Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig Contra “Fearful” Catholics

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig (ESB) has had quite the year. After being received into the bosom of the Catholic Church last Easter, she proceeded to develop a loyal readership of mostly young Catholics who, like her, are fed up with economic liberalism, or at least some variants of it. In addition to writing a blog and weekly newsletter, ESB found time to publish articles in a diverse array of outlets, including The American Conservative, Salon, and Jacobin. She has since moved on to take a position as a staff writer at The New Republic (TNR), a former icon of American socio-political commentary which is struggling to restore its tarnished name, where, inter alia, she criticizes mainline conservatism, capitalism, and anyone else who doesn’t share her somewhat idiosyncratic take on Christianity. ESB also contributes to other places, including The Nation, which just published her excellent but disturbing piece on prison rape—a horrific problem that receives lamentably little attention from the mainstream media. At almost the same time as that story appeared, TNR ran “Fear of a Radical Pope,” ESB’s misaligned and difficult-to-follow polemic aimed at Pope Francis’s critics, real and imagined. Part autobiographical reflection, part historical and doctrinal mishmash, and part rant, the article is slated to appear on the cover of TNR’s next issue, which doesn’t bode well for that publication’s prospects for reputational restoration.

Setting aside the more personal elements of the piece, all of which are whimsical and harmless, it doesn’t take long to find eyebrow-raising passages such as “[t]he world’s most renowned Christian theological guide is, of course the Pope.” This is a troubling misstatement of the true nature of the papacy and the Sovereign Pontiff’s role. As Fr. John Hunwicke has stated with respect to the First Vatican Council’s teaching on the subject, “The Holy Spirit was not promised to Peter’s successors so that by its revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but, so that, by its assistance, they might devoutly guard and faithfully set forth the revelation handed down through the Apostles, i.e. the deposit of Faith.” As for theological acumen, the Chair of St. Peter provides none; the pope takes the tiara (or used to take the tiara) with what he brought into the conclave. Francis, as we now know, lacks the theological chops of his immediate two predecessors, both of whom happened to be of a lesser order than some earlier popes such as Benedict XIV. It happens. Alexander VI, by all accounts, didn’t have much time for the Queen of the Sciences, and only two popes in history, Ss. Gregory and Leo, are Doctors of the Church. How sure of a theological guide each pope will be depends on a number of factors, and it is a well-established point that a particular pontiff’s private theological opinions are in no way automatically binding on the faithful, even if they are uttered on an airplane.

And that’s really the point when it comes to Francis. While some mainstream attacks on Francis have been over-the-top and silly, many conservative and traditionalist Catholics (ESB conflates the two) have gone to great lengths to demonstrate how a number of Francis’s words and actions are difficult to reconcile with tradition, while also expressing genuine concern that he is, unintentionally or not, distorting doctrine. At a period of time in Church history where adequate catechesis and discipline are in short supply, ESB’s reminder that Francis has not touched doctrine directly provides little comfort. There is a widespread culture of “Papalotry” in the Church today, particularly among liberals who have been looking for an excuse to proceed forth with the “Spirit of Vatican II” since the “dark days” of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There is a strong belief among far too many of the faithful that, under Francis’s watch, the Church is prepared to alter its teachings on marriage, divorce, and homosexuality. None of that may be true, but Catholics are right to lament the fact Francis has not stepped in to forcefully clarify the matter.

Speaking of Vatican II, ESB ambles into history a bit with a superficial comparison between American politics and the intra-ecclesial divides engendered by the Second Vatican Council. Relying on a single source, Massimo Faggioli’s contestable Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning, ESB paints traditional Catholics as backwards reactionaries while connecting them ideologically to mainline political conservativism. Although there exists a sizable portion of American Catholics who are intoxicated by political conservatism (which is just a variant of ideological liberalism), most traditional Catholics reject liberalism and all of its works. Sure, they may think that the Pope has bigger fish to fry than climate change, but with respect to Francis’s indictments of economic liberalism, they are, broadly speaking, onboard. (Of course, the lack of precision in some of the Holy Father’s statements on capitalism, poverty, and wealth redistribution have given Catholics who are faithful to the Church’s authentic social magisterium good reason for not getting fully behind Francis.) Where traditional Catholics—and their conservative brethren—take real issue with Francis is, again, on his failure to be clear on where he is leading the Church while instructing the faithful (including the liberal factions that hang on his every word) on settled points of doctrine. The pending global warming encyclical looks like a waste of resources, particularly when  there are so many souls who are today dwelling under a cloud of error. (For anyone interested, my earlier thoughts on Francis and climate change can be found here and here.)

ESB’s needless swipes against traditional Catholics continue with her quip concerning the liturgy, specifically the use of Latin. Instead of taking a thoughtful look at liturgical history, the purpose of the Mass, and why a growing number of Catholics—including young Catholics—seek out the Church’s traditional rite, she dismisses it as a sign of people “relat[ing] to the past in a wholly modern way.” No, worse. Supporting the traditional liturgical language of the Roman Church in the context of her traditional rite, according to ESB, is of the same species as “ignoring man-made climate change because it is not present in the biblical text[.]” In other words, traditional Catholics attached to the liturgical rite celebrated by the Church for more than 1,000 years are akin to fever-swamp fundamentalists. Never once does ESB consider the importance of remaining in continuity with the past or that with respect to the liturgy, and other “pastoral adjustments” made in the wake of Vatican II, that some things may have gone awry and now is the time to fix them. Granted, not everything that followed Vatican II has been an unmitigated disaster, though Paul VI—the pope who presided over most of the Council—was surely right when he said that the smoke of Satan had infiltrated the Church in its wake. Although it may be some time before the last word is written on Francis’s pontificate, as things currently stand there are good grounds for orthodox Catholics of all stripes to be concerned about where the Barque of Peter is heading. Yes, Catholics know, by faith, that it won’t run aground, but that doesn’t mean the ship’s captain can’t take it radically off course.

Maybe what is most distressing about ESB’s screed is the manner in which she leverages the word “fear” in the title to make the Pope’s critics out to be a pack of cowards. In ESB’s mind, it’s not possible for conservative and traditional Catholics to have mindful reservations about Francis; they are acting out of emotionally driven animus. One has to wonder if ESB thinks St. Athanasius acted out of “fear of a time when the Son was not” rather than in defense of Trinitarian theology. Perhaps the Union of Brest was driven by a “fear of Schism” and Pius XII’s dogmatic definition of the Assumption rested on a “fear of Mary’s body being left on earth.” Indeed, maybe all of Church history is one sad tale of fear, with the defenders of orthodoxy and right ecclesiastical governance—some of whom stood up to popes and patriarchs alike—sowing the seeds of panic to secure some modicum of fame rather than placing their trust in a dubious deity of surprises.

There is more—much more—that could be written on ESB’s wayward, ill-informed, and largely pointless attack on conservative and traditional Catholics who, for very good and thoughtful reasons, have no desire to see the Church misled by a “radical pope.” Questions could be raised concerning how well ESB understands Church history, the role of tradition, and the concrete doctrinal concerns many of the Pope’s more thoughtful critics share—and that would be a good thing. For while ESB brings considerable talent, energy, and even a bit of wit to the table when it comes to lampooning trite Republican rhetoric and attacking policies which are likely to hurt the least well off in society, her newly appointed status as the voice of authentic Catholic thinking for TNR is worrisome. Lacking as it does in theological sophistication, TNR is apparently incapable of providing a young, inexperienced voice like ESB’s with proper editorial oversight on things Catholic. Instead, its name, for the time being, provides her words on these difficult affairs with an air of gravitas they do not merit.