A good conversation with a reader

A good conversation with a reader February 24, 2020

He writes:

Hey Mark,

You may or may not remember me by my name, and we’ve never met in person, but I’ve been a reader of yours for years (and we’re Facebook friends!) and I’ve appreciated and learned a lot from your take on American Politics and its relationship to Church teaching.

Hi!  Sorry for my incredible slowness to reply.  I’m working on three books–cuz I’m stupid.

And so I’ve been thinking about the state you find yourself in, which seems to be defending the Church from right-wing Catholics.  Which is different than 2002 when I first came across you as part of the St. Blog’s webring.  I’d say this started with the waterboarding stance that you and Erin “Red Cardigan” staked out, but it’s only gotten worse since then, and since Trump, it seems to have hit a bat-shit-crazy level.

Southern Baptist Russell Moore, a good man, remarked a couple of years ago that the Religious Right are the people the Religious Right warned you about 20 years ago.  I never would have dreamed I would live in a time where the people I took seriously and honestly believed were committed, non-cafeteria Catholics who respected the Holy Father, took the Church’s whole teaching seriously, and believed the ends did not justify the means would morph into this Freak Show that hates the Holy Father’s living guts, is 100% committed to a lying, sadistic sex predator and con man, and believes whole-heartedly in doing any evil necessary to gain a good end.  Nor would I have believed that they could morph so quickly.  It is hard for me to see this seduction as anything but diabolical in origin.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about some of the discussions you’ve had on Facebook with <strike>Catholic</strike> Republicans, and why you are being met with the responses you are.  [Can you tell that I’m stuck on HTML 2.0, and only spend time on the world wide web as a consumer, not as a content-provider?]

I stand impressed and believe you must still kill at playing Oregon Trail and Zork.

I wasn’t really just thinking about you, it’s about the whole nature of political and religious discourse: I’m feeling kind of discouraged as I see friends and fellow Catholics (including some clergy that I know) thinking with the GOP instead of thinking with the Catholic Church.

I hear you.

Especially the bit about how are people really confused about Pope Francis?  You’ve written it before, but you recently published something on that topic, and I completely agree with it.  Pope Francis is not the rigorous theologian that BXVI is, and more importantly, he is not going to clarify statements or doctrine in the way that BXVI would.  Personally, as an educator and academic, this is frustrating and goes against my training, but I would be disingenuous if I tried to claim that it is the least bit confusing.

Yep.  It’s not confusing.  It’s just that they hate what he is saying.  Because he threatens their views on evangelism (Francis: Evangelize! Cult:  But that brings riff raff into the Church who don’t care about our aesthetic obsessions!) and the poor (Francis:  Put the Least of These first!  Cult: But that threatens the power of white ethnonationalists who dream of being Trump someday!)

The holy father’s ambiguity comes from the fact that his statements are pastoral ones and not academic ones, and any clarifying followup would defeat the purpose of what he was trying to say to the people he was saying it to.

Yep.  He has spent his life talking to Jose Sixpak in his little home in the favela.  He has seen the glories of US policy from the other end of the gun barrel.

However, I was thinking in reference to you, and the effect that the internet interactions has been having on you.  And, as I was cutting down the jungle that is my back yard this evening, I might have an insight that could be helpful to you:

Okay.  Fire away!

What you’ve been doing now for quite some time is catechetics.  And you do it well.  Your ability to develop rational lines of argument is strong, and you also have a good ability to identify aspects of peoples’ understanding that are lacking and address your rational arguments in that direction.

Thank you.

But, what we are experiencing in the American Church (especially the parts that put the American part first and the Church part second or third) is not a lack of catechetics.  Especially among right-wing Catholics the problem is not primarily a lack of catechetical formation (there is a lack, as evidence by the basic obliviousness exhibited toward authentic Catholic teaching, such as the definition of Social Justice) but what is blocking their understanding is rather a lack of discipleship.

I agree with that.  Much of the catechesis (I discover far too late) was rooted in the questions and issues that dominated Evangelical/Catholic encounter in the 90s and beyond.  Certainly that was the case with me.  And I was graced by formation from a number of people who took discipleship to Jesus Christ in the heart of his Church for granted, Sherry Weddell (among several others) among them.  I took it for granted when allegedly “faithful conservative Catholics” told me they respected the Magisterium and were not interested in picking and choosing from the Tradition merely to accessorize their politics.  It took me a loooooong time to realize that my simplistic trust in that claim was ill-founded.  The first intimations that something was seriously wrong was the total embrace of torture by so many “faithful prolife” Catholics, who led the charge for war on the Church’s teaching.  Then came the revolt against Francis and the stunning embrace of Trump and the game became clear: discipleship was not on the table for a shocking percentage of Catholics who proudly spent their time declaring that other Catholics (including the Pope) were “fake Catholics”.  It’s about power and rules and forcing people to act out of law and fear.  The idea of conversion by the power of grace is not even on the radar.  The Faith is something more like an abstraction or a set of rules.  The very idea of a living relationship with Jesus in the heart of his Church is touchy-feely New Age pap, or else something reserved for “saints”, not ordinary people.  Sherry’s Forming Intentional Disciples really nails this dynamic and show why it’s conversion or bust.

Sherry has been preaching for a long time about the dearth of discipleship that has been replaced by a knowledge of the doctrines of the faith, and I think what you are experiencing online is the obstinate refusal to submit to discipleship.  I suspect that the lack of discipleship has always been there; if accusation is confession, the cries of “cafeteria Catholicism” from the JPII and BXVI era show that the problem existed before Francis ascended to the Chair.

Yeah.  And unfortunately, I am enough of Platonist (and my charism is ordered toward teaching so strongly) that it is extraordinarily difficult for me to accept the reality that no amount of clarity can make somebody see what they do not want to see, nor achieve what only the Holy Spirit can do by an act of grace.  It’s intensely frustrating to me–as well as deeply heartbreaking because it is precisely the subculture I have always reflexively identified myself with since I became Catholic that is now, in overwhelming percentages, the biggest enemy of the Holy Father (who I regard as a good man). They are also the biggest enemies of most of the Church (whom they regard as they regard  me: a bunch of losers and reprobates who need to be kicked out so the Church can be “purified” to include only themselves).

But my point in sharing this with you is that it might inform your tactics.  Since the problem won’t be solved by a rational defense of rationality, you’re just going to keep beating your head against your keyboard if you continue to offer those rational defenses.

Of course.  But what else is there?  Irrational defenses?  All I know to do is to keep trying to be clear.  These days, I’ve given up writing for the Francis-hating admirers of Trump and I’m mostly trying to bear witness to legitimately scandalized people (both believers and non-believers) that there are still 7000 in Israel who have not bent the knee to Baal.  I often don’t do that well, because I struggle with both outrage at the assaults on human decency from the Cult and with crushing heartbreak over the spectacle of Christian Court Prophets for these horrors.  I go to confession a lot and try to make it right when I fail on the blog.  But, of course, such is the nature of things that when you fail to apologize you are told you are proud and when you do you are told you are a liar.  Fun!

On the other hand, prophets might sometimes be called to keep beating their heads against their keyboards, because you are obviously reaching some of your readers.

I have no views on my being a prophet (except inasmuch as all the baptized are prophets, priests and kings in Christ).  I just know that I can’t not speak.  I can’t.  I could not look God–or my children and grand-children–in the eye when (please God!) this degrading episode in the life of the American Church is past and say, “I did nothing.  I said nothing.  When Christians overwhelmingly conformed and spoke a torrent of lies, I just joined in and took the money and kept my head down and shut my mouth.”  I’ve lost a helluva lot of friends.  And sometimes deservedly so, because anger is my besetting sin.  But on the whole, the ones I have retained are people who, even when I sin, confront me with love and do not embarrass me with lies or nauseate me with excuses for disgusting evils.

As with most things I write down, this thought seemed a lot more insightful when it was still on the inside of my head.  So, reading over what I just wrote, I probably haven’t said anything useful.  But in the interest of publishing every thought no matter how stupid, I’m going to hit “send” anyway.  At least know that I support you and my prayers are with you.  Stay strong.

Thank you so much for this genuine encouragement.  I apologize again for taking so long to respond.  I deeply appreciate your prayers.  May God bless your work in the Vineyard and please write me again if you ever feel you need to correct or rebuke me.  Faithful are the wounds of a friend.

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