I’ve been reflecting lately on the reasons we started Where Peter Is, especially in light of the controversies and challenges we have been addressing these days. In the beginning, we had no idea whether anyone would read our group blog. We posted two or three times a week, typically. Our growth was unexpected, just as we were surprised by the recognition we received from numerous Church leaders and members of the media.

These days, many traditionalist Catholics seem to believe that our mission is to oppose the Latin Mass. That’s certainly not the case. Originally, the purpose of this website wasn’t really about responding to radical traditionalism at all. Rather, the founders of this site (Paul Fahey, Pedro Gabriel, Brian Killian, and I) wanted to address a troubling shift that we noticed in “mainstream” conservative Catholicism following the election of Pope Francis. We hoped to provide a balanced voice within Catholic media aligned with (and sympathetic to) Pope Francis, his approach, and his teachings – something that was sorely lacking in Catholic media, especially following the Synods on the Family and the release of the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

The publication of the so-called dubia by four retired cardinals in late 2016 was one of the key events that motivated us to begin speaking out. These five questions (perhaps better described as “accusations framed as questions”) challenged the orthodoxy of Francis’s magisterial teaching and undermined the authority of the pope. It received wide support from Catholic news outlets (including EWTN and its affiliates), as well as from prominent figures in the world of Catholic speakers, writers, and popular apologists. Even more concerning was the positive reception of the dubia by respected Catholic scholars and academics who once championed their fidelity to the pope and their obedience to his teachings.

Catholics we knew and admired, whom we once thought were rock-solid in their orthodoxy and adherence to the teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were becoming increasingly critical of Pope Francis. I think at first we were a bit naïve. Many Catholics were claiming that Amoris Laetitia was confusing and difficult to understand. Many seemed to believe Cardinal Raymond Burke’s claim that the document is not even part of the papal Magisterium, based on a very bizarre reading of the exhortation’s third paragraph. We presumed that most of those who were critical of Pope Francis’s teaching were simply uninformed about the Church’s understanding of papal supremacy and were confused by what Amoris Laetitia was trying to say.

We soon learned that the “confusion” over Amoris Laetitia was really a refusal to accept its teaching. In the last four years, as the papacy of Pope Francis has continued, the opposition to the pope has cemented itself in certain corners of the Church in the US and elsewhere, and with it came a hodgepodge of ideologies with all kinds of labels like “reactionary,” “culture warrior,” “far right,” “radtrad,” “conspiracist,” “recognize and resist,” and “schismatic.”

The terms “conservative Catholic” and “orthodox Catholic” have become warped to the point of meaninglessness. To some, “conservative” now means alt-right and “orthodox” means rejecting the pope’s authority.

We’ve reached a point where a large contingent of US Catholics have been publicly rejoicing over a celebrity convert while casually overlooking his recent assault charges and the fact that he openly admitted that he’s been introduced to illicit Tridentine Masses by sedevacantist Mel Gibson. The fact that he prefers the Latin Mass and that he says the Novus Ordo makes him feel like they are selling him a car absolves all sins.

That our fellow Catholics have descended to such depths is not something to celebrate. When we write about Catholics who have succumbed to the anti-papal agenda, we aren’t gloating. We’re mourning. For those of us who were “JP2 Catholics” and “Ratzingerians” – who follow Humanae Vitae, are active in the Church, and are committed to doctrinal orthodoxy – but support Pope Francis, it has been a challenging road. Imagine the shock of waking up one morning to discover that most of your Catholic friends think the pope is destroying the Church.

As this situation developed, it became difficult to ignore that the arguments used against Pope Francis by mainstream conservative Catholics-turned dubia backers, death penalty advocates, and anti-vaxxers had developed into an alternate magisterium. Their talking points became impossible to distinguish from those of radical traditionalists, like those in the SSPX. The lines between the conservatives and the radical traditionalists became blurred.

They became united in their opposition to and loathing of Pope Francis. Or at least his teachings, words, and actions. At best, they might accept him to the extent that he agrees with them. But this is abundantly clear: Pope Francis isn’t their teacher or shepherd, to them he’s a political figure (or in some cases nothing more than a reality show contestant) that they feel free to critique, analyze, judge, jeer, and explain away. This is not how Catholics should see their pope.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole papacy that’s been going on.

We went through a global pandemic, but not together. Pope Francis exhibited tremendous leadership through the storm, but so many US Catholics decided to follow Trump and Strickland and Viganò and Burke and Marshall instead. The most important battle for the soul of the Church is not right vs left, but schism vs communion. And I think that’s why we’ve spent more time on radical traditionalism of late. Their conservative allies are playing with fire.

More than nine years into this pontificate, we have seen some important developments in the life of the Church initiated by Pope Francis, especially a renewed emphasis on synodality and mercy. Sadly, much of the US Church establishment is not interested. When I survey the current state of “conservative Catholicism,” I don’t recognize much of the universal Church in it at all. I see an ideological sect that is, as Francis described it, “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

I write this after I’ve wasted the better part of two days arguing on Twitter – again – about the contours of the Magisterium and the demands of assent to it. Upon reflection, I realize that this one little website and repeated social media spats aren’t going to heal this division, only God can. For my part, I intend to spend less time defending myself and this website from attacks, and more on doing everything I can to help Where Peter Is reflect Pope Francis’s vision for the Church.

On that note, if you enjoy our work, please support us by becoming a Patreon sponsor. We don’t have big-money donors so every little bit helps. God bless you.

Image: Adobe Stock. By xy.

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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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