Mike Lewis over at Where Peter Is has offered his ruminations on the state and future of evangelization. The lengthy essay (4,600 words plus) ponders “What can we offer the world?” The question Mr. Lewis wants to set before the reader is how to best evangelize in the world as it is now, where there is a “cultural division between the Catholic Church and Western society—especially on moral issues—is as wide as it has been since the rise of Christendom.” This similarly lengthy essay is my critique of and response to Mr. Lewis’ article.
The Question: “What can we (the Church) offer the world?”
The “dictatorship of relativism” about which Pope Benedict XVI once warned the Church no longer exists according to Mr. Lewis. Instead, he claims, today’s progressives are not “relativists” because they “subscribe to moral dogmas just as strongly as Catholics do.” I disagree with Mr. Lewis’ view that the “dictatorship of relativism” has “fallen and been replaced.” Progressive “orthodoxy” is not a fixed thing. Not being firmly fixed to any true Christian or philosophic principle, it shifts over time in the direction of greater and greater error.
Regardless, it is fair to say the Church has not done a good job over the last several decades in evangelizing the outside word or catechizing its own members. How does the Church evangelize then in the world as it is now? Mr. Lewis begins by citing Pope Paul VI. Mr. Lewis says:
In his 1975 encyclical, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Saint Paul VI reminded us that the Church “exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace” (14). Later in the encyclical, he explained the importance of changing our approach to evangelization when situations require it. He wrote, “This question of ‘how to evangelize’ is permanently relevant, because the methods of evangelizing vary according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture” (40).
It is unfortunate that in quoting Evangelii Nuntiandi that Mr. Lewis did not quote Pope Paul VI’s very next line: “On us particularly, the pastors of the Church, rests the responsibility for reshaping with boldness and wisdom, but in complete fidelity to the content of evangelization, the means that are most suitable and effective for communicating the Gospel message to the men and women of our times.” If Mr. Lewis had read the above line he might have thought twice about what he wrote in his article, as it appears light – in my view – on sharing the gospel in “complete fidelity to the content of evangelization.”
‘Traditionalist’ Catholics Bad
According to Mr. Lewis, “successful evangelization” in our time “must respond creatively to unprecedented changes in the world, and should be mindful of the unique obstacles in each society.” What are the obstacles to evangelizing in the West? Well, according to Mr. Lewis, that challenge is to “show that Catholicism is not an obsolete religion filled with superstitious bigots and conspiracy theorists.” That is the challenge? Yes, according to Mr. Lewis, that is the challenge. And believe me…he will enlighten you shortly as to who he believe these “bigots” and “conspiracy theorists” are. Mr. Lewis does not disappoint (emphasis added):
The declining Church in the West has suffered serious blows to its moral credibility in recent decades. This has resulted in declines in its ability to witness in the public square, its influence in halls of power, and its capacity to evangelize the culture. Historians and sociologists will research, write, and debate what caused the fall of Christendom for ages to come, but we Christians today don’t have the luxury of centuries to take stock of what went wrong if we want to survive this crisis. More importantly, if we fail to recognize how the Church is perceived by the wider society, our beloved faith will be reduced to little more than an afterthought by the prevailing culture in a generation or two.
This is the key challenge facing Church leaders today, and it is something that Pope Francis has consistently tried to address. He has faced strong resistance in these efforts, mostly from within the Church. Many times during his eight-year pontificate, Francis’s progress has been hindered. His initiatives have been blocked repeatedly by other Catholic leaders who promote more reactionary, ideological approaches to the faith. And this has cost valuable time. Unless our Church leaders can quickly learn how to be serious voices of social and moral truth on the world stage, Catholicism will soon drift into an age of cultural irrelevance.
Back in April, I explained why dissent on the Catholic right presents a unique danger to the Church. Unlike dissenters on the Catholic left, who usually express their disagreements with Church teaching openly, dissent on the right presents itself as doctrinal orthodoxy. Dissent on the left often leads Catholics to defect from the Church, whereas those on the right typically don’t plan to go anywhere.
Since 2013, particularly in North America, reactionary dissent from the right has almost always involved strong anti-papal sentiment (including accusations that even Pope Francis himself is a heretic). More recently, it has led well-meaning Catholics into doctrinal error and the embrace of dangerous ideologies, including forms of nationalism, populism, and integralism that are incompatible with the Catholic faith. Catholics in this group are prone to accepting conspiracy theories like QAnon, Covid-19 denial, and anti-vaccine propaganda. Many have even started accepting white nationalism, dubious end-times prophecies, unapproved apparitions, and SSPX talking points.
At last we come to it. Mr. Lewis, having examined the question and the problem of evangelization of the West, concludes the problem is “reactionary dissent from the right.” For anyone somewhat familiar with Mr. Lewis and Where Peter Is, understanding their political and theological leftist bent and the red-colored glasses through which Where Peter Is views the landscape of both the Church and America, puts into perspective many of its accusations against the “right” above. [NB: Mr. Lewis in his article says he uses “right” and “left” to describe “forms of dissent” in the Catholic Church. Where he uses it in citations I provide, that is the sense he wants to give to it. Generally, where I use the term “right” or ‘traditionalist’ or ‘conservative’ in theological context, I intend “right belief” or orthodoxy – i.e., acceptance of Catholic teaching; and where I use “left” I generally intend “dissent” from traditional Catholic teaching, that or ambiguous to questionable acceptance of Catholic teaching. The terms are used loosely but despite this looseness in usage, ‘most readers have a sense of what they mean in this context.’ All that said, those on the ‘right’ of Mr. Lewis reject the suggestion they are “dissenters” from Catholic teaching; and would instead question one or more theological positions held by those on some on the “left” including some at Where Peter Is, such as regarding the permissibility of the divorced and remarried receiving Holy Communion in certain cases while in an objective situation of sin.]
First, Mr. Lewis speaks of “accusations that even Pope Francis himself is a heretic” and of the “strong anti-papal sentiment” of the “right.” Personally, I do not believe the claim of “strong anti-papal sentiment” is accurate, at least in so far as it regards the Petrine Office because conservative and traditional Catholic long for the pope to “confirm the brethren” – such as by answering the Dubia. While there is strong sentiment and concern with regard to Francis, this has not occurred in a vacuum. There are things which Pope Francis has said, such as the Abu Dhabi statement, and or has failed to deny he said, such as found in various Scalfari interviews, which are troubling. There was also the controversy over the Pachamama idol, and of course, the question of Amoris Laetitiaand its true interpretation and magisterial significance, regarding which even some Francis-apologists have significant, conflicting opinions (see Confusion at Vatican Insider? and The Confusion of the Francis-Apologists). The controversy over Amoris Laetitia could have been resolved by now had Pope Francis only responded to the Dubia with five simple “yes” or “no” answers. We will return to the question of Amoris Laetitia in connection to the seeming hypocrisy of Mr. Lewis later on in this article.
But aside from the ongoing debate over things Pope Francis has said or done, Mr. Lewis wants to tar “reactionary” Catholics with a bizarre collection of errors, ranging from nationalism – even “white nationalism“(!) – populism, conspiracy theories, and dubious end-time prophecies from unapproved apparitions. Later in his article, Mr. Lewis seemingly even throws in “neo-pelagianism.” All this makes it hard to take Mr. Lewis and his accusations seriously. Let us briefly consider “nationalism.” In our times, what being a patriotic American is to one person might be evil nationalism or populism to another – perhaps to the likes of Mr. Lewis. It certainly is often a false charge used by those on the political left who generally favor globalist policies. To many on the Democratic left, just being a Trump supporter qualifies one as a “white nationalist” or “white supremacist.” Absurd. Does that mean there are no “white nationalists” anywhere? No, but such accusations or that of “white privilege” or “white supremacist” more often than not are a tactic cynically employed by the political Left – infamous for playing identity politics – to bludgeon and cow their politically conservative opposition. The truth is, while “white nationalism” is indeed an evil thing, there is no real evidence it is a significant ‘thing’ among Catholics.
Mr. Lewis’ inclusion of “integralism” as a dangerous ideology of the right is yet another example of him throwing more mud at a wall to see what sticks. Personally, I am not an integralist. My only interest here is an application of common sense. Mr. Lewis and Where Peter Is are stretching their credibility beyond the breaking point by suggesting “integralism” is a “dangerous ideology.” Mr. Lewis need not hyperventilate. Relax, Mike…There’s no chance the USA will become an integralist society any time soon.
There are other bizarre attempts to build straw men for Mr. Lewis to knock down. I will not waste much time on these, such as Mr. Lewis’ claim the “right” is accepting “dubious end-time prophecies” and “unapproved apparitions.” Personally, I like to stick with approved apparitions. Regardless, I don’t think interest in Catholic prophecy is unique to left or right. For example, I know there are writers with views closer to those of Mr. Lewis who have a strong interest in end-time prophecy (e.g., see here, here), including not-yet-approved apparitions (e.g., here). Separately, Mr. Lewis also suggests Catholics on the “right” are prone to “accepting conspiracy theories.” One of his examples is QAnon. While, yes, there were folks on the right who accepted it, there were many on the left — and I suspect there are Where Peter Is readers among them — who accepted many of the crazy anti-Trump conspiracy theories, such as the Russian Collusion hoax. Certainly, Catholics like Nancy Pelosi believed it. The point being, conspiracy theories are found across the political (and theological) spectrum. In sum, Mr. Lewis is a victim of pareidolia. He sees a pattern where there is none.
The Solution: Listening and Passivity? Huh?
[Please go over to ‘ROMA LOCUTA EST’ to read the second half of Steven O’Reilly’s rebuttal to Mike Lewis’ attack on Traditional Catholics.]