When people who are supposed to know what they’re talking about, well, don’t

About a week and a half ago, I attended a lecture by a visiting scholar. I’m going to be intentionally vague about the details, mostly out of professional courtesy, and also because, not being certain exactly what happened, I feel I need to assume that there’s an honest mistake that occurred, one for which it is not my place to pillory anybody publicly.

Anyway, the lecture was fascinating. In the Q&A portion of the talk, I asked a question which was, perhaps, somewhat outside of the scope of the talk, but certainly relevant regardless. The visiting scholar gave a great answer, providing a patristic quote which really piqued my interest, and I walked away really impressed and with what seemed to be a potential avenue of research.

The trouble: I’ve been unable to verify that the quote actually exists anyplace. An initial perusal of some references when I got home yielded nothing. I e-mailed the visiting scholar and asked where the quote came from; this person replied saying that it had been encountered while dissertating (twelve years ago), and gave the name of an article that they thought might be where they encountered it. If I couldn’t find it there, this person suggested checking looking at a particular work in the PG, but didn’t know where exactly it might be.

I was able to look at the article yesterday. The reference isn’t there. There’s a section which discusses a part of the work in the PG that seems like it might be a likely place to look for the quote in question, but the article itself doesn’t have it. (Frustratingly, the article — published in 1992 — does make reference to a forthcoming critical edition of the work we’re talking about, but it seems to have never actually been published, sixteen years later.)

I e-mailed the visiting scholar again, saying that it wasn’t in that article, and that I’ll check the PG to see if it’s there, and the answer was, pretty simply, “Sorry I couldn’t be more help! Let me know what you find!”

I don’t mind checking the PG; that’s good Greek practice for me anyway. Still, something about this seems fishy. It’s possible that my question was one this person wasn’t expecting, and they just tossed out the first thing they thought they remembered. It happens. The subsequent wild goose chase for a quote which I’m now wondering if it even exists, however, is bothering me. It’s okay if I asked something that was outside this person’s field of expertise; no biggie. If that’s the case, though, their attempt to improvise an answer has, for me anyway, made me question my impression of the rest of their presentation.

A similar incident, and here I don’t mind naming names because the event was far more public with the audio being widely available online, occurred at Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ talk at the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius Conference. As I reported months ago, he told a very touching story about Fr. John Meyendorff’s response to the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint — “[W]ith tears in his eyes, [Fr. John Meyendorff] said, ‘This is the great tragedy. For a thousand years… we have been waiting for a pope to say what John Paul says in Ut Unum Sint. The great tragedy is that we have not found any way to respond.'” You can listen to him saying that for yourself right here. It’s at the 27:13 mark.

Here’s the problem — there is no way it could have happened. Ut Unum Sint was promulgated in 1995. Fr. John Meyendorff died in 1992. Unless Meyendorff was privy to a very, very, very early draft, Fr. Neuhaus was quite mistaken.

I asked a couple of people about this, and got a not terribly satisfying answer — something to the effect that he probably had a senior moment and tossed in the first name he could remember. I suppose I could see that if it were in the question and answer portion, but it wasn’t — it was in the prepared and read portion of his session.

I don’t know what happened. Maybe he really did mean somebody else. I certainly don’t mean to disrespect the departed, so I’m not trying to imply that Fr. Neuhaus knowingly pulled a fast one — but you can listen to the talk for yourself, and then go look up the dates for yourself. It’s a pretty big error, an error I’ve not heard anybody else address, and it seems like it would be important to address, given that it was clearly intended to have a lot of resonance with the location and theme of the conference.

It’s a pretty obvious point, but an important one — sometimes the people who should know what they’re talking about, don’t. It happens to everybody, even them. Don’t let bedazzlement get in the way of fact-checking.


3 Responses to “When people who are supposed to know what they’re talking about, well, don’t”

  1. 1 fatherjamesearly 23 January 2009 at 1:26 pm

    I’m really going to reveal my ignorance here, but what, pray tell, is the “PG”?

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 23 January 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Bless, Father — apologies! Patrologia Graeca, or Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca. There’s also the PL, Patrologia Latina, and the PO, Patrologia Orientalis. Basically, they’re reference editions of patristic and other early Christian literature in their original languages, at least where possible — St. Irenaeus of Lyons, for example, was writing in Greek so is collected in the PG, but his Greek original didn’t survive, and the Latin translation is all we have except for snippets here and there.

    As the titles might imply, the PG collects those writing in Greek, the PL collects those writing in Latin, and the PO collects those writing in various “Eastern” languages — Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, and I think Coptic and some Slavonic. They’re not really critical editions, but they’re very handy for texts where there are no critical editions.

    And don’t feel bad — I first heard of them in a doctoral-level Late Antique history course a couple of years ago. The prof was just tossing around “PO” and “PG” and I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, which probably helped to demonstrate I had no business taking the class at that point. I had to ask somebody else what they were, too.

  3. 3 Esteban Vázquez 23 January 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Don’t let bedazzlement get in the way of fact-checking.

    Bravo, Richard! Having been in your position before, I wholeheartedly agree. Bravo!

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