For any readers ofwho have not been following events at Twitter and YouTube, Lofton has, over the course of the last few days, posted a series of tweets at the former and a series of videos at the latter strongly taking exception to my article. I have to say that I am mystified at the number and vehemence of these responses. But Lofton seems especially angry about my characterization of his initial video as “defamatory” and “libel.” What follows are some brief remarks that I hope will put his mind at ease and allow us to move on from this affair.
First, Lofton appears to think that I was accusing him of “libel” in the legal sense. I would have thought it obvious to the average reader that that is not the case. Words like “libel” and “defamation” have narrow and technical legal meanings, but also broader meanings in moral theology and everyday life. “Libel” and “defamation” in the legal sense have to do with matters of provable fact. They do not have to do with matters of opinion, not even opinions that are reasonable, well-founded, etc.
Hence, suppose someone said “Feser is incompetent as a philosopher.” Naturally, I think this is not only false, but (I also like to think!) easily shown to be false by (say) perusing some of my better academic articles. Moreover, if someone got lots of people to believe this false proposition, he could plausibly be said to be “defaming” me. However, it would be ridiculous to suggest that this imaginary critic had committed “libel” or “defamation” against me in the legal sense. Judgements about a person’s competence are too controversial and complicated a matter to fall into the category of provable fact in the legal sense. By contrast, if someone had claimed that I had once been convicted of drunk driving, the falsity of such a defamatory claim would be a matter of provable fact. For it can crisply and clearly be established that such an event never happened.
When I said that Lofton’s remarks about me were “defamatory” and “libel,” what I (obviously) meant is that in my opinion, his opinions about what I had written were defamatory in the broader, moral sense. I was not claiming that he had committed libel in the legal sense.
Second, I explained the reasons for my judgment in my previous article, but let me say a little more here. As manuals of moral theology note, someone can be morally guilty of defamation or libel (even if not legally guilty) by damaging someone’s reputation not only directly and explicitly but also either “implicitly,” or by way of “half-truths that convey the impression of what is untrue,” or in an otherwise “indirect” way. (I take these phrases from McHugh and Callan’s Moral Theology, Volume II, pp. 221-22.) It was in this sort of way that Lofton’s remarks about me in his original video seemed to me to be defamatory and libelous. As I noted in my article responding to that video, the video gave the impression that I was defending the claim that with the appointment of Archbishop Fernandez, the Magisterium of the Church would be entirely suspended. He describes the things I say in my article as “weird,” “odd,” and “serv[ing] an agenda” in such a way that he is “left scratching [his] head” about what I might be up to. But he also suggests that some people advance such views in order “to prepare people to reject papal teaching authority… to use it as an excuse to ignore the papal magisterium.” All of this makes it seem as if this is likely my intention but that I’m not being up front about it.
I explicitly acknowledged that Lofton goes on to state that he “[doesn’t] know what [Feser’s] intentions are, specifically.” But the innuendo and insinuation seemed, in my view, so obvious from the overall video that I judged this remark to be nothing more than a way to avoid being accused of stating directly what I took him to be obviously implying. Viewers of the original British version of the series House of Cards will be familiar with the lead character’s signature line “You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment,” uttered when scandalous suggestions about another party were put to him. It was famously a way for him to spread defamatory claims in a manner that on the surface pretended to be doing otherwise. It seemed to me that that is the sort of thing Lofton was doing in his original video.
Lofton has since explained that I have misunderstood him. I’ll come back to that in a moment. But it is important to note that many of Lofton’s own viewers seemed to derive from his video exactly the message that I claimed it was sending. For example, in the chat and comments sections of the video, one reader judged my view to be “sedevacantism with extra steps”; another took it to be “an essentially Protestant view of teaching authority”; a third said “I believe Feser is proposing/defending this theory because it allows him to dissent from the Magisterium”; another regarded my view as “very obviously an ad hoc hypothesis made up to justify dissent from the Magisterium”; yet another averred that I was trying to “prove… a suspended Magisterium” and that this “makes me question whether Edward Feser deserves his teaching license after making such terrible claims”; yet another said “Please tell me Ed Feser isn’t going the Pseudo-Trad Protestant route.” Then there were viewers who also thought that Lofton was alleging such things, but judged it “slander” for him to do so (as one viewer put it).
I submit that it was hardly unreasonable for me to judge that Lofton was guilty of defamatory innuendo and insinuation, when many of his own viewers took him to be saying exactly what I claimed he was saying.
However – and to come to the final point – Lofton insists that, despite how things appeared to me and others, in fact he intended no such thing. And the number and vehemence of his comments over the last few days indicate that he feels very strongly about this. I certainly understand why someone would be upset if he believes he is being misunderstood, since it happens to me quite frequently, and I believe Lofton in his original video badly misunderstood my article.
But again, he insists that he did not mean to do this. I am willing, then, to take Lofton at his word, and I accept his explanation that he did not intend to defame or libel me. Online exchanges often produce more heat than light and lead to mutual misunderstanding. Charity requires that parties to a dispute try to clear up such misunderstandings. Having already explained in my previous article what I actually meant, I am happy to accept Lofton’s explanation of his own intentions and to leave the matter there. I wish Lofton well and hope that this will close this matter so that we can both move on to other, more edifying things.