The Catholic Blogosphere: Q&A with Father John Zuhlsdorf
Father John Zuhlsdorf("Father Z") is an American-born priest of the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni in Italy and a Catholic media figure. A convert from Lutheranism in college, he was ordained by Saint John Paul II in 1991. He worked in Rome as a collaborator in the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” and is now in Madison, Wisconsin, where he serves with full diocesan faculties and functions also as president of the Tridentine Mass Society of Madison. He is working on a doctoral dissertation for the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum” in Rome on the figure of King David as an exemplar of civic virtues shared by Saints Augustine and Ambrose.
Father Zuhlsdorf’s website, “Father Z’s Blog,” has been listed by the British magazine New Statesman, and other metric sites, as one of the top ten Christian blogs in the world. He had a column for many years on liturgical translation in the Catholic weekly The Wanderer, and has been involved in internet ministry since 1992. He now writes for the British Catholic weekly The Catholic Herald. He has appeared as a commentator on EWTN, Fox News and various radio stations. On August 1, I interviewed Father Zuhlsdorf by email on his work in Catholic media.
Your Catholic blog consistently draws more readers from around the world than many Catholic print publications. How have you been so successful?
I write about things people care about and I try to have a little something for everyone. If some posts, for example about liturgical translations, go into the philological weeds, I then also bring out points anyone can get. Mixing things up probably helps, too. I have posts on cooking or movies or birds I see out the window, books and oddities, both amusing and irritating. Perhaps most importantly, I provide something to push people or for people to push against. Finally, I try to “leave a tip,” that is, offer something that is mine, personal.
You also contribute to television and radio programs in addition to working on your dissertation and serving in a parish. Where do you spend most of your time?
In Madison, though I endure quite a bit of travel for conferences and pilgrimages.
Do you expect to continue blogging after you finish your doctoral dissertation and go back to full-time ministry?
I don't accept your premise. Work in the blogosphere is ministry. Nearly every day I get an email from someone who says that, because of something he read on my blog, he went to confession for the first time in years, or that she and her husband are getting their marriage straightened out. I can't say how many notes I have had from people about how their experience of Holy Mass has changed because of the liturgical issues we have covered. Seminarians and priests have written that they have learned, or unlearned, many things by reading both the entries and the comments in the combox. There are some smart and well-informed commentators who really contribute.
People have formed friendships through this form of contact. I know of couples who met and married through the various internet initiatives I've been involved with. It is remarkable how much like a parish my corner of the blogosphere is. There are all the same characters and many of the same dynamics. It is a lot of work. And, Deo volente, yes, I’ll keep at it. As you touched on in your earlier question, the blog has more regular readers than the circulation of some Catholic publications. The blog has vastly more readers than the number of congregants who would hear a Sunday sermon, even repeated, in a single church, even a big one. When we proclaim the Word from the roof tops, as the Lord asked, we use technology, the house and its height, to amplify the message. When huge crowds followed Our Lord along the shore, He asked to be let out onto the water in a boat on the end of a line. He used technology to increase the number of people to whom he could speak at once. That was, by the way, the first instance of “online ministry." Will I keep going? You bet. I’m but one little priest. My blog is my force multiplier.
What positive contributions do Catholic blogs make to the life of the church?
Firstly, there are many people who, for one reason or another, have a hard time finding contact with others, either because they are shut in, or reclusive or shy, or ... whatever. This is one mode of building community which could lead to other, deeper forms. Also, just as the rise of talk radio, and then cable news, provided an alternative to the mainstream media, so too the blogosphere serves in much the same role. Catholic media, at least in the Anglophone world, was dominated by one view until Mother Angelica came along. Like her or not, bless her. She did amazing things. Then the blogosphere arose. Nowadays, news sources don't get a pass if they write something which is skewed or false or heterodox. While it's true that fact-checking isn't even and that a slick-looking blog can give the false impression that the author knows what she is talking about, having lots of eyes and voices can be helpful. I believe in a kind of reverse Gresham's Law. Gresham's Law describes how, as coins are made less pure with base metals, the purer coins drop out of circulation. Since debased coins have the same buying power as those which are pure, people hoard the pure coins because they have greater actual value. Thus, bad money drives good money out of circulation.
Conversely, I think good information drives out bad information, misinformation and even, what is more dangerous by far, disinformation. Sure, the internet can be the vehicle of false narratives and lies, but, in time, people ferret out the truth and post it. The gold of truth is put back into circulation to drive out errors and disinformation. On another point, there are countless Catholics out there who, for decades, have endured dreadful sermons, frightful liturgy, and worse catechesis. They are languishing, starving, drowning... pick your image. For these, the blogosphere offers encouragement, nourishment, a life line... pick your image. We can work many spiritual works of mercy through the use of these tools: instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubting, admonish the sinner, console those who mourn. When others are in need we can marshal prayers, and sometimes material aid, from tens or even hundreds of thousands of people.
Some Catholics avoid reading blogs because the content often appears sharp and divisive. What would you say to them?
Yes, this is a thorn. As I have posted on the side bar of the blog, my place is a fusion of the Baroque “salon” with its well-tuned harpsichord around which polite society gathers for entertainment and edification and, on the other hand, a Wild West “saloon” with its out-of-tune piano and swinging doors, where everyone has a drink, a gun and something to say. Nevertheless, I try to point our discussions back to what it is to be Catholic in this increasingly difficult age, to love God, and how to get to heaven. I suppose the first thing we have to remember is that there will always be sinners. I also admit that I sometimes fail in charity. Not only, we have to face the facts, some people are jerks. Who knows what made them that way. I fear that, at times, the anonymity offered by the internet is a serious occasion of sin for some people. We will also always have cowards with us, who hide behind false names and say nasty things.
Next, we have to toughen up a little. No one forces anyone else to get involved online. If we are going to descend onto the sands of the arena, we had better buckle it on. In addition, the notion that everyone has to play verbal patty cake all the time is a rather new idea, both in the church and in the public square. These days, someone might squawk that you hurt their feelings and we then run in circles, even watering down the church’s teachings lest anyone be offended. As St. Paul says, we must correct, rebuke and encourage, with patience and correct doctrine. As far as sharp and divisive is concerned, sometimes sharp is what is needed to punch through the veil of falsehood, or the veil of dumb. Division is necessary, especially when we are dividing ourselves from heresy or wickedness or lawlessness in the church. The doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because the patient is screaming for him to stop. But you are surely asking about the sheer nastiness and ad hominem attacks that appear on blogs and in the comboxes. That's pretty sad. But, as I said before, we will always have sinners and cowards in our midst. We have to soldier on and, over time, hopefully, try to bring some of these poor people around. That's a spiritual work of mercy too. That said, at times I do weary of the knuckle-headed stuff. More and more often these days I turn on the moderation queue for discussions or for specific individuals.
You often take strong liturgical positions on your blog which draw criticism from various segments of the American church, including progressives and traditionalists. How do you respond to those criticisms?
If extremists weren’t on my case, I’d have to examine my conscience. I try to stick with the documents and our Catholic Tradition, in the best sense. What I regret is that there are points of contact, good points, where we Catholics across the board could be so much more effective in the public square, helping both to shape public policy and also to bring more people to Christ and salvation. Sometimes division is real and must not be glossed over, especially when the doctrine of the Faith is involved. I, however, would prefer less conflict and more collaboration on important issues. Alas, I have found that, when I have extended olive branches in either direction, they have either been ignored (as is the case with the liberal left) or viciously slapped away (as is the case with the fringe of traditionalists). That notwithstanding, I still sleep well at night. And I’ll keep trying, too, with the caveat that at times I also fail in charity. When I recite the Confiteor in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite every day, I mean it. It says “mea culpa,” not “tua.”
What are some positive things in the Catholic media these days?
We have a great variety of and growing sophistication with the uses of new tools. For example, I see that the Holy See is getting its act together. We Catholics have a lot of catching up to do, but I think we are at last starting to lace up our boots. Also, I have a sense that the mainstream media is watching the Catholic blogosphere and their reportage is being shaped by it, and not always in a bad way.
What are the current challenges for Catholic media?
The principle challenge comes back to the overarching challenge for the church in our day. We have to be clear about who we are as Catholics and what we believe. If we are sure about these things, and if we don’t have the courage of our convictions, then we are just wasting our time. Why should anyone listen to us, ad intra or ad extra, within the church or outward to the world, if we don’t have anything clear to say? We have to, as the letter of Peter says, be prepared to give reasons for the hope that is in us, and do so with respect. First, however, Peter says we have to sanctify the Lord Christ in our hearts. Years ago, I heard Cardinal George of Chicago give an address to the Catholic Press Association. It was my first and last time at one of those meetings, by the way. He told the journalists that they should be less concerned with writing about the doings of churchmen, bishops and priests and their ilk – my word, “ilk” – and focus instead on how grace works in people’s lives. But, he added, to recognize the work of and the life of grace, they had to be in the state of grace. They laughed. He was serious. I will unite all of what I said before with the conviction that, these days, we must get our house in order when it comes to our sacred liturgical worship.
For us Catholics, everything we do and all that we are goes back to our sacred liturgical worship of God as a church. If that isn’t in order, nothing else will be well-ordered. All our attempts at a New Evangelization will be too shaky and ephemeral to stand. Our attempts to communicate the good news will be so much vapor. Our sacred liturgy is Christ’s Communication to us. An early document of the Pontifical Council for the Social Communication, Communio et progressio, pointed out that Christ is the “perfect Communicator”. Liturgy is our most perfect form of Communication, ad intra and ad extra, within the church or outward to the world. So, we need to renew our liturgical worship along the lines Pope Benedict laid out so thoughtfully, and we need to deepen a theology of communication. When we get those squared away, we will be more effective.
What are your hopes for the future of Catholic media?
That those who serve the perfect Communicator, the Eternal Word, will have courage in the face of what surely is on our doorstep within our life spans. We have to have the intestinal fortitude to stand for something, even if people don’t like what we say. We can’t make everyone happy. Attempts to pontificate astride the Olympian middle are doomed to failure. It’s not all a matter of money or cleverness. Mother Angelica, when she started out, stood for something and said it, like her or not. Others have thrown millions of dollars at technology and various clever innovations. They wasted their time and people’s wealth. Why? They didn’t offer anything that was clear, that pierced through to the mind or to the heart or stirred any reaction other than another yawn. I once asked an American bishop of the Midwest, a man of direct speech, what the state of things were in the church in these United States right now and what we had to do to address it. “The first thing we have to do,” he growled, “is stop blowing happy gas at everyone.” Let me be clear: we must promote our messages with genuine joy. Joy is attractive and infectious. In our media work, we need joy and a sense of humor. That doesn’t mean we have to be mealy-mouthed, perpetually grinning. Risus abundant in ore stultorum as they say.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis in person, what would it be?
If you are not going to live in the Apostolic Palace, could I? Seriously, I have had the opportunity to speak with him quite a few times, before his election. But now, I don’t know what I would have to say. I knew Pope Benedict before his election too, and could chat often with him. It is, perhaps, odd, but once Benedict was elected as Supreme Pontiff, I didn’t feel the need to tell him anything. He was the one with the ten thousand foot high overview of things. Now that he is retired… that’s another matter. But to Pope Francis? To tell him… what? Of my respect and my dedication daily to pray for him? He would know that, for all Catholics love their popes, and for priests it is our duty and pleasure. To tell him of my hope that he will not run from the wolves? He doesn’t seem the type.
Pretty much everything that comes immediately to mind is cliché. I suppose there is one thing. I might ask him to celebrate a Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form, or at least be present at its celebration by someone whom he would designate. Catholics who have what St. John Paul II called “legitimate aspirations” and for whom he commanded by his Apostolic Authority that respect must be shown, have over many decades experienced great suffering and disrespect and even persecution, even by priests and bishops. They have suffered because they are faithful, and at the hands of their shepherds, which is shameful. Quod Deus averruncet! They can, at times, admittedly be a challenge to work with, but these good people love Christ and their church and their popes as much as any Catholics ever have throughout the millennia. They would go to the wall for Pope Francis, even though sometimes he does things that make them scratch their heads. These people need some TLC. A little love in their direction could bring about great healing. It’s the next step. And were he to do it, this pope rather than the more obvious Benedict … imagine what a magnificent healing moment it would be.
Any final thoughts?
Yes. We are all obliged to confess our sins in both number and kind, that is, what we did or failed to do and how many times or at least a sense of frequency. Examine your consciences every day and go to confession regularly. The salvation of your soul depends on it. The Sacrament of Penance is Christ’s own gift. He gave it to us so that we can be reconciled with Him and obtain forgiveness. Pastors of souls, please work to revive the Sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation if you prefer. Call it what you want, just do it. Please, for the love of God, teach about and preach about and hear confessions. It’s your work, Fathers, to keep as many people out of Hell as possible. We will all be judged one day. Let it be a moment of joy rather than, you know, the other thing. So… was that too sharp and divisive? I’ll sleep alright tonight.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.