When I was preparing to blog again for Patheos, I remembered one of the social media rules for freelance writers: “Thou must have a Twitter account.” Although I’d been active on Facebook for over a decade, I’ve long disliked the more public aspect to Twitter. The last thing I wanted to become was a Twitter pundit. Nonetheless, a freelance writer has to keep her name out there, so I held my nose and dived. But if I was going to do this, the last thing I was going to do was cloak my political opinions.
The good news is that Catholic Twitter recognized my name and remembered my background as a staff apologist for Catholic Answers for 17 years. The bad news is that the major question they had for me was “What happened to you?!” How could someone who worked for a conservative Catholic apologetics organization for two decades be publicly challenging conservative Catholics on Twitter? How could she (*gasp*) come right out and tell the world she was voting for the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, for President?
Was I a stealth ninja at hiding my progressive leanings all these years, infiltrating a revered conservative bastion with my evil liberalism (a slight exaggeration of a theory offered recently by a conservative Catholic social media pundit)?
Okay, fine, I won’t bare my “wounds” to the public, as the pundit today asked me to do in 280 characters or less on Twitter, but I’ll take a crack at answering the questions.
Being a thorn in the flesh to conservative Catholics is nothing new for me. I’ve done that for years. A few months after Catholic Answers launched a staff blog on its web site, I wrote an essay critiquing an apologetics argument popularized by one of the apologetics movement’s grand poobahs. If you click on the link I’ve provided here, the first thing you’ll note is that I didn’t name names. I simply pointed out why I thought the argument for the Virgin Mary’s queenship was over-used and should be supplemented with New Testament scriptural evidence. A few days later, I was informed that a former staff apologist for Catholic Answers had called in to complain that my article had the potential to make the grand poobah look bad, apparently because “everyone” knew this was his argument. I was reprimanded but not required to take down the article.
A year later, I wrote an essay on charity in apologetics, using as my launch pad a recent free-for-all in Catholic cyberspace. As a secondary example, I referenced (again, no names) a conflict I’d had with the wife of another popular apologist, which started because the apologist didn’t like it when I commented negatively on his wife’s public blog posts on my personal Facebook page. Unfortunately for me, he saw the essay, called in, and complained. I was again reprimanded for annoying “friends in the field”—but not required to remove the article.
Why do I do this? Because, frankly, I reject the notion that cooperation with fellow workers in the vineyard requires me to shut up when I disagree with how they do apologetics, or with their opinions on matters over which Catholics are free to disagree, or with their political activism. In fact, I consider it a positive good for Catholics to see that there is room for good Catholics to disagree, to critique each other in a constructive, non-abusive fashion, and to demonstrate that you don’t have to walk in lockstep with the Republican party to be a “good” Catholic.
Which brings me to my public support for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Back in August, I wrote a personal guide to voting as a Catholic in the upcoming election. In that essay, I said I wouldn’t tell readers who to vote for. Earlier this month, I posted to social media that I’d voted for Biden for President. Was that a contradiction? Not really, since announcing who I voted for isn’t the same thing as telling others who to vote for. But even if it was, I no longer care. As I said on my public Facebook page:
I’m a pro-life registered Democrat (for ten years), a practicing Catholic, and I voted for Joe Biden *because I want Donald Trump out of a job in January.* That’s my reason, my conscience is clear that it’s reason enough to vote for a candidate I disagree with on an important moral issue, and I no longer care what the More Catholic Than Thou social media pundits think of my Catholic orthodoxy.
Oh, but shouldn’t you be impartial, Michelle? You may not be a bishop, priest, deacon, consecrated religious, or even employed as a professional Catholic apologist anymore, but you made a name for yourself writing about Catholic faith and morals. How can you come right out and scandalize conservative Catholics by publicly supporting the Democratic nominee?
Get back to me, please, when conservative Catholics—including bishops, clergy, consecrated religious, and lay apologists—stop publicly supporting Donald Trump and telling Catholics that they’ll go to hell if they dare vote for a Democrat.
Jesse Romero, who works as a Catholic apologist, recently announced on Twitter that he was joining the Trump campaign effort in Arizona. He and Austin Ruse, a Catholic conservative political activist and head of a nonprofit group, have each written books urging Catholics to vote for Trump. Lest you think this is a “guy thing,” conservative Catholic social media pundits, Leila Miller and Jennifer Hartline, have been open in their support for Trump as well. In this case, I’ve made an exception to my general practice of not naming names because these people have been very public in their activism for Trump and the GOP.
Priests and bishops also have been lighting up social media to manipulate Catholics into either voting for Trump or into believing it’s a sin to vote for Biden. They did the same in 2016. And earlier this month, a Catholic woman I used to consider a good friend used her platform to manipulate the consciences of the Catholics on her mailing list. When I sent her an email, pleading with her to reconsider a project she’d undertaken to further that manipulation, she evidently decided to ignore me.
Back in 2016, I remember a seminary professor writing on her public social media that she had made political contributions to the Trump campaign. Meanwhile, I didn’t dare put a bumper sticker in support of Hillary Clinton on my own car, much less publicly announce I’d donated to her campaign (which, for the record, I didn’t do). I watched a conservative Catholic writer use a conservative media platform to call for “canceling” two pro-life, conservative-ish, practicing Catholic writers who refused to remain quiet on their social media about their disapproval of Trump. I’m no longer in a position in which I have to remain quiet, so I can no longer do so in good conscience.
Am I just some stealth operative then? Have I expertly hidden my evolution from a blood-red conservative to a true-blue liberal, only to be exposed for my hidden progressive leanings now that I’ve left Catholic Answers?
As people who know me well will happily tell you, I’m not that good an actress. While I’ve been discreet about sharing my personal opinions, confining them, for the most part, to my Facebook friends and to private social media groups, my political leanings were well known by my colleagues. Yes, my views occasionally leaked out because Facebook isn’t a super-secret diary. I was once called on the carpet for criticizing the prudential judgment of a conservative prelate who was a friend of the apostolate. On my last day, at the farewell party, a fellow apologist joked that I should apply to the National Catholic Reporter.
But the fact of the matter is that I had no need to completely cloak my personal opinions because my colleagues were well aware that those opinions fell within the range of permitted opinion for Catholics. Occasionally, I was counseled to be even more discreet. Sometimes, I had to accept edits that were deemed necessary to keep the apostolate “on brand” (and which I understood, even when I might have wished those edits were unnecessary). There were sometimes significant differences of opinion. Nonetheless, I was never once forced to personally retract any of my opinions. (I was once asked to remove an essay from Patheos, but I wasn’t required to repudiate or apologize for any of the claims I made in the piece.)
I’ve always appreciated the freedom I had at Catholic Answers. It was necessarily limited to some extent because the apostolate had a point of view, had a need to cooperate with friends in the field, and those realities sometimes meant they had to avoid public controversy whenever possible. But that never meant that all of us had to walk in lockstep politically. So long as we were practicing Catholics who accepted the Church’s definitive teachings on doctrine and morals, we weren’t expected to abandon our individuality. And, in that, I’m reminded of a quote I’ve always loved, attributed to Bishop Fulton Sheen:
Once the Catholic accepts the eternal truths of Christ, he is free to accept all the nonessential beliefs he pleases. He can be a monarchist or a republican. He can live solitary and alone on a pillar like Simon, or he can busy himself on the streets of Paris like a Vincent de Paul. He can accept Einstein or reject him. He can believe in the gold standard or the silver standard; he can play cards and dance, or he can abstain from them; he can drink moderately or he can be prohibitionist. He is like a man living on a great island in the sea on which he may roam and exercise his freedom in a thousand and one games, but only on condition that he obey the only law that is posted there: “Do not jump over the walls.”
I may not follow the conservative Catholic drummers anymore, but I’ve never once, in 24 years of being a Catholic, jumped over the walls.
(Image: Fortress of Agios Nikolaos, Rhodes; Pixabay.)