Saturday, May 10, 2008

They Labor In Vain Who Build It

Biting the Bullet on the Catholic Celebrity Racket

[One of the past week's stories in the Catholic blogosphere is found in Creative Minority Report, about the curious direction of the popular blog The Cafeteria Is Closed. Its author, Gerald Augustinus, has recently expressed certain opinions about homosexual relationships and gender identity disorders, which could be interpreted as a challenge to Catholic teaching. Since its debut three years ago, TCIC has shown remarkable success, with over two million visitors, and mention in the print media on the subject of Catholic blogging. It is the opinion of yours truly, that a much larger issue can be found behind the controversy. It is that larger issue which is explained in the essay that follows. -- DLA]

In an ideal world (and those who are believing Catholics know that this one never will be), anyone who would profess the Faith, even if they stumbled most of the time, would also be forced to eschew public notoriety as a benchmark for the path to heaven. We might think that this priest or that sister or some other writer is a very devout and holy person, worthy of our admiration. But if the objects of such devotion are really who they pretend to be, they know that even Saint Paul found little reason to boast, and that when Augustine wrote his Confessions, there was obvious shame in that which he was forced to admit.

Then again, consider three examples that come to the mind of this writer:

1) Once I attended a Mass at a suburban parish where Father Benedict Groeschel was the main celebrant. The entrance hymn concluded, and the celebrant was about to begin. Just then, a concelebrating priest in residence interrupted the Rite of Greeting to introduce the friar. Now, I've been an admirer of Groeschel's work for years, and used to attend his lectures whenever he was in town. But as the priest-host went on for several minutes while standing at the altar of God, about what a privilege it was to have such a holy man in our midsts, I was genuinely embarrassed for the good friar. I was also reminded of what I hate most about Mass "facing the people." If only for a few minutes, we were not there to worship God, but Father Groeschel. Maybe if there were a crucifix in the middle of the altar, as we are seeing more often these days, something might have occurred to someone. But I doubt it.

2) A few years ago, I was in the lobby of the Federal building where I work, and who should appear, but a mother superior in full habit, of one of the new and fast-growing religious orders. We had met at Catholic convocations before, so I went up and introduced myself. After about two minutes of pleasantries, a couple of staffers from the legal counsel's office, for whom she had been waiting, came up and started to engage her, completely ignoring me. In fact, they got HER ignoring me, without so much as a would-you-excuse-me-please. It was as though I wasn't even there. I could live with having to excuse myself. But one would first have to acknowledge that I existed at all. (That's lawyers for you.)

3) Earlier this year, I was invited to an event at a Catholic facility, which featured a popular author and recent convert to the Faith. I had written about the person's work in the past, and while not a personal attack, it wasn't exactly a puff piece. There I was, minding my own business, when I was eventually taken aside by a staff member. He made reference to some sort of feud between myself and the author, about which he (and, until that moment, I) knew nothing, and which compelled the author to prevail upon him to ask me to leave. Well, I don't like hanging around where I am not wanted, so I left. But it surprised me that this author assumed the prerogative to do this. It also surprised the director of the facility, who believed that they, not the author, were sponsoring the event.

I read somewhere once that in the early Church, a convert was considered a neophyte for the first three years after their conversion, a sort of "novitiate" for the newly-baptised. (Commenters are free to clear this up for me, but I can tell you already it makes a lot of sense.) For some high-profile converts who get a little ahead of themselves, I'm wondering if this isn't such a bad idea for the present. Should recent converts be allowed to even publish about the Faith, while they're still learning about it? Or is their "need" for attention, and our "need" to give it to them, that important to us?

To put it another way, is my message to anyone reading this, worth any danger to my own soul?

In a town like Washington, where it seems nothing is spared the preoccupation with status, there are a few other stories I could tell. They occur to me in the wake of the Holy Father's visit, and the usual pundits still coming out of the woodwork trying to explain it all. There is a certain paradox to being Catholic, I think. On one hand, you are not in it alone. You are part of a communion of souls on their way to heaven. And while you obviously cannot be personally acquainted with all of them, you're in "the same boat" with them. You speak a common language. You would almost expect to know each other on sight. Maybe we need a secret handshake. On the other hand, each of us meets our Maker alone, answers for our sins alone, and is judged alone. At that moment (which I was always taught was the one that mattered the most), will our celebrity status help us, or hurt us? Does the answer to that eventual question dictate our present actions?

Every now and then, I run into practicing Catholics who act as though they are more a part of "the club" than others. Never mind that you go to Mass on Sunday and try to raise your children in the Faith, in the midst of a world that would persuade you to do otherwise. No, that's not good enough, because "the Missus and I have had famous Jesuits over to the house for dinner, and one of them told me I could sit on the board of Planned Parenthood with a clear conscience." Oh, well, that makes it all better, doesn't it??? Not to be outdone are those who wrap themselves in the mantle of orthodoxy, then act like complete jerks when push comes to shove. Besides, they might say, the President comes to speak at our event every year. How much more credibility do we need?

The answer depends on where you look for it. If someone uses their status as a public figure to witness to the Faith, that's fine. You can give them credit for putting it all on the line, at the risk of losing it. But is it their Faith to which they bear witness, or the title they wear in so doing? With a few of the more prominent Catholics in Washington, it is through the use of the same criteria as in political life, as their Catholicism is simply a shell of righteousness grafted onto their message. This incongruity is not confined to political conservatives. A year doesn't go by when a book isn't published about the Catholic experience as seen through the eyes of some political figure, whose public position has little or nothing to do with being Catholic. Invariably this list of intellectual giants includes a member of the Kennedy family.

Faithful Catholics were outraged when men and women in public office who profess to be Catholic, but who openly support legalized abortion, were able to receive communion at the Papal Mass celebrations in Washington and New York. Recently, Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York, issued a stunning rebuke of former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani's reception of the sacrament: "The Catholic Church clearly teaches that abortion is a grave offense against the will of God. Throughout my years as Archbishop of New York, I have repeated this teaching in sermons, articles, addresses, and interviews without hesitation or compromise of any kind. Thus it was that I had an understanding with Mr Rudolph Giuliani, when I became Archbishop of New York and he was serving as Mayor of New York, that he was not to receive the Eucharist because of his well-known support of abortion. I deeply regret that Mr Giuliani received the Eucharist during the Papal visit here in New York, and I will be seeking a meeting with him to insist that he abide by our understanding."

The truth is, none of this should have come as a surprise, least of all to the prelates themselves. While you and I watched the events on television, or took our chances with parish lotteries in the DC and NYC areas for the few tickets available, these political luminaries were all treated to special VIP seating. What other message could possibly have been sent, other than that their public conduct was being given a pass? What compromises with Mammon are made to lead to moments like this? Were they worth it?

It was not so with Saint Ambrose in the fourth century. Back in his day, the Emperor Theodosius quelled an insurrection by ordering the deaths of everyone in the rebellious town, sparing no one, including women and children. Not only did Ambrose deny him Communion, but as the Emperor and his entourage were arriving for Mass, they were met at the door by the saintly bishop himself, who refused entry to the lot of them. Under penalty of excommunication issued on the spot, the Emperor withdrew. After doing penance, Theodosius was returned to the Sacraments.

All of the above becomes a big deal in an election year, as some politicians court the twnety-one percent of the population known as "the Catholic vote." This is not the same thing as "the conservative vote," although it may appear similar. Pro-life Catholics could be (once again) led down the garden path by a Presidential candidate who can talk a good game, only to let them down (once again) through Supreme Court appointments, taxpayer-funded "family planning" programs, and continued approval of embryonic stem-cell research. Those who champion the cause of the unborn will wonder in amazement how this could happen -- as they have repeatedly for more than a quarter of a century.

Maybe the answer will come to us, once we learn to get over ourselves.
.

21 Comments:

At 5/10/2008 09:20:00 PM, Blogger Subvet said...

Very good post with lots to think about.

 
At 5/11/2008 02:46:00 AM, Blogger Tito Edwards said...

Excellent post David.

I also made a comparison between Archbishop Wuerl & St. Ambrose http://custosfidei.blogspot.com/2008/04/archbishop-wuerl-is-no-st-ambrose.html

I have struggled with how I want to present my blog as a Catholic. At first I was acerbic and quite effective in my postings with this style. But the more I learned about my faith the more I understood that my method wasn't the 'best' way to be a witness to Christ.

Thus I gradually changed my style and mode in order to represent the message of Jesus. I've lost a lot of readers but I gained much as well.

Your posting reminded me of my journey at some levels. I could have easily continued to be acerbic, sarcastic, and hard-hitting, but I chose not to. Even at the expense of losing readers. I'm not perfect, but I am trying.

Nonetheless I believe you hit the nail right on the head and I hope the Gerald understands that he has an unusual influence that will lead many astray, most especially himself.

In Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,

Tito

 
At 5/11/2008 10:01:00 PM, Blogger Patrick Archbold said...

Can you imagine what would happen if the Archbishop demanded public penance from Ted Kennedy or one of the other pro-abort pols?

Can you imagine if he actually did it? What a sign that would be?

Where is the St. Ambrose of today? St. Louis maybe...

 
At 5/11/2008 10:08:00 PM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

"Can you imagine what would happen if the Archbishop demanded public penance from Ted Kennedy or one of the other pro-abort pols?"

No, I can't. His desire to maintain the status quo only means he's a product of the same culture that produced the rest of us. We are all enamored with public notice. There is a great temptation to appease it, in order to retain our own sense of status. Doing the right thing is hard, because it runs the risk of being uninvited to the cool kids' table.

A lot of us in the Catholic blogosphere have the same problem, or you-know-who wouldn't have tried to pull off you-know-what.

 
At 5/11/2008 10:15:00 PM, Blogger Candlestring said...

"get over ourselves." ... and keep praying.

 
At 5/11/2008 11:20:00 PM, Blogger Joe of St. Thérèse said...

This should keep me thinking for a while.

 
At 5/12/2008 10:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gerald Augustinus is an open public heretic.
He should be censured for his dissent,excommunicated if he fails to recant.



Dominic.

 
At 5/13/2008 10:06:00 AM, OpenID discalcedyooper said...

Perhaps if we stopped acting like these people were celebrities, we would solve half of these issues. I could ask my mother or grandmother their opinions of the usual suspects, and they would just shrug their shoulders. Only a handful of 'popular' blogs have enough readership to be considered a decent sized parish. A lot of people seem to care about GA, and I'm sure he enjoys to a degree his little following. My goodness though. Should people really be getting worked up about a guy with a blog in California? I don't know about you, but I don't have to look very far to find sympathy for those with homosexual tendencies. And yes, his opinion is wrong, but so what? A person on the Internet is wrong. Who would have thunk it? Perhaps if these folks weren't so utterly devoid of actual communion at a parish, they might stop making idols of bloggers.

 
At 5/13/2008 11:37:00 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

On one hand, I hear what David's saying about 'Catholic celebrity worship' and agree for the most part, especially about putting young converts in the spotlight as bastions of orthodoxy or hold them to a standard of perfection.

That said -- I'm hesitant to dismiss the "regulars" over at the-blog-formerly-known-as-"the cafeteria is closed" as idolators or goggle-eyed celebrity-worshippers.

I think most gravitate to the 'popular Catholic blogs'' not necessarily to worship the author but for the stimulating discussions they generate. Gerald had a knack for pulling together some interesting topics; likewise Amy Welborn, likewise Mark Shea (to name two other popular venues).

I don't count myself as a regular reader, but from what I see those that are expressing their concerned are in large part simply disappointed or expressing concern that a Catholic blogger would publicly stray from the teachings of Mother Church. They may then make an effort to reason with him or point out his error and if that fails, they may decide to sever their links in the interest of not promoting error.

Of course, uou also have those who behave like a virtual lynch mob, ready to burn at the stake -- methinks all their screaming actually plays into Gerald's hands, as -- despite his ability to police his own combox -- he has conveniently let them rant, and proceeded to characterized his critics en masse as "pitchfork-wielding mobs" who wish to "burn you at the stake" -- bypassing the rational arguments that have been advanced.

On the other hand, given as there are 1,408 Catholic blogs registered today, perhaps the same readers will take this as an opportunity to broaden their horizons and explore other venues, online or even offline.

 
At 5/14/2008 08:58:00 AM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

"[P]erhaps the same readers will take this as an opportunity to broaden their horizons and explore other venues, online or even offline."

Christopher, you obviously haven't read this.

Read items 1 and 5, then get back to me.

 
At 5/14/2008 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Christopher said...

Actually, I did recall that post, but I'll respond to your points.

#1 To that end, I don't exactly fit the "Roman Catholic poster child" mold. No, I don't mean that I'm a sinner and others are not. That's beside the point. I don't have that fresh-shaven face and button-down demeanor, with an adorable, devoted wife and five or six obedient children wearing matching outfits.

How many bloggers do you know who actually fit this stereotype? -- Name them.

Count me skeptical, but if all the popular bloggers had to rely on were sharing stories of "loading the kiddies into the van for soccer games, or staying up nights to watch the youngest one with a cold", I doubt there would be that many reading them.

I don't jump on every story that hits the Catholic blogosphere within the same news cycle. Don't ask me how, but others have time for that. There appears to be a demand for posting links to a dozen stories a day and connecting them to clever witticisms, and doing that day after day.

I admit this does characterize a specific kind of blog and blogging style which has an understandable appeal. There are about 3-4 secular political blogs/sites that I skim daily for a grasp of the news and world-happenings. There are likewise about that many Catholic blogs that I skim during my lunch break to catch up on the news and political events from a distinctly Catholic perspective.

These kind of bloggers tend to vary in quality / quantity -- for example, your description captures both Pro Ecclesia and Catholic & Enjoying It, at least in terms of covering the news cycle on a daily bsis, but IMHO there is one that distinguishes itself to me as commenting with greater clarity and substance.

You claim that:

... try to find an article on "Catholic blogs" that does not mention the same one or two individuals (and you know who you are, dahhh-lings!)

and I bet you can also do some exploring and find a good number number among those 1,400+ registered Catholic blogs that post substantial content, host the occasional stimulating discussions and garner a readership of its own.

(From my own reading list: Pontifications, What's Wrong with the World, Sacramentum Vitae, New Liturgical Movement, Caelum Et Terra, DarwinCatholic, Rerum Novarum ... -- all of which seem to get by and develop a following w/o feeling obligated to reference the "dahhh-lings".

Granted, they don't boast the same quantity of readers -- I suspect for the same reason that a NOVA documentary on PBS or an academic lecture on C-Span doesn't get the same number of viewers as Nightline or Larry King, but I'm not necessarily going to hold the latter in resentment for their popular appeal.

If some Catholic bloggers with a knack for bringing Catholic analysis to daily news and events get a mention in the secular/mainstream press, I'm not necessarily going to begrudge them.

Case in point, I was for one particularly glad to see Amy Welborn's voice on the contributing panel of New York Times' coverage for Benedict's visit to the U.S.; she has distinguished herself as one capable of presenting the Faith with clarity to a popular audience and countering the misrepresentations of the secular and often anti-Catholic press -- yet in a way doesn't come across as beating somebody over the head with a bat. Which is also why I think readers appreciate her.

My point -- and it is my ONLY point -- is that one cannot claim the internet has come on its own as a tool for getting the Catholic message across. ..

The "dahhh-lings" you reference are in fact only a subset of Catholic bloggers, which is in themselves a subset of the myriad vehicles for "getting the Catholic message across" on the internet -- which is why, though I grant some validity to your criticisms, I'm not ready to pronounce an indictment.

 
At 5/14/2008 11:50:00 AM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

Christopher:

Yours was not a bad analysis, cogent in some respects, missing the boat in others. I'll try to be brief. You also have to remember that this was written a year ago, as a commentary on the status quo as of TWO years ago. This is a long time in this medium. There have been some changes in the landscape, and in the characteristics of readership, since then. But here goes:

"How many bloggers do you know who actually fit this stereotype? -- Name them."

There's not enough time. And no, they don't all do it, but many of the more popular ones deign to be the next Erma Bombeck, not that I blame them.

"...and I bet you can also do some exploring and find a good number number among those 1,400+ registered Catholic blogs that post substantial content..."

...and weren't getting mentioned in the print media, including the ones you mention. That was my point.

"Case in point, I was for one particularly glad to see Amy Welborn's voice on the contributing panel..."

You mean hear her voice, right?

Yes, she's excellent, and in listening to her during the interregnum following the death of John Paul II, I thought she brought a lot to the table. But she also had an established reputation in the print media before blogging. Were it not for the former, it is unlikely you would have seen her on television. That the medium of blogging, specifically Catholic blogging, was in such an embryonic stage at the time, that someone without that background could not garner that distinction, was another point I was making.

"...though I grant some validity to your criticisms, I'm not ready to pronounce an indictment."

The intention was analysis, not criticism. That a medium is in its early stages is nobody's fault. That its early luminaries are crossovers from previous conventional media (similar to radio personalities in the early days of television) is also nobody's fault. It is the way such media evolves. In a more recent analysis, I remarked on the changes that had taken place just within the last year. There are a some significant new players in the Catholic blogosphere. I wrote at some length on one of them. Click here.

There is also a significant increase in the role of "niche blogs." One of them, Father Zuhlsdorf's What Does The Prayer Really Say?, won most of the CBA categories this year. This indicates to me the demand for this sort of discussion on an otherwise arcane topic, that nonetheless affects the average Catholic at a fundamental level.

All told, "some validity" is good enough for me.

 
At 5/14/2008 01:34:00 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

...and weren't getting mentioned in the print media, including the ones you mention. That was my point.

Well, perhaps that's a good thing. Not every blogger covets the limelight and no blogger should; some, when the spotlight is thrust upon them, hold up better than others.

That the medium of blogging, specifically Catholic blogging, was in such an embryonic stage at the time, that someone without that background could not garner that distinction, was another point I was making.

True and agreed. Honestly, I'm extremely skeptical of those who try to "make a living" from blogging or make their audience feel it is incumbent on them to provide them a paycheck. Even St. Paul made tents, or so I'm told.

There are a some significant new players in the Catholic blogosphere. I wrote at some length on one of them.

We seem to share similar tastes.

There is also a significant increase in the role of "niche blogs."

Exactly -- I think some figured out not everybody could do (or saw the pointlessness in offering) "all news, all the time", figured out what
they are particularly good at, and stuck to it. (This is what I was getting at with my 'NOVA documentary on PBS documentary or C-SPAN vs. Larry King" illustration). I think there are also those news-bloggers or Catholic apologists who overreach, expounding on topics (usually geopolitical) they have little familiarity with.

This indicates to me the demand for this sort of discussion on an otherwise arcane topic, that nonetheless affects the average Catholic at a fundamental level.

Agreed.

 
At 5/14/2008 03:33:00 PM, OpenID discalcedyooper said...

Thank you Mr. Alexander for the post gratuitously praising my own post.

Christopher,
While worship and making of idols is indeed hyperbolic to an extent, there is something grossly wrong when several blogs have to come out and say, "It pains me to remove so and so from my blogroll because of yada." Some of these posts are as bad as the "I'm leaving the Church for x" variety. A relationship where one party is more emotionally invested and pursues the other party is often called stalking. It is interesting that the argument has taken the turn it has, because a certain part of the indignity is people acting like Gerald was some sort of an authority and they had a role in making him such. Gerald is a layman. In no sense of the word is his influencial. I'd bet dollars to donuts that local and regional chairs of the Knights of Columbus have made some pretty ridiculous statements. The world didn't stop turning then. This issue is really not that important, and I really don't see why people think it needs to be important. Well actually I can. Some people's own self importance might be undermined if we learned that the most popular Catholic blogger made heretical statements and the rest of the world didn't take notice. It wasn't like it this is only topic he has deviated from Church teaching. Heck, most of the "Catholic" blogosphere is filled with pro-war zealots whose writing might endear them to Neuhaus but wouldn't even get the courtesy of a rejection letter L'Observatorio Romano or Civilta Catolica. I give Mr. Alexander credit for what he has done here and recognizing this for what it is.

 
At 5/15/2008 08:48:00 AM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

Thanks, Mark. By the way, I get better. There was a time Ms Welborn shut down to go on vacation with her family for several days. If you felt the earth move last August, this might explain it:

My Amy Welborn Moment

"Mark Shea was actually getting e-mails from people wanting to know where Amy was. Oh, yeah, like he and Amy and Gerald and Jimmy have this private penthouse in Manhattan where they smoke cigars (the guys, anyway) and drink cordials and conspire over the eventual iron-fisted rule of their corner of cyberspace. Geeeezzz..."

 
At 5/15/2008 10:50:00 AM, Blogger Christopher said...

... Mark Shea was actually getting e-mails from people wanting to know where Amy was. Oh, yeah, like he and Amy and Gerald and Jimmy have this private penthouse in Manhattan where they smoke cigars (the guys, anyway) and drink cordials and conspire over the eventual iron-fisted rule of their corner of cyberspace. Geeeezzz...

One might conclude from this that "all readers of popular blogs are celebrity worshippers" who go into withdrawal the moment their blog stops posting.

On the other hand, over the course of 'St. Blog's' existence a "popular" blog may suddenly silent for some time only to discover that said author has had a health crisis.

I could point to Gerald Serafin (http://blogforlovers.blogspot.com/), who posted daily, whose blog went silent and we learned he passed away a few days later.

I could point to Karen Marie Knapp, another long-time blogger who passed away (again, as I recall, people learned of her death via Mark Shea).

I could point to this past week's example of Dale Price and his stint in the hospital, which many people read about at Mark Shea's (where his wife relayed the prayer request).

The likely reason people email Mark Shea when Amy Welborn's blog suddenly went silent? -- he's a blogger with a fairly wide readership and by that token alone, a likely conduit of news. It's not the first time familial members of bloggers have known to contact him with prayer requests or unfortunate news.

(I'll wager if your blog went silent, at least one or two readers would email Shea with an inquiry if he's heard anything).

But then, this is only speculation on my part why (gasp!) "Mark Shea was actually getting e-mails from people wanting to know where Amy was." Much easier to engage in some histrionics.

 
At 5/15/2008 10:54:00 AM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

"(I'll wager if your blog went silent, at least one or two readers would email Shea with an inquiry if he's heard anything)."

One or two? That many???

 
At 5/15/2008 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Christopher said...

One or two? That many???

Including those readers I deign to send you from my own blogroll.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a cigar to smoke and some honored guests to grovel before -- excuse me, attend to.

Cordials anyone? ;-)

 
At 5/23/2008 09:10:00 AM, Blogger Pertinacious Papist said...

Thanks for this post, my friend, although it's quite a depressing state-of-affairs, I must admit.

 
At 5/23/2008 01:51:00 PM, Blogger Pertinacious Papist said...

The two bright spots for me were Cardinal Egan's censure of Giuliani, and your story about Saint Ambrose's interception of Emperor Theodosius. As I recall, the Emperor's penance was a trifle more than three Hail Marys too.

 
At 5/27/2008 02:39:00 PM, Anonymous Jordanes said...

Just singling out your comment about the episode involving St. Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius, Father Zuhlsdorf recently did an enlightening podcast on it:

http://wdtprs.com/blog/2008/04/podcazt-54-pro-abortion-politicians-and-communion-st-ambrose-and-emperor-theodosius/

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home