“Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin” (Gaudium et Spes 16).
Most Catholics on social media, sooner or later, encounter the hordes of anonymous traditionalist trolls that haunt online spaces — mysterious characters swooping in without notice to accuse priests, bishops, and homeschooling moms of heresy, apostasy, immodesty, and worse. Operating under Latin pseudonyms, with Thomas Aquinas and Pius V avatars, these keyboard warriors are quick with well-rehearsed talking points about “Pachamama” and “Bugnini” and the “Bogus Ordo.” They balance their sparse understanding of history and theology with an otherworldly quickness in hurling homophobic insults at total strangers and consigning the pope (and most everyone else) to hell.
It’s unclear who these trolls are (Bitter teenagers? Loners in their mothers’ basements? Russian spies? The same person with 10,000 Twitter accounts?), but it’s not hard to find similar attitudes and opinions from people who use their real names, both online and in person. The repetitiveness and uniformity of their views (and inability to defend them coherently or rationally) suggest that these ideas are not their own. It means they have fallen prey to Catholic leaders and voices in Catholic media that openly promote falsehoods and antipathy for pope and council, cause division in the Church, and undermine the Catholic faith.
I don’t think most of the people who have succumbed to this reactionary or traditionalist ideology are fully culpable. The anti-papal narrative has proven very compelling for many well-meaning Catholics, and the sources that they have been told are reliable and orthodox have led them astray. In other words, they have been deceived and are thus invincibly ignorant. Those who have led them astray, however, bear great responsibility for what they have done. As scripture says, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6).
In his 2017 open letter to the dubia cardinals, Stephen Walford wrote,
You may or may not be aware that there is a growing section of traditionalists and even some conservative Catholics who see you as the standard bearers for the rejection of this papacy. I know from experience that some of it is deeply troubling. The abuse from many, including those who run websites and Traditionalist blogs aimed at the Holy Father and those who are loyal to him, is nothing short of satanic. You are their role models and that is an intolerable situation. In reality, there is no confusion but only outright rejection and defiance towards the legitimate Pope and his magisterial teachings.
Sadly, the two surviving dubia cardinals, Burke and Brandmüller, continued on this path, undeterred. Meanwhile, the hostility towards the pope has become more open, more intransigent, and more extreme. I remember at the time I asked Stephen if the word “satanic” wasn’t a bit much, but six years later I am beginning to think it was an understatement.
Countless Catholic priests, pundits, personalities, and scholars have followed Burke and Brandmüller down into the valley of resistance to the pope and the living Magisterium, employing different tricks and tactics to coax legions of well-meaning Catholics to adopt an ideology that can only lead to schism or despair. And many of them should know better.
The traditionalist speaker and author Peter Kwasniewski is one such example. On May 21, he posted an announcement on his Facebook page, stating that he had decided to withdraw from the controversial “Hope is Fuel” online event. Kwasniewski was a late addition to the slate of speakers, joining May 17, nearly a week after participants began backing out in response to host Patrick Coffin’s sedevacantist views and upon learning that the virulently antisemitic author E. Michael Jones had been added to the roster.
Some of the dropouts gave public statements explaining the reasons for their withdrawal, including Fr. Robert Spitzer of the Magis Institute (citing Coffin’s sedevacantism), Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute (citing Jones’s antisemitism), and author Lisa Duffy (citing both). These, of course, were the two primary concerns raised by Dawn Eden Goldstein and others who spoke out publicly against the conference.
Kwasniewski’s announcement, however, was different. Mark Shea provided a commentary on the entire post, but my attention was drawn to a few particularly troubling statements. Kwasniewski’s post began on a curious note. He admitted that he “agreed to join *after* the initial outburst of the hysterical progressive Catholics on Twitter,” adding, “about whose opinions I know little and care less, except perhaps as evidence of distressing sociological phenomena.”
Kwasniewski’s admission that he neither knows nor cares about the arguments of Catholics with whom he disagrees (most of whom could only be described as “progressive” in a world where Lefebvrism is seen as “moderate”) may explain why he consistently fails to accurately describe the views of the Catholics he attacks in his speeches and articles. Rather than responding to the arguments of those who disagree with his views on Catholicism, Kwasniewski creates strawmen and rails against concoctions like “hyperpapalism,” which he says “transmogrifies the Pope into a ‘combination Delphic oracle, globetrotting superstar, dynamo of doctrinal development, and standard meter bar of orthodoxy.’”
Going by that definition, I don’t think I know any hyperpapalists, but they sound awfully confused. Catholics do not believe that the pope personally receives divine revelation or inspiration. He’s not an oracle. Rather, the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ brought God’s divine revelation to completion, and that the Gospel was taught in its fullness by the preaching of the Apostles and the writing of “those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing” (Dei Verbum [DV] 7). This is why we often say things like “public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle.” The Church also teaches that “in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, ‘handing over’ to them ‘the authority to teach in their own place’” (DV 8).
To be clear, the Church teaches that the pope and the bishops in communion with him are the authentic interpreters of the Apostolic Faith. The Church does not teach that Peter Kwasniewski is the authentic interpreter of the Apostolic Faith. But for some reason he regularly pits his traditionalist positions against the official teachings of the pope and bishops. And for all of his championing of “tradition,” he has never been able to make a serious case that his positions (which fluctuate with some regularity and are not shared by most Catholics) or his condemnations of papal teachings can be reconciled with Catholic tradition.
I honestly believe Peter Kwasniewski is intelligent; he seems to have vast knowledge in his areas of interest, he’s a talented writer, he composes and performs music well, and I’m told he’s even a nice guy. Yet by his unwillingness to take the time to understand the positions and beliefs of those he opposes, Kwasniewski commits an injustice to himself and to his audience. Presenting intelligent, devout, well-intentioned Catholics who defend liturgy and doctrine as the Church currently teaches them as mindless cartoon monsters is not only uncharitable, but it betrays a lack of serious intellectual engagement on very serious matters.
Well-educated and intelligent Catholics — those who are looked upon as scholars and teachers in their fields — are culpable when their ignorance is deliberate or feigned. The Church recognizes that ignorance can reduce someone’s culpability for a sin or error, but only when the ignorance is invincible; that is, when “the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment” (CCC 1793). The Church, however, teaches forcefully against vincible ignorance, when someone “‘takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.’ In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (CCC 1791). Pretending to be ignorant is even worse: “Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin” (CCC 1859).
Kwasniewski’s statement was very precise in delineating the reason he withdrew: “I believe it is my responsibility as a public intellectual to dissociate myself from anyone who is well known for holding to the invalidity of Benedict’s resignation and for rejecting Francis as the regnant pope.” He goes on to assert that his withdrawal is a unique case that has everything to do with “ecclesiological considerations,” and (apparently) nothing to do with moral or religious principles.
Unfortunately, in carefully carving out his justification for backing out, Kwasniewski makes another admission of vincible ignorance, regarding the antisemitic views of E. Michael Jones. He writes:
About E. Michael Jones I will say only this: I am not familiar with his extensive corpus of work, except for his books on rock music and modern architecture, which were enjoyable if not wholly convincing. I was vaguely aware of his Jewish conspiracy theories, which, as far as I can tell, do not enjoy widespread diffusion, much less acceptance, in the broad world of traditional Catholicism. If he is wrong in his voluminous research, he should be refuted rather than “canceled” in the virtue-signaling thought-police manner of our times. That being said, I will candidly admit that I was disgusted with certain caustic and obnoxious statements of his that were shared with me and about which I did not know before.
It’s unclear why Kwasniewski deflects on this issue. Admittedly, I was not entirely aware of the extent of Jones’s obsession with and hostility towards Jewish people until this controversy erupted. But I assure you, it does not take one very long to get up to speed. It takes only two online videos. The first is an interview on YouTube with a Protestant academic, Dr. Michael Brown, in which Jones vehemently denies being an antisemite while saying things like “the Jews are the people that killed Christ and they are enemies of the entire human race.” The second is a video from an Iranian TV station in which he says of Auschwitz, “The shower narrative and the Zyklon B disinfecting the clothing narrative got conflated to basically the showerheads have gas coming out. These Jews had never seen a shower. They didn’t know what it was. … They had a swimming pool. They had all sorts of things that tried to make life better so that these workers would be more productive. Auschwitz was a camp where people were made to work.”
It seems odd that Kwasniewski limits himself only to commenting on Jones’s antisemitic statements that were brought to his attention by others. He appears to be uninterested, even apathetic, about the idea of discerning whether or not Jones is an antisemite. He clearly doesn’t seem to care very much at all about antisemitism when he writes, “There is plenty of good content in the ‘Hope Is Fuel’ conference and I am confident that those who sign up for it will benefit from it.”
Peter Kwasniewski’s lack of concern about what many consider a serious problem within the traditionalist movement is troubling. It also suggests that vincible ignorance is at play when he says things like, “I’ve spoken to hundreds of traditional communities in dozens of states and countries, and only once did I encounter a stubborn and vociferous antisemite.” If he can’t bring himself to inform himself about the views of E. Michael Jones of all people about the Jewish people, how many other antisemites has he chosen to ignore?
I did not set out to focus on Peter Kwasniewski when I started working on this article, and I apologize for singling him out. There are countless examples of vincible ignorance from other anti-papal dissenters, such as Taylor Marshall’s “CTRL-F criticism” and Raymond Arroyo’s pre-scripted interview with Archbishop Viganò. This article was originally inspired by tweets from Crisis Magazine editor Eric Sammons and Deacon Keith Fournier of Tyler, who resurrected last year’s totally debunked, asinine “controversy” about Pope Francis and the “personhood” debate, rashly chosing to call the pope’s commitment to the sanctity of human life into doubt. Of course one of the most egregious cases of vincible ignorance in the Church is the ongoing irrational, racist, belligerent slander against indigenous Catholics from the Amazon region, which has been clarified, refuted, explained and debunked, repeatedly, beyond any reasonable doubt, to such an extent that only a dolt or a bigot can still believe it.
None of the people behind these falsehoods are stupid. They are all capable of learning and considering the other side of the story. They have nonetheless opted for vincible ignorance, scandalizing the invincibly ignorant in their audiences, including at least one bishop.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Krakenimages.com.