A Word on Internecine Debates Among Catholics

I seem to be finding out about Catholic blogosphere flame wars later in the game than I used to. Apparently, the latest feud concerns disagreements over the population of Hell. Here’s a blog post that sums up the recent discussion. Fr. Robert Barron, of _The Word On Fire_ and _Catholicism_, has a tendency to lean more towards the “universalist” theory. Now, the rise of universalism among Catholic theologians (and even Popes) in recent decades is one of the big legitimate complaints of “RadTrads,” and apparently is filtering into the “mainstream” Church, as it were. Catholic Universalism was pioneered by the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was highly respected by the late Bl. John Paul II and was a direct mentor of Joseph Ratzinger. Many prominent “orthodox” Catholics, such as Fr. Joseph Fessio (in turn a direct student of Ratzinger’s), have been von Balthasar supporters, so a tacit approval of his universalism has filtered into the church. The Holy Father even implied a few years ago in his capacity as pope that Universalism is not necessarily heretical and may actually be how things work. So theologian Ralph Martin apparently wrote something pointing out that the full Christian Tradition is that the majority of people go to Hell, and challenging some of Fr. Barron’s teachings.

And this is how these debates always start.
1. One of two things happen
a) One prominent “conservative” theologian, apologist or priest writes or says something critical of some aspect of the thought of another prominent “conservative” theologian, apologist, priest, or perhaps a pro-life activist.
b) A popular priest gets in some kind of trouble with his bishop or religious superiors.

2. Immediately, a group of supporters of the person who’s been criticized or investigated jumps to his or her defense online, writing angry messages saying how it’s a Satanic attack, and anyone who would criticize such a good and holy person must be working for the Devil.

3. Then, of course, those taking the other position have to not only defend their position but defend themselves against the accusation of being agents of Satan, and the flame war begins, and people are forced to “take sides” rather than look at a situation rationally.

And that doesn’t even touch on the flame wars that erupt over unapproved apparitions and fantasy novels.

So simply saying, “I think A is an admirable activist who’s heart is in the right place, but I think some of his/her methods are morally questionable or imprudent” MUST imply that one is opposed to the entire pro-life movement. Simply saying, “I think Fr. B should follow the examples of the saints and step out of the public eye till this investigation is finished” becomes a claim that one things Fr. B is “guilty,” even by those who invoke the same saints to point out how priests have often been falsely accused of stuff. Saying, “I think Fr. C expressed some valid points that few people are willing to consider” becomes an endorsement of pedophilia. Saying, “I think Fr. C expressed some stupid opinions, but he’s still a very holy man” becomes a statement of contempt for Fr. C. Saying, “Fr. D.’s public actions are very problematic, but I’m not making a judgement of the private accusations” is taken as a judgement of the private accusations. And so on. It’s maddening.

And it’s not new to the Internet, as I’m going to discuss. Sheldon Vanauken discusses this phenomenon in _Under the Mercy_, and he points out it’s what drove him to the Radical Left in the 60s: he was largely conservative but supported the Civil Rights movement and some aspects of the feminist and anti-war movements. However, society’s insistence on polarization (which has always been there) meant that if you sided *at all* with the Left on those issues, you had to be a Liberal, and so he fell completely into everything that was the 1960s, and it took him years to reverse course.

Now one need read only the ancient rhetoricians or the Founding Fathers to see that debates have always been heated and the Internet doesn’t do anything to make things more “heated” other than widening the range of people involved in any given discussion, and watching videos online of WFB in his heyday show that TV political talk shows haven’t changed much either. However, I am frustrated with the way that we Catholics have adopted an “all or none” attitude towards our brethren.

So if someone expresses one opinion that we disagree with or that may even be objectively wrong, we throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. “I can’t believe [Fr. Groeschel/Fr. Barron/Peter Kreeft/Mark Shea/Christopher West/whomever] said that, so I’m going to label him a heretic and never listen to anything else he has to say.” I’m really sick of that mentality, a mentality I used to have myself till I realized how insulating it is. We ought to be able, as Fr. Barron says somewhere in the _Catholicism_ series, to have a “good, clean debate” without insisting that those who are 90-99% in agreement with us must be 100% our enemies over topics where the Church gives room to debate. And again, this is nothing new: Scotus’s insistence on the Immaculate Conception was seen as a personal affront to the legacies of Aquinas and Bonaventure. Jerome was known for writing nasty letters.

Only the Holy Father is infallible, and technically he’s only infallible when either a) restating previously defined dogma, b) speaking ex cathedra, or c) speaking definitively at a Council.

We need to stop expecting infallibility of our favored theologians and philosophers. All of us our capable of committing intellectual mistakes, or in Fr. Barron’s case, perhaps erring a bit too much on the side of mercy (or in other people’s cases, erring too much on the side of judgement).

We also need to stop confusing personal holiness and teaching. Fr. X may be a fantastic preacher who hits the nail on the head, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t commit sins–especially if he often observes in his own preaching that we should recognize that priests are sinners, too. Fr. Y may be personally holy and the most close-to-sinless person you ever meet, and his teaching may sometimes have flaws because he lets his personal compassion for sinners infect his teaching. It would be nice if all our priests followed the model of St. Louis de Montfort–a lion from the pulpit and a lamb from the Confessional.

But let’s try to be more merciful in our view of one another.


5 responses to “A Word on Internecine Debates Among Catholics

  1. Have I failed herein:
    a) my defense of Mark Shea’s livelihood and defense with reserves of Perry Lorenzo:


    b) my dealing with part of the heat I have taken for it:


    c) my two responses to Mark Shea on quite another matter:



  2. Not failing, but illustrating exactly what I’m talking about. In Mark’s case, whenever I take “his side” in one of these debates, because I think he makes good points, people accuse me of being a mindless follower of Mark Shea, even though I’m the first to admit his style is a bit to vitriolic at times, and I have at times gone at it with him over some issues (i.e., liturgy).

  3. no ones perfect, all the time.we all just try hard.

    • Exactly, that’s why we will never “cure” poverty. Also, it’s important to remember longstanding papal teaching that secular approaches to ending poverty are bad because they do not include an explicitly Christian impetus. The original popes who condemned modernism and freemasonry emphasized that charity by secular coercion not only has no merit but is outright evil.

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