In 1987, when I was ten years-old and a devotee of the World Wrestling Federation, I saw an episode of the WWF talk show, Piper’s Pit, hosted by the Scottish wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. On this particular episode, a fateful betrayal took place, in which Andre the Giant turned against Hulk Hogan, challenging the Hulkster to what would become one of the most important athletic contests of all-time, a bout for the WWF World Championship at Wrestlemania III.
Andre’s betrayal of Hulk Hogan’s friendship was a moment of emotional pique, to say the least. That it was not an occasion of refined etiquette goes without saying. Andre (incidentally, proven by the film The Princess Bride to be one of the great thespians of the age) even tore off Hogan’s gold crucifix and chain, shocking the sensibilities of Hulkamaniacs like me and priming the pump of our zeal for Hogan’s triumph. Incidentally, that victory took place in front of 93,173 fans, the largest recorded indoor attendance in history, until Pope St. John Paul II celebrated Holy Mass before 104,000 people in St. Louis twelve years later.
What is the point? Only that the wild and wooly, bombastic antagonism of the 1980s-era World Wrestling Federation strikes me as being slightly more civilized than certain sectors of Catholic society these days.
The most recent example brought to my attention was a video by Fr. James Altman, a priest of the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Father Altman has lately become a favorite speaker of many Catholics who perceive him to be a “voice crying out in the wilderness” with courage and directness of speech.
In this particular video, Altman denounces Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, my own archbishop, with a vehemence that might prompt circumspection and a reticent blush on the part of the professional wrestlers to whom I referred earlier. I do not mind saying that in addition to the video’s violation of my senses of Christian virtue and natural justice, it also stirred my filial loyalty to my bishop, whom I look upon as a true and faithful spiritual father.
Providentially, Archbishop Vigneron himself has recently provided a pastoral document aimed at helping Catholics to engage with just this kind of media communication virtuously and with an appropriately critical eye. In The Beauty of Truth: a Pastoral Note on Communicating Truth and Love in the Digital Age, Vigneron offers an incisive reflection on today’s digital media climate. He highlights some of the dangers of the digital world, and guides the faithful in the virtuous use of these media, as consumers and participants in online discussions.
Altman’s video was published after Vigneron’s pastoral note, so the latter is in no way a direct response to the former. But the note gives several important insights, including five “warning signs” of problematic digital media communication, that help provide an interpretive key for understanding Altman’s video and the ocean of similar media content. The five warning signs are the following:
- “any proposition out of harmony with the teachings of Christ and his Church,”
- “unsubstantiated claims or allegations,”
- “the manipulation of facts to deceive or harm,”
- “ad hominem attacks,” and,
- “the spirit of division.”
Altman’s video does not directly violate the first of these warning signs, as he makes no doctrinal claim. It would perhaps be begging the question to assert that his video is out of harmony with Christ’s teaching on charity.
When it comes to unsubstantiated allegations, Altman seems to have no other kind. He accuses Archbishop Vigneron of persecuting the media company Church Militant, the recording studio of which Altman used to record his video. He also claims to have experienced a taste of such persecution himself, in the lead-up to his June 16 address to the Call to Holiness Conference in the Archdiocese of Detroit. And Altman accuses Vigneron both of persecuting one of his priests and of allowing the Detroit Chancery to persecute this priest as well.
In The Beauty of Truth, Vigneron writes, “Any person who makes a serious allegation has a correspondingly serious obligation to offer compelling evidence of his claim.” Altman offers zero evidence supporting any of his claims.
Altman’s video is also a brutal personal attack on Archbishop Vigneron, whom Altman quickly and repeatedly resorts to calling “Allen.” Dropping the use of an appropriate clerical title is a peculiar tactic from a conservative Catholic. Altman yells much of his message and is animated by what appears to be intense anger.
The word “divisive” is often misused, preempting even legitimate occasions when proclaiming the truth of the Gospel will unavoidably cause division. But Altman’s video, like so many others of its kind, will surely cause division in the vicious sense of the term, as it will further corrode the already damaged and fragile trust in Church authority that exists among so many Catholics today.
The lay faithful have sought long, hard, and too often in vain for clear preaching and teaching of the Catholic Faith. It is no wonder, therefore, that so many Catholics quickly become devoted to figures like Altman and others who speak forthrightly on issues too-long ignored or downplayed in Catholic pulpits and classrooms.
This doctrinal poverty, combined with the many and horrendous scandals to which we have all been exposed in recent years, have created a hunger bordering on starvation for clear voices speaking the truth without dilution or compromise.
This hunger on the part of so many Catholics is understandable. Yet it is neither virtuous nor spiritually safe to absorb uncritically the teachings of every media figure who purports to be a prophet, a rare and courageous voice of truth in a world of falsehoods.
True prophets exist among us, given by God to bring order out of the chaos of our time. But every cleric or layperson proposing that he or she is such a prophet deserves and should welcome holy scrutiny, in the spirit of St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22: “Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.”
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