Mind-Reading Priest: I’m a Polemicist, Not an Apologist

Mind-Reading Priest: I’m a Polemicist, Not an Apologist September 8, 2021

Fr. Hugh Somerville Knapman, OSB has taken umbrage at my citing of a few of his words in my recent article, Traditionis Custodes Results: No Fallen Sky (I Called It) (9-6-21). His reply, posted on his site, One Foot in the Cloister, is entitled, “Apologetics or Polemics” (9-7-21). His words will be in blue.


I always hate to disagree with a priest (whether privately or publicly). I have immense respect for all priests. But (as they are the first to admit), they can be wrong at times, just like the rest of us, and in this case, seeing that many priests have been extremely critical of the Holy Father, it seems to me a case of “goose and gander.” If they can do that, I can do this.

Sadly, in this instance, the criticism sent my way is a variation on a theme that I have encountered off and on through the years:

1) I criticize radical Catholic reactionary thinking: usually with regard to Pope Francis or Vatican II or the New (Pauline) Mass.

2) Rather than deal with my specific criticisms (and/or defenses of what particular thing they are lambasting), a person who disagrees with me attacks me personally.

3) Generally, the ad hominem attacks involved at that point are calling me a “papolater” or “ultramontanist” or “modernist” (I just dealt with this approach 13 days ago). In this case, it is chiefly mischaracterizing me as a mere “polemicist” as opposed to an “apologist.”

4) As a common variation on the latter theme, the tactic is to pretend that I “used” to just devote myself to [good and helpful] apologetics, but I supposedly no longer do, and am now solely or overwhelmingly doing “polemics” or “attacking” the reactionaries as my raison d’être. Quite often, a blast at me being a “convert” is included in this.

5) #4 is demonstrably untrue, as I will prove beyond doubt as I proceed. Criticizing reactionaries is a tiny part of my overall work, and I have been doing it (as a tiny part) for the entire 25 years I have been online. It’s nothing new. If Fr. Hugh had simply perused my website for ten minutes, he would have readily observed this.

6) As an extra bonus, rhetoric of this sort is often accompanied by unsubtle insinuations that I am filled with pride; that “it’s all about him [me]” etc. Thus, it entails judging my interior motivations and my soul, which is always ill-advised and a very tricky business (to put it mildly).

THERE IS ALWAYS a little frisson of alarm through my frail flesh whenever Google Alerts tells me my name has appeared afresh on the internet. Thankfully it is rare, and overwhelmingly the mention proves to be benign, often merely incidental. Occasionally it is not. Today is such a day.

I’m glad it is rare for Fr. Hugh. I have to deal with such mentions almost on a weekly basis (since my 3,800+ articles and 50 books are “out there”), and usually they are negative in nature (as presently). It’s all part of the package of being an apologist.

[he cites Scott Hahn as an apologist marked by “happy zeal”]

Not all convert apologists are so positive. America seems to have a goodly share of convert apologists who began well and have deteriorated into polemicists. 

This is the shot taken against converts (#4 above), as if we are especially prone to error in a way that cradle Catholics are not. And we already have the either/or caricature of “once a helpful apologist, now only a useless polemicist” (also #4). This is bearing false witness, if he is trying to apply it to me, as I will show.

They even seem to manifest what is called by many now hyper-papalism, and any word of criticism, however mild, oblique or muted, against Pope Francis is the dog-whistle for them to attack. And attack is the word.

This is the tired “papolater” / “ultramontanist” accusation (#3 above), so often sadly trotted out at the slightest criticism of reactionary thinking and behavior. It’s simply not true of myself, as I recently clarified for the 100th time. I wrote tongue-in-cheek there:

It’s the usual canard that any papal defender must be an “ultramontanist” or “papolater” who thinks the color of socks that the pope picks out or a weather report from the Holy Father are infallible.

They do not practise apologetics any more; the trade they now ply is polemics. It is not attractive. In fact, there is something sinister about it.

What’s sinister is that this is a lie; it’s a falsehood, a whopper, bearing false witness. It is not true about me and never has been. I have about 50 separate and distinct web pages on my blog. Only one — though it is extensive; but so are most of my web pages — is devoted to the reactionaries (about 2% of the whole). I’ve written fifty books. Just two (4%) are devoted to reactionaries. Note that my first one on the topic was dated December 2002 in its first edition. That’s almost 19 years ago. Obviously, I was dealing with the topic back then, and it was a small minority of all that I dealt with, then, just as now. Nothing has changed at all.

If it is true that I do so at least “more” than I used to, that would be due to the fact that Pope Francis is daily attacked by reactionaries, and so there is more occasion to counter-respond, in a way that wasn’t present with Pope St. John Paul II (though he was assuredly attacked, and I defended him) and Pope Benedict XVI (ditto). Apologetics is often driven by the events of the day. It’s my duty as an apologist to defend the Holy Father, generally, and particularly if he is unjustly attacked. So I do so. Then I get falsely — and absurdly — accused of doing only this.

If anyone doubts that I have been dealing with this topic during the entire time I have engaged in online apologetics, they ought to be made aware of papers of mine on these topics dated 7-30-99 and 8-1-99: listed on my appropriate web page. That’s over 22 years ago. I have many other papers from years ago listed there. For example:

Syllabus of 60 Radical Catholic Reactionary Errors [2000]

Debate on the Reactionary Group, The Remnant [1-24-00]

Critique of The Remnant [2000]

Debate: My “Syllabus of 60 Catholic Reactionary Errors” [11-24-00]

Radical Catholic Reactionaries vs. an Optimistic Faith [1-21-01]

Dietrich von Hildebrand & Legitimate Traditionalism (2-27-02; terminology and a few other minor things revised on 4-18-20)

Why Not Kick Modernist Dissenters Out of the Church? [3-7-02]

2nd Conversion? Reactionary Absurdities Satirized [10-7-03]

Vatican I on Papal Infallibility: “Ultramontanism”? [3-29-04]

Mark Shea is one such. Indeed his worsening online content caused the termination of his connection with EWTN and its journal, National Catholic Register.

That’s right. At the time I was a vociferous (public and private) defender of National Catholic Register, against his attacks. Partially as a result, they hired me and I started regularly writing for them in September 2016 (258 articles from then till now). In all those articles, neither “traditionalist” nor “reactionary” ever appears. I wrote about Pope Francis exactly one time (on 9-30-17), and that was a mild criticism: urging him to answer the dubia. It’s all apologetics and theology. Yet Fr. Hugh claims all I do is polemics.

Another is Dave Armstrong.

Again, this is a lie, as I have already shown is the case, and I will offer more undeniable proof before I am done.

Armstrong began his convert’s apologetical career with very useful works demonstrating to Protestants how the Catholic Church is more biblically faithful than the so-called bible-based evangelical, reformed and generally Protestant denominations. They were just as useful for cradle Catholics. But now he has become a polemicist, but with a twist. More on that later.

This is absolute nonsense; hogwash! I’ve done exactly the same from the beginning. I take on all major errors, both outside and inside the Church. If Fr. Hugh insists on claiming that all I do is criticize reactionaries, then how does he explain the list of my forty most recent blog papers (over the last six weeks)? Here they are:

“Pope Francis is SO Confusing!”: A Spirited Reply (9-7-21) [trad / reactionary / Pope Francis issues #1]

Traditionis Custodes Results: No Fallen Sky (I Called It) (9-6-21) [trad / reactionary / Pope Francis issues #2]

The Orthodoxy of Pope Francis (9-6-21) [trad / reactionary / Pope Francis issues #3]

Hebrews 10:12, Vulgate, & the Mass (James White’s Lie) (9-3-21) [contra-Protestant / pro-Catholic apologetics #1]

COVID: Catholics Can’t Avoid “Remote Cooperation with Evil” (9-3-21) [COVID #1]

Pearce’s Potshots #46: Who Wrote the Gospel of John? (9-2-21) [contra-atheist / pro-Bible apologetics #1]

Limited Atonement: Refutation of James White (9-1-21) [contra-Protestant / pro-Catholic apologetics #2]

Bible on Germ Theory: An Atheist Hems & Haws (8-31-21) [Bible & Science apologetics #1]

Pearce’s Potshots #45: “Unholy Questions” for God (8-29-21) [contra-atheist / pro-Bible apologetics #2]

A “Biblical” Immaculate Conception? (vs. James White) (8-27-21) [contra-Protestant / pro-Catholic apologetics #3]

Baptismal Regeneration: Refutation of James White (8-27-21) [contra-Protestant / pro-Catholic apologetics #4]

Tower of Babel, Baked Bricks, Bitumen, & Archaeology (8-26-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #1]

My Supposed “Papolatry”: Outrageous Reactionary Lies (8-26-21) [trad / reactionary / Pope Francis issues #4]

Reply to Engwer’s Alleged “Absence of a Papacy” (8-25-21) [contra-Protestant / pro-Catholic apologetics #5]

Genesis 10 “Table of Nations”: Authentic History (8-25-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #2]

Acacia, Ark of the Covenant, & Biblical Accuracy (8-24-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #3]

Natural Immunity from COVID: Four Scientific Studies (8-22-21) [COVID #2]

COVID Vaccines, Conscience, & the Pope: a Catholic Dialogue (8-21-21) [COVID #3]

Quails, Wandering Hebrews, & Biblical Accuracy (8-17-21) [Bible & Science apologetics #2]

Pearce’s Potshots #44: Jairus’ Daughter “Contradiction”? (8-17-21) [contra-atheist / pro-Bible apologetics #3]

In Search of the Real Mt. Sinai (8-16-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #4]

Debate: Conscience vs. COVID Vaccines / Natural & Herd Immunity (8-16-21) [COVID #4]

Unvaccinated People, Conscience, Condescension, & Coercion (8-14-21) [COVID #5]

Overly Strict Parenting: Catholic Traditionalist Self-Critique (8-13-21) [trad / reactionary / Pope Francis issues #5]

The Amsterdam Apparitions: Where Are We Now? (8-13-21) [Catholic apologetics #1] [25]

Parting of the Red Sea: Feasible Scientific Explanation? (8-11-21) [Bible & Science apologetics #3]

Plagues of Egypt: Possible Natural Explanations (8-11-21) [Bible & Science apologetics #4]

Joseph in Egypt, Archaeology, & Historiography (8-7-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #5]

Why Folks Like the New Catholic Answer Bible (8-5-21) [Catholic apologetics #2]

Archaeology Verifies 13th c. BC Cities Listed in Joshua (8-5-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #6]

Pearce’s Potshots #43: Joshua’s Conquest & Archaeology (8-3-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #7]

Dialogue w Traditionalist “Hurt” by Traditionis Custodes (8-2-21) [trad / reactionary / Pope Francis issues #6]

Traditionis Custodes: Sky Hasn’t Fallen (Bishops) (8-2-21) [trad / reactionary / Pope Francis issues #7]

Archaeology, Ancient Hebrew, & a Written Pentateuch (7-31-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #8]

Abraham, Warring Kings of Genesis 14, & History (7-31-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #9] [35]

Pope St. Clement of Rome & Papal Authority (7-28-21) [contra-Protestant / pro-Catholic apologetics #6]

Was Sodom Destroyed by a Meteor in Abraham’s Time? (7-27-21) [Bible & Science apologetics #5]

Abraham & Hebron: Archaeology Backs Up the Bible (7-24-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #10]

Abraham, Salem, Mt. Moriah, Jerusalem, & Archaeology (7-24-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #11]

Abraham’s Shechem Lines Up With Archaeology (7-23-21) [Bible & Archaeology apologetics #12]

We see, then, that there were only seven articles out of 40, about the reactionary / traditionalist / Pope Francis stuff , or 17.5% of the whole. That is hardly “all” I do, is it? Here’s the entire breakdown:

Bible & archaeology (12 = 30%)

reactionary / traditionalist / Pope Francis stuff [7 = 17.5%]

contra-Protestant / pro-Catholic apologetics (6 = 15%)

COVID (5 = 12.5%)

Bible & science apologetics (5 = 12.5%)

contra-atheist / pro-Bible apologetics (3 = 7.5%)

Catholic apologetics [i.e., non-debate treatments] (2 = 5%)

28 out of 40 (70%) are about apologetics, and I would say the reactionary criticism is apologetics, too, because as I see it, I am defending Holy Mother Church and the Holy Father. So it’s really 35 out of 40, or 87.5% apologetics, with five additional articles on COVID (of obvious import).

The article begins with the perpendicular pronoun, and this is the key to understanding the apologetic polemics of such as Armstrong. It is all about them. A man has to earn his living, of course, but when a Catholic apologist becomes the product, there is a grave problem.

More personal attacks . . . I was simply noting:

I catch so much hell from radical Catholic reactionaries for my criticism of their errors and excesses that I do think it is worthwhile (not to mention educational: if they will accept it) to point out to them that I was dead-on in my predictions about what would happen after the issuance of Pope Francis’ Motu proprio Traditionis Custodes.

Yes, it’s polemics, which is not always a bad thing; in this case it was educational; in effect, “learn from history!”. It depends on what the polemics are about and how they are done. Jesus and Paul and the prophets engaged in tons of polemics and jeremiads. The latter word is even derived from the prophet Jeremiah. So they can’t possibly all be “bad.” Most of the polemics against Pope Francis are, I submit, “bad.”

So Armstrong, ignoring the bishops who have outright forbidden the old Mass in toto, looks at the many bishops who have not suppressed the old Mass but have allowed the status quo ante to continue. 

I’m simply observing at this point. I have inquired as to the reasons why particular bishops have totally prohibited the Old Mass. So far I haven’t seen any reasons. One person showed me how two bishops did that but provided no reasons. I immediately responded that this was a bad thing: that they should explain why, with reasoning and fact, per Traditionis. I am all for traditional liturgy. That’s why I was a member at a parish that performed Latin Masses (ordinary form) for 25 years. And it’s why I’ve written a lot about liturgical abuses.

What he does not acknowledge is that in these cases the bishops have been clear that this indulgence is temporary, while they decide a more lasting response, since the motu proprio caught them on the hop (collegiality did not extend to warning the bishops it seems).

Time will tell. My position is clear and has been constant: the Old Mass should only be suppressed in cases where there is rampant radical Catholic reactionary thinking in the immediate environment, which does no good for anyone.

So, Dave is right that the sky has not fallen in for traditionalists…yet. We’ll see how prophetic he is in a year’s time.

Yes we will. If the rough percentage of suppression is the same, will Fr. Hugh admit that I was an accurate prognosticator then? Of course, many of the alarmists in July were confident that the Old Mass was gonna be entirely prohibited. That is plainly not happening anytime soon, if ever. So they are already manifestly shown to be hysterically wrong. Fr. Hugh’s own statement that I cited (because he was cited — along with myself — in a survey by Peter Kwasniewski) was:

the old Mass was good in the “old days” (all 1400+ years of them) but is not good for today, and so cannot be countenanced in the modern Church. [link]

This implies that the goal of the pope is total abolition of it. So far there is no sign of such a thing; quite the contrary. So we’ll see how prophetic he is, too, in a year’s time. But my original citation of Fr. Hugh from the same article, shows how radical his views really are:

Color coding:

red = defectibility; the idea that the Church and/or pope can fall away from the faith and apostatize. It’s the most radical reactionary idea of all. * purple = Pope Francis is a bad man, tyrant, deceiver, uncaring, cruel, modernist, stinkin’ theological liberal, pulls the wings off of flies, burns ants with magnifying glasses, is stupid & ignorant, is not to be respected or believed, etc. * green = Vatican II stinks, is of lesser authority than Trent & other ecumenical councils; it was a liberal revolution, cause of all ills in the Church, etc. [in one case, Vatican I was also trashed].
the old Mass was good in the “old days” (all 1400+ years of them) but is not good for today, and so cannot be countenanced in the modern Church. It is the liturgical expression of situational ethics, and the relativisation of absolute truthWhatever it is, this is not Christianity in any authentic sense, one could reasonably argue that this is a bitter fruit not of Vatican II, but Vatican I, Collegiality has disappeared as a meaningful doctrine, This is not a pastoral document; it is a political one, If anything, it is Jacobin, It is hard to recall an exercise of authority as self-defeating as TC, Though in his name, TC was not written by Francis, TC is not progress, but aggressive defensiveness.

But it is really about Dave anyway. It is him the whole way through:

Nonsense. It’s a piece of provocative polemics and “I told you so!”: just as I made very clear at the beginning. But it’s not all I do. That’s the lie that has motivated me to write this response. I don’t like being lied about and grossly misrepresented. Nobody does. I respond for the sake of my apostolate. I am literally harmed by “hit pieces” like this: both my reputation and name, and my livelihood. So I respond for the sake of the ministry: which is a good thing, because it is ordained by God, through calling, just as Fr. Hugh was called to be a priest.

There seems to be a radical insecurity underlying polemics like this. 

Right. Now we’re into pseudo-psychoanalysis. He thinks he can read my heart and my inner states of being.

Having converted to popery, . . . 

Um, I converted to the Holy Catholic Church, thank you. Part of that is an infallible pope, not an inspired one or impeccable one. As I noted in reply to the last attack on me, in my conversion story in Surprised by Truth, the pope was never mentioned as any sort of reason why I converted. That’s a matter of record. Fr. Hugh can either criticize / debate me, or a straw man caricature that is supposedly “me.”

these ex-evangelical converts must now double-down on hyper-papalism to shore up their own faith. Or so it seems.

This is the lie, reiterated, that I am a “hyper-papalist” / “ultramontanist” blah blah blah: which has never been the case at all. I came in largely because of Cardinal Newman’s reasoning, and he is the furthest thing from that. Yes, I was an evangelical, and I am proud of the great deal of truth I learned while in their ranks. They often are far more committed to Bible study, prayer, and evangelism than Catholics are. We can learn much from them in practice. And they can learn a lot from us.

My involvement comes in that I am listed, indiscriminately among writers of often quite different hue and tone, as one of those who offered an “hysterical, unhinged, and ridiculous” response to the motu proprio.

They don’t have to all be exactly the same. What I was citing was what I thought was excessive reaction to Traditionis. I found out about him because Peter Kwasniewski listed him as a responder. For him to say that the old Mass “cannot be countenanced in the modern Church” (as if that is the pope’s thinking) is indeed a “ridiculous” response. Strong words, yes, but it’s directed to the folks who never have a second’s hesitation to use many strong words against the pope (most undeserved). They simply can’t take their own medicine. They insulate themselves from criticism and usually have no interest in critical comments or analysis of outsiders.

Moreover, he has not bothered to note subsequent posts which reflect further not only on the document itself but also on the impolitic attitudes of some traditionalists

It wasn’t my purpose. All writings have (or should have) a specific purpose and goal. I’m busy writing about apologetics 70% of the time, and about issues like COVID for another 13%. But I’m happy to hear it. Fr. Hugh would be welcome to highlight those comments of his in further dialogue, but he has already stated that he won’t be writing about me again (I’m persona non grata), so that includes (and precludes) any possible dialogue. He simply wants to “hit and run.”

But perspective and context would spoil the force of his self-promoting polemic:

More personal attacks . . .

It is of note that Armstrong does not really engage with the arguments of any of these writers, most but not all of whom are traditionalists.

That’s right. It wasn’t my purpose, which was to simply document what they said and what has been the actual result so far (which appears to not warrant their alarmism and hysteria). As I wrote when I first cited Fr. Hugh and others:

I am particularly documenting the personal trashing and sinful attempts to read the pope’s mind and heart; judging his motives. This is the purpose of this article; not to exhaustively engage in every argument against Traditionis custodes. That is for another time and another article. [italics and bolding in original]

My recent article that Fr. Hugh objects to was a piece of “polemical sociology.” People like Erasmus and St. Thomas More and many others (Malcolm Muggeridge in recent years) have done similar things throughout history.

Nor does he engage in any way with the upset that prompts them to express their misgivings and hurt. He does not care about them or their feelings. 

That doesn’t follow from what I have written. I would say that I care about them in telling the truth to them (a loving rebuke), even if in this case it is forceful and a “hard truth” to accept. The prophets did the same; so did Paul and Jesus. People often didn’t like hearing what they said (leading to both being killed). That is love. One can’t simply take one polemical piece and act as if that is all a writer does. It would be like pretending that all Jesus ever did was excoriate the Pharisees (Matthew 23) and whip the moneychangers. If that’s all we knew about Jesus we’d have a radically different view of Him, wouldn’t we? But we must speak the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” about other people.

Nor does he try to argue how the attempt to curtail the most vigorous part of the western, first-world Church might be justified in any pastoral or evangelistic way, nor what it says that most of the vigour and new life in our section of the Church lies precisely in the more traditional observance.

I dealt with these sorts of things, at least in part, in my first response to Traditionis and some subsequent ones: including a dialogue. Fr. Hugh seems to think I am incapable of dialogue with a traditionalist or what I would classify as a reactionary. He is obviously unaware of my seven cordial dialogues with Timothy Flanders: associate of Taylor Marshall and currently editor at the major reactionary site, One Peter Five:

Reply to Timothy Flanders’ Defense of Taylor Marshall [7-8-19]

Dialogue w Ally of Taylor Marshall, Timothy Flanders [7-17-19]

Dialogue w 1P5 Writer Timothy Flanders: Introduction [2-1-20]

Dialogue w Timothy Flanders #2: State of Emergency? [2-25-20]

Is Vatican II Analogous to “Failed” Lateran Council V? [8-11-20]

Dialogue #6 w 1P5 Columnist Timothy Flanders [8-24-20]

Dialogue #7 w 1P5 Columnist Timothy Flanders (Highlighting Papal Indefectibility, Pastor Aeternus from Vatican I in 1870, & the “Charitable Anathema”) [12-1-20]

We have a pretty warm relationship. And we will keep dialoguing. And we do because he doesn’t pretend that all I do is this kind of stuff. He recognizes that I am a legitimate Catholic apologist who is — by God’s enabling grace — helping to bring people into the Church and others to stay there.

For you see, he is a polemicist, not an apologist.

Now we’re back to the either/or slanderous lies.

Vitriol drips from his pen. It is sad to behold. Read him by all means, but at your own risk, for you will be exposed to what is essentially Catholicism à l’Armstrong, and not the faith of Christ unadulterated. If you can stomach it, go for it. But you might want to vaccinate yourself first.

Your choice, readers!

Or far better, read some Frank Sheed, Fulton Sheen, Scott Hahn, Carol Robinson… the list is longer of apologists who will nourish your faith rather than fan your passions.

By all means, go read them. I have about thirty books in my own library from the first three. Scott Hahn wrote the Foreword to my second book (he volunteered; I didn’t even ask him), so he must have seen something in me. He has written glowing recommendations and once asked me to be a speaker at the Defending the Faith Conference in Steubenville (I respectfully declined because I hardly do any speaking). He once wanted me to directly work with him as well (finances precluded it at the time). I have defended him several times when he was attacked (with his thanks expressed). So this is hardly a “Hahn vs. Armstrong” scenario.

It should be said that no further word will be offered on Armstrong here, no matter what fresh outrage he might commit.

As I said, Fr. Hugh clearly has no interest in actual dialogue, or hearing any other side. It’s strictly “hit and run.” And that is infinitely more objectionable than one piece of mine in which I indulged in “I told you so!” polemics: for a good cause.


Photo credit: geralt (7-27-17) [Pixabay / Pixabay License]


Summary: A priest decided that because I criticized reactionary overreaction to the regulation of the Old Mass, that I no longer do any apologetics at all; that I am supposedly only a “polemicist” now.


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