Frequently, readers of Where Peter Is accuse this website and its contributors of having a progressive or left-wing ideological bias. Often, they will point to examples where they believe our criticism or lack of commentary on situations where Catholics who dissent from the Magisterium from the “left” (typically on issues like sexual morality or women’s ordination) is hypocritical. They believe that we concern ourselves more with dissent from the “right” (such as when Church figures publicly reject the teachings of Pope Francis or promote a right-wing political position over Catholic social doctrine). According to these critics, this suggests that deep down we are pushing a leftist, heterodox agenda. Is there any truth to this claim?
Let me be clear: I personally have a strong belief in the importance of fidelity to the Magisterium. I want this website to be orthodox. As editor, I have sought to ensure that our content is doctrinally sound. I have written a little in the past about how we uphold this policy. Some submissions and drafts must be revised or even rejected so that our site meets this standard. While we aren’t in a situation to have our articles reviewed by the CDF or a censor librorum for approval, we have gone to great lengths to have theologians, canonists, priests, and bishops review some of our “edgier” work for doctrinal orthodoxy and accuracy.
Besides doctrinal questions, however, we hear another charge frequently, and that is what I want to address in this piece. We have been accused of having a liberal bias, or—at the very least—of being much harder on conservative and traditionalist dissent than we are on dissent from progressives and liberals.
I reject any charges that we are heterodox, but I will concede that most of our contributors do respond to dissent from the right differently than we respond to dissent from the left (although there are numerous exceptions). The reason for this is not because we dissent from any doctrines of the Church (including on sexuality and marriage), but because the typical reasons and justifications for dissent on opposite ends of the spectrum are usually very different in nature.
On the right, dissenters often advertise themselves as “orthodox” Catholics who uphold the “perennial magisterium.” Many seem to think they have personal ownership of the Magisterium and Catholic tradition—over and above the pope himself. This ideology has been embraced by numerous prominent Catholics who insist that they are in conformity with authentic Church teaching. When they disagree with the pope, that simply means the pope is a dissident.
One of the primary motivations to launch this website was to counter this ideology. We were concerned (and still are) that this group is on a destructive path toward schism, bringing many of our fellow Catholics with them. At this point, I don’t even think it’s controversial to assert that some of these Catholics have already entered into a de facto schism with the Church.
Certainly there are progressives in the Church who want significant changes in Catholic doctrine. It’s apparent that a good number of leaders of the “Catholic left” aren’t terribly concerned about fidelity to Church teachings. It’s not a mystery that many in this group reject the Church’s teachings on contraception and women in the priesthood. While this is true, I don’t think playing hardball with them is the best way to help the Church.
Among such Catholics, what I typically see is people who are hanging by a thread. They are honest about their questioning or rejecting certain doctrines. They don’t insist that their view is the “true” Catholic teaching, or say the pope is a heretic. The Catholics I’m thinking about already know the Church’s teachings on hot-button issues (even if they don’t fully understand them). Typically, there’s a part of them that loves God and wants to be part of the Catholic Church, but there’s also a huge part of them that’s ready to walk away.
I am reminded of a profile I read in the Washington Post a few years ago, about a woman who grew up in a traditional Catholic family but left the faith when she felt forced to choose between her religion and her sexuality. “I’ve experienced so much judgment from religion,” she told the reporter. Her experience reflects a story many of us have heard over and over in our contemporary climate. She explained, “I felt like I was going to hell, but I also felt … that for the first time, I could just look at life and not put an answer to it.” After her decision to leave the Church and marry another woman, the family fractured. Some of her siblings remained close, others broke off contact. She and her wife were not invited to celebrate Christmas with her family.
We claim to be a welcoming Church, yet we fracture and divide whenever we’re faced with these difficult questions. We speak about these very real and tragic situations in abstract and theoretical terms, while ignoring the real pain caused by these conflicts. Many Catholics truly struggle with these teachings. They are torn between empathy or charity and what the Church says is an occasion of sin. Often, they have been hurt personally by the rigidity and judgmentalism that they encounter from other Catholics. My fear is that this group will simply continue the mass exodus from the faith in the West. And the reality is that many of them will never look back.
Many of the contributors to Where Peter Is were part of the conservative/traditionalist Catholic milieu not that long ago. Prior to the election of Pope Francis in 2013 we belonged to the same “JP2 Catholic” and “Ratzingerian” young adult Catholic scene as many of our critics. We were in the conservative Catholic “young family” crowds in our parishes. We followed Humanae Vitae and practiced Natural Family Planning (and still do). We were active in the pro-life movement (and many of us still are). We worried about the same things as the people who criticize us today: weak teaching on morality, poor catechesis, “cafeteria” Catholicism, bad liturgy, the direction of the wider culture, what our children were exposed to, keeping our kids Catholic.
Then, after the election of Pope Francis, our Catholic communities began to change. No longer did our peers look to the pope as a moral or spiritual authority, but as an adversary. The media organizations and publications we trusted (EWTN, Ignatius Press, First Things, The Wanderer, etc.) began making accusations against him. The doctrinal authority of the pope was totally disregarded. It wasn’t long before defending the pope marked us as “liberal dissenters.” People we had always regarded as heroes and champions of Catholic orthodoxy (Archbishop Chaput, Cardinal Burke, Aidan Nichols, George Weigel, Raymond Arroyo, Janet Smith, Phil Lawler, Steve Ray, and so many more) began criticizing, contradicting, and even rejected magisterial teachings. Many of these figures began openly attacking and condemning the pope.
If the history of the Church is any guide, from the Circumcision party to the Donatists to the Albigensians to the Jansenists to today’s Reactionaries, most of the Church’s energies fighting heresy have been spent dealing with rigorists bent on limiting the grace of God to the few, the proud, the Greatest Catholics of All Time. Nothing has changed today. It is right wing dissent that is at open war with the Holy Father, the Magisterium, and most of the Church’s members. It seeks to drive away converts and drive out the weak and vulnerable. It cares more about showy piety than about the works of mercy. It hates the Church’s social teaching, hates the weak, and pursues a gospel of
Euro-aesthetic over a gospel care about the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.