Blogging Pope Francis: An Interview with Mark Shea
Mark P. Shea is a Washington-based Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. Raised as an agnostic pagan, he became a non-denominational Protestant Evangelical in 1979 before converting to Catholicism in 1987. In addition to a number of books and regular articles in Catholic periodicals, Mr. Shea is author of the "Catholic and Enjoying It!" blog at the Patheos Catholic portal, where he has been following the papacy of Francis. He is also an apologist for Catholic Answers.
On Aug. 18, I interviewed Mr. Shea by telephone about his blogosphere perspective on Pope Francis. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.
You were among the first Catholic bloggers and your blog continues to get a good amount of web traffic. How has blogging evolved or changed for you over the years?
I started blogging in 2002 for a number of reasons. One was that I was watching the priest abuse scandal unfold and was seeing a lot of people say both dumb and true things about the Catholic Church. I thought it was necessary to have more reasonably informed lay voices because priests weren’t able to speak for themselves at that time in a public square that automatically assumed them to be guilty. I was also interested because I saw people like Amy Welborn blogging and it occurred to me that her 30,000 web hits a month would have been a fairly respectable circulation for any print magazine. So I thought it would be a good way to get my voice out there. The final reason I started blogging is that I’m an extrovert trapped in an introvert’s job as a writer, and the internet is a very interactive form of writing that attracted me!
Blogging itself, in terms of the technology, hasn’t changed a lot. I started with Blogger when it was free and then I changed over to Patheos, which uses a Wordpress platform. A blog is basically your online diary about whatever you want to talk about right now. The things I talk about have evolved over time because the church and the culture have changed over the past decade. The subject has become much less the priest scandal that was the big thing when I started blogging. In some ways, it’s been surprising for me because the Catholics who form my audience were saying nine years ago: “O.K., Benedict XVI is pope now and the church is going to get straightened out because God’s Rottweiler is on the job.” None of that was going to actually happen, and I never thought it would, but that was the way the right end of the Catholic blogosphere was talking. Now we have Pope Francis and, regrettably, a not-insignificant portion of people in my corner of the blogosphere have decided that God has anointed them to defend the church from Francis. That astounds me and I have spent a fair amount of time reminding people that, you know, this guy is the pope and our task is to listen to him and learn from him rather than defend the church from him.
When I became a Catholic in 1987, I never dreamed that by 2014 I would be watching a considerable portion of the people who then considered themselves “the real Catholics” to be in varying levels of open revolt against the Holy Father. So as far as evolution in the blogosphere goes, that’s one of the main things I’ve seen. Sometimes the dissent I’ve seen is a quite reactionary loathing of the man. Obviously, I’m not talking about all Catholics on the right of the blogosphere, as I’m one of many who think the world of this pope, as I thought the world of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He’s just a fantastic pope who I love as much as the previous two popes I’ve known in my life as a Catholic.
Why do you blog?
I blog in order to teach about the faith. That’s what interests me. I want to talk about where I see the faith illuminating things that don’t get illuminated by the normal sort of culture war narratives we find in the media. For me as a layperson, that means really trying to think with the faith on issues where we normally don’t think the faith has much to say. For example, I was involved in a conversation the other day on Facebook about Gardasil, a newish vaccine against Human Papillomavirus (HPV) that some people are concerned about. What really struck me was that someone commenting on it, who is active in anti-euthanasia work, suggested it might be better to let the effects of the virus unfold as a way of making people be accountable for their sinful behavior. I found that breathtaking since HPV can cause things like cervical cancer, sterility and miscarriage. Think about that: A man active in anti-euthanasia work was saying that women should be allowed to die of cervical cancer in order to teach them a lesson about the sin of sexual impurity. One doubts he would call for cancelling the manufacture of insulin in order to punish the sin of gluttony with diabetes. It’s that kind of dumb stuff I’m trying to challenge in my blogging.
Do you consider blogging to be journalism?
Not really. I suppose it can be, but I think it’s typically a very derivative form of journalism at best. Usually what happens on the blogosphere is in response to what’s already been said in the media. On the other hand, we have to remember that it was a blog that brought down Dan Rather. Every form of information is available on the internet and some blogger discovered (from, I kid you not, a website entirely devoted to chronicling IBM Selectric typewriter fonts) that the font in a supposed letter about Bush allegedly dating from 1972 did not exist at that time and that the letter had actually been generated on a word processor. The hoax was exposed and it destroyed Dan Rather. So bloggers do and can keep media honest. But I would not consider myself a journalist.
How has the Catholic blogosphere reacted to the papacy of Francis so far?
It really depends. As I suggested earlier, some on the right of the blogosphere are extremely nervous. Some on that side, like me, think very highly of him. But other blogs are utterly hysterical about him, displaying unhinged panic that in some cases leans toward sedevacantism because they just cannot cope with him. Others tend to be suspicious of everything he says. Then there are others who really see and appreciate what he’s trying to do. They see that he’s not his predecessors, but that he’s not saying or doing anything essentially different from his predecessors.
It seems to be his personality—the fact he’s not a high church Catholic—that is the biggest concern for some bloggers. Like me, he’s happy with just about any Mass and doesn’t have anything against the extraordinary form of the liturgy, but it’s pretty clear that the Latin Mass just isn’t a big interest for him. Also, he’s not exactly sanguine about the effects of the first world capitalist experiment on the developing world, and he has a lot to say about our debt to the poor. That makes a lot of people on the right nervous as well. And, of course, some on the left are upset with him for being just as Catholic on the Pelvic Issues as his predecessors and not coming through with a Charter of Sexual Freedom that some people imagined was just about to be promulgated after the America interview was misreported by the mainstream media last fall.
What’s fascinating to me is not how often the media misreports him, but how often a lot of people on the right accept that misreporting lock, stock, and barrel instead of correcting it—and then panic about it. So when Pope Francis said in the America interview that “the church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” he was saying our faith is not reducible to culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage. Our faith is not primarily a school of ethics, even though there’s obviously an ethical component. His point was that the real focus of our life as Catholics is Jesus Christ. If something beside Jesus is at the center (even something as important as the dignity of human life and the family) we are idolaters. What is more, without Jesus, nothing else makes sense, but is just this inchoate collection of moral preachments that people have no idea how to put together.
It’s very obvious that this was his point, but the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream media took him to mean "Abortion? That's so JPII and Benedict! Papa's got a brand new groove!" I get that. I don't expect a media that pored over Deus Caritas Est in search of any mention of sex (and came away stunned, disappointed, and baffled that it “did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics”) to have the faintest idea what to make of Catholic teaching.
But I do expect Catholics to have a grasp of Catholic teaching. Again and again, I have encountered a scream from Catholic bloggers on the right who have just been wigging out, calling Francis a heretic and saying he’s abandoned the faith—and citing the New York Times and NPR as the cause of their panic. So I wrote a blog piece (the first of many on the same theme, alas) about the unexpected unity between the New York Times and the Francis haters on the right. I have been very consistently surprised to see this pattern continually playing out in the year since then. Every time he gives an interview, I think it’s obvious that his pastoral style is aimed at reaching ordinary people with ordinary language. It’s not absolutely precise language and it's all solid Catholic stuff since he's, you know, the pope. Yet you get people flipping out because it’s not an encyclical and he’s just trying to reach as broad an audience as possible.
On the bright side, it’s consoling for me to see in this reaction how little the blogosphere matters to the lives of ordinary Catholics in the pews. In real life outside of the blogosphere, the people I know love the guy, and all the panics and alarms that I run into online are either unknown or non-existent at the parish level. The average Catholic (and non-Catholic) people I talk to think the world of him.
What’s the best thing Pope Francis has done for the Catholic blogosphere?
I think he’s forcing a confrontation with the rest of Catholic social teaching. By that, I mean all of the incredible riches the church has to offer beyond the questions of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research—which in my neck of the blogosphere, started out as the five non-negotiables of orthodox Catholicism, but have mysteriously morphed into the only five things that matter to a lot of American Catholics. It has spawned a curious soteriology in some sectors that often boils down to a theory that can be fairly accurately summarized as "opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world." Francis has forced a reassessment of that reductionist view of Catholic social teaching and I think it’s all for the good.
Why does the Catholic blogosphere need this challenge?
Because we need to become more fully Catholic, but in the sense of personal conversion, not in the sense of purging the church of lukewarm believers. By that I mean helping people to become more fully Catholic, as Pope Francis has been trying to do. This challenge, to me, is what the Catholic blogosphere has most needed for a long time. I’m sure Francis is challenging some people on the left end of the blogosphere as well, but I don't hang out there all that much.
Francis isn’t interested in purging the church for the same reason St. Paul isn't interested in it. When St. Paul speaks to the Corinthians, he doesn’t tell this passel of screwed-up Christians who are sleeping with their stepmothers, getting drunk at Mass, taking each other to court, denying the Resurrection, and dissing him as a fake apostle that “you’re not real Catholics.” Instead, he insists that even the dopiest of the Corinthians are real Christians.
In short, instead of kicking people out, Paul cries “become what you are!” One of the mythic expectations inexplicably attending gentle and sweet Pope Benedict was the notion of a "Coming Benedictine Purge” where many Catholics on the right dreamed he was going to start kicking people out of the church. But that was never going to happen. And now, under this Pope, that has been confirmed beyond all doubt. What Francis wants is for all of us to accept each other with the all-embracing love of God—which is certainly a challenge for me, because the people he wants me to love and forgive are not people I would normally be eager to embrace.
For me, he’s challenged me to think and live in new ways, to ask myself new kinds of questions about how I spend my money and what I’m doing about the poor, weak and vulnerable around me. To be sure, that includes the very old and very young our culture of death wants to kill. But it increasingly includes others to whom I have been blinded in the past by the reduction of the five non-negotiables to the Only Five Things That Matter. How am I responding to Iraq? How am I responding to what’s happening at the border? What about families being destroyed by gross income inequality? Those are questions that would not have occurred to me 10 years ago because I considered everything other than the five non-negotiables to be matters of prudential judgment—and I took prudential judgment to mean "feel free to ignore the church if it threatens your political ideology in some way." But I’ve learned in the past 10 years that prudential judgment doesn’t mean I can just blow off anything from the church that isn’t prefaced by “Simon Peter says.” We’re called to be docile to the church so that unless we can give a really good reason why the church’s guidance is absolutely immoral, we should try to do what the church asks even on things which aren’t absolutely essential. We should try to obey the church and the mind of Christ as much as we possibly can. That’s the point of the story of the rich young man in the gospel. Marriage is another example. If a married person asks “what’s the least I can do for my spouse and still call it a valid marriage,” that marriage is already in trouble. Real love never asks “what’s the least I can get away with doing?” It always asks “what’s the most I can do?” That’s what Francis is asking us to consider. What’s the most I can do to love you, Lord Jesus? It’s not about doing the minimum daily requirement to live as selfishly as I can and still squeak into heaven.
What is your impression of Pope Francis?
I love the man. It’s almost inarticulate, but I have nothing but love for the guy. I think he’s the absolute real deal and I feel tremendous hope for the church. As I said before, I’ve loved every pope we’ve had, but I particularly have a soft spot for this man just as a human being apart from whatever he does as pope. I think the world of him. There are some people you just recognize as genuine people and I always respond really strongly to them. There’s no artifice about him and I really like that.
Has Pope Francis affected the way you blog?
He’s changed the subject matter a great deal. Partly he’s changed the way I blog because of the way other people react to him. In the blogosphere I take notice when someone panics about something Francis has said or done. Sometimes I have to blog just to say that what they’re panicking about is really not worth panicking about. Oftentimes, he says just what his predecessors said, but he seems to have a knack for making these things heard in a way people somehow didn’t hear before. Many people somehow found it easy to shut the last two popes out when they spoke about things they didn't want to hear. Francis is not avoidable like that. He continually challenges me to discuss things that I hitherto had not talked about.
You’re known as a Catholic apologist because of your writing at the Catholic Answers website and elsewhere. How has Francis influenced the way you do apologetics?
Other people call me that, but I don’t think of myself as an apologist. Catholic apologetics in our culture is often addressed to Protestant evangelicals, where a lot of people from a Protestant background like Scott Hahn, Jimmy Akin and Steve Ray try to explain to our former friends why we became Catholics. There is a huge wave of American converts who owe a debt to people like Karl Keating who reached out to us in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Francis hasn’t indicated any particular interest in this trend, but neither did John Paul or Benedict. It’s a strongly American Catholic thing. But Catholic Answers has made an impact around the world, as young Catholic lay evangelists from around the world often email me to say they’ve been downloading our stuff and using it in a variety of ways.
As far as I know, no pope, including this one, has ever undertaken to address this particular apologetics subculture. There is no Letter to the Apologists from the pope. Nor do I expect there to be or feel the need for one. I don’t expect Francis to have a particular impact on the apologetics subculture, other than being a shepherd and teacher we take as a model, and I’m O.K. with that. But I think what Pope Francis has done, at least for people like me who try to defend the faith, is give us a new opportunity to defend the pope from Catholics who fear him—and that’s a weird experience for me! I never thought I’d find myself in the ironic position of having to defend the pope from fellow Catholics who loved John Paul and Benedict. Right now, much of the apologetics writing I do is to support Pope Francis when he teaches things the church has always said, but which for some reason we haven’t really grasped until now, and which strike dark fears into the hearts of Catholics who, well, really ought to know better.
Do you have any hopes for the future?
I hope to get to heaven! But closer to home, I’m hopeful to continue my book series on the four pillars of the catechism, writing the final two volumes on the creed and sacraments. On other fronts, I’m helping Vocare in Washington with a 12-part series of lessons for parishes to help people sink their teeth into the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Catholic social teaching is still the church’s best-kept secret. So I’m looking forward to handling the first chapter as one of 12 different authors collaborating on the project. And, of course, I'm watching my granddaughters grow, the two greatest signs of hope for the future I know!
What do you hope people will take away from your blogging?
A better understanding of the faith and of the enormous freedom of mind we enjoy in the Catholic faith within an intensely ideological secular culture. To me, ideology is another word for heresy, trying to cram God and the entire universe into a tiny All Explaining Theory of Everything—whether it’s economics, art, political power, science, or anything else. What the Catholic Church says is that we don’t know hardly anything, but we do know this: "We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” etc. Beyond that, it’s a big strange world and we’re open to letting all of the different intellectual disciplines do the things they do. Let the economists, artists, philosophers and scientists do what they like because none of what they truly discover will contradict the faith, since all truth is God's truth and the creator of nature is also the redeemer of nature. We can explore the world and give glory to God as we do it.
It amazes me that so many Catholics aren’t confident that what we discover in the sciences cannot contradict what is revealed by the Faith, but are constantly fearful that some new discovery is going to debunk everything we believe. Nothing’s going to bring the creed down in ruins. God’s there, he’s not going anywhere, and the gospels are still strong and true. I go to a Dominican parish and the Dominicans are particularly strong on the idea that natural revelation and supernatural revelation are completely compatible. That’s one of the reasons I call my blog “Catholic and Enjoying It.” God has given us the world to enjoy. This is the day the Lord has made, so let us be glad and rejoice in it!
Sean Salai, S.J., serves as contributing writer at America.