I learned today from some commenter that I’m a member of the “Catholic middle.” I also learned from the same person that I’m a whore for the mammon of public approval, which is high-larious considering the poison that floods my comboxes on a daily basis.
It’s always fun to have complete strangers tell you who you are. When you have some kind of public voice, reader feedback like this is somewhat useful, because it tells you how some people are perceiving you. Most of the time, however, it’s people just working out their own issues and projecting them onto you. I don’t take it too personally. I’ve had at least one monthly opinion column (and sometimes 4) in national magazines for a long time, so I’m used to the heat and I don’t really pay too much attention to the vitriol. Most people are decent and try to assume the best about each other, and as for those who don’t? I honestly don’t care.
My first foray into the internecine warfare of online Catholics was not something I relished doing, which is probably why I chose satire rather than some kind of editorial format. I don’t know Mark Shea personally, but I’ve always enjoyed and respected his work. He’s funny, honest, and a great writer. We’ve exchanged maybe 3 emails and a dozen Facebook comments, and write for some of the same venues–Patheos, National Catholic Register–but it’s not like we all live in a big house and hang around Being Catholic at each other. I can’t pop down the hall and ask Jimmy Akin if I can borrow his beard trimmer, or go play badminton in the backyard with The Anchoress while we sip Sloe Gin Fizzes and fling all that Catholic writer cash into the air.
I only know Shea from his blog, which is the only way everyone voicing their contempt knows him. Sometimes I think he’s right, and sometimes I think he’s wrong. I didn’t agree at all with his posts on Paul Ryan, but he spoke hard truths about Lila Rose’s methods and the impermissibility of torture that people didn’t want to hear. He took the flak and kept on swinging. He’s utterly incapable of spouting the party line or reducing things to the rote left/right division that is choking the life out of this country. That makes him not just a good writer, it makes him–even when he is wrong–absolutely essential to the conversation.
We can become lazy in our thinking, manipulated by a corrupt ruling class and their lapdog media into buying into a dominant narrative of left/right, good/evil, friend/enemy. It’s very hard to escape the tape loop of the modern noise machine, but as Catholics it is vital that we escape it.
Shea is a cold splash of water: a bullshit detector there to make you question your truths. Is he right all the time? Hell no. Neither are you. Neither am I. Is he bombastic? Duh. Yes. That’s what writers do. It’s called exaggeration for effect. Sometimes that huge and passionate personality carries him over the line, but I’ve read him climb down humbly and apologize more times than I can count.
The whole thing seems to be dying down, and I have no desire to stoke that fire back into a blaze, but I think the vitriolic way in which l’affaire du Shea-West unfolded revealed deep problems with the way we’re going about our faith. It’s one thing to sneer at the cafeteria Catholics who pull into the parking lot at mass with their pro-choice and Obama bumper stickers, but there’s also a problem with a Catholicism that aligns itself too closely to the Republican party.
A dozen times a week–at least–I read of some new outrage by Obama and my first thought is: this is an awful man. And I stop myself, because I honestly don’t know what kind of man he is at all. I know only what the media projects, which may or may not tally with reality. We can’t make the mistake of demonizing our ideological opponents. It’s not just wrong and un-Christian: it leads to sloppy thinking.
One of my great awakenings was reading Ronald Reagan’s handwritten speeches and notes, and finding an extremely intelligent, warm, engaged, active mind. It was the exact opposite of the image created of him in the public sphere. All through my teen years I’d fed on a steady diet of elite media telling me this great man was a bumbling disengaged fool who was merely an actor playing the president. It was a stone cold lie, and I was angry at myself for being suckered into it, while simultaneously awed at the skill of the lie. I should have known better. As a McLuhanite, I should have been able to anticipate the power of media to warp our perception of reality, and although I understood that power, I hadn’t counted on the malice that went with it.
So, while I think Obama is a man who does awful things, I don’t think he’s an awful man. If that distinction seems meaningless to you, then you’ve failed basic philosophy, not to mention basic Christianity.
Catholics have no real home in the American political system. Allegiance to either party requires a compromise of key Catholic principles. Because the Democrats are wedded to failing fiscal policy and a culture of death, I usually find myself either voting Republican or third party, but that doesn’t mean I’m out there waving the flag for more insane military spending or corporate welfare. If it was the party of Rand Paul or even paleocons like Pat Buchanan, I might find myself more in line with them, but as it is now they are not worthy of my support.
Here’s the problem, though: this radically polarized political culture–driven by a 24-hour news cycle, social media, and epistemic closure–has created a hardening along purely political lines. We are letting our opinions ossify into the most simplistic tribal allegiances. You thought the sound bite was the death of discourse? Compared to the internet meme, a sound bite is friggin’ Cicero.
Witnessing the degradations of the Democrats, those on the right fall back into identifying with Republicans, who suck about 10% less. But the Republicans aren’t conservatives any more: they’re hawkish corporatists. This is absolutely out of line with basic Catholic teaching. As long as the holocaust of abortion continues to be the central plank of liberal social policy, we’re stuck with them, but don’t act like the Republican party is some grand solution to our problems.
Faith comes first. I finally understand that the hatred of early America for Catholics was completely reasonable, because I have no problem at all saying that I am Catholic first, and American second. It is usually possible to fuse those two allegiances into a unified whole: an American Catholic. Most of the time, that works okay, but not always, and when caught in that uncomfortable space, I yield to the Church, not to the State or the Party.
The burning hostility that engulfed the anti-Shea comments on Facebook, other blogs, and front pages like Pewsitter, drew a small but vocal, loathsome fringe of hyper-rightwing Catholics into the sunlight, and it was not a pleasant experience. I read things that astonished me with their Satanic levels of hatred for other human beings. There was nothing at all Catholic about it: it was the rhetoric of American hellfire-and-brimstone Protestantism married to Republican talking points, and salted with semi-psychotic ramblings. Joanne McPortland received vile messages that no actual Christian could ever send. I had readers say they were never coming here again because of my defense of Shea, so hated is he.
I read in astonishment as my friend Steven Greydanus–intelligent, calm, charitable–attempted to draw reason out of people who seemed simply deranged. It was demonic, there’s no other word for it. Hatred of Shea and us “whores” in the “Catholic middle” poured out like pus from an infected wound. That wound is on the body of Christ, and it was put there by a divisive culture that can’t seem to distinguish people from their opinions, and political parties from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Perhaps something good came of it all. For an infected wound to heal, first it must drain. In the Shea-West dustup, a political priest attacked a controversial lay apologist at the height of the most contentious election cycle of my life, and everyone chose their side. It was a kind of perfect storm that drew all the combatants out into the open and gave them space to vent. And some of it was damn ugly.
Here’s the thing, though: we’re not combatants: we’re brothers in Christ. As I said in the beginning of this blog: “I am not a liberal Catholic, orthodox Catholic, conservative Catholic, cafeteria Catholic, or traditionalist Catholic: I am, simply, a Catholic (Latin Rite). That should be enough for you to know where I stand and what I believe about most issues. At least, it used to be.”
Our creed is the Nicene Creed. That is what defines us. We can’t be defined by these pointless little internecine struggles. In case you hadn’t noticed, the whole damn world is coming apart. It’s the “devil’s own time,” as McLuhan predicted. You know what the devil loves? Catholics attacking other Catholics. It’s basic military tactics: divide a force, and it can be more easily conquered. We can’t let that happen; we mustn’t let it happen.
UPDATE: Steven Greydanus is doing the work of the Holy Spirit. Message from Fr. Peter West: “Mark Shea has revised his article on Perry Lorenzo and removed an offensive post about John Corapi. While Mark and I continue to have serious disagreements, they are on matters related to prudential judgments not the Catholic faith. I consider Mark to be a faithful Catholic. While I’m sure we will disagree in the future, I pledge to be more measured in my criticism. I thank Steven D. Greydanus for acting as an intermediary. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5, 9)”