Yesterday it was reported that Bishop Barron had a private meeting with various Catholic media providers to discuss the growing influence of “radical traditionalists” in the online Catholic world.
It should be concerning to the Catholic hierarchy.
It is easy to dismiss the online Catholic world as a silly past time for computer nerds of a pious temperament, but this is to overlook the huge global reach of the internet. To get an idea of the impact of conservative Catholic communicators you can check their YouTube views. Church Militant has 187,000 subscribers. Taylor Marshall has 223,000 subscribers. Taylor’s most popular video boasts 1.3 million views, and whenever he posts a new video it immediately garners upwards of 60,000 views and more. At LifeSite News John Henry Westen has 125,000 subscribers and his videos can grab up to over 100,000 views. An example is a video about a coronavirus plot for one world government. Curiously, this is posted alongside a similar video by Protestant fundamentalist pastor John Hagee also warning about a conspiracy for a one world government linked with the coronavirus. Pastor Hagee’s video has 2 million views.
There is clearly a voracious appetite for conspiracy theories, muckraking, and mud slinging in fully fledged, wide eyed tabloid style journalism. The uncertainty of our times, the unrest in the church and society and the poor catechesis of many Catholics and non-Catholic Christians all lend themselves to this phenomenon. A priest friend of mine said recently “We’re in a sixteenth century situation.” In that era the church was burdened with corruption and immorality in the top ranks, complacency, ignorance, immorality and foolishness at the lower levels. The Protestant revolutionaries came along with their fiery message of reform, and they used the new technology of the day–the printing press–to spread their incendiary message. Like today’s media masters, Martin Luther’s message was sensationalist, sometimes coarse, populist, rabid and uncompromising. Then as now, the church hierarchy were as powerless to stop the conflagration as they were to clean out their own Augean stables.
It’s worth putting the whole fuss in the widest perspective possible. From the Old Testament onward God has provided the church with both the priestly and the prophetic ministry. The priests were the establishment guys. They were the bread and butter, often dull fellows who kept the show on the road. They kept the doors open and the lamps lit and they turned up. Too often they drifted into complacency, corruption and immorality. Their secure jobs and insider connections meant they were tempted by wealth, privilege and all the comforts that come with being the establishment. The prophets, on the other hands, were outsiders. Usually laymen, they attacked the bad shepherds, inveighed against the immorality of the day, poked the feathered nests of the priestly set and stirred the pot. They were filled with fire and often got fired….sometimes literally like Savonarola.
In a way, this conflict is simply the age old clash between the priestly and the prophetic ministries. We need both. The friction produces light even if it also produces heat.
Bishop Barron is right to be concerned about the wildfire of the online Catholic world. Like the reformers in every age of the church, the online radical traditionalists are often unpleasant in their style, unsubtle in their approach, mistaken in their opinions and intentionally provocative. Their writings are too often pure propaganda full of half truths, ignorant generalizations, guilty of detraction and indulging in vile gossip.
However, Bishop Barron and the other bishops should also recognize the phenomenon and listen to what is being said. This is a chance to take the temperature of a sizeable segment of their flock, and the message that is coming across loud and clear is that there are a large number of Catholics who feel abandoned. They’re not all nut jobs, but they love the church and wonder why Pope Benedict resigned. They are increasingly bewildered by a pope they want to love, but who comes across as grumpy and distant, confused and confusing, out of focus and out of touch. They wonder where the McCarrick report is. They wonder why Archbishop Gregory–the successor of McCarrick is not pushing for full transparency. They are shocked by the betrayal of the Chinese Catholics to the communist regime. They wonder why the pope who was going to be such a reformer keeps surrounding himself with the cabal of plush, heretical German prelates, homosexualists, money launderers and modernists.
Is all of this true? It almost doesn’t matter if it is true. What matters is that is the perception of the crowd of disaffected Catholics. They feel ignored and marginalized, and in the meantime they are being thrown red meat every day by the media leaders of what is emerging as a neo-Donatist church within a church complete with their own unofficial hierarchy.
What’s to be done about it? Should the bad bishops put their heads in the sand as so many did in the sixteenth century? Ignoring the voices of dissent will not make them go away. So what should be done?
To quote the tired cliche, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark.” History shows that a frontal attack on religious dissenters doesn’t work. It only affirms what they thought already–that they are the few the faithful few and even their bishops are against them. An open attack only drives them further into their persecution complex and makes them raise the walls of their fortress a little bit higher. Attacks only confirm their self righteousness which then causes them to either retreat further or come out snarling and snapping.
Bishop Barron’s best response would be to work with his team and other like minded media providers to continue to produce excellent, orthodox, professional Catholic content. As he and so many other excellent Catholic apostolates are doing, this content should be up to date, positive, intelligent and beautifully produced. As much as possible it should be free or reasonably priced. There are more people out there who want this positive voice than those who are lapping up the tabloids, and there are more people who will respond to reason, balance, common sense, a sense of humor and a sense of proportion than the unhappy souls who feast on fear.
One of the key places Bishop Barron could start with this important work is to take the lead in his own diocese at the huge Los Angeles Religious Education Conference–weeding out the oddballs from the other side of the Catholic spectrum and bringing in the host of solid, upbeat, young and orthodox apostolates, religious orders, publishing houses and ministries. If it is a good thing to light a candle why not light a candle there?
This is the work of evangelization–to attract through a life and witness of authentic truth, beauty and goodness. When it comes to the dissenters, each one of us in leadership should listen to those voices and take them seriously. Beneath their anger, discontent and perhaps mixed motives, they too long for the truth. They long for justice. They long for a church that is strong, beautiful, true and bold.
They long for a Catholic witness that is free from corruption, striving for true morality and engaging with the world with grace, vigor and an authentic Christian witness.
Instead of attacking one another, let’s each one of us do what we can do with what we have where we are to live exactly that kind of radiant Christian life–showing the true life of Christ in all that we say and do.
Surely that’s a big enough challenge for anyone.