More on cults of personality

More on cults of personality January 28, 2013

A reader sez:

Mark, one could very well make the same argument about you and the little cult of personality that has grown up around you– since apparently all one needs to be a “cult of eprsonality” is to have an audience. Such a judgement would be unfair to you.

To be precise, my reader’s words can best be described as “not accurate, but entirely fair.”

That is, merely “having an audience” is not the same as a cult of personality. Rather, it is having an audience that adores you and hangs on your every word and assumes that any criticism that the object of the cult of personality receives can only be due to unreasoning hatred, malice toward the Faith, or some sort of other wicked cause.

And the reality is that, for some of my readers, that is exactly the case. That’s why I’m so sensitive to and worried about cults of personality: I have readers who have made me the object of their uncritical and undiscerning veneration. It is an *extremely* dangerous thing to do, both for the object of veneration and for the soul of the idol worshipper.

And it is a pattern that has played out in Faithful Conservative Catholic[TM] circles again and again and again and again over the past decade, with Faithful Conservative Catholics[TM] either repeating the same dumb mistake of latching on to a new Folk Hero to replace the old one and circling the wagons whenever the Folk Hero is challenged, or else whipsawing to total cynicism and rejection of the Faith because their Folk Hero let them down.

To be sure, the object of cultic veneration has a choice to make: he can encourage the cult and thereby incur his share of guilt in fostering idolatry, or discourage the cult to the degree he is able to do so. So, for instance, my friend Scott Hahn is perfectly aware of the fact that he has worshippers–and does everything he can to discourage that while continuing to do his job as a lay teacher of the Faith. That’s perfectly reasonable. If the worshippers continue to confuse him with The Voice of the Magisterium, that’s not his fault since he tries very hard to do do what a good theologian does: distinguish his theological views and opinions from what the Church defines as dogmatic. And he tries very hard to discourage the Cult of Hahn.

Which brings us to the main point: that the idolator also has his responsibility too. He can go on being the sort of dependent personality who immaturely looks for some Hero to keep him safe and tell him what to think, or he can mature in Christ and learn how to distinguish the personality and private views of his admired Hero from the Magisterium, from the Church, and from Jesus Christ. That is the wise course, because there is no Folk Hero who is not going to let you down sooner or later.

So: stop worshipping Folk Heros–including me. Learn to think with the Church. Put on the mind of Christ. Was Shea crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Hahn? Or Voris? Or Corapi? Or Euteneuer? Or Maciel?

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  • **latching on to a new Folk Hero to replace the old one and circling the wagons whenever the Folk Hero is challenged, or else whipsawing to total cynicism and rejection of the Faith because their Folk Hero let them down.**

    ^^This is particularly true. Our eyes should always be fixated on Christ first. Always. And if we are excited about Catholic names who promote the Truth it should be rooted in that commonality of being fixated on Christ.

  • Don’t worry about me, Mark o’ mine! 🙂

  • Michael

    A danger from the very birth of the Church. See: 1 Corinthians 3: 4-23.

  • Tim Jones

    “I’m your biggest fan.”

  • Maria

    Squeal! More words of wisdom from Mark Shea! Now to memorize them! Drool.
    ;P Just kidding.

    • haha- it’s the semi-impossible balance- having an audience, but remaining humble

    • TheRealAaron

      The difference is that none of these other Folk Heroes are also Dark Lords. Shea deserves our unquestioning obedience! War is peace, freedom is slavery, sarlaccs are hungry!

      • Mark Shea

        You do have a point. I like the cut of your jib. I’ll kill you last.

  • SDG

    Here’s the thing:

    No one with a public voice can avoid the danger of having a cult of personality. What you can avoid is fostering a cult of personality.

    People who foster cults of personality habitually stoke their audiences with the red meat of Exactly What They Want to Hear. Such people routinely confirm all their audiences’ preexisting opinions, praise and blame all the right people (especially, never pointing the finger at Us), and seldom confront them with unwelcome or uncomfortable facts or perspectives. Everything always reinforces the prevailing narrative; nothing ever challenges it. And, of course, they never, ever admit to mistakes or apologize.

    That is — how to put it? — not Mark. 🙂

  • Nate

    Perhaps we could describe someone who displays cultish loyalty to a particular folk hero as someone who refuses check anyone but a particular person on the internets. That because I check Shea, that therefore I can’t check Voris, or because I check Z or Rorate Caeli, that therefore I can’t check Akin or Shea or The Bench. Certainly, it would be odd if someone got equal edification from both the National Catholic Reporter and the Bellarmine Report, yet me thinks that within the wide (wide) range or orthodox bloggers, one should consider a range of voices–even if these voices insist on yelling at each other. Perhaps we might remember that no one blogger has the story completely right, and try to refrain from declaring, “That’s it! I’m through with this guy!” even after he or she writes something (or a bunch of things) that we find wrong. 🙂

    I mean, if I had to agree with every stance taken by every blogger, I wouldn’t ever check the internets–but I’d be much intellectually poorer for it.

  • Jeremy Dobbs

    Wow. You know Scott Hahn?!? Venite Adoremus!

    • Mark Shea

      If you do but touch the hem of my garments you shall be healed.

  • I’m pretty sure that all the Canonized Saints had cults around them. How do you think St. Francis of Assisi was canonized so quickly?

    We even talk about the cult of Saint Monica or the cult of St. Lucy. Nothing wrong with a cult per say (using the word in its proper denotation) but when a person is given the worship due to God alone, then that’s where you get trouble.

    • Rosemarie


      Also, the Saints were humble enough to point the faithful to Christ rather than exalt themselves. If they gained a “following,” they didn’t exploit or even necessarily appreciate it.

      I’ve been reading this blog for over a decade now. I haven’t always agreed with Mark and I’ve seen others disagree with him, both charitably and not-so-charitably. I’ve seen many people come and go. One thing I’ve never seen, however, is evidence of a Mark Shea Personality Cult being fostered here. Comboxers who disagree with him don’t get shouted down by others for daring to question or criticize him. Even long-time readers who generally agree with him have felt free to correct him on numerous occasions. He’s never been treated as God’s prophet for our times, the sole voice of True Catholicism, or anything like that. I don’t remember anyone treating Mark the way Fr. Corapi’s most zealous fans treated their black sheepdog – the ones who stuck with him to the bitter end and savaged anyone who was even the least bit critical. Had I seen such fanaticism, I would have certainly noticed – and objected. So while I agree that a public forum like this could potentially lead to a blogger receiving undue adulation, I don’t think it’s ever happened here. Just my 2¢.

      • Hezekiah Garrett

        Dang Skippy!!!

        Mark is a the Dude, even when dead wrong.

        • Rosemarie


          Hey, I like this blog – why else have I stuck around? I just don’t see a cult of personality here, so that charge against Mark is unwarranted IMHO.

    • Esther

      I think he’s talking about “cult” in the sense in which it is commonly used nowadays, even if that isn’t its original meaning.

      • Esther

        Wow, that was embarrassing. 🙁

        • Esther

          No, hang on, I was right the first time. Someboidy take this computer away from me before I embarrass myself further.

  • The danger for anyone who tries to proclaim the Truth is to think that they are its source, instead of it’s messenger. Any of us can fall prey to the temptation, if we’re not rooted in Christ.

    Thanks for the reminder Mark!

  • The Jerk

    Mark Shea is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.

    • Mark Shea

      Hah! Best comment of the day. Live forever, Jerk.

  • Do you really pretend that you don’t encourage a cult of personality around yourself? I mean, really?

    Then how do you explain this? 🙂

  • I have pictures of you all over my office. I think you are awesome.

  • victor

    P.J. O’Rourke had some practical advice on what to do if someone (in this case, a date) became infatuated with you. Anyone who fears becoming the head of a cult of personality would do well to heed it: “If you fear that your date is becoming infatuated with you, what you should do is fart, as loudly as you can, right in front of her (or him). This may seem like a coarse thing to do, but it is almost impossible for someone to retain an idealized, dreamy conception of you when you’ve just blown the slipcovers off the furniture and killed all the pets.”

    If Fr. Corapi had followed this advice on at least one but perhaps more occasions, he wouldn’t be where he is now.

    • Mark Shea

      I will have this calligraphied and hung over my desk.

  • Jason C.

    “I have readers who have made me the object of their uncritical and undiscerning veneration.”

    I LOL’d. Also, you shouldn’t let your wife and kids read this ‘blog. 😉

    • Mark Shea

      There’s no worry about a cult of veneration from them. They know me too well. Waaaaaay too well.

  • Esther

    I actually read very few of the “big name” Catholic blogs. The blogs I find most helpful to me personally are small blogs by non-famous Catholics who blog about their everyday lives and about trying and failing and trying again to be saints. I had a personal blog once but I found writing about my own life just made me more self-absorbed. I have a tumblr now but it’s mostly stuff about Doctor Who.
    I make an exception for your blog because you laugh at yourself and it doesn’t feel damaging in the way that a lot of Big Name Catholic Blogs do. (I’m not saying that these blogs are damaging to everyone who reads them. I’m saying they damage me personally. Anything can be an occasion of sin to one specific individual, even a good thing.)

  • David Norris

    This is all very funny given the fact that Christianity itself is, quite literally, one big personality cult itself!

    • Mark Shea

      Nothing wrong with a cult of personality if the Personality is God.

      • David Norris

        An all-powerful God demanding a massive personality cult is pretty creepy if you ask me.

        • Rosemarie


          The infinite, Eternal Creator Who called us all into being from nothingness and lovingly sustains our existence every second deserves our honor and highest worship. There is nothing wrong with Him asking for His due. God is not merely another creature like ourselves, but our first Beginning and last End, Who provides us with all we are and have. This Being deserves our supreme gratitude like no other. Nothing creepy about it.

          • Rosemarie


            Besides, “personality cult” is the wrong term for our relationship with our loving Heavenly Father and our Lord, Brother and Friend Jesus Christ, in the love of the Holy Spirit. More like a familial relationship, along with Mary and the Saints.

        • Mark Shea

          Perhaps you should contemplate the difference between Christ crucified and Kim Jong Il. A God who calls us to worship him is, by definition, giving us the best he has, which is himself. Aa man who demands worship is substituting himself for the best there is, which is God. Jesus didn’t exactly get the royal treatment when he came.

          • An Aaron, not the Aaron

            Yup. God isn’t Gandalf or Dumbledore or some other white-bearded Sky Wizard. He’s God, and it is precisely because He is the all-powerful Creator of the Universe that we owe Him our worship. Not because He demands it, but because of who He is.

        • Subsistent

          Altho God wants us to admire and love and glorify Him, it’s not for His own “ego”, but because in doing this we ourselves are fulfilled and happier, somewhat as we enjoy loving and admiring a beautiful sunset, or beautiful music, or a beautiful and good person. As Thomas Aquinas put it, “God seeks His glory not for His own sake but for ours.” (“Deus gloriam suam quaerit non propter se, sed propter nos.” — Summa Theol., II-II, Q. 132, art. 1, ad 1.)

          • Rosemarie


            True, God is self-sufficient and in need of nothing. Our praise and worship does not add anything to Him but it does benefit us, since He made us for Himself.

    • Chris M

      It’s more like a Cult of Persons. Three, to be exact.

  • Julia

    Mark- you don’t have a cult of personality. You have minions.

    • Mark Shea

      That’s totally different, cuz I can have them killed at any time.

  • Neil P

    There was quite a cult of personality around John Paul II. Can you imagine if someone other than the pope kissed the koran, held the assisi event, underwent a Mayan cleansing ceremony? He would have denounced; but when JP2 does it he is “the Great.”

  • The dead are no less dangerous in this regard than the living. Chesterton comes to mind.

    • Zombie Chesterton has a personality cult?! POINT ME TO HIS BLOG

    • Mark Shea

      Chesterton can hardly be condemned for encouraging a cult of personality. Though it is true that some are inclined to attribute infallibility to him.

  • john g

    I just want to know why every time I hear a tin cup rattle I open may paypal account?

    • Mark Shea

      It’s my Svengali-like grip on your pliant mind. Now cluck like a chicken!

  • Elaine

    I follow a lot of Catholic blogs because the writers talk about stuff I am interested in. I just don’t understand things like going all over the internet defending their honor in comboxes and trying to get people fired the week before Christmas. And people don’t need a strong celebrity personality in order to say things which are valuable and true. The bishops and priests do speak, write, instruct, teach, and guide. If people don’t listen to them because they are boring, or aren’t using the right medium to communicate, or they talk about love and mercy too much, or because of anger about the problems in the Church, or loss of trust, then I don’t know what to say. I guess I will listen to my priest and bishop first just because I am so sick of living in a culture where everything is packaged and marketed in order to manipulate me in some way. When it’s not entertaining and flashy and what I wanted at least I know it’s not completely phony.