Mark Shea and Catholic Tribalism

Mark Shea was let go from the National Catholic Register, and it has made big waves in the Catholic blogosphere.

I’m friends with a broad spectrum of Catholics, so I saw responses ranging from campaigns to help Mark Shea and get him reinstated, to neutral calls to prayer, to gleeful posts from his enemies happy he got sacked.

My Friend, Mark Shea

Some might think it odd that I consider Mark a friend. I have recently written some blog posts that are more traditional-leaning, and Shea has written critically of Catholic traditionalists. I also own guns and can see how someone could vote for Trump, and am ardently pro-life, so I fall within several groups that Shea has lambasted in the past few years.

Hanging out with Mark!
Hanging out with Mark!

Nonetheless, I have a long enough memory to recall reading By What Authority sixteen years ago as an Evangelical Protestant and it being a key piece in my decision to become Catholic. One does not easily forget such pivotal books in one’s life, and Mark Shea wrote it.

Over the years I got to know Mark in the blogosphere. While he always had a more cutting or acerbic style, I also found him thoughtful and his writings good. He even made a few posts over the years mentioning me or some book I was working on.

Happily, we got to meet in person with our families several years back. He was giving a series of talks in New Mexico not far from where I was living. I drove with my wife and children to the town and we all had a nice picnic together. He signed my original copy of By What Authority, and we got to get to know each other better.

I was struck by the obvious frugality of the Shea family. A small thing, perhaps, but important. During that time he would do a tin cup rattle, asking for donations via his blog to pay for basic stuff like antibiotics or needed car repairs. He was not getting rich off the Catholic gigs, that was certain.

So Now We Disagree

I watched as the past few years went by, and his tone became more caustic. Being a member of several of the groups that were in his cross-hairs, many times I read something he wrote on facebook and shook my head. He was painting with a broad brush. I didn’t consider myself a “gun cultist” even though I had, after much thought some years back, decided to buy a gun.

The same went with the other categories. Pro-lifers I knew and was close with were the most caring people around: they took care of women and babies before, during, and after the baby was born. So his criticisms of pro-lifers fell flat for me, even though I could see the validity of his criticisms against a small subset of the group.

she1So Mark and I disagree about some things. We see them differently. We’re both Catholic converts, both apologists, both seeking to follow the Church’s teachings. In a sense I feel like we were rain drops that fell on the continental divide and through a small chaotic difference he went west toward the Pacific and I went east to the Atlantic.

But while we disagree, I can see how he believes what he does. I can see how he internally squares them with Church teaching, even if I don’t find the case persuasive. Being in the public eye and needing to publish or perish to make a living, I can see how he was stretched and frazzled and became more brittle over the years and endless facebook battles.

I do not rejoice that he was fired from the Register. I don’t begrudge them their decision–it was theirs to make–but for the simple fact that I have benefited from Mark’s work over the years, especially as a Protestant, I wish no man to lose a chunk of his livelihood, and I know the fear that comes from that possibility.

All the Myriad Ways

I find myself in a unique place in that I can see the viewpoints of Catholics on this matter across the spectrum. I am more traditional now and so I can see how the traditionalists are happy that something bad has happened to one of their enemies.

I can see how many ordinary Catholics were repulsed by Shea’s painting with broad strokes and caustic tone. And I can see how, for lack of a better word, more “liberal” but still-within-the-orthodox-boundaries Catholics feel a great injustice has been done.

Mark Shea has become a lightning rod highlighting the tribalism that divides Catholics in our country (and beyond). I don’t think he desired that or is happy about it, but he was caught in the center of the vortex (no pun intended) and got torn apart by it.

What do I hope? I hope that Mark can provide for his family, one way or another. I hope that he is able to find the peace of Christ and a good balance of writing on various subjects in a way that is not inflammatory. I do not wish him ill–how could I, when I am Catholic in no small part because of him?–but hope for his good.

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52 thoughts on “Mark Shea and Catholic Tribalism”

  1. I pray for Mark and his family. I don’t think he has been declared persona non grata in Catholic writing. He should just reinvent himself and also learn something from this tragedy.

  2. I have read several of Mark’s books, the last being Mary Mother of The Son. I have found them excellent and a great help toward deepening my understanding of the Church.

    I ceased reading Mark’s blog a while back, not because of any theological differences, but because I was tired of being directly insulted by him for daring to have a difference of opinion on certain specific topics that I, due to my background, have extensive knowledge and experience in and he, self admittedly, has no real experience in at all.

    Mark’s main problem is that he seems to consider any disagreement with his statements to be direct disagreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Now, before anyone jumps to conclusions, no, I am NOT saying that Mark considers himself to be infallible. From my interactions with him and witnessing his interactions with others of several years, I firmly believe that Mark wants to align himself as closely as possible, in all ways, with the teachings of the Church. I believe he attempts to do this admirably as best as any one can. The trouble as I see it comes when someone disagrees with him, even on minor points that do not hit on Church teaching. I think in his mind he sees that he tries VERY hard to conform to the Church, so his opinion MUST be the one that is closest to Church teaching, therefore those who disagree with him, are actually disagreeing with the Church.

    Heaven help you if you do not accept his opinion on firearm policy without question. Offering counter proposals will get you a nice ad hominem in response and then a prompt ban. My personal favorite was that I obviously didn’t have a problem with children being butchered. He ghosted a lot of comments from those threads, but I screen capped it before it vanished. That was the last time I read a word he wrote.

    I am sorry he lost his writing gig. I feel bad for anyone who loses income, particularly when he has a family to care for. Hopefully this will get sorted out.

    In the meantime, perhaps he could recall that line from “The Big Lebowski”: “No, Walter, you’re not wrong, you’re just an ****ole.”

  3. “I am more traditional now and so I can see how the traditionalists are happy that something bad has happened to one of their enemies.”
    Hmmm.
    I am definitely on the traditionalist side, and being one, I know that rejoicing in anyone’s Cross is not our way. Prayers for peace and that the Good God opens his heart to whatever it is He wants him to learn through this most difficult time. And may Mr. Shea ultimately find a way to bring God glory as he comes through it.

    1. Hogwash. Jason’s piece on Lifesite exposed nothing except his willingness to misread and misquote, and his apparent belief that he could copyright and control the label “whole-life.” Surely if the folks at the Register had thought this was “proof” of anything they would have mentioned it in their statement.

  4. Methinks that it wasn’t about style, but by blatant lack of charity that got Shea fired. The straw that broke the camel’s back and likely forced the Register’s hand was his being uncharitable for “Her”. Until then, he had lost his heart; then, he had lost his mind.

    1. I have not read him in some years, since he blocked me for admitting to my sin of utter political despair. How was he uncharitable for “Her”?

  5. Well said, Devin. I met Mark briefly at the original SQPN conference in Atlanta shortly after my own conversion. Your perspective of his work, and the spectrum of Catholic opinion in my FB feed is how I see this too. I tend to look beyond tone, especially those like Mark that are simultaneously self-deprecating, to understand a perspective I’d otherwise dismiss. The gleeful attacks from those that disagree with his tone strengthen his point.

    1. Strange, Catholic Answers’ founder Karl Keating read those posts and didn’t see the “cesspool” of racism being claimed to exist there. I don’t think Mr. Keating’s a fool who can’t understand what he reads, so perhaps it’s time to take off the lenses and look at the comments with a modicum of charity, which is what we’re called to do as baptized Christians. Time and time again, pathological cultural problems were being condemned, but not races.

      1. Wasting your time, Patti. I’ve read quite a bit of Dan C’s posts, especially on Facebook. His response to quite literally every social ill seems to be “This evil is cause by racist white men.” He posts quite a bit on Shea’s Facebook feed. Check out some of his responses and see.

      2. I would be interested in seeing Keating defend these comments one by one.

        I particularly like the “whiten up” comment.

        Let’s have at it, Keating.

    2. Dan C,

      If those comments are “typical” Register comments, do you have links to other articles with those comments below?

      Does your guilt-by-association analysis bother you at all? Have you found your “res ipsa loquitur” method of demonstrating racism to be effective in bringing about repentance?

      I think Mark’s punishment of termination did not fit his alleged crime of uncharitable conduct, but your racism prosecutions are unjust and not thorough. And they seem completely ineffective.

      1. Look at the FB post accompanying the article:

        Also, note the FB post complaining about Jews accompanying the Vatican/Jewish article.

        You are going to tell me that the “inferior black ghetto culture” comment is ok?

      2. I am pointing out the alt-right hoardes of the Catholic right wing which has the gall to claim itself orthodox.

  6. Mark Shea will be fine. He’ll probably get a gig with Crux or America before the month is out and I’m sure he does not give speeches for free. If you cause annoyance to your employer you get fired. Nobody is untouchable.

  7. Caustic is an understatement for this man. We all have our faults but on my blog, I do not attack my readers in the combox. As one on the receiving end of his bile, may he find honest work to support his family. What he was engaging in, was completely dishonest.

  8. I can see how he was stretched and frazzled and became more brittle over the years and endless facebook battles.

    I’m sure you’re correct, but he chose those battles, and he prolonged them far beyond the point of scandal. Many of them wouldn’t have happened at all if Mark had been able to treat his interlocutors as people of good faith, rather than stooping to namecalling, juvenile catchphrases, and a near-constant level of hysterical shrieking that essentially rendered his prose unreadable to anyone who didn’t share his prejudices.

    As many have pointed out, Mark can be a very good apologist. But the current political and ecclesial climate has wholly deranged him, and his histrionics have become so tiresome that I can no longer read even his non-political work. I certainly wish no hardship on him or his family, but the Register made the right decision.

  9. I found this blog entry to be quite weak, actually. What is the author saying exactly? As I read I felt like yelling: TAKE A STAND DUDE!

    Here’s my stand: The Register was wrong to fire Shea. They caved to the most thin skinned constituency in the Church: the rabid right wing… Surprise! They know what side of their bread the butter is on.

    It’s EWTN. What else would you expect?

    1. Emre,

      People are complex. They do good things and bad things, have positive, noble qualities and bad ones. Also, people change over time, act differently, change the way they think.

      This post represents the reality of a mixed-bag, so I have no “stand” to take, other than to describe my own relationship with Mark, the positive ways in which he has influenced me and also some of his good qualities, which many people do not know about in their excoriation of him.

      1. I, like Devin, have been at odds with some of what Mark states of late…however, he is a Brother. At times in our walk we are called to a season of suffering for our faith. This is Mark’s time. May he bear it well, and may we in Christian charity pray for him to come through to the other side with stronger faith & sense of purpose.

    2. And the firing of Simcha Fisher was more revealing that they are purging those who do not bow down to Trump.

      1. No, they are purging those whose behavior is damaging to the Register.

        There are no black helicopters here. There is no conspiracy. Both Mark and Simcha became increasingly polemical and without charity in their writings. there are several people firmly anti-trump on staff there, who have no worry about their jobs.

    3. Perfect example, Emre, of the problem with the Shea cult. If you disagreed with him, you were therefore part of “the rabid right wing.” If you try to disagree with him but do so respectfully, you must “TAKE A STAND DUDE!”

      Then add an insult to NC Reg, which tried for years to keep Mark in the fold despite the complaints.

      Here’s hoping that Mark and Simcha can reboot and take some time off and come back strong, without the vitriol.

  10. Thank you Devin for your charity and kindness…especially when a friend takes a huge hit. When we are down, we find out who loves unconditionally.

  11. I’m neither gloating nor gleeful but I am glad he has been removed. I remember seeing him become increasingly unprofessional, it seemed he began taking things very personally. People who make themselves public spokesmen for Catholicism need to be objective not reactionary.

    I do hope he can find a job, one not based on being a professional Catholic.

  12. Thanks, my friend, for your (always) thoughtful approach to things. We appreciate Mark…in the current book we are writing, we also use “BY WHAT AUTHORITY” as one of our references…a great work by Mark.May God bless our brother, Mark, and his family. We are all on this Faith Journey. May we rejoice with one another’s successes, and mourn losses.

  13. I honestly didn’t understand why Mark Shea was so divisive for people until I started following him on Facebook. He seems very angry and it comes through. I have been accused of a similar impression but I think it’s because I feel so deeply about things and it’s difficult for me to find charitable and comprehensive words to articulate my heart and brain at times. While I do not share some of Mark’s opinions (I tend to be quite traditional) I do understand Mark’s plight. Especially the way some have summerized it. “I try so hard to follow Church teaching so if you disagree with me you disagree with the Church.” I understand that cause I am that. God bless him and all who soldier on for Christ’s Church

  14. It’s interesting how many of the commenters here not only miss Devin’s main point, but actually fall into the exact trap he demonstrates that Shea fell into: Many Catholics suffer division into groups so diverse in belief that they appear unreconcilable to each other.

    This cannot be the unity Our Lord prayed for us to have, nor can it be the love by which our faith in him shall be known to the world.

    Our only unity can be in Holy Mother Church, Christ’s mystical body. My advice to all is to recall our common baptism, and our confirmation, where we testified in front of the assembly of believers: I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God.

    These beliefs are not unknowable to us. They are compiled for us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We should test our beliefs against this standard, and conform our beliefs to it.

    And we should unreservedly say with St. Maximus the Confessor, “I have no private opinion, but only agree with the Catholic Church”, or we have subscribed to a belief other than Christian.

  15. Allow me to post. I was banned by Mark some time ago, just because we went on with endless arguments that went nowhere. Mark had threatened to ban me for more than a year. The first time when I defended myself against Mark’s accusation that I wanted to increase human slaughter. Funny thing, I didn’t. I actually don’t want to increase human slaughter, or see people suffer, or worship guns more than Jesus. Yet Mark said these things about me more than once, and others as well. Assuming that at least some of those Mark accused were as innocent as I believe I am, then that amounts to Calumny. That’s false accusations. Bearing false witness. It turns on its head Jesus’ teaching that while murder is wrong, the pathway to murder through Raca and Fool is no less perilous, if not more.

    I bear Mark no ill will, though at times, I blame those who cheered him on, prodding him, using him as their Mark shaped shield to call down racas, fools, and even false accusations on their ideological opponents. Sometimes they would even chide Mark at those times Mark felt compelled to apologize; asking why should he apologize? They deserve it!

    No, I hope this helps Mark. And maybe those who are his friends, and not those who saw Mark as a convenient lineman taking the hits so they didn’t have to, will see there are issues there having nothing to do with those Catholics over there, those Catholics who aren’t like us, or those Catholics who are the real problem. They’ll realize he has developed a major problem, a deadly one, and the true friends will step up and help him turn away from where he has been going.

    1. Shea was solidly in favor of gun control, from what I’ve seen (I didn’t follow all of his writings) and yet, at the same time, urging voting for Clinton in swing states even though her party solidly backs killing the unborn at a woman’s discretion, as does Clinton, limited only, apparently, by how far along a baby is.

      That’s a hard calculation to grasp. The killing of the unborn is done on such a vast scale in the US that its mind numbing, putting us far ahead of the Soviets or the Nazis in the number of innocents killed at this point. The annual tally is blistering. Gun control can rationally be argued for or against (I’ll confess I”m against). But the death of the unborn innocents cannot. Shea would likely agree that we have blood on our hands in regards to the unborn, but to not given that the moral imperative in this election is exceedingly hard to grasp.

      Given that, I don’t think I’ll shed any tears for Shea over this. A prayer, on the other hand, is most certainly in order.

      1. To be honest, I can actually agree to debate. I disagreed with Mark on his stances, as well as his turn on priorities. I could even take Mark changing his positions on things like the importance of voting and the importance of your votes to election results. The problem was, again, not just being uncharitable or rude or saying mean things. It was calumny. It was Mark bearing false witness against others, accusing them falsely, promoting false rumors and even flat out judging their spiritual fealty. That was the problem. You simply don’t do that, or at least you don’t do that and get accolades or support from other ministers and colleagues.

  16. I’m not aware of why Shea was fired (and until I read this, I wasn’t aware that he was), but the point at which he lost all credibility was when he started to argue that a person must vote for Clinton to stop Trump, even while conceding that the Democratic views on life issues were reprehensible and immoral, if they lived in a swing state.

    There was utterly no defending that position. A person could credibly maintain, as Father Longnecker did on his blog, that neither Trump nor Clinton are morally acceptable, and go as far as Longnecker in maintaining that a person could disagree with a Catholic’s decision to vote for Clinton in this election while still understanding it, but to go so far as to argue that a person must vote for Clinton on moral grounds to defeat Trump is beyond the Catholic Pale. (My comments on Longnecker’s opinion I expanded on here: http://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2016/08/lex-anteinternet-lex-anteinternet.html and here http://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2016/08/lex-anteinternet-lex-anteinternet.html )

    I don’t like, I’ll note, either Clinton or Trump as candidates. And I’ll be voting for neither, a luxury I enjoy because I live in a state that is not a swing state (it will go for Trump). But it simply was not credible to argue that a person’s had to vote for Clinton to stop Trump as a Catholic Apologist. That would require a moral issue that Clinton was on the right side of which was of epic proportions, given the Democrats dim view of life issues and its gender confusion. Again, I don’t know that’s why the Register elected to let him go, but in something that’s so serious that our souls are at stake in the ballot box, urging the course of action he did not only sets him outside of the mainstream of Catholic thought, but implicated any publication that published him in that urging at some point.

  17. There’s no question that in his online interactions, Mark often falls into a pattern of some pretty gross misrepresentation of those he disagrees with. It’s really unfortunate.

    Now, is it intentional? I’m not sure. For years I used to read Mark Shea’s blog every day and there was a lot of informative and amusing stuff on there. It was one of the great “truly Catholic” blogs of the early days, by which I mean that much like Jimmy Akin’s old blog it delved in to everything from religion to science to pop culture to humor to anything else you can imagine, all from a solid Catholic perspective. At a certain point, he started to really drift more and more into political topics, and as he did so his temper became shorter and shorter and his tone towards those who disagreed more and more nasty. I eventually had to stop reading because it was just an awful experience and frankly an occasion of sin for myself.

    Based on that experience, my take is that Shea seems to be a man who is ultimately a slave to his emotions. Certain evils and certain classes of injustice really bother him – many of them quite indeed worthy of ire. The problem seems to be that when he is confronted with these kinds of evils or, most problematically, even the initial appearance or suggestion of them, his passions take over and he has a hard time thinking clearly. As so often happens with our passions, I think they really start to drive him to view people as guilty by association, almost like when a person sensitive about one friend’s critique starts to see everyone else as ganging up on him whether they are or not.

    He’s also not without humility, which is good and I truly hope it serves him in this moment in his life. Throughout the years I have interacted with him on other people’s Facebook pages and when someone asked me to read one of his blog posts and I just couldn’t help it, and I certainly became a person whose name he usually recognized was very ready to paint with a broad brush, accuse rashly, etc., but even so I would often call him on his problematic rhetoric and he’d often, if not always, acknowledge it and back off. I remember one case in particular where I very directly told him that his anger over the state of the world caused a tendency in him to blindly demonize anyone who disagreed with him, and he very meakly replied that I was right. In fact, over the years my most common kind of interaction with him was to reach out on a post or Facebook thread and try to call him to recognize how these things were an occasion of sin for him and repent, and truth be told in most cases he did seem to recognize it.

    My point in all of this is that as a lot of talk and Mark Shea bashing goes around the internet right now, the most important thing we can do is pray for him because he is a man who on some level recognizes his weaknesses and could have a transformative experience from all of this if only he is able to receive it. We should do everything we can to help him.

    1. Shane, That’s very well put. You have a gift of seeing the hidden burden and I hope others, even if they can’t see other’s burdens, can acknowledge we all carry around our own burdens because of our fallen nature and extend some charity to the afflicted. All in all, I see a lot of that in these comments and it makes me glad to share our common Lord.

  18. I see Simcha Fisher is under fire as well.

    Apparently she’s been commenting on the election in a way that’s upsetting some (I haven’t read her articles on it) and there’s some pretty pointed fire at her.

    I’ve always liked Fisher’s writing, but then I’ve been skipping a lot of the articles on the election apparently, and things are getting pretty heated, rather obviously.

    1. Its not about the election. Its about the incredibly vulgar way in which she conducted herself.

  19. Opinions are like noses, everybody’s got one. That’s why I generally quit reading blogs, esp those who call themselves Catholic, a couple of yrs ago. As a Catholic, my limited reading time can be much better spent delving into the riches stored up for me during the last 2,000 yrs.

  20. He was a fixture. But I found it curious that his brittleness seemed to be out of character for The National Catholic Register.  It didn’t seem like a good marriage. It’s easy for “apologists” to be viciously out of step with the greatest like St. Thomas and Chesterton, without seeing it themselves, to name but two.

  21. I also agree with Devin that this was really well done. I do not think people should celebrate Mark and Simcha being fired from their jobs. But I do think we absolutely should welcome an opportunity for the Catholic blogosphere to practice an elevated level of discourse and charity that neither Shea nor Fisher practiced.

    Whatever ones persuasions, Catholics have an opportunity here. Mark and Simcha have clearly chosen to reject that opportunity, if their statements since being fired are any indication. We can do better, and we must.

    This kind of behavior doesn’t just cause controversy, it damages souls. It damages the unity of the Church. We must be able to carry out serious and spirited disagreement without the rancor and nastiness they exhibited, or how some of their critics behave.

    This is an opportunity, lets not blow it.

  22. I recently read a few of his columns and found them not worth my time since the ones I read largely consisted of broad ad hominem attacks on people who didn’t see things his way. It’s interesting to read that at one time and in other contexts his writings were worthwhile. I hope he steps back and reevaluates what he’s been doing and how he’s been doing it. He didn’t seem to understand that it’s possible for people who disagree with you to do so in good faith and with good motives. I never read any of his facebook posts. My admittedly limited and short experience with his blog was a total turn off. By the way, I read blogs from all over the Catholic spectrum – I like the ones that get me thinking and deepen my understanding.

  23. In regards to NCR firing him & Simcha Fischer, its the antithesis of James Joyce’s quote regarding Catholics.
    So I will say the new norm, “There goes everybody.”

  24. I saw Mark Debate Michael Voris a few years back at our local (men only) Argument of the Month Club and it was great. I think he can come off much differently on the internet than in person. He is super passionate, and can seem abrasive, but if you focus on content, he has generally thought things through and has a thoughtful take, even though I usually disagree with it.

    I read his book before my conversion as well, Devin, and found it very unique and powerful.

    I must say that for me personally, I really stopped exposing myself to him purposely a few years back (along with father (now Bishop) Barron because of some troublesome statements about the existence of hell and such. I started to realize that I disagreed with almost everything he ever said, so why bother. He really doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Register anymore to be honest, which seems to be trying to be a solidly right of center paper. I hope he finds a niche where he can thrive.

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