My recent piece about dissent on the so-called “Catholic right” has generated a bit of a buzz.
In the piece, I argue that dissent from what is described colloquially as the Catholic “right” is uniquely dangerous because it presents itself as orthodox and faithful to Catholic tradition, even when it objectively and directly contradicts magisterial teaching. Examples include the widespread opposition to the revised teaching of the Church on the death penalty and the refusal to accept that Pope Francis’s exhortation is magisterial and that it says what it says.
This piece resulted in a spike in traffic to our site, and the number of readers remains consistently high on this post over a week later. We’re nearing 300 comments (many more if you count the comments that didn’t make it through moderation because they were rude, repetitive, or offensive).
Most of the comments were positive and many people said that my analysis reflects their experience. A large percentage of comments simply offered confirmation of my point, insisting that Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Viganò are orthodox and Pope Francis isn’t, despite all the teachings from Tradition and the Magisterium that clearly say otherwise.
A few insisted that our “left wing bias” made us “just as bad” as those whom we oppose. I am not certain how they rationalize that, because we do make clear that we reject dissent across the board but believe that a different response is required depending on the reasons for the dissent.
Finally, there were a few readers who agree with much of our approach, but believe we mischaracterize certain types of dissent on the left, and that we are either downplaying or underestimating the type of damage it can cause. One longtime reader offered a heartfelt critique, recalling that while he agrees with my argument about dissenters on the right, it also applies quite often on the left. He told the story of how dishonest dissent from the left drove him away from the Church for years.
I asked him if he would be willing to let us share a summary of his comments in a post, and he agreed. This is what he had to say:
I hate to have to push back on a theme that I have been seeing at WPI recently, but to be brutally honest—as a reader and supporter of the site—there is something that greatly troubles me. This theme that I hear repeatedly and emphatically from WPI is the idea that while the “Catholic left” does sometimes dissent from official Church teaching, at least they are honest, open, and forthright about their dissent from the Church and her teaching. By contrast, it is claimed that the “Catholic right” is dishonest about their dissent, claiming to be the “real” Catholics—the “true” Church.
The reality—at least from what I have personally seen and experienced over the decades, and up to the present day—is that more than a few members of both the “right” and the “left” in the Church can both openly dissent from Church teaching while being dishonest about the fact that it really is dissent—dishonest with themselves and with others. All of it is wrong, and all of it must be called out, from my perspective. I admit this is partly personal, but it’s also based on my embrace of papal authority and official teachings of the Church.
This was one of the things that led me to leave the Catholic Church in my early 20s, eventually to become a vocally anti-Catholic evangelical Protestant! The Catholic priests, nuns, and lay leaders I encountered when I was received into the Church in the late 1990s—who overwhelmingly leaned towards the Catholic “left”—claimed that they represented the true “spirit of Vatican II” that Pope John XXIII had supposedly intended with the Council. According to their narrative, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II had supposedly “retreated from” or “betrayed” the Council, leading the Church away from true “Vatican II Catholicism.” It didn’t seem to matter at all when I pointed out where the actual documents of Vatican II contradicted their claims about what the Church and the Council “really” teaches.
The same basically went for the Catechism as well. It was very frustrating and alienating trying to defend the teachings of the Catholic Church, using her own magisterial documents! These priests, nuns, and lay Catholics seemed to think that I—along with John Paul II himself—was lost in the Middle Ages for not supporting their “spirit of Vatican II.” So much of what they presented as Catholic teaching openly contradicted what I was reading in the actual documents the Church! I don’t think these Catholics were being truly honest—with me, and (seemingly) with themselves—about their dissent from the Church. They claimed that they represented the true post-Vatican II Catholic Church, and that I, along with other Catholics even including the Pope himself, were simply lost in the thinking of an earlier time. They seemed to believe that we were trying to drag the Church back, whereas they were representing what true Catholicism should be.
I want to be very clear here. I am not a “right-wing Catholic” or a “left-wing Catholic.” I am Catholic, period. I support Pope Francis and his teachings and witness, and I oppose both right-leaning Catholic dissent and left-leaning Catholic dissent. In my experience, this means that I simply don’t have a “side” or a “camp” within the Church. I simply stand with the pope and the Church’s teaching.
I also want to be very clear about one point: I was so terribly confused, disheartened, and disoriented as a young Catholic convert by the serious misinformation about Catholicism that these invariably left-leaning Catholics, both clergy and laity, gave to me. The priest who led my RCIA program told me that I didn’t need to bring my copy of the Catechism to class. Instead, he and a lay Catholic taught the classes from a decidedly left-leaning RCIA instruction book that often contradicted the Catechism. Whenever I voiced my confusion over the contradictions, I was told firmly that ever since Vatican II, the Church’s thinking and teaching had changed. Apparently the teaching had even changed from what I was reading in the Catechism, which had just been published a few years earlier (and decades after the Council)!
I finally became so confused and disheartened and unsure about what I needed to believe, in order to be “truly Catholic” and “with the Church,” that I left the Church, and lost my faith in Christ, and went back to my earlier agnosticism. For a few years, I went to a place of such deep moral and emotional darkness and depravity that I came very close to dying and possibly ending up in Hell. I take full responsibility for the terribly damaging choices I made during those terrible years of my life, but the heartbreaking truth is that I might well have kept my faith in Christ and the Church—and remained in the Church—if only I had known some priests or nuns or fellow lay Catholics, who had simply been willing to help me in my confusion and anguish. If only someone had been there to tell me that, yes, the Catechism and other Magisterial documents, and—crucially, definitively—the pope and his authoritative teachings on faith and morals really do represent the true teachings of Catholicism.
That is not what I found. I found left-leaning priests and nuns and lay Catholics dissenting from Church teaching, who would quite confidently and emphatically tell me that it was they—and not the Pope and the Catechism—who represented true, “post-Vatican II” Catholicism. My priest firmly told me at the time that the real Catholic faith—where authentically Catholic beliefs and teachings are found—do not come top-down from the Pope, but up from the people. He told me that this is what the Church had “learned from Vatican II.” Nothing I said—based on what I had learned in my own study of the Catechism and the Council—seemed to make any difference.
These types of experiences happened to me so many times as a young Catholic convert in the mid-to-late ’90s. They led me to such confusion and disorientation that I completely lost my faith in Christ and the Church. It is a near-miracle that I ever returned to Christ and the Church. Looking back, it seems like a near-miracle that I even survived that nearly impenetrably dark time of my life—when I lost the Catholic faith that I had so wanted to keep, and I didn’t know what to believe any more about so many things. I went to some very, very dark places and almost didn’t come out of them. Thanks be to God that He ultimately led me out of them, and back to Christ, and, many years later, back to the Catholic Church.
I’ve been a regular reader of WPI for around three years, and this site has helped me dive much deeper into the Magisterium of the Church. I have come to appreciate how Catholicism—both historically and today with Pope Francis—seriously challenges both “right” and “left” in the Church and the wider world. WPI has helped me to see, in newer and deeper ways, that Catholicism is both “right” and “left” in profound ways.
I refuse to “pick a tribe” in the Church. I’m willing to call out both right-leaning Catholics and left-leaning Catholics when members of either group depart from the teaching and witness of Pope Francis and the bishops in communion with him. Honestly, it’s not always a very “fun” or “comfortable” place to be. Seeking to stand consistently with Pope Francis visibly angers and upsets some of the Catholics I respect and love, whether on the right or left. However, I have learned through trial and error over the years that the only place for me in the Church is standing with the pope.
I have to admit, I agree with his comment. While it is true that this was over 20 years ago, and most of those who promoted a “false spirit” of Vatican II vision of the Church in the years following the Council are now elderly or have passed away, the boom in online Catholic apostolates after the turn of the century is in large part a reaction to that crisis. Certainly some who promote this vision of the Church are still around and have crucial roles as catechists and teachers in the Church today. They may be more prevalent in other parts of the world than where I live.
As I wrote about liberal dissent in my piece, “I don’t totally understand it because I’ve never been part of that group. Maybe my response to it is a bit naive.”
On the other hand, I still stand behind most of what I wrote last Friday regarding the inherently dishonest approach to dissent on the right, and because the group of dissenters on the left that I had in mind were those who have drifted away from the Church or are close to leaving. They aren’t seeking to be catechists or applying for seminary or the convent. I am thinking of those who wonder whether the Church has anything worthwhile to say to them at all.
Finally, in addition to those on the left who are considering leaving the Church because they can’t accept Church teachings, I believe we should approach those on the right who are facing similar struggles with compassion and patience. The “unique danger” of most dissent on the right (at least among those I know and in Catholic media) is an attitude of self-righteousness and the belief that they are orthodox but the pope is teaching error. Those who actually do admit to the dissonance between their beliefs and the teachings of the Church must be shown love and accompanied as they try to discern a path forward.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.