Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Prominent Catholic Fan Club (TM)

Technically, Mark Shea Appreciation Month here at And Sometimes Tea ended yesterday, but I'm going to keep the little links up on the sidebar through the end of this week. If you feel moved to click Mark's Paypal button or buy some books or tapes, please do so!

The reason I'm bringing Mark up again is because of this post he wrote on his blog today, and especially his link to this article he wrote last year. In the article, he mentions a worried note he has received from a reader, and says:

A number of things concern me about this note. But the first and foremost is that somebody's faith could be disturbed by the fact that a Catholic apologist has erred. Sadly, it's not the first time I've encountered the tendency to anoint me or some other apologist as a sort of Alternative Magisterium to the real Magisterium by a "fan base" that is somewhere between a school of disciples and a cheer squad. Indeed, I have found that, in an era where laity have been taught to mistrust their bishops--not only by the media and the culture, but by the shocking incompetence and perfidy of the bishops in the abuse scandal--it's very easy for laity to hive off and anoint new ersatz Magisteria in the form of whatever faction they happen to fancy. For some, the New Magisterium is the advocates for women priests. For others, it's Catholics for a Free Choice. For still others, it's whatever Richard McBrien says is the consensus of Thinking Catholics in the Academy. For some, it's Dan Brown.

But for not a few in the apologetics subculture, it's what I or Scott Hahn or [insert favorite apologist] thinks about X, Y and Z. And that's a very dangerous thing to do, because we apologists are not protected by the charism of infallibility in the slightest. In the case cited by my correspondent above, for instance, the crisis of faith was precipitated by the fact that I misread St. Jerome in an article I wrote years ago for Envoy. (I thought Jerome was defending the Septuagint and the inclusion of deuterocanonical books like Tobit, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees in the canon of Scripture.) I did not misread Jerome wilfully, as Mr. X suggested on his blog, but I nonetheless did make a blunder. That's the breaks. I make mistakes.

I think that some people collect Prominent Catholic Thinkers, Speakers or Writers (TM) the way that others collect baseball cards or antique art glass. That's not an entirely bad thing, certainly not from the standpoint of those Prominent Catholics who in many cases are trying either to earn a living entirely from such works, or else supplement the kind of salary one can be paid in the academic world for being a Prominent Catholic--and in case anyone is under the impression that these sorts of careers lead to fame and fortune, let's just say that there have been periods in the Church when an indulgence might cost you more than these guys (and gals) get paid in a year (adjusting for inflation, and overlooking the fact that payment in that era often came in the form of livestock).

Okay, I'm kidding. But only about the indulgences.

So while people like Mark Shea or Amy Welborn or Dawn Eden or Scott Hahn or countless others are probably quite pleased when people buy their books or tapes, visit their conferences, hire them to speak, or otherwise show some financial appreciation for their labors, I am fairly positive that not one of them would ever want to be mistaken for the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. To the extent that their teachings or writings are ever authoritative, it is to the degree to which their writings conform to the Magisterium--that is, they teach and write well, when what they teach and write can be demonstrated to agree with various official Church documents, such as the Catechism, the writings of the early Church fathers, the encyclicals of the popes, and other such iterations of authentic Catholic truth.

But, as Mark points out above, it is possible for him, or for any of them, to be wrong about something. It may be some small historical detail, or it may be an entirely erroneous conclusion about an issue, or it may be anything in between. When Catholic scholars or writers or teachers or thinkers find themselves at odds with the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, it is the job of these Prominent Catholics to make a correction--it is not the job of the Church to correct herself for their sakes.

For the fans of the Prominent Catholics, it may be extremely disconcerting to catch an error, or find a point of disagreement, or see one's favorite Prominent Catholic failing to care sufficiently about one of one's own side issues or matters of concern. But falling into that attitude is a clear indication that the fans have, themselves, mistaken the Prominent Catholic for the Church, and not in the "Mystical Body" sense, but in the sense that they really do substitute the thinking, speaking, writing et. al. of this Catholic or these Catholics for authoritative Catholic teaching.

And that's a problem, one which the Prominent Catholics themselves must be acutely aware of. It's a problem for two reasons--one, because it elevates the Prominent Catholics to an office they do not aspire to and cannot hold, and two, because it creates in the mind of the various fans out there the temptation to see one's favorite Prominent Catholic as opposed to the Church--and then to choose the Prominent Catholic over the Church.

We've seen that happen much more on the more liberal side of things, where groups of fans of various progressive Catholic writers, speakers, teachers, etc. have taken their Prominent Catholics words and run with them--all the way to various boats for "women's ordinations," or all the way to Barack Obama for "consistent ethic" misunderstandings, or even in some cases all the way out of the Church, which they come to see as far too deeply flawed to be worth fixing.

But lest anyone think that this is a problem only on the left, that Catholics who veer more towards small "o" orthodoxy or small "t" traditionalism will be immune to it--human and Church history would suggest otherwise, wouldn't they?


Anonymous said...

It was Mr. Shea's approach and deliiver on his blog that turned me off. Not to his writings necessarily, just his blog. He can be bullish in my opinion as well as other commentors.

Taking into account a vast majority of catholics do not know their faith, it is easy to see that when they find out they have been misled, not by Mr. Shea which was a mistake, to loose faith when it was shaky to begin with. Tossed by the wind.


freddy said...

Yup, that's the whole thing in a nutshell. I happen to like Mark Shea's blog because I like his style; I like many others for various reasons, and some I'm not too fond of. The problem is when people confuse the message with the messenger, and when "their guy" makes a mistake they throw the baby out with the bathwater. But hey, even St. Paul had that problem!

But I'm really glad these folks like Mark, et.al. are out there. They do a wonderful and necessary job making the wonders of the Church more accessible to all of us.