It is also about religion, or at least the personal faith of a headline grabber of titanic proportions.

As strange as it may sound, Michael Moore and Conrad Black are soul buddies. Of a sort. The Michigan documentarist is a bona fide Catholic leftist, keen on the social encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, the teaching of the anarchist-convert Dorothy Day, the heroic witness of the Jesuit peace poet Daniel Berrigan, and the communitarianism of Catholic thought. The press baron of fluid citizenship is a bona fide Catholic rightist, attentive to the political analysis of Pope John Paul II, the organic thought of John Henry Newman, the heroic witness of the Catholics who perished in lager and gulag, and the authoritative genius of the Catholic tradition. In other words, they both take their Catholic faith seriously and they are both public about it.

Although not inclined to wear his Catholicism the way Clinton deploys his bible or George W. Bush his pious nostrums, he has never shied from acknowledging his denominational loyalty.

While working on My Fathers Business, the biography of Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter, the former Archbishop of Toronto, educationist, Companion of the Order of Canada, and political churchman, I had occasion to interview Lord Blackstill a commoner at the timein his office on Toronto Street. My co-author, Douglas R. Letson, and I were unsure what kind of welcome we would receive, if for no other treason than that we had a reputation for being left-leaning Catholics. We neednt have feared. Lord Black was gracious, interested, generous with his time, and, naturally, inclined to pontificate. He was also illuminating on the matter of church politics and defensive of the Cardinals good name and achievements.

At one point in the interview I asked Lord Black if the comparison of Carterthe twentieth-century prelateto the Napoleonic-era bishop and statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrandwas apt. This prompted an irritated response. Clearly, Talleyrand and Carter were not cut from the same clerical cloth. Anyone who would suggest so manifestly did not know either ecclesiastical history or the history of political diplomacy. End of story. But not of the interview.

The Black-Carter friendship was a serious one, nurtured by a deep congruity of idea and feeling, grounded in an impressive grasp of Catholicism, its culture and history. Carters role in Blacks spiritual life was formative and Blacks role in Carters political education extensive. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship.

But Lord Blacks Catholicism is in many ways different from Cardinal Carters. It is more romantic, Recusant-tinged and old world-enamoured than Carters. His Catholicism is far more British in its tone and coloration than Canadian, comfortable in the settled world of Londons Catholic Herald. If Michael Moore has his Martin Sheen, then Conrad Black has his Evelyn Waugh.

Black has a long and abiding interest in religion, illustrated not only by his adroit courtship of prelates but also by his demonstrated commitment to the intelligent coverage of religious issues in the papers and magazines he once ownedThe Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, National Post, and the Ottawa Citizen. His Catholicism may lack the theological and philosophical sophistication of Pierre Elliott Trudeaus or Charles Taylors and it may be more political and institutional in timbre than Jean Vaniers or Mary Jo Leddys but there is no reason to assume that it is merely a divertissement.

As the commentators and chattering class continue their dissection of Lord Blacks follies, they might give a thought to his faith, a constitutive rather than frivolous component of his thought and character, and more deserving of serious consideration than the supercilious dismissal that would have Lord Blacks interest in attending mass understood as a measure of his desperation.

Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus at Sacred Heart University, and president/principal of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi Colleges, University of British Columbia. His most recent book is The Church Needs the Laity: The Wisdom of John Henry Newman (Paulist Press, 2021).

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