Friday, January 16, 2015

Talking smack about the Pope

It’s been over a week now, and certain people still haven’t gotten over the spanking Maureen Mullarkey received for her rather slanderous attack on Pope Francis. And a spanking it was; R. R. Reno, the editor-in-chief of First Things, not only washed his hands of her post but offered his own rebuttal to it, calling her criticisms and caricatures of Francis “overdrawn and ill-tempered”.

Oh, wait a minute — that’s not the spanking they’re not over. Rather, they’re not over the explosion from the Patheos blog, Catholic and Enjoying It, written by The Blogger Whom I’m Damn Well Going to Name for Just This Once, Mark Shea.

You see, Shea had just written the day before about the Catholic right’s pre-dismissal of Francis’ yet-to-be-completed encyclical on climate change; and lo and behold, out comes Mullarkey’s hit piece. (You could almost hear him yelling at the clay pigeon launcher, “Pull!”) So he unloaded on Mullarkey, as well as her First Things combox followers, calling it a “festival of crazy contempt for Francis” and a “revolting (in every sense) smear job”.

Christopher Ferrara at The Remnant promptly got upset on Mullarkey’s behalf, deploying even more right-wing buzzwords and straw men, along with a healthy dollop of radical-traditionalist contempt for “neo-Catholics”. (Apparently, Francis “kissed the Koran” when he posed for that shot holding the anti-fracking T-shirt.) Nevertheless, we might have been able to walk away from the shindy — certainly it doesn’t appear Shea’s given the matter any further attention — had not my Catholic Stand colleague Donald R. McClarey weighed in with further acid, preceded with the biggest straw man of them all:

“…[C]riticism of this Pope is verboten in the eyes of some bloggers.”

The one thing you can say about cognitive biases is that everybody else has them. Especially wishful thinking; it seems that 95% of the blogosphere suffers from either wishful thinking or confirmation bias, while the rest write about cats and favorite recipes. Cognitive biases are what keep people linking questionable reports from dubious sources, reaffirming the Murphy’s Law variant, “Bad data drives out good data.” Political rhetoric thrives off both cognitive biases and accusations thereof.

Regardless, at the end of the day, the “cognitive bias” charge is simply a variant of what C. S. Lewis called the “Bulverism”: the evasion of logical analysis in favor of amateur psychoanalysis. We could argue that either one side or the other, or both sides, are seeing what they want to see and ignoring what they don’t, and it wouldn’t move the football any further down the gridiron one way or another.

The football metaphor is a rather clumsy one when you’re trying to express the idea of coming to a mutually-agreed resolution, of each side trying to convince the other of their position. In this case, however, it’s to be doubted whether either side is particularly interested in converting the other to their side; both, in fact, seemingly strive to be offensive, because “Hey, we’re telling the TRVTH, and if it gets your knickers in a twist, that’s your problem.” None of the parties involved are really arguing their positions; they’re simply trading insults back and forth.

Nevertheless, at no point has Shea, or any other member of what Saint Louis Catholic has charmingly termed “the Neo-Catholic Brute Squad”, said, implied, or in any other way given a reasonable person to understand that Pope Francis is (or should be) beyond criticism.

Then why, one might ask, do Shea et alia fight back so hard at the Catholic right’s criticism? Because the criticism isn’t correct or justified simply because the rad-trads of the Catholic right are convinced of it. We denizens of the Catholic commentariat don’t derive any benefit from the infallibility of the Church’s magisterium. If Francis isn’t above criticism, neither is Ferrara, Steve Skojec, or Hilary White. Neither is Mark Shea. Neither am I, for that matter.

The remarkable thing about freedom of speech is that not only are Ferrara, Skojec, and their fellow travelers all free to spout their opinions vis-à-vis the Pope whenever they get an itch, Shea, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Scott Eric Alt and I are all free to tell them they’re full of beans … and vice versa. McClarey certainly has been at this mug’s game long enough to know that, if you’re going to throw yourself into the ring, you shouldn’t be surprised to get punched now and then.

Moreover, per Canon 212 §3, the faithful have a right, sometimes a positive duty, to “manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive tothe dignity of persons[bold type mine.—ASL]. The language radical traditionalists and Catholic conservatives, such as Mullarkey and Ferrara, have used when speaking of the Pope and various bishops can hardly be described as respectful, let alone reverent; indeed, as John Médaille has remarked, it’s hardly distinguishable from anti-Catholic rhetoric.

From the very beginning of Francis’ pontificate, I was amused by the fact that both the Catholic left and the radical traditionalists bought into the mainstream media’s “progressive pope” narrative frame. But while the left is slowly but surely becoming disillusioned, the right has doubled down on it, all but openly calling the Pope a pinko commie (and, in fact, Mullarkey did accuse il Papa of holding a “marxisant variant” of a certain mindset, damning him with vague terminology). I suspect it stems from Evangelii Gaudium, in which Francis failed to stick to the free-trade gospel message, and even (gasp!) dared to criticize capitalism. Echoing Dom Hélder Câmara,[1] Francis recently complained that he “can’t quote the teachings of Church fathers from the first centuries without being accused of giving a Marxist homily.”

Postmodern analysis is crippled unless the thinker can identify an appropriate pigeonhole in which he can stuff an opponent’s thoughts. Nevertheless, the rad-trad right’s efforts to whip up a Vatican red scare is almost anachronistic; one might just as well accuse Francis of being an agent for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Is Francis an ideal pope? To be quite candid, no. Here is a post I wrote on the matter; as an extra added bonus (as the commercials say), here is another post in which Mark Shea asks of the Pope, concerning the appointment of Cdl. Godfried Danneels to the Synod on the Family, “Holy Dude, what were you thinking?” These are the only two freebies you get. However, I’m sure if you look hard enough, you’ll find other examples of “neo-Catholics” expressing frustration or dissatisfaction with the Pope.

The point was never to stifle criticism of Pope Francis. “Haters gonna hate”, as the kids say; you might as well try to bail out the Mississippi River with a teaspoon as stop Rorate Caeli from calling Francis a “disastrous” pope. Sorry if we just don’t think your logic is as crystalline or your evidence as substantive as you do; blame it on our cognitive biases.

But don’t insult the Pope and expect everyone to let it pass unremarked. If you don’t like to be contradicted, go write about cats and your favorite recipes.


[1] “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”