In which I dissent from Fr. Z and his readers

In which I dissent from Fr. Z and his readers February 7, 2012

One of the things that has come to deeply concern me about the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism is the way in which it has bought into the identity politics which used to dominate (and make stupid) the left thirty years ago. What matters is tribal affiliation. The search is not for converts, but for heretics. Anybody who is less than 100% pure in their tribal (not moral) fealty is to be shunned, even when they are doing something we agree with. This produces the weird situation of Catholics boosting for some politician who endorses torture and pre-emptive war (because the Tribe says that’s okay) but rejecting as ritually impure people who voted for Obama, but who now want to oppose him because of his assault on religious liberty.

An example of the latter is Fr. Z’s completely unnecessary rallying of the troops to jeer at and reject Doug Kmiec’s letter to Obama protesting his assault on religious liberty. A mentality that is asking, “How can we mount a successful fight against Obama’s assault?” would be rejoicing to see, not just Kmiec, but the National Catholic Reporter, and blog like Vox Nova denouncing Obama’s actions. That’s because those seeking to oppose Obama successfully realize that it is necessary to win the hearts and minds, not merely of those who absolutely despise Obama already (they *lost* the last election, you will recall), but of those who voted for him. And they must win those hearts and minds using the kinds of persuasion that actually persuade, not the kinds of persuasion that are really a form of cathartic self-medication for people who just want to settle scores, not change hearts and minds.

Kmiec is, quite obviously, a lefty writing for the benefit of other lefties, attempting to make clear that he is not writing out of mindless hatred for the Prez, but out of a genuinely offended conscience. He is making the case that this is not merely some savages with sexual hangups getting offended about nothing (the comforting narrative our civilizers in the Obama Administration tell themselves as they stoop down to bestow their draconian rules on us), but a real issue of conscience that threatens actual American liberty. He is *far* more likely to get a hearing from from the sort of Catholic who (only getting information from the press) has been told that the HHS mandate is much ado about nothing. Such a Catholic (the majority in this country, recall) is not likely to understand immediately the gravity of the Administration’s assault because he is contracepting already and figures “No skin off my nose.” Kmiec’s letter, as well as people like Michael Sean Winters at the Reporter and the various bleats of protest at America and Commonweal, are the people who stand the best chance of speaking to the majority (there’s that word again) of Catholics who don’t grasp the gravity of situation.

So what are conservative Catholics at Fr. Z’s blog and elsewhere doing? Attacking their allies who are trying to win the majority in the mushy middle over to their position for them. Because Kmiec is ritually impure. It is more important to punish and ridicule him for past sins than to let him do the right thing in the present. What matters is pure tribal identity, not the success of the struggle to defeat this atrocious attack on religious liberty. We don’t want to win converts or form alliances. We want to settle scores and gloat over heretics. We want to hate Obama more than we want to defeat him.


Now, doubtless somebody will charge me with hypocrisy here because I refuse to vote for candidates who ask me to support grave moral evil. For them, I have a simple question: How will welcoming Doug Kmiec, Michael Sean Winters, or any other lefty into the struggle to oppose Obama’s assault on religious liberty make me an accessory to grave intrinsic evil? Answer: it won’t. So welcome them, and let them do their bit to reach those Catholics who must be reached (the majority, recall) if sufficient numbers are going to stand up for religious liberty. Welcome Jews, Protestants, Muslims and atheists too.

Or sit in the bunker, priding ourselves on our impotent purity and watch religious liberty go down the drain.

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  • BT

    I don’t think that one must take Fr. Z’s post in the way that you have, Mark. I think he’s reasonably criticizing the sycophantic tone of Kmiec’s letter, rather than just going after Kmiec for past transgressions. I think it should be noted that Fr. Z also posted in support of Michael Sean Winters ( and Cardinal Mahony ( These actions aren’t consistent with your hypothesis.

  • Jacob S

    Your general sentiment insofar as I can figure out what it is – that blind tribal adherence to a certain group of ideas, some of which are demonstrably wrong, in such a way and to such an extent that we refuse to cooperate with those who disagree on some issues even on the issues on which we agree is stupid – makes sense.

    I am somewhat confused that this is what you read into Fr. Z’s comments though. Granted, Fr. Z wasn’t exactly laying out the red carpet for Mr. Kmiec, but I didn’t get the sense of attacking either, just a sort of regret that Kmiec, while recognizing the badness of Obama’s current move, still doesn’t exactly get what’s going on. He alludes to some sort of glory days in which Obama’s actions were generally acceptable and asks for a return to them – despite the fact that those days did not exist.

    Fr. Z’s piece seems to simply be pointing out that even now, this far into Obama’s presidency, many people think that this sort of blatant assault on religious freedom and life issues is some sort of fluke and that Obama doesn’t really mean it, whereas it is obviously the case that if Obama truly doesn’t mean it then he is really bad at doing what he means. Kind of a “you’ve got one foot on the boat, but the other is still on the dock, and the only way to remain that way requires huge amounts of groinal strain” – that is now that you see this move for what it is, it’s going to take lots of mental gymnastics to convince yourself that your position, viz Obama is really a decent president really, is tenable.

    I get that you think we shouldn’t alienate people like Kmiec (and agree), however I do think it is necessary to point out that this particular thing they are opposing is just one of many similar (if less overt) things. This thing should be treated as a wake up call, not just an alarm clock that needs the snooze button swatted a few times. That is, while it would be nice for enough to join forces against this particular thing, this is just one battle that the president is on the wrong side of, and it would be nice if Kmiec et al would take this opportunity to examine Obama’s actions, realize that this sort of thing is a running theme of his presidency, and hence realize how much more they would need to convince Obama of to make his presidency reasonable (not to run for another term would be a favorite).

    That is, if a person is wrong, you do not pretend they are right just so they’ll be happy and stick with you for one fight. I know you know this, because you have a habit of making jabs at conservatives who are right and support the teaching of the Church on many issues (pro life, gay “marriage”, etc) but support despicable things like torture as well. Of course, it may be that you do this simply because you know these conservatives will never jump ship on the pro-life etc issues, but I’ve never had much truck with that sort of choose who you speak the truth to stuff myself.

  • Hieronymus

    A commonsense strategy is to accept any allies, however unsavory they may be, to defeat the common enemy. Of course, after the victory you attack and destroy them before they can destroy you. Sun Tsu would approve. And Jesus perhaps would, too – see His parable of the unjust steward.

  • Roger Conley

    “Ritually impure?” He’s pro-abortion.

    • Mark Shea

      No. He’s not. He opposes abortion. He has said so many times.

      • Well, to be honest, in his later sycophancy of behalf of Obama back in 2008, as he dug in his heels in the face of the criticism he was receiving, Kmiec appeared to come VERY close to adopting the “personally opposed, but …” formula of those politicians we often deem to be “pro-aborts”:

        I’ll take him at his word that he’s pro-life, but I’ll give it about as much weight as I’d give to any other pro-lifer who supports the most anti-life, pro-abortion President in history, or who was part of the “Catholics for Sebelius” campaign to ensure her confirmation as HHS Secretary.

        • And lest the latter part of my comment be taken as evidence of tribalism or condemning the ritually impure, I assure you it is not. I’d say the same thing about conservatives who support torture or who will vote for Romney because “he may be a pro-abort, but he’s OUR pro-abort”.

          My distrust of “pro-life” supporters of the party of death is more a reflection of “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” (see, e.g., Bart Stupak) than it is of any tribal impulses.

        • Mark Shea

          I think Kmiec basically was trying to make the calculation that Benedict talked about and decided he had to vote for Obama, not because he suddenly developed a taste for abortion, but because he thought there was a proportional reason to vote for Obama. I disagree with the calculation, of course, but I think it vindictive nonsense to say that he voted for Obama *because* he supports abortion.

          • I don’t believe that he voted for him BECAUSE of it. But I DO believe that he came awfully close in several of his defenses of Obama (including the one in my link) to defining “personally opposed but …” as a perfectly acceptable formulation for Catholics.

            • And, by the way, I have NEVER taken the stance that Catholics of good will may not engage in the calculus the Bishops laid out in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship and come to the conclusion that it was preferable to vote for Obama. In fact, back in 2008, I argued vehemently against the notion put forward by RepubliCaths that it was morally impermissible to vote for Obama.

              That’s why I want to point out that more is going on here than just that calculus contemplated by Faithful Citizenship. I didn’t take issue with Kmiec for supporting Obama; I took issue with Kmiec because he tried to make supporting Obama THE pro-life choice, while ignoring Obama’s clear anti-life record and rhetoric, and came very close to adopting the “personally opposed, but …” formulation in his efforts to justify his choice.

            • Mark Shea

              Okay. But my original remark was directed at somebody who said that Kmeic was pro-abortion. He’s not and it’s a malicious lie to say he is.

  • Tim

    You know that photo montage that spans the top of Father Z’s blog? Have you ever noticed that Father Z made his image larger and more prominent than the image of the Holy Father, or even Jesus on the Cross?

    Generally, importance in a graphic image is indicated by the relative size of an object in comparison to the other objects in the image. So, interesting design choice, to say the least.

    • ef

      I have to agree with your comment, Tim. I feel guilty for thinking and typing these feelings about Fr. Z, but he tends to be arrogant, snarky, mean, and rather full of himself. I guess you could say “it takes one to know one”, and that may be true, but I find it unsettling in a priest, and in his public postings, and his general yearning for more and more followers.

      He seems to be very focused on taking/getting credit for anything he can. He likes to repeatedly remind his readers that HE coined the phrase “the Pope of Christian Unity”. And maybe he did. But it’s just plain off-putting how he likes to bring that to everyone’s attention again and again. It seems to be more important that we know that Fr. Z came up with that, rather than that Pope Benedict IS the Pope of Christian Unity.

      He seems to delight in his “comments in red”, which sometimes are humorous or informative, but more often than not, they’re mean and snarky, whether directed to the poster or to the repliers.

      Those are just a couple of examples that spring to mind. There’s many others that have struck me over the years that I used to read his blog. I can’t help it. That’s how he’s always struck me.

      I’ve stopped reading his stuff entirely and feel much better!

  • Save green

    Ef – I completely agree with your comments on Fr Z’s style, and while I understand your reticence in expressing them, I believe it’s worth puting them out there (not least because Fr Z ensures that only the comments he likes get posted on his site). I have been visiting wdtprs for many years and have found it to be very informative. However, I have become increasingly unhappy with the tone that Fr Z adopts towards readers, often in response to politely put questions or points of view. The content of the site is overtly political and is often unforgiving or downright rude to those who do not agree with his point of view. Fr Z revels in his role as a cleric and how this differs from the lay state, but yet the arguments expressed in his blog are frequently unbecoming for a priest. Some of his point of view, for instance on children at Mass, are frankly absurd. I now believe that wdtprs probably does more harm than good to the Traditionlist cause.

  • JimAroo

    I have a question. Just who is Father Z? He lives in Wisconsin…. is not attached to a Bishop in the USA but to one in Italy. What are his duties? To be a faithful priest is always to be connected to your Bishop and carry out the work of the Bishop. Is he a priest in good standing? Or is he a renegade? I have looked but find no answers about this man of mystery.