Today I was directed to a post on the blog of Fr. John Zuhlsdorf,  who has been been saying and doing increasingly disquieting things since the presidential election, most notably the livestreamed exorcism rituals he performed every day for two months to ward off “election fraud.” Since that scandal, which led to the discontinuation of his contract with the Diocese of Madison, he has become more brazen on his blog in his opposition to Pope Francis and those who support him. (Isn’t that usually the way these things tend to go?)

Shortly after that scandal erupted, he embarked on a three-day “Prayer for Enemies” on his website. As I mentioned in a post on WPI, his reflections on the matter included this not-very-subtle statement about his enemies, “I fear these people are so engrained in their ways that only suffering will help them to wake up to the peril they are in” (emphasis added). I also noted that initially, the names of four specific people were tagged at the bottom of the post.

More recently, he highlighted an online poll—and posted frequent updates—asking, “Who is the pope?” (Benedict won in a landslide over Francis.)

Although he has been taking swipes at Pope Francis for years, recently he has apparently begun to flirt with sedevacatism or—more specifically—“Benevacantism,” the theory that Benedict never really resigned and is still the true pope. Just today he mused about the latest theory proposed by Antonio Socci—the Italian author of a book with the not-so-subtle title The Secret of Benedict XVI: Is He Still the Pope?—writing that Socci’s new theory suggests “there would be grounds to raise a question or two about the validity of the resignation.”

It was something he wrote yesterday that caught my eye, however. In this post, he promoted a book ambitiously titled, Defending the Faith against Present Heresies: Letters & Statements Addressed to Pope Francis, the Cardinals, and the Bishops with a Collection of Related Articles & Interviewsedited by John R.T. Lamont and Claudio Pierantoni, with a Foreword by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

In addition to his support for the book, he added some of his own commentary about the Holy Father’s alleged heresies, as well:

This is a compendium of things which – to be blunt – does not make Francis, Cardinals, Bishop look good.  Quite the opposite.   The book is provocative.

Those who tend to favor what Francis and his crew have been doing will become shrill.  This is hardly to be doubted.

Some will dismiss it out of hand, saying that those who are represented in it, or who would want to read it, are crazy outliers. Pay no attention to the tilting deck, life boats and iceberg, everything is fine.  “Shut up!” they explain.

This is what I draw out of the existence of such a book.

You might be able to dismiss one or two smart people who have problems with, say, certain aspects of Amoris laetitia.  You might be able to brush aside as an isolated incident when Francis says something weird to a journalist.

When you start to collect all of these things, odd sayings and teachings, reactions to them, into one volume so that you can see a picture emerging, you can’t simply brush it aside.

Admittedly, many papal supporters do dismiss these sorts of critiques of Pope Francis. After all, isn’t the pope the Vicar of Christ? The guarantor of orthodoxy? Well, yes, he is.

Besides, while the pope’s detractors are still getting themselves worked up about the dubiawhich was over four years ago, guys—the life of the Church and the work of the pope continue. Pope Francis does pope things. Right now, he’s making a historic visit to Iraq. That’s a much more important issue than addressing the concerns of people who will never be satisfied with anything he ever says or does.

But Fr. Zuhlsdorf takes it a step further and issues a challenge to the pope’s supporters (emphasis added):

What I would say to those who are 1000% in favor of everything that’s been going on for the last few years, and who think this is a bad book, blah blah, is:

If you think this compendium is bad, then produce your own book, respond to it.  Collect into one volume your supportive open letters and explanatory essays.  Let people see the cumulative effect of your no-doubt-incontrovertible position, bound to persuade.

Rather than respond with “Shut up you kooks!”, put up or shut up yourselves.

Take it seriously and see what happens.

One of the critiques we receive most frequently at WPI is when Catholics suggest that we shouldn’t pay any attention to the Radical Traditionalists or the reactionaries in the Church. Doing so will only “give them oxygen.” It is argued that they are so impervious to reality, so averse to reason, that logical discourse with an entrenched papal critic is a fruitless waste of time. And in many cases, I have come to learn, they are correct.

Yet I have always believed, and continue to believe, that there are many Catholics who have not even heard Pope Francis’s side of the story. In some cases, the narratives put forth by people like Marshall and Voris and Zuhlsdorf about some of these (real or imagined) controversies have so completely saturated Catholic communities and parts of the internet that some people don’t even know that there is a Catholic case to be made in favor of Pope Francis. This website exists because we believe there are Catholics out there who really do want to hear the other side of the argument. And I have heard from countless readers who have thanked us for doing just that.

Before we launched this site three years ago, I wrote this on our About page (emphasis added):

Because Francis’s critics are such a small faction, many of their accusations and assertions have gone unchecked. They complain that their concerns are serious, but they are dismissed and their points are not addressed by those who support the pope.

The authors at this site have decided to take up their challenge, both by providing links to resources from other sites and by providing original essays that argue in favor of the orthodoxy and faithfulness of the Holy Father.

I believe we have done a tremendous job of living up to that often thankless mission. But the fact is that those of us who have taken up these arguments of the Pope’s critics very rarely receive serious responses in return. We’ve been on the receiving end of mockery, name-calling, and even demonization, all for the crime of being Catholics who defend the pope.

Fr. Zuhlsdorf, we respond to your challenge with the work of this website.

To my knowledge, you have never responded to anything we’ve ever published on this site. In what I believe was our only direct interaction on social media, I asked you a question and you responded, “That was a good example of an Alinsky tactic. I won’t play your twisted game,” before blocking me. And frankly, this type of response is not uncommon. It is a Catholic Twitter rite of passage to be blocked by Taylor Marshall without ever having interacted with him. Is there truly a desire for discussion, or is this just a story that you tell your supporters because you don’t want them to seek out other points of view?

We at Where Peter Is are not the only ones who have been working hard to answer the pope’s critics. Three bloggers come to mind, all of whom have done heroic work in explaining and defending Pope Francis: Scott Eric Alt, Dave Armstrong, and David Wanat. There’s also Stephen Walford, a Catholic from England who was perhaps Amoris Laetitia‘s staunchest defender in the year or two following the release of the dubia. Fr. Zuhlsdorf, did you ever take his work seriously? I remember how you once described a response by canonist Ed Peters to an essay by Walford in this way:

It’s kinda gory… and fun. I remember one crisp November day sitting on a bench in Central Park and eating a sandwich from Pastrami Queen while up in a tree a large hawk of some sort ripped the guts out of a squirrel. HERE (for Peters’ article, not the squirrel thing). Nearby a dad told his kids that birds didn’t go to the store for meat in plastic packages. At which point the hawk drew out a nice long bit of intestine, eliciting a vigorous, “EEEEWWWWW!”

Fr. Zuhlsdorf, engaging in productive dialogue and debate is a two-way street. That wasn’t on display here.

Fr. Zuhlsdorf, perhaps mere lay bloggers and authors aren’t serious enough to warrant a response from you. Perhaps you would be more interested in engaging one of the many staunch defenses of Pope Francis and the papacy written by bishops, cardinals, theologians, historians, other academics, priests and religious. Rather than giving a platform to Fr. John Hunwicke’s blog posts about the “Bergoglianist error,” and accusing the pope’s defenders of “weaponizing the Holy Spirit,” or contemplating a deeper slide into the conspiracist mindset by pondering the merits of the QAnon conspiracy theory, or entertaining questions about the appropriateness of praying for the pope to die, or sharing pictures of your food, perhaps you can begin by responding to one of the many very serious arguments against the worldview into which you have gleefully descended.

Update 3/9/2021

Much to my surprise, Fr. Zuhlsdorf issued a reply (of sorts) to this post. While I have very little desire to turn this into an online flame war, I want to address several of his points:

  • Interestingly, while Fr. Zuhlsdorf mentioned my post and selectively quotes from it and critiques it, he does not provide his readers with a link to my post. This is interesting, because I linked to many of his posts in mine. I hope that my readers want to be informed and want to know multiple perspectives on any question. While it’s possible that he simply forgot, it’s reminiscent of Taylor Marshall’s method of blocking everyone on Twitter who disagrees with him. In Marshall’s case, the reason for this (I am told) is to create a bubble or echo chamber in which he controls the narrative.

In this case, Fr. Z provides his readers with the parts of my post he wants them to see, and leaves out, well, the important parts.

  • Fr. Zuhlsdorf says this about my post (emphasis added):

“I won’t go into length responding to Lewis, because his whole post drips nasty.  Why bother.

Lewis manifestly wishes me ill and has worked to harm me personally.  When I wrote my posts about praying for enemies [HERE], this is the group of people I had in mind.”

He goes on to say:

For the readers’ background, Lewis took part in an organized a “cancel culture” terror campaign – there is no other way to describe it – against my bishop, in order to hurt him and in order to hurt me personally. It’s not that they just disagreed with what I think and they wanted to dismantle some position I hold, they wanted to harm me personally.  

Let me be clear: I wish no ill upon Fr. Z and I have no desire to harm him personally. What I do want is for Fr. Z to stop promoting the view that Pope Francis is a heretic and the notion that he may not be the legitimate pope. Once again, I have provide links to the posts that clearly demonstrate what he was doing. I have nothing to hide, I think these posts speak for themselves. Please, read his posts and decide for yourself whether I am correct about what he’s saying.

Regarding his “enemies,” in the interest of full disclosure, I was alerted in some group emails to his daily livestreamed exorcisms, which he carried out for about two months in response to what he believed to be election fraud. In his videos and on his blog, he asserted that he had been given permission to do this by Bishop Donald Hying of Madison. I was one of many people who wrote to the Madison chancery to verify that this was true. A form letter sent in response to these questions stated that Hying granted permission “for the intention of alleviation from the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic” and not for “partisan political activity.” This clear incongruity suggested that Fr. Z might have been deceiving his audience about why he was performing this rite.

As a lifelong Catholic who believes in the devil, and in hell, and in sin, and in exorcism, I know that exorcisms are not to be trifled with, and not to be used deceptively or without permission. I had no desire for Fr. Z to be harmed, I was worried that he was harming himself spiritually by abusing a rite of the Church. I simply wanted him to stop. Likewise, I had absolutely no intention to harm his bishop. I wanted to warn him that this was going on in his diocese!

  • Fr. Zuhlsdorf writes, “Mr. Lewis, I never look at your site.  I didn’t know it, or you, even existed until quite recently.”

Perhaps it true that he was not aware of WPI until recently. Sadly, this suggests that he’s unaware of the arguments in defense of Pope Francis and has not spent much time trying to understand the issue from all angles.

But he has written about me before. In a post he wrote on August 14 of last year, he criticized the very personal essay I wrote in America Magazine, which had been published the day before. He wrote:

I clicked on a recent video from the BBC “QAnon: The conspiracy theory spreading fake news”, and in its lead in I heard the same puerile argument from sentimentality – the sort you are not supposed to respond to because if you do you are “mean” – that I read over at Jesuit-run Amerika, namely that critics of Pope Francis are “tearing my family apart”. That’s what QAnon adherents are apparently doing: Anyone who “tears families apart”.

Pace Matthew 10:35.

In the BBC piece 23 July piece, “This person I knew as my mother is probably not coming back.”

At Amerika on 13 August Mike Lewis writes in a piece called “Pope Francis’ critics are dividing the church and families—including mine”. Interspersed with remarks about Francis that could have come straight from the Second Nocturn, Lewis wrote:

“My mother, who never read anything Pope Francis actually wrote, became convinced he was a heretic by her friends at church, members of her Catholic book club and through watching “The World Over Live,” a weekly talk show on EWTN hosted by Raymond Arroyo, which often features outspoken papal critics. … At a certain point, I realized that I would never persuade her, and I tried to avoid the subject rather than create more division. When she became sick, I raised the subject a few more times, but it was clear that her views had become entrenched. She even had a coffee mug with the word “Viganò” written on it in capital letters. … This division in the church is a tragic situation that is harming families and communities of faith. … Which leaders among us will respond to the urgent need for action to promote unity in the church?”

She listened to EWTN and even had a “VIGANO” mug!

Underdog! Help us!

I assume he didn’t realize I was the author of that piece. Unfortunately he has no problem with taking a cheap shot at someone and moving along, not worrying about who he has hurt.

  • The final comment I want to address is valid to a point. He writes (emphasis his):

Lewis: “Fr. Zuhlsdorf, we [sic] respond to your challenge with the work of this website.”

“…with the work of this website”.  Okay.  But that isn’t a response to the challenge I issued.

What I am looking for is a compendium … like the other guys did; that compendium book or else the sort of compendium that Steven O’Reilly posted on his site.

First of all, the “we” was intentional. This site has had, to date, nearly 60 contributors. We have made over 1,000 posts in the last three years. We have touched upon nearly every major “controversy” of this papacy, from Amoris Laetitia, to the death penalty, to the Amazon Synod, to the Abu Dhabi Statement, to the “hand slapping” incident, to the Vatican nativity scene (Pedro actually interviewed an art historian from the region of italy where the scene was made), to the erroneous views of Tradition and the Magisterium held by many of Francis’s critics.

Fair enough – I didn’t put together a bulleted list. But there is a search function at the top of the page and we’ve written multiple pieces on pretty much every major doctrinal dispute, accusation, conspiracy theory, and major document in this papacy (the links in the paragraph above are a start, but barely scratch the surface).

Fr. Z,

I would rather not continue a public back-and-forth about this, but feel free to reach out to me via DM on Facebook or Twitter or through the “Contact Us” link at the top of the page if you have any questions or would like to discuss this further.

I also want to reiterate that I bear you no ill will, nor do I want you to be harmed in any way. It is your public statements against the Holy Father that have me greatly concerned, because you are flirting with schism and you are misleading the faithful. I urge you to turn back and return to full communion with and fidelity to Pope Francis. If you are truly struggling with the pope and his teachings, I ask that you avoid creating scandal by speculating about these ideas in a public forum.

I appreciate your prayers and  you are in mine. God bless.

Update 3/12/2021

It appears that Fr. Zuhlsdorf did later add a link from his post to this one. Thank you.

Image by Jason Goh from Pixabay. (Yes, it’s a stock photo. I don’t usually take pictures of my meals.)

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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.

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