My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me. — Hos 4:6
Nature abhors a vacuum. —A Postulate of Aristotle
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. —Eph 4:29-32
More than a month has passed since Bishop Robert Barron’s teleconference with various Catholic media outlets to discuss the perceived problem of “disturbing trends” of “radical traditionalists” and their use of the media, creating “a culture of contempt” and engaging in “tabloid style” journalism. It is highly ironic that within a week, an article appeared in the National Catholic Reporter to gloat over the supposed put-down of certain conservatives; of course, for decades Catholics in the United States have been served up “a culture of contempt” and “tabloid style” journalism – let alone encouragement of dissent and heresy – precisely from the NCR! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
It is unfortunate that Bishop Barron’s colloquium didn’t mention the same phenomena on the would-be Catholic Left (it would have given some more sense of balance). Or did Barron take a page out of Jesus’ manual of correction? By that I mean that Our Lord spends time correcting the Pharisees because their theology is sound although their approach is lopsided; He never seems to waste time challenging the Sadducees very much because their theology is off-base. In other words, conservative Catholic journalists have something to offer, and they can do better.
Some of the responses were mere ad hominem attacks on Bishop Barron, who is is orthodox and engaging, and has done some great work for the cause of Christ and His Church. The question, however, is not whether or not the messenger is perfect but whether or not the message applies. Given the way some folks responded to Barron, they proved all too many of his points. Unfortunately, many of his observations are quite accurate: The Catholic hard-Right very often is nasty, uncivil, unchristian, and even given to purveying lies (one such individual told his audience that a bishop had mandated Communion-in-the-hand during the pandemic – when his pastoral directives actually said the very opposite!). Michael Warren Davis of Crisis was one of the few who took a serious look at the Bishop’s observations and conducted an “examination of conscience,” as he called it.
I have been part of the Catholic journalism scene for decades and don’t think I can be accused of shying away from confronting problems. Nor am I or any organization I direct on the dole from the institutional Church; in fact, no Catholic media outreach (Left or Right) receives any financial assistance from the Church (except for Catholic News Service, which is an arm of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). I say this because not a few “conservative” respondents have asserted that the Catholic journalists who refuse to function like attack dogs do so out of fear that they will lose their support from the USCCB.
So, why have I entered the lists to discuss this topic? What do I hope to accomplish? As someone acknowledged to be theologically orthodox and with not a few battle scars for representing and defending the Church’s Tradition, I hope to make a plea that will be heard dispassionately and honestly.
Back in the early 1980s, a very fine Catholic man repeatedly approached me about writing a weekly column for his paper. I repeatedly refused by saying I was too busy. Finally, he pushed so much that I had to be brutally honest: “I work for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, whose first responsibility is to safeguard the image of the Church in the public forum. It pains me to say it but – wittingly or unwittingly – you do more harm to that image by the stories you print in a week than the New York Times does in a year.” “But the truth has to be told, Father.” “Why,” I asked, “do you have to regale your readers with a story about a liturgical abuse in Oshkosh? Will that make it go away, or will it cause greater scandal by spreading the story? Might it not even give nutty priests elsewhere some new ideas?”
That’s what St. Paul had in mind in his Epistle to the Ephesians: We need to say the good things that men need to hear.
How did we get to this situation of “armed conflict”? The clergy (especially the bishops) in the immediate decade following Vatican II essentially abdicated their divinely ordained missions to teach and govern the Church of God; even worse, not a few of them actually fomented the dissent. As a result, various lay individuals and groups stood in the breach (not unlike devout laity in other eras of the history of the Church). For the most part, these were people of intense good will, with hearty Catholic instincts, but often untrained. Because the battle for orthodoxy was so pitched, they became accustomed to conflict and even forged a spirituality of conflict.
One finds the explicitly doctrinal crisis replicated on the liturgical front. Abuses abounded, were ignored, and thus took on a life of their own. And then bishops expressed shock at hearing that people wanted to return to the Tridentine Mass. Similarly, with our Catholic schools, in all too many places, a hostile take-over occurred at the hands of wacky nuns, who did inestimable damage before they “flew the coop.” And then bishops once more were amazed that Catholic parents were getting onboard with home-schooling.
With the accession of John Paul II to the Chair of Peter, the episcopal climate in the United States began to change in serious ways as two papal nuncios in a row (Archbishop Pio Laghi and Archbishop Agustino Cacciavillan) began to re-form the hierarchy from 1980 to 1998, replacing problematic bishops with solid men who, in turn, began to reform the dioceses entrusted to their care. Beyond that, with the tag-team of Woytyla and Ratzinger, not only a new mood but a clear theological synthesis was formed, banishing to the outer precincts positions not in keeping with “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The twenty-plus years of Woytyla-Ratzinger collaboration was followed by the continuity of the seven years of the Ratzinger pontificate, so that the hierarchy of the United States which had been tottering on the verge of heresy in the 1970s had become one of the most observant in the world; two generations of priests emerged as totally faithful; new communities of women religious came to life to replace the old guard that had disappeared; and young lay leaders graduated from orthodox Catholic colleges to assume positions of leadership in the Church at every level.
Then came the earthquake on February 11, 2013, when Benedict XVI announced his intention to renounce the Petrine office—which was followed by yet another seismic event on March 13, 2013, with the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis.
Almost immediately, Catholics on both sides of the aisle sensed a major shift in direction. Papal comments and actions, along with those of his entourage, made clear that a serious effort was afoot to undo the ecclesial peace that had been achieved over the previous three decades. It is not necessary here to rehearse all the disturbing developments; they have been amply documented elsewhere. What has happened, however, is that the theological firestorms of the 1960s and 1970s have been reignited and many orthodox Catholics have been radicalized. Some who happily taught the Catechism of the Catholic Church, co-edited by Cardinal Ratzinger, now find fault with it and revert to the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Some who lauded the leadership and orthodoxy of Pope John Paul II (who, of course, was not perfect) now accuse him of heresy and nonfeasance in office. Priestly morale has sunk to abysmal levels, with some priests even refusing to utter the name of Francis in the Eucharistic Prayer. Sedevacantism has been revived in many quarters.
All the indicators of Catholic life have plummeted in the past seven years. As unpleasant as it is to paint such a depressing picture, that is the reality of the moment – and that is the reality in which the “Rad-Trad” media presence must be interpreted.
Permit me to spell out some of the generic observations of Bishop Barron with concrete examples.
• Fear-mongering is very prevalent. In the lead-up to the apostolic exhortation following the (pitiful) Amazon Synod, several “conservative” commentators asserted that they had seen drafts of the document and that married priests and deaconesses were being approved. Any number of individuals who had seen various drafts of the document assert, to the contrary, nothing like that was there. Yet for months on end, countless good Catholics were subjected to spiritual turmoil by these assertions.
• A hermeneutic of suspicion rears its ugly head frequently, so that even enemies of the Church are believed before the Church’s pastors. Anti-clericalism is the meat-and-potatoes of the Left; it is antithetical to what it means to be a traditional Catholic.
• When accused of being irascible, these voices proudly take the accusation as a badge of honor and remind all that St. Jerome and others had a reputation for being nasty. What they fail to realize is that Jerome was canonized in spite of his bad temper, not because of it. To be sure, there is righteous anger, however, it is also good to recall that Virgil places the perpetually angry in the dark sludge of the River Styx and Dante follows his example, so that “Those awash with anger drowned again and again, choking on their own venom.” Just because someone has committed spiritual murder, our response should not be spiritual suicide.
• Aside from the issue of unrestrained anger, there is also a pervasive humorlessness and a journalistic “scorched earth” modus operandi. We rightly expect grimness and glumness to accompany left-wing ideologues, but unbounded joy ought to characterize a true disciple of Christ – even in the midst of struggle.
• Also operative is what I call “the law of progressive polemic,” which is the process by which someone starts out with a legitimate gripe but, with the passage of time, everything and everyone involved comes under attack. Martin Luther is a good example of this “law”: He began by correctly challenging an improper practice of indulgences and ended up creating a new religion! Similarly, we can track the devolution in a number of folks, who began by pointing out genuine errors, for example, by Pope Francis; slowly but surely, they have traced his errors to Benedict XVI and John Paul II, to Vatican II, even to Pius XII. Where does it stop?
• Sometimes this “devolution” comes from the necessity of editors and blogsters to provide fresh red meat for their audiences on a regular basis, lest their audiences go elsewhere. Sensationalism and even outright lies are often the product.
• The era of Twitter and other social media has also given everyone an automatic right to pontificate on any and all issues. Thus, we find citations from popes, councils and Fathers of the Church served up – out of context or inaccurately cited or simply misunderstood, along with misspelled words (especially Latin words), bad grammar and stream of consciousness sentences. No, a Catholic doesn’t need a doctorate in theology to know his faith, however, he does need the virtue of humility to know when he’s out of his depth.
• There has been a refreshing absence of problematic statements or actions by Pope Francis over the past several months. And so, those who made a hobby of highlighting such things now resort to rehashing his panoply of errors, even some of which have been duly corrected. Speaking of “absence,” I must note that all too many “traditional” media types find it well-nigh impossible to offer anything but negativity; if they were the sole source of information for anyone, that person would have to conclude that absolutely nothing positive, good or holy is going on in the Church, which reminds one of the crazy lady who rummages through garbage cans to collect rags while she casts back silk. “The sky is falling” crowd are somewhat like a Catholic version of the “Never Trumpers” pathology; they are so obsessed with what is wrong with the Church (and often justifiably so) that they cannot move beyond those concerns. Even allowing for legitimate concern, I have to ask these Cassandras, “What do you want me to do about this bad news? What can I do about it?”
Do these characteristics apply to all Rad-Trad media types all the time, across the board? Of course not. However, some of them do apply sometime to some of them. Therefore, taking up Our Lord’s approach with the Pharisees (who were good, serious Jewish laymen) and making a bit more precise Bishop Barron’s concerns, I have offered these observations, hoping that this might lead to the same kind of examination of conscience into which Michael Davis entered. Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church is always in need of reform), no doubt. That reform requires the energy and commitment of everyone who loves the Church and I firmly believe that the vast majority of “Rad-Trads” do indeed love the Church.
My friendly (paternal) counsel: Tune it down a bit; cool off the temperature a bit. The effects might be greater.
So, as should be clear: I am not suggesting that the Catholic media never deal with problems in the Church. Not at all. However, I am suggesting that, first of all, we subscribe to the admonition of Ignatius Loyola, to be “more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” Secondly, that when something or someone does need calling out, that it be done fairly and charitably.
Finally, we need to return to the three quotations which opened this reflection. To avoid the vacuum, priests and bishops must give appropriate and clear teaching and guidance to those committed to their care by virtue of their sacred ordination. As one of the orations of the Liturgy puts it, we need to make a plea to Our Lord “that the obedience of the flock may never fail the shepherds, nor the care of the shepherds be ever lacking to the flock.” And then, with shepherds and flocks seeking nothing other than union with our Chief Shepherd, we all will fulfill St. Paul’s holy admonition:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
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