The Inter-Nicene Creed: On Warring Catholics UPDATED

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)”

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Mark Shea

    So, are you saying this would not be a good time for me to compare you to Hitler?
    Seriously, thanks for being a voice of reason.

  • victor

    Heh. That could be its own Internet meme: “Whore for the mammon of public approval – YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!!”

    Seriously, though. They did a recent study on Internet Trolls and found out that some people are just a-holes. And I guess no amount of self-affected Catholicness on their part can change that.

  • Tito Edwards

    Roman Rite?!?!

    I’m a Latin Rite Catholic and I am appalled by you lack of correctedness.

    /sarcasm off.

  • Thomas L. McDonald


  • greg

    I do agree that there seems to be an put of hand lack of civility ESP in the resent conflict with Fr. West and Mr. Shea but it seemed to me that Shea wrote something that was not Catholic as our faith states and Fr. West was pointing it out as a good priest should.

  • Blog Goliard

    Your invocation of McLuhan reminds me that I’ve always meant to get to know him and his thought, beyond the few quotable bits everyone knows. Where to start? How deep to go?

    (Were there world enough and time, I’d just plow through all his books…but my to-read pile is already so massive I’m afraid it’s going to start messing with the tides.)

  • Eric M.

    You make much sense, Mr. McDonald, and I stand by your declaration of simply being a “Catholic,” but Mr. Shea still seems like a shady character to me. On his blog, instead of endorsing either of the two major presidential candidates, he supported Stubbs as a write-in candidate. Obviously having a cat as president would not be the coolest thing ever. Mr. Shea also is a bit of an elitist as he has a “mutual admiration society” with the writer John C. Wright that he won’t let others join, especially without their permission! Mr. Shea also wields a gun and threatens people to consider the meaning of life playing Innocent Smith in the movie version of “Manalive.” Clearly, by setting a bad example, Mr. Shea corrupts our youth more than Harry Potter ever did. (BTW, I enjoy your Maximum PC column, though I wonder if your picture in the mag is older, since you have no beard! Mr. Shea, I’m sorry for bringing up the “Star Wars Holiday Special” posts, but it’s just so painful to watch. Taking a page from the “B-Movie Catechism” blog, I’d recommended your readers follow the special with a viewing of ‘Turkish Star Wars” to lift their spirits.)

  • Warren Jewell

    JUST ABOUT the time Mark Shea is about to lose me to my Italianate temper, he takes a prayer request, makes his prayer brief, direct and soulful, and, hey, what’s not to like about a guy who wears his prayerful ways on his sleeve? Besides, he’s a one-Catholic version of the Chesterbelloc, in sort of a some-from-him-and-some-from-him way.

    And, do remember, now, that Italians are the most correct Catholics, even when atheists, in the world. That fine Jew-for-Jesus, Peter, was astute enough to come set up the Catholic-Boss-Shop in the middle of Italy.

  • Christopher Lake

    With all of my reading for graduate school, I have little time to spend on the internet now (or, perhaps I should say, I have little time that I *should* be spending on the internet now!), but this was very much worth reading. Some of my party-line neocon evangelical Protestant friends don’t know what to make of certain, “non-neocon” shifts in my thinking on certain issues since I returned to the Catholic Church. I sense that they think I am “going liberal” on them. Meanwhile, my liberal friends are still appalled that I oppose a “woman’s right to choose (the murder of her unborn child)” and homosexual “marriage.” I still vote Republican, most of the time, because the Democratic Party is even worse on certain issues, but I can no longer be a cheerleader for much of conservative talk radio, and I also find that Fox News gets on my nerves more than it once did. (MSNBC is far worse though.)

    I also was unfriended and blocked by a priest recently on Facebook. I was very saddened by it. I won’t name names, but it was upsetting. I had dared to suggest that we pray for active, unrepentant homosexuals, whose behavior he described on Facebook as making him “want to spiritually vomit.” For this suggestion on my part, without a personal word at all to me, he unfriended and blocked me. Most saddening of all is the fact that this priest has a nation-wide U.S. media presence through which to spread his harshness and lack of charity. I believe in the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of active, practiced homosexuality, but that is no reason to be unloving to people with homosexual inclinations.

  • Mark Shea

    “spiritually vomit”?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    If I’ve become the voice of reason, we are well and truly screwed.

  • victor

    And ouroboros once again begins to consume his own tail.

    Can we PLEASE get back to talking about iPad games again?

  • victor

    Yes, Mark. It is VERY real. And it looks like this:

  • Mark Shea

    Now I’m going to be giggling about that for hours.

  • Christopher Lake

    Yes, Mark, those actually were the priest’s words. They are linguistically and conceptually absurd, and I understand that they may lead to some laughter here, but what I didn’t mention earlier is that on the same thread wherein my comment led to my being unfriended and blocked, a Catholic, chaste, homosexual friend of mine was also pleading for balance in the priest’s words. Father quickly unfriended and blocked him too. I am very sad to say that my friend has now left the Church.

  • Dave G.

    I often think that if we began every conversation about the lack of civility on the Internet, and the divisions within the Body of Christ that result from them, with ‘what am I doing to cause the problems’, the problems might just go away. I know it makes me think how many times I’ve said, or in this case written, things that I would never have said in a face to face conversation. At least not one where anything good would result. All too often I’m afraid, like so many things in the modern world, our assessment is ‘everything sucks…and it’s their fault.’

  • The Ubiquitous

    “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.”

    Yes, this is going to be tangential: Traditional Catholics I know feel the same way. They go to FSSP because they’re tired of the same nonsense every faithful Catholic is, and they end up, ironically, in parishes which are simultaneously more fulfilling of Vatican II even as they never celebrate the Novus Ordo. If that leads them false, if honest, conclusions, at least it keeps them from the sin of schism. All they knew growing up was “sand in the holy water font.”

    Even those who do fall to the sin of schism, by the way, are more righteous and more sympathetic — therefore, albeit, more dangerous — than heretics of quisling nonsense.

    Point: False parity ended an otherwise excellent post. Rather a shame.

  • LS

    I’ve noticed the same user handles come up with all the recent “Catholic celebrity” kefuffles. It led me to ponder why “faithful conservative Catholics” think they’re allowed to be so uncharitable and just downright nasty. Like this: “ignorant…uneducated…overly endowed with arrogance”. This coming from a “faithful Catholic”? And that’s just one example of the thousands flung over the last week or so. *smh*

  • CDNowak

    I’ll admit I have no stomach for Shea’s style, and in many cases agree with his critics. But I have stopped following nearly everyone involved in this conflict, regardless of their expressed opinion.

    Calling those you disagree with “Satanic”, “demonic”, “deranged”? “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.”

    I am seriously disappointed by both sides in this mess.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Get this straight: I didn’t call people I disagreed with Satanic and deranged. I said it about people who were spitting pure hate and saying insane things. You don’t read everything in my comboxes because I don’t let it post, but both here and on Facebook there were people who were simply batshit crazy, any way you look at it.

  • Blog Goliard

    I agree with this comment…up to the point where you invoke bat guano.

    Bringing that up in reference to some of the combox trolls is horribly unfair…to the rather useful guano, of course.

  • julian

    Man, the internet is mean and scary. I wonder if there was ever really a time in Hobbiton in which grumps happily and harmlessly bickered and grumped together over pints and ended the evening with pats on the back as they stumbled off towards home.

  • Dan F.


  • Robster

    Regarding one’s ignorance of another’s morality or lack thereof, are there not situations in which one might have a good reason to suspect all is not kosher? At what point is being charitable really being a “don’t ask, don’t tell” ostrich (i.e., I have strong reason to suspect/believe, but shall not pursue for fear of finding out for sure and then having to do something about it)? I am not critcizing anyone; just raising a question.

  • Ryan Haber

    “You thought the sound bite was the death of discourse? Compared to the internet meme, a sound bite is friggin’ Cicero.”

    Ha ha! Awesome. Too right!

  • Ryan Haber

    I had the same thought.

  • Ryan Haber

    Yup. Me too.

  • Ted Seeber

    What Mark wrote was entirely consistent with Paragraphs 2357-2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’d question any priest who can’t handle a celibate SSA man.

  • Ted Seeber

    Then why do so many Traditional Catholics seem to support atheist economics?

  • Ted Seeber

    Back when it cost 10 cents a minute to be online at 300 baud, things were a bit nicer.

  • Linebyline

    Me too. Gravity Falls is awesome. Even if it is Disney.

  • Thomas R

    I do think some people are too vicious and I’m glad he and Fr. West seem to be at peace now.

    However to a large extent I think Mr. Shea’s style, at least of the last year or so, comes really close to inviting harsh responses. I mean he’s either intentionally trying to be provocative and emotionally charged in his language or he just can’t help being so. (Granted the second might be possible) Usually one doesn’t call people “drones”, compare people to Fascists or Big Brother, and talk about “The Ruling Elite” unless you’re being provocative. So when you’re intentionally provocative it’s to be somewhat expected you’ll provoke things. Usually it’s even the point, unless his provocativeness really is some sort of verbal tick he can’t entirely control.

  • Jasper

    “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.”

    More Bullshit.

  • JoFro

    Create the meme, Sir. Also, there is a meme of a picture of an old guy saying “Back in my day, trolling was just reffered to as being a dick :D

  • JoFro

    I was about to blast you…then I read the full post and Laughed Out Loud :D

  • DeaconJR

    Hi, Ted–

    Just one bit of clarification–the question at hand re what Mark wrote isn’t, in my view, how we “handle a celibate SSA man”, but rather the question is about “gay couplehood” and “chastity.” Mark’s appeal to the “chaste gay couple” concept is erroneous when compared to the fullness of Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Now, that doesn’t mean I think he’s the devil, of course, but I do think it means that at some point in future Mark will come to terms with that aspect of what he has said and bring his comment into full conformity with Catholic teaching.

    God bless you,
    Deacon JR

  • Pauli

    “And I stop myself, because I honestly don’t know what kind of man he [Obama] is at all. ”

    What about “ye shall KNOW them by their fruits”? What does that mean?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I could reply with Matt 7:1, but not being a protestant, I have no desire to get into dueling proof texts or Magistarium of Me interpretations. Very few people are given the charism of reading souls, as Padre Pio could. Not you, and certainly not me. I’ll leave that up the God.

  • Ted Seeber

    So same-sex chaste roommate friendships are, in your opinion, banned by Church Teaching? Where do you find that in the Catechism or in Theology of the Body?

  • DeaconJR

    Hi, Ted–

    I think my reference was not to “same-sex chaste roommate frienships”, nor was Mark’s.

    The reference was to the “chaste gay couple”.

    If two gay men or two gay women identify as an exclusive couple, say they are in love, go on dates, and live together, but choose to refrain from sexually acting out, do you think that comports fully with the Catechism’s definition of chastity?

    God bless,

    Deacon JR

  • Dan F.

    @Deacon JR

    in a word. yes. And how would it not? Since the Church’s definition of chastity has entirely to do with how we live our sexual lives in what way do you think a chaste gay couple living together violates that rule?

  • DeaconJR

    Hi, Dan–

    Here is the CCC paragraph on chastity (2337):

    “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which a man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman. The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.”

    There is much more in the CCC section on chastity, but, step back for a moment on the practical level. If we were discussing an unmarried heterosexual couple who had an exclusive relationship, were in love, and were cohabiting, but were not having relations, would you call that “chaste”? Do you really think the Church approves of unmarried heterosexual couples , who are in love, of living together as long as they don’t plan on having relations?

    Why would the Church therefore give approval to a homosexual “couple” doing something similar?

    God bless you,

    Deacon JR

  • Christopher Lake

    This is not exactly an iron-clad argument of a response, Jasper– and I write that as a registered Republican.

  • Amatorem Veritatis

    Mr. McDonald. You must have a rather complex (or tortured) definition of “awful man” if you are as troubled as you claim with attribution to Obama. Seems a rather good fit to me. Someone who is quite comfortable with the idea of killing a baby born alive during an “aborted” abortion must have a special room in Hell reserved (just an opinion of course). And I would guess that “Awful Man” is not what will be inscribed for eternity on the door to that special room. As regards the somewhat limited demographic of presidential candidates, Obama would seem to rank rather highly as an awful man. His only match might be Wilson, a true American style Fascist and believer in the nascent eugenics movement of the early 20th century….but Wilson seemed to focus his efforts on sterilization of undesirables rather than executions. After all, Planned Parenthood was just getting started at that point. But Obama, who not only finds partial birth murder to be just fine & dandy, was also a determined advocate for the Deathocrat doctrine of “abortion uber alles” in Illinois, which mandated the execution of any baby born alive during a botched exercise of “women’s reproductive rights”. So if we choose not to grade on the curve, it appears that in the presidential sweepstakes, Obama earns the title of Maximus Horrendus Humanus….loosely translated into the vulgar as awful man. So please spare us the silly moralizing over a simple descriptive phrase. And while you are at it, how about some genuine objectivity regarding the real political choices that we face in the here and now, not the obligatory false equivalence meme that you and Mark Shea feel compelled to write whenever you post on political topics. Your caricatures of Republicans as hawkish corporatists is again…nonsense on stilts. Quick reality check. Jones. Which party got us into the following wars – WWI? WWII? Korea? Vietnam? (total = ~ 616,000 deaths)? And which party nationalized the US auto industry and doled out billions in corporate welfare to friendly ($$$) companies? Not any Republicans that I know. Like I said, try some objectivity instead of the self-righteous moralizing. Jesus was not a moderate when it came to the Truth.

  • Ted Seeber

    I fail to understand the difference. Yes, I do think that a chaste gay couple, who, forsake even each other sexually, is as within Church teaching on chastity as a celibate priest is.

    I don’t see anything in Catholicism, Christianity, or any other religion that would be against such a close friendship.

  • Ted Seeber

    2nd reply, because I had not seen DeaconJR’s 2nd reply:

    More in keeping with the Catechism, and with your analogy, I’d still say the answer is yes. How are two men living in the same house as brother and brother, or two women living in the same house as sister and sister, any different than a heterosexual engaged couple forced to live together by economics as brother and sister? And that is within the Catholic definition of chastity- and in fact is a common instruction for couples in pre-cana classes.

  • DeaconJR

    Hi, Ted–I had no idea that heterosexual engaged couples were being forced to live together before marriage by economics and that the Church was okay with this. Where will I find this Church teaching?

    Two men living in the same house as “brother and brother” does not equate with the concept of the “chaste gay couple,” unless the brothers you allude to are in love and dating.

    God bless,

    Deacon JR

  • Thomas R

    I’m unclear what he/you mean to be honest. Are you saying the Republicans are better than he claims or worse?

    I think it’s probably wrong to speak of Republicans as a monolith though. Some of them I think truly are conservative. Jimmy Duncan and Walter B. Jones might fit. Although even they might be more libertarian than conservative.

  • The Ubiquitous

    Non sequitur.