“To be sure” is one of the slipperiest expressions in the journalistic lexicon. There are legitimate uses for it, to be sure. But an unscrupulous reporter will drop a “to be sure” just before he launches a nasty, underhanded attack on his subject, all while giving the appearance that he (the reporter) is all too sensitive to nastiness—that he is not making the claim he is plainly making.
The Daily Beast’s legal-affairs columnist, Jay Michaelson, demonstrated this practice on Monday with his hit piece on Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society executive who has played an outsized role in shaping the judiciary under President Trump. About a third of the way into his profile, Michaelson offered this classic “to be sure”: “To be sure, none of this is to repeat the odious claims of anti-Catholicism of papist conspiracies and dual loyalty.”
Yet the article was nothing more than a collection of claims of “papist conspiracies and dual loyalty” designed to create the impression that Leo seeks to impose his sinister Romish superstitions on the rest of the nation via the courts. The only thing missing was one of those 19th-century newspaper cartoons that depicted a grotesque papal octopus, its slithering legs marked “ignorance,” “corruption,” “infallibility,” and so forth. In fact, Michaelson at one point evoked the octopus image with a reference to “Leo’s octopus of organizations and influence” (my emphasis).
Mostly Michaelson, who doubles as a Buddhist rabbi of some sort, revealed his acute ignorance of the Catholic faith.
In attempting to cast his subject as a dangerous fanatic, for example, Michaelson noted that “Leo is a member of the secretive, extremely conservative Knights of Malta, a Catholic order founded in the 12th century that functions as a quasi-independent sovereign nation with its own diplomatic corps (separate from the Vatican), United Nations status, and a tremendous amount of money and land.”
Actually, there’s nothing secretive about the Sovereign Order of Malta. It came together amid the First Crusade in the 11th century—not the 12th, as Michaelson claimed—to defend Christians and provide medical help to people of all faiths in the Holy Land. Today, the order operates much like any other nongovernmental organization—think of the Red Cross or Oxfam—with more than 100,000 staff and volunteers delivering health care and disaster relief worldwide. It also enjoys diplomatic relations with 106 countries, owing not to any nefarious reason but to the fact that it won sovereign recognition in the centuries after its founding.
Is the Order of Malta “extremely conservative?” Not really. It is a lay religious order as well as a sovereign state. Therefore, its leaders owe religious obedience to the pope. Some of the order’s chivalric and aristocratic elements have also persisted through the ages, but the “knights” don’t go around the world assassinating the Church’s enemies or anything of the kind. They are mostly older gentlemen who take their Catholic faith and the Christian commitment to the works of mercy seriously. Ooh, creepy!
The article also took a potshot at Opus Dei, which it described as an “extreme, ultraorthodox Catholic sect,” whose members mainly engage in “self-flaggelation [sic] and other body-mortification practices.” Outside the fervid imagination of Michaelson and novelist Dan Brown, Opus Dei is an officially recognized personal prelature of the Catholic Church that promotes holiness among the faithful by encouraging practices of intense daily piety and charity. The Church under John Paul II canonized Opus Dei’s founder as a saint. Today, Opus enjoys warm relations with Pope Francis, who appointed one of its members, former Fox News correspondent Greg Burke, as director of the Holy See Press Office. So why did Michaelson take a gratuitous swipe at Opus Dei? Because the husband of one of Leo’s onetime associates may or may not have been a member.
Then there was the quotation from Tom Carter, an embittered former colleague of Leo’s, who apparently served as the story’s sole source. “Leonard’s faith is paramount to him,” Carter told Michaelson. “When he traveled, staff members had to find him a church near where he was staying so he could say Mass every day” (my emphasis). But as anyone minimally familiar with the faith knows, lay Catholics like Leo don’t, and can’t, say the Mass. That privilege is reserved for ordained members, i.e., bishops and priests. The factual lapse—neither Michaelson nor his editors at the Daily Beast caught the error or clarified the quotation—lays bare the religious illiteracy that pervades liberal media today.
Catholics have grown especially accustomed to such media ignorance and hostility. Carter’s observation about Leo—that he attends daily Mass—wasn’t meant as a compliment. Rather, it was supposed to raise suspicion about the worldview of the man who helps the administration pick judicial nominees. But can anyone imagine the Beast ever giving voice to similar sentiments regarding, say, a faithful Muslim? He prays five times a day. Allah is at the center of his life. Yikes!
None of this is to suggest that Michaelson is a partisan hack and an anti-Catholic bigot. To be sure.