12 January 2022, The Tablet

Debate, don’t cancel

Culture wars


It is surely time for a posthumous pardon for George Tyrrell. Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit, told a gathering of diplomats in the Vatican that “cancel culture” – he used the English term in the midst of an address in Italian – was an enemy of freedom of speech. If ever anyone was “cancelled” it was Tyrrell. Already thrown out of the Jesuits, he was excommunicated and deprived of a Catholic burial for writing two letters to The Times in which he disagreed sharply with the 1907 encyclical of Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis. He was accused of being a Modernist, which Pius declared to be a heresy, though many of Tyrrell’s ideas are not far distant from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Cancel culture takes its name from the practice of inviting speakers of known controversial opinions to address academic gatherings, and then cancelling the invitation when pressure groups protest. Some of these pressure groups object to the speaker’s views on race, such as being critical of “critical race theory”; or on transgender issues, such as refusing to consent to the proposition that trans women are women. In Tyrrell’s case the pressure came from the then Catholic Bishop of Southwark, Peter Amigo, who was in turn pressurised, it seems, by Cardinal Merry del Val, Pope Pius’s notorious secretary of state.

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