Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Catholic circular firing squad

Lyndon Johnson once quipped that he didn’t play favorites with any of his staff: “I treat everyone with the same general inconsideration.”

Mark Shea is fair in a similar fashion — he’s just as sarcastic towards the idiots on the right as he is towards the idiots on the left. One day he defends Michael Voris and his webmaster Simon Rafe against unjust accusations; another day he tells us what Voris’ real failings are. How can you not like him?

(Very easily; some people just can’t get past the snark to see the passionate, sincere concern that drives his incessant output. For all that, I find I like his brand of no-holds-barred apologetics much better than I like Voris’.)

But Shea believes that, to a certain extent, many of the attacks on Rafe are logical outcomes of the “inquisitorial culture Voris is fostering”; that is, many Catholic pundits are no longer drawing bright lines between fraternal correction and judgmentalism. “This sort of rubbish illustrates everything I was trying to say [in criticism of Michael Voris (see the above link)] about the tendency of this small but growing subculture in the Church to eat its young,” he huffed this morning.

One comment, by Dale Price, captured the image perfectly: “The Circular Catholic Firing Squad is an awful thing to watch.” [Alas! since The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named has moved his blog to Patheos, you can't see the comment in context — the old Blogger site forwards you to the copy on Patheos.]

To bring you up to speed on the matter, it was recently revealed that St. Michael’s Media, Voris’ personal ministry, had lost its registry with the State of Michigan as a 501(c)3 non-profit entity after someone in the office failed to file the appropriate paperwork for two years. Real Catholic TV, with which Voris is mainly associated by many Catholics, is not part of St. Michael’s Media, and operates as a for-profit entity.

To add to his embarrassment, the same source also revealed that Simon Rafe, who is also a staff apologist and program host at St Michael’s, had authored an adult role-playing game describing sex with an Elven goddess and fan fiction depicting homosexuality in the Star Wars universe. Rafe has taken both down and offered a public explanation and apology.

So far, so bad. For my own part, I’m ready to offer my public support to anyone who admits making mistakes or publicly confesses to sin. Having confessed to personal weaknesses and a struggle with an addiction, I’m well aware of the log in my eye (Mt 7:3; Lk 6:41). There’s a valid distinction between confessing sins and denying the sinfulness of those actions; that’s where my writing comes in. We are to forgive the repentant sinner … but the sinner must repent first.

But while I’m just as likely as Shea or Tom Peters to clepe liberal Catholics such as Heidi Schlumpf, Frances Kissling and Jamie Manson as “pseudo-Catholics”, “crypto-Protestants” and “CINOs” (Catholics In Name Only), I do so because they literally dissent from Catholic teaching. All dissent is sinful, but not all sin is dissent.[1] To dissent, it isn’t enough that a Catholic violate Catholic moral teaching or mistakenly advocate a heretical belief: he must do so with the full and conscious intention of flouting, even undermining, the magisterium of the Church.

We saw something like this near the beginning of the year in the “Lies and Lila Rose” debate; at the time, I compared it to a “blue-on-blue incident” in war. The gift horse of LiveAction’s entrapment videos needed a dental exam, so the debate was definitely necessary. Nevertheless, in many of the comboxes, the argument eventually devolved into mudslinging and virtual, non-canonical excommunications.

One of the least well-defined lines in a Catholic’s life is the one between legitimate judgment and judgmentalism. For we’re called to engage in fraternal correction:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17).

On the other hand, we’re called to remember that we’re sinners too, and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). Shea references the parable of the unjust steward (Mt 18:23-35); to that I would also add the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:10-14). Jesus instructed us to forgive the repentant, not to speculate on his motives for repenting or the firmness of his intent to amend his life.

In his conversion memoir, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), David B. Currie remarks on the Evangelical reputation for “shooting their wounded”, remarking that they “think it’s a scandal that the Catholic Church allows people who may be less than perfect to remain in the Church.”[2] Unfortunately, many Catholics show this same kind of Pharisaical tendency.

It’s nothing short of hypocritical to lionize converts such as the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson and Abby Johnson and yet cast into the darkness Simon Rafe. All three have repented for their sins; on what grounds do we elevate the former two to hero status and deny the latter even the courtesy of conceding good intentions?

Not only is it inconsistent, it smacks of political expediency, a charge our opponents in the public square would be more than ecstatic to make. In the end, we do nothing for the soul of Rafe, and we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Or each other in the chest. Like a circular firing squad.

[1] I’ll treat the difference between Catholic dissent and non-Catholic opposition at another time.
[2] Op. cit., p. 68.