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.
Both the hypocrisy we witnessed and the treatment we received was eye opening. And this is what revealed to us that there were cracks beneath the surface of our conservative Catholic enclaves that we never noticed before. We discovered, with the help of Pope Francis, that so much Church teaching that we had been taught to ignore or set aside (on immigration, racism, the environment, the preferential option for the poor, just war, torture, the death penalty) actually wasn’t optional. Gradually, it became clear that the real danger to the Church isn’t as much the collapse of the culture around us or doctrinal corruption by the hierarchy. The biggest threat to the Church is that of becoming trapped in a self-referential and embittered worldview (with its membership consisting of “self-absorbed promethean neo-Pelagians”). The real danger is that of becoming a group that constantly seeks to go to war with the world, rather than to bring Christ to it. This isn’t the 1970s anymore. The avant-garde post-Vatican II generation is dying off, and they largely failed to pass on the faith to their children. That era is over. The victory is won. No one reading this will ever be forced to endure a clown Mass ever again.
Today in the West, people are leaving a Church that they see as a strict, moralist institution with oppressive teachings. Yes, the outside world is confused. Yes, uncatechized and lapsed Catholics don’t understand the Church’s teachings very well. Yes, there are plenty of people who work for the Church who don’t embrace the fullness of Catholic doctrine. And yes, people are leaving the Church in droves. But if we want to change that, the answer isn’t to aggressively attack Catholics who have one foot out the door—however appealing it apparently seems to some people. Right now, we are called to follow the lead of Pope Francis and look inward. We need to ask ourselves what we—the committed Catholics—have been doing wrong, and what we can do to draw others closer to Christ.
Yes, I am harder on dissenters on the right than on the left. And I do this because it is obvious that so many of them are living in denial.
For some Catholics, their self-identity depends on the belief that they are orthodox and accept all the teachings of the Church. When they run up against a teaching or a pope that their conscience won’t allow them to accept, they recreate the Church in an image that suits them. Rather than admitting to themselves that they struggle with the Church’s teaching on the death penalty or Amoris Laetitia, they invent doctrinal workarounds to deny the authority of the pope and the authentic Magisterium. Entire books have been written in the past 6-7 years explaining when it’s not just permitted, but obligatory, to dissent from the Pope’s official teaching—by people who claim to be orthodox, traditional Catholics.
The reason is that they are unwilling to admit to themselves that their faith is in crisis. And my fear is that their denial will lead them right out of the Church and into schism. They are a small minority, maybe. But they are my minority. To see the Catholics who helped form me and shape my faith embrace conspiracy theories, Covid denial, anti-vaxx propaganda, white nationalism, dubious end-times prophecies, unapproved apparitions, and SSPX talking points—while calling the pope a heretic—is heartbreaking for me.
Liberal dissent is unfortunate. It seems to happen for all kinds of reasons. I don’t totally understand it because I’ve never been part of that group. Maybe my response to it is a bit naive.
This traditionalist/conservative dissent, however—this is much more personal. It’s my family, my friends, the authors and scholars I have read, the priests and bishops I looked up to. And it’s devastating to see the current state of affairs with the people I once admired. There’s a whole subculture of Catholics who take their faith seriously who are being told by Catholic “leaders” that “what the Church teaches” isn’t “Church teaching.” They have believed lies and have become hostile to the Magisterium of Pope Francis. I believe many more people have fallen into this mindset than most of our hierarchy is willing to acknowledge. And it’s scary.
What danger do liberal Catholics pose? Can they change Church teaching? Can they cause ruptures in dogma or alter the doctrine of the faith? No. This idea that the pope will teach heresy through the exercise of the Magisterium is a false worry. If “liberal” things are taught officially by the Church, they aren’t heretical. Nor are “conservative” teachings when they are taught officially by the Church. The Church can split, but it will always teach the truth. If you are Catholic, you are taught to believe in Christ’s promise: the gates of hell will never prevail.
At Where Peter Is, we have always been open about our purpose and our mission. From our about page:
“The contributors to this website hold and express a diversity of views. Each contributor’s views are his or her own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the other contributors or our editorial position. The common threads connecting all the content on Where Peter Is are (1) love for the Church, (2) support for Pope Francis, and (3) fidelity to the Magisterium. On prudential matters, we present a variety of positions, but these core principles unite us.”
While our contributors often differ in matters of prudence, and occasionally we disagree internally about tone and approach, I strongly believe that we have consistently upheld those three “threads” since we first launched the website. While it might appear that our content favors issues important to one “side” or the other, keep in mind that most of the content on this site is written by volunteer contributors. As editor, I work with what I am given. Most of our contributors have busy lives and write about the things they want to write about. Whenever a big story breaks, it is always shared among the core contributors. Sometimes someone wants to write about it, sometimes I write about it, and sometimes we don’t have a chance to cover it. Anyone who thinks our work is dictated by a grand strategy or master plan has a lovely imagination.
Image: Archbishop Vigano and Cardinal Burke
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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.