I have a surprise for readers: I am 22. In other words, I’m young enough that some of the significance of the firings of Mark Shea and Simcha Fisher by the National Catholic Register has gone over my head. I don’t know anything about Shea’s books from back in his “sane days,” nor have I ever known him as anything more than a blogger. In all honesty, my head feels pretty clear about the whole subject—it’s all a shame.
Yet, the firings are big news. So big that the satirical website Eye of the Tiber has covered them. Everyone (or almost everyone) is taking a side.
For example, Devin Rose (to pick but one example) has written about his disagreements with Shea while finding his early apologetic work deeply influential:
I have a long enough memory to recall reading By What Authority sixteen years ago as an Evangelical Protestant and it being a key piece in my decision to become Catholic. One does not easily forget such pivotal books in one’s life, and Mark Shea wrote it.
Over the years I got to know Mark in the blogosphere. While he always had a more cutting or acerbic style, I also found him thoughtful and his writings good. He even made a few posts over the years mentioning me or some book I was working on.
My editor, Sam Rocha, has argued that this “distinction between the sacred and the secular completely misses the point,” but no matter. I hardly know Mark and I don’t know Simcha at all (I thought her name was pronounced Sim-chuh until yesterday). From reading their work alongside that of their opponents, I think Shea’s brief note on Simcha’s canning rightly classifies the problem.
It should be clear enough that I am no Trump voter (nor do I plan to vote for Hillary. More on that here). In many ways, my politics look more like Shea’s than those of his opponents. Yet (and Mark Shea acknowledges this) I am in no position to defend his tone. It’s not how I write—I’ll leave that apologia up to Sam Rocha.
But throughout this whole process one thing has gnawed away at me—the escalating position of Catholic Trump supporters. There is a distinction—one people seem to be forgetting—between “holding one’s nose” while voting and saying a candidate’s election would be a positive good. Take, for example, the antebellum Fire-Eaters, polemicists and ideologues who argued that slavery was not just (as had previously been held) a necessary evil, but a positive good.
Now—deep breath—I am a Catholic. I am not comparing anti-abortion activism to pro-slavery apologetics, but I am comparing the ideological frameworks that have animated both positions. Throughout the course of this debacle, I have seen far too many Catholics crawl out of the woodwork and begin not just to attack Clinton but to defend—even elevate, apotheosize—Trump.
Take, for example, Fr. Peter West, who has been connected to the firings by many. A quick look at his public FB page illuminates the issue. From his sharing of Breitbart and other conservative publications’ work, I imagine Fr. West would have preferred someone like, say, Ted Cruz for the presidency (and, in fact, this tweet of his suggests just that). Yet, his page now is a mixture of anti-Clinton and pro-Trump work (and there is a distinction. I am no fan of Hillary OR Trump. Yes, it is possible).
This worries me, not because the good pater isn’t allowed to share what he wants, but because it indicates a worrying trend. I can understand, perhaps even respect, a Trump voter who declares “abortion is my single issue. I dislike Trump: pornographer, oligarch, and megalomaniac, but if there’s any chance he can protect the unborn, I will hold my nose, pray for forgiveness, and vote for him.” I can even (though less so) understand the person who has supported Trump since the primary season: “See how working-class America suffers? He’s pro-life and not obviously the Establishment. I can hitch my wagon to that star.” What I find not just disagreeable, but flat-out wrong, is this pretend wedding of Trump and Catholic Social Teaching; what I find totally wrongheaded is this transition from “Trump is a ghoul” to “Trump is our savior.” There’s simply no way so many people’s minds have collectively changed so quickly. Ideology has taken hold.
I am not in the business of polemics. Arguing doesn’t excite me, especially not on the internet. With that in mind, I think we can all understand Mark Shea’s firing (even if I am happy he continues to work with us at Patheos Catholic). Simcha’s firing seems less justified—a casualty in a totally unnecessary war. And, in reflecting on the subject, I can’t help but feel that this escalation, this movement from “hold your nose” to “fire your guns in celebration” has something to do with it, has increased the stakes to the point where people’s jobs have been put on the line. And what is remotely Catholic about that?
I’ll be praying for all involved. I beseech you to as well. Even if American Catholics are busy clubbing each other, it remains the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and, well, it seems obvious to me that we’re all in need.