Several days ago, National Catholic Register announced that it had dismissed Mark Shea, the blogger, pundit and apologist. As a faithful Catholic, longtime Register patron, and minor pundit in my own right, I consider this decision both unmerciful and short-sighted. I write now in the hope of persuading you to reverse it.
The announcement stated that Mark was let go, not because of the views he expressed in his columns, but because “his writings and engagement on other forums were irreconcilable with our editorial vision or standards of charitable discussion.” I am going to take a leap in the dark and assume this refers to Mark’s postings on social media. Having seen him in action on Facebook many times, I can confirm he is a feisty one, a tireless debater with an impressive gift for invective and hyperbole. If the Register prefers it be represented only by those who have mastered garden-party manners, then yes, Mark might seem a liability.
But surely you know Facebook is not now, and never has been, a garden party. With near-strangers from backgrounds as varied as Foreign Legion recruits debating matters of life-and-death importance for the republic, if not the cosmos, it couldn’t possibly be. The pundit who posts on that platform faces instant blowback from the masses; he effectively flings his work, his personal brand, and himself into shark-infested waters, like chum. Not only does this threaten to exhaust both his mind and his spirit, it also eats up a great deal of his time. The sad upshot is that today’s opinion writer must endure stresses unknown by previous generations.
An example: You’ll recall that William F. Buckley debated Gore Vidal on national TV during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. After the two had sparred for a bit, Vidal threw a shot below the belt and called his opponent a “pro-crypto-Nazi,” whatever that is. Buckley, famous till then for his amiability and his willingness to grant radicals a fair hearing, was so stung by the personal attack that he forgot himself and threatened Vidal with grievous bodily harm. The moment made headlines.
These days, unless a writer limits his Facebook audience to friends or like-minded people, he ends up debating dozens of Gore Vidals, all at the same time. And he must do it day after day. Inevitably, some writers are succumbing to a kind of battle fatigue. An increasing number of publishing platforms have either eliminated comment sections altogether or imposed strict filtering policies. Now operating in semi-retirement with a locked combox, I number myself among the breakables.
But Mark Shea is too happy a warrior to hide or retreat. Despite the toll that facing his critics must take on his blood pressure – not to mention the fact that it must reduce his effective hourly wage to dishwasher level – holding himself to an artificial writerly distance is a moral impossibility for him. If Mark’s defense of his views is sometimes other than perfectly decorous, it is never profane or abusive. Unlike poor Bill Buckley, he has never threatened to sock anyone’s g_ddamned face (though, as a frequent visitor to his Facebook page, I sometimes wonder how he resists the temptation).
Why Mark is the way he is I don’t claim to know. But during those years when he and I rubbed shoulders as Patheos colleagues, he gave the impression of believing that the path to transformation lies in direct engagement. This is a theme beloved of Pope Francis, who often promotes a “culture of encounter.” The pope has warned that these encounters will not all be pretty, but he has urged us not to let fear of conflict deter us. As he once remarked in a radio interview, “Between a sick [i.e. inert and irrelevant] and a bruised Church, I prefer the bruised, because at least it went into the street.”
Not to push it too far, but Mark has certain things in common with Pope Francis. Both are stubbornly orthodox and steeped in Catholic culture – Mark, bless his heart, can’t let a day go by without quoting Chesterton or Lord of the Rings – but both are at home in the street, addressing average people ensnared in the mess of modernity. Depriving Mark of a platform may serve to keep that mess off the Register’s stoop, but it won’t clean it up. All the fears and frustrations, all the yearning for clarity that infect Catholics and Church-orbiters will go on swirling about and piling up. Whoever dirties his hands with them will be doing the real work of evangelizing.
If I were an editor, I’d want that person writing for me.
Thank you for taking the time to consider this petition. I shall pray to Francis de Sales, patron of writers and journalists, that it moves you.