Austen Ivereigh and Matthew Schmitz on Al Jazeera, July 21, 2017

Tempest in a Catholic teapot

(RNS) — A couple of weeks ago Michael Sean Winters, scourge of the anti-Francis right for the National Catholic Reporter, alerted his readers to a little debate on Al-Jazeera between longtime British Vaticanista Austen Ivereigh and Matthew Schmitz, the youthful literary editor of First Things.

"I am so tired of converts telling us that the pope is not Catholic," wrote Winters.

Schmitz, the convert in question, did not quite go that far (though his magazine raised the question in an article a few months ago). What he did was double down on his claim (in a New York Times op-ed last year) that "Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads."

Francis "is building his program of supposed reform not only at the expense of the church," Schmitz said, "but also at the expense of its most vulnerable members — the children who have been orphaned by the culture of divorce and remarriage that was left to us by the 1960s and the baby boomers."

"This is really, really ridiculous," responded Ivereigh.

Winters' snark provoked cries of distress from converts who disproportionately populate Anglo-American Catholicism's conservative commentariat.

"Maybe I’m being preciously oversensitive here," wrote English theology professor Stephen Bullivant on the First Things blog. "Nevertheless, I do find such condescension strange in an avowedly missionary religion."

"Stop bashing converts, and accept us as we are — warts and all," ran the head on Crux commentator the Rev. Dwight Longenecker's response.

Meanwhile, over at Commonweal, Villanova theology prof Massimo Faggioli rose to concur with Winters, declaring, "The weaknesses of Catholic ecclesiology that some converts now denounce as post-Vatican II illnesses are actually the same weaknesses that have made it easy (institutionally and theologically) for them to be accepted in the Catholic Church."

A couple of days ago, Ivereigh joined the fray on Crux (where he's a contributor), accusing the other side of "convert neurosis."

And on it goes. Connoisseurs of Catholic intellectual infighting can perhaps be forgiven for sitting down with a bag of popcorn to enjoy the show — which in this case is a vehement reprise of one we've seen before.

In the middle of the last century, many of the leading lights of English Catholicism were converts, including such literary luminaries as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. They had their counterparts in America, including the beautiful and talented Clare Booth Luce.

As much enamored of the Latin Mass as of the Church's truth claims, they found their loyalty "seriously tested" by the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, in the words of one historian, because these "undermined much of what had first drawn them into the Roman communion." Indeed, in 1965 Waugh became president of a new Latin Mass Society in Britain.

It's possible to feel a bit of sympathy for such converts. Just as Waugh and company resented having a hunk of the religious tradition they embraced taken away from them, so today's conservative converts did not sign up for the "reform of the reform" of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in order to have it supplanted by Francis' revival of the spirit of Vatican II and his determined rejection of papal pomp.

As Schmitz put it on Al-Jazeera, "What happens when the pope builds his popularity by attacking the established ways of expressing Catholic teaching, by shucking off all the trappings of the office. Francis has increasingly removed himself from the dignities and the traditional formulas of the office, and that makes it harder for him to repel any criticism."

"Here we are getting really close to what really bothers Matthew," scoffed Ivereigh. "He wants the red shoes. He wants the popes to be carried on a sedia gestatoria [the ceremonial throne on which popes were carried until 1978]. He wants a church which no longer exists."

What's new, this time around, is the readiness of conservative converts to come right out and criticize what principally distinguishes Roman Catholicism from the rest of Christianity — the pope. You'd almost think they were still Protestants.


  1. This is not only hilarious, it’s pathetic. Fly specks…they are arguing about flyspecks. It is abundantly clear from scripture that God does not give two hoots about tradition, theologically speaking. Tradition is fine as a means of cultural and institutional memory, but as a requisite of the faithful practice of Christianity, not so much. I don’t believe God cares if the Mass is said in Latin, English, or Mandarin. Nor does He care if the priest faces the altar (West), or faces the congregation (East). Francis can be credited for one thing; not being caught up in incidental details.

  2. It is abundantly clear from scripture that God does not give two hoots about tradition,

    Are you saying God does not give two hoots about scripture, because sripture is simply tradition writ.

  3. “By shucking all of the trappings of the office”…

    Says it all. We want our pope to be a royal “we”, not just some guy. Just like Jesus.

    I’m not catholic, or even Christian, but it’s plain what’s going on her. Surely, Jesus would have kept his golden crozier, and ifa few kids don’t make it, well, “suffer the little children…”

    Too much.

  4. I think I’ll add this. The people who are so hyper critical of the Pope should sit down and read Frederick Rolfe’s Hadrian The Seventh. Surely one of the best books around to describe this catholic teapot, and even though a century old, seems highlY relevant to the discussion.

  5. I read NCR daily and read MSW articles when they appear. I also read articles by conservative catholics/websites to get both sides of an issue.

    NCR is a VERY progressive news outlet. They are the WAPO, NYT of liberal catholic perspectives. We are seeing the same mindset, same views, same strategies at NCR that we see with secular liberal society. That being, anything conservative is wrong and must be vigorously fought.

    What is going on here, as we see in society in general, is the clash between liberals and conservatives. These articles are nothing but opinion, often blown out of proportion, and at times so nitpicking just to be contrary. They lack the ability to understand or listen to divergent views, they on some level want to crush the other because they lack patience, love, and tolerance.

    This attitude is also found in the Vatican between liberals and conservatives as well. There is a division growing that just may cause an undefined schism here if people don’t come off the ledge. The RCC as a whole cannot seem to find that balance between upholding the dogma and doctrines of the church with the need to express the love and compassion of God towards all people in need.

    There would not be such growing rift if Francis spoke clearly and extensively on issues that concern the faithful. It is the catholic way to speak in such a way that few agree to what they heard. Francis himself has not addressed the Dubias (concerns) a group of cardinals sent to him regarding a dramatic change in dogma regarding the reception of communion as well as others.

    If people are really interested in this tug of war just remember neither side is completely right, so sit back a watch this painfully slow theatrics unfold. However, all that will come of it (hopefully) will be the realization that moderation, and true christian behavior coming forth rather than this struggle of ideals that have little to do with God.

  6. The Bible says “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…” not “All tradition is given by inspiration of God…”

  7. Not the same thing at all. I view the bible as God’s express instruction to His people and the World, recorded faithfully and without error by His prophets and apostles. To the degree that some minor errors and imperfections have crept in over the centuries by translation errors, and occasional biases, such have not been sufficient or glaring enough to compromise the clear message being sent by the Lord and Creator of the universe.

  8. And all mooted by the fact that the papacy depends on an inauthentic passage from Matthew.

  9. Belonging to a powerful group, so one is not facing harsh reality alone, is irresistible to many of the weak and confused, who crave safety and certainty. The Latin mass, the scripture, the familiar ceremonies, the confession, and the Saintly Pope, all work together to reassure the faithful. Requiring them to think has resulted in this disaster. Let them go back to sleepwalking!

  10. “‘You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and
    the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom
    of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever
    you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Mt. 16, 18-19).

    Not historical as it fails rigorous historic testing:

    e.g. and Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 197-198.

  11. Christians-Catholics do so hate each other. That’s how we know they are not to be trusted in a humane society.

  12. Before the Carolingians made themselves allies with the papacy, and slaughtered off the Jewish-CHristian Merovingians, the Merovingian Kings were known as the Vicars of Christ and the Popes as the Vicars of Peter. Why this is so no one knows.

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