Convivium's conversation with Conrad Black in our last issue caused consternation for some of our readers, members and good friends.
Contrary to the usual concern in such cases, the discomfort was not with content but with the man himself. The criticism was that someone who has been convicted on two felony counts in the U. S. has no place in a Canadian magazine committed to fostering faith in our common life. The sentiment was best synthesized in a literate and quite lyrical letter from Mr. William Finn of Alberta, who equated Lord Black to the eponymous figure in Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale."
"Black emerges self-styled as a martyr hunted down by an entire nation," Mr. Finn wrote to us. "The name-dropping, too, is masterful in suggesting the pantheon to bear in mind when considering Black's reemergence in public: Empress Josephine, Charles de Gaulle, Cardinal Newman, Abraham Lincoln, Pope John Paul 11, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, famous figures all to be found dotting the landscape amidst disclaimers such as ‘We are all accused of things we didn't do,' and ‘I don't mean to be pretentious,' and ‘Again, I'm not a pious or a fervent person,' and, my particular favorite, after he forced a comparison as a prose-writer with Newman and Lincoln, ‘Well now, I would really be engaging in monstrous self-flattery....'
"The bland way in which he carried it all off evoked for me Chaucer's portrait of untrust-worthiness in the Pardoner, someone able and compelling, but finally exposed as incapable of self-understanding."
He elaborated the allusion in follow-up correspondence, arguing "the Pardoner's text, ‘Radix Malorum est Cupiditas,' however it might be stated nowadays, should surely feature in some form in any serious examination of the moral conduct of a man imprisoned for financial irregularities and now wrapping himself in his Catholic faith in a Catholic magazine for the express purpose of proclaiming his innocence."
M . Finn's real beef, it emerged, was what he perceived as our willingness to be a means for rehabilitation of Lord Black's public image. "I do not believe Convivium should have lent itself out for that purpose," he wrote.
Mr. Finn, cited as representative of a wider opinion, is entitled to his beliefs. He is most welcome, as a member of Convivium, to let us know what he thinks we should be doing. Nor does Lord Black need us to rush to the barricades for him. The autobiographical account of his trial, A Matter of Principle, demonstrates he is far more capable in that regard than we could ever be. Yet at least two things need saying.
The first is factual. Convivium's conversation with Lord Black, and the Calgary event at which it occurred, were not part of any grand strategic design on his part to re-enter Canadian public life. On the contrary, we sought him out. He did us a good deed, and gave generously of his time, in accommodating us. We – i.e., Convivium and our parent organization Cardus—invited him. He did not need us.
The content of "The Conversation" shows why. Love or loathe Lord Black for his public persona, political positions and personal perils, he is a man of impressive intellect, deep, wide reading, and astonishing memory. In the jargon of the day, his "network" among the best and brightest, living and long dead, is admirable to the point of enviable. Beyond any of those qualities, however, Conrad Black is great conversation. He remains one of that dwindling number who actually knows how to conduct a great conversation. We affectionately described him on last issue's cover as loquacious, which he is, in that word's sense of being naturally, fluidly talkative. The man can talk. And his talk, to coin a phrase, is talk that walks. With power. With meaning.
So his life, too, is a great, lived public conversation with his times, famously expressed in rolling, rococo orations that bring thought, word and action together not just as meaning but as euphony.
Here is a second thing to be expressed. It is curiosity at the very idea that a publication run by Christians (though of course open to all with faith in common life) should stint at having a man of conviction, in both the philosophical and legal senses, in our pages.
A U.S. court found Lord Black broke the law. He lived out his punishment bravely, but refuses a mea culpa because he genuinely and credibly believes he offended against neither man nor God. Convivium Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza and I have argued publicly, privately and repeatedly that he is right. Our invitation was a public dissent from the judgment of the American criminal justice system. Even if he were guilty, though, should a magazine with a Catholic as publisher and a priest as editor impose further judgment through ostracizing? Surely excluding his gifts from Convivium's conversation would be the pettifogging ethicalism that is anathema to Christian faith. For as Father Julián Carrón says in "Exercising the Faith" (page 21) this issue, Christianity is not an ethical list but the answer to our need. Our need is both the recognition that we are all wounded and the binding up of our wounds through community, through charity, through the conversation of faith that brings us the peace that passes all understanding.