“We now return (ostensibly) to our regularly scheduled programming.”
In case you haven't noticed, I haven't been doing much writing lately, at least not here.
Several things contributed to the dry spell.
For the past three years, my readership has steadily dropped. This past year, in particular, has seen it go to about one-fourth of what it was previously. Obviously it didn't help that I wasn't writing as much, but there was more to the decision (or should I say, the indecision?) than that.
The Other “Francis Effect”
The reign of Pope Francis, whatever one might think of him, has created more internecine infighting in the past two years or more, both in the Catholic blogosphere, and in social media, than one could possibly imagine. It is virtually impossible to comment with any authority on anything he says and/or does, on any given day, without arousing the indignation of some yutz who read something, somewhere, God-only-knows-where, that I didn't have time to read, probably because I have a life. And even if I did, a Vatican press office that is out of control, and a pope who speaks off the cuff whenever a microphone appears within spittin' distance, renders it equally impossible to know who or what to believe. Francis has been misquoted any number of times, and for those occasions where he is not misquoted, the account often starts with a headline that is very misleading. It is true that at times he has spoken most clearly on the nature of sin and the reality of the Evil One. Perhaps his finest hour was when he appeared before a joint session of Congress, and warned American legislators that the family was in danger (although he failed to include the unborn, as if it would have killed him to do so), that in a culture that encouraged divorce, a growing number of young people were genuinely afraid of the idea of marriage. The good news is that he has actually committed no formal heresy to date.*
All that aside, Pope Francis tends to make extemporaneous comments with little forethought, even by his own admission. We find it difficult to imagine what may come over a man in such a responsible position, until we consider not only that such public dissemination of spontaneous remarks by a pope are a very recent phenomenon (and by virtue of this, for all we know, might be nothing new at all). The reality is that not every pope can be a rock star like John Paul II, or a well-published scholar like Benedict XVI. Many of the 266 men who have reigned as Vicar of Christ are merely the most ordinary of men, as was the foul-mouthed Fisherman who was the very first of them.
His studies amount to nothing substantial. The Jesuits [in Argentina] have no professors worthy of the name, the subjects were tossed about in an unscholarly manner, the philosophy would never be properly taught ... The liturgy was perfectly awful, no one knew Latin, Scriptural Studies were little less than a sham ... So what does Bergoglio know? With that sort of training, pretty much nothing. No Latin, no languages at all, for that matter. His Italian is awful, not a word of English, no French, let alone his clumsy Spanish! (I wonder what on earth he studied in Germany for a couple of months, as is reported, because, for that matter, he knows no German either. And he certainly did not earn a degree over there.)
Well, then, how come he was elected Pope? Search me.
The remark that seems to irk people the most, is when it appears that faithful Catholics are depicted as "pharisees," or worse. It's one thing to preach on this theme in the first person plural, quite another to do so in the second or third person plural. It brings to mind the way in which Father Paul Scalia once began a homily on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican:
"I know what all of you are thinking right now: 'I'm glad I'm not like that Pharisee.' And that's the trap that we fall into …"
One of the resulting "effects" that I've noticed on the internet, has been the drawing of a form of battle lines among pundits. Make a comment that's strident enough, one way or the other, and you'll quickly be consigned to one ideological camp or another. You're either in the Mark Shea camp, or the Michael Voris camp. Being pushed over the edge with the latter might put you in the Michael Matt/Chris Vennari camp. (There may be other camps, but that seems to be the trifecta so far.)
Shea wants to bring home the point that Catholics, particularly those who identify as "orthodox" or "faithful," too easily confine themselves to a secular political identity, which has proven contrary to any genuine examination of Church teaching, especially on social justice issues. Whether his vitriol has proven too weary to be effective, or just plain obnoxious, has long been a matter of some conjecture. Meanwhile, a lot of traditional Catholics were totally gung-ho for Voris and his ChurchMilitant.com apostolate, until he broke with the conventional narrative, particularly in his coverage of the papacy, and he's been castigated by his former allies ever since. (That would be the third camp.) It is an ambitious effort that is emerging as the next EWTN, but the risk is one of forming around a single personality, which has been the downfall of many a lay apostolate.
This is the tempest in the teapot that many want to follow. Those who choose not to, who would rather venture elsewhere, risk getting drowned out amidst this cacophony. At some point, what is the point?
The “Catholic Celebrity” Phenomenon
We all know that life isn't fair, and that some endeavors will be more successful than others. It's to the really great writers that people look for answers, for explanations, for insights. In matters of faith, it's not only priests who are sought on the internet. Any number of lay men and women have found their voice amidst the bandwidth. Some are mere hobbyists, while others are seasoned professionals. In the early years of the Catholic blogging phenomenon, the best-known bloggers were already established in the Catholic print media, either as authors or columnists. A separate subset, if one that overlaps, was that of the high-profile convert. Maybe they were once an atheist, or an Evangelical pastor, or even a High Priest of the Church of Satan. They are no sooner bestowed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, barely emerging from the ranks of the catechumate, than they are touted as experts on the subject. The angels and saints in truly rejoice with the news that a lost sheep has been found, but here on earth below, the buzz is often less about the conversion, and more about the converted. It's pretty obvious if you know where to look, or just wait for the obvious. An entire church publishing industry enables this dabbling of dilettantes, so good are they for business. And so it carries on.
I could tell stories here, but most of them don't bear repeating. These are the types that make the Faith into less a matter of believing, and more a matter of belonging. The Catholic Church is not a private club, orthodoxy is more than the ability to talk a good game, and we don't have an elitist caste. We are a communion of souls, a procession of pilgrims, all of them on their way to heaven. Some will venture off the beaten path, others will fall away altogether, but it's about the journey, even more so about what awaits them at the end. No prancing pundit fawned over at a book signing, who has their minions show someone the door, sets the tone for who may follow the way. They fool some of the people, some of the time, but sooner or later, they are found. They are better off just being a face in the pews.
Sometimes it doesn't matter what you write, when all it really takes is a gimmick to get enough attention. There has emerged a subset of Catholic blogs that are best characterized as local gadflies, established ostensibly to crusade within their city or diocese -- they usually have titles like “A Concerned Catholic Crusader from Walla Walla, Washington” -- but which soon venture beyond the confines of their geographic locality, not to mention their competence, often doing little more than regurgitating what someone else has written. What they lack in original thinking and intellectual rigor, they make up for with a fawning fan base in their comments boxes. Some of these ponderous pundits also lack in fortitude, as they attack their ecclesiastical adversaries behind a nom de plume, presumedly for fear of retribution, as if somehow they can't stop themselves from attacking people, ergo they can't help it if they have to be anonymous -- like the lily-livered, yellow-bellied, crusading cowards that they are.
Then there are the twits who demand charity and kindness in their comments boxes, when they don't demand it of themselves. What's worse than that, is that their readership is too stupid to know the difference. At the end of the day, when you have to compete with the plethora of over-decorated websites and overly-bad writing (and it's difficult to imagine people actually loving this stuff, but they do), it sort of takes the wind out of the sails -- and just when you were hoping that Facebook and Twitter would have thinned the herd of the riff-raff.
But none of that, by itself, is what has taken me away from this.
Unlike some of these yahoos, I have a regular day job. Not only that, but a very busy one. Most readers know I work for an agency of the federal government in Washington DC. I don't identify that agency, either on the blogs or in social media, not because it's one of those top-security agencies like the CIA, or worse, but because of a deal I've worked out with the people for whom I work. I don't mention where I work or do this where I work, and they don't tell me what to write. I can deal with political issues, and matters concerning the federal workplace (where not nearly as many of us are lazy or overpaid as you'd like to think), without catching any heat.
And writing isn't even what I do for a living, at least not there.
For the first thirty years or so, I was a graphic designer, or as they like to call it, a "visual information specialist." My area of specialty was mostly in publications. About a decade ago, I realized I'd gone as far as I could go in that specialty -- an outside hire who was a lot younger and brought in at a higher grade was a sure sign -- and managed to work out a deal to have them pay for part of my return to college. After five years of diploma studies in web design, they decided that they didn't want me to be a web designer. (That's the short version. The long one is even more pathetic.) Fortunately, I had learned enough about certain types of animation software, that I managed to persuade them to let me venture into video editing. That led to getting behind a camera and more video editing, and eventually, a formal reclassification as an "audiovisual production specialist."
My work got a lot better in the past year. It had to; they hired a director for us who actually knew what the hell he was doing. That sort of meant that I had to know too. As a result, I've caught up pretty well since then, but at a price. Between the day job, and volunteer work, and just taking care of a house, I simply don't have the time I used to have before this past year. And, as I said, my readership dropped considerably. So I had to step back, more or less. I did more commentary on Facebook, which was more expedient, and more likely to gauge reaction (or get any at all). I gained a lot from that, mostly what I wanted to write, and how.
The Rest of the Story
Once I told someone of how few people read this page. They told me it might still be worth it, just for the few who read it. Call it quality over quantity, call it as much fame as I can handle. I still get comments from people who have visited here, even in the past year. And I've been featured more than once, even in this past year, at New Advent. In fact, I even rate my own picture. I'd settle for that level of notoriety, the rare find among the well-read, a small cult following.
If you want to call it that.
UPDATE: Also in the works are the completion of a backlog of essays that never quite made it to the final draft. They will appear at the date of scheduled publication, in a futile attempt to save face in the long run, and viewers will be provided with an update of links to them.
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* Readers were challenged on Facebook earlier this year to present evidence that Pope Francis had formally committed heresy. Except for a comment about the Jewish people which was at best inconclusive, no one succeeded.