Brendan Hoban: Some ‘Catholics’ are just not very nice people      

Western People 7.2.2023

In a memorable article last week in The Irish Times, Salvador Ryan, who teaches history in Maynooth College, wrote that he wasn’t so sure he liked Christians or indeed, more specifically, Catholics very much these days. In case that might seem a strange comment for someone teaching in a Catholic college, he rushed to explain himself: ‘When I say I increasingly dislike “Christians”, or indeed “Catholics”, these terms should really be hedged around with quotation marks, as I’ve now done. My main issue with these terms is that I believe they are increasingly being hijacked by individuals and groups with whom, as both a Christian and a Catholic, I can find very little common ground’.

Ryan has touched a common nerve. There have always been Christians (and, specifically Catholics) who claimed to represent a ‘truer’ or ‘purer’ form of Christianity (or Catholicism), and who rejected all other expressions as false, or heretical. And they are still around. Catholics looking down their noses at those Catholics they imagine are their inferiors and progressively on social media directing their increasingly vicious commentary at anyone whom they perceive as holding an alternative view.

This happens at many levels. It’s common now to hear and read cardinals ritually dismissing Pope Francis because he is attempting to implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council, which has behind it the greatest teaching authority of the Catholic Church, a general Council of Pope and bishops – with that council voting through its documents often by over 90% of the world’s bishops.

Yet incredibly cardinals, with vows of obedience to the pope, attack Francis (sometimes anonymously) in order to present an opposing version of Catholicism based often on little more than their own vexation and indignation at losing their former positions in the febrile hothouse of Roman ambition. Or, as in the case of some American archbishops, not receiving the preference they expected when Francis conferred the red hats they had imagined was their right on lesser mortals from what they consider the back of beyond.

The irony (which seems to be lost on them) is that they themselves had dismissed those who expressed any criticism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as ‘wilfully disobedient to the Holy Father’ and while they now inhabit that same dodgy perspective yet have no sense of how shameful or bizarre their situation has become. Some are even openly conspiring to organise the election of one of their own when Francis retires, even though their audacious efforts to twist the arm of the Holy Spirit run counter to even minimal respect for the values that underpin the election of a pope.

Another Catholic group losing the run of themselves is the small conservative wing  of the Church who want a return to the old Latin Mass in all its pomp and circumstance and who arrogantly and unblushingly dismiss anyone who disagrees with them, even to the extent of earmarking them as enemies of the faith and often personally and viciously campaigning against them.

I’ve had direct experience of that myself and it’s not a nice place to be. They are not, as someone remarked, ‘nice people’. While some of them operate out of an emotional attachment to the past, the more aggressive (as Pope Francis discovered) are using their ruthless and merciless campaign as a cover for their efforts to prevent the reform of the Church.

The problem with this, as Salvador Ryan presents it, is that those who shout the loudest about their ‘Christian’ or ‘Catholic’ identity often ‘end up commandeering this identity in the public mindset, leading many less belligerent onlookers to wonder whether they are Catholics at all and prompting questions of whether they belong to a second or third division of the faithful’. Most Catholics have a built-in detector for religious excess and usually tend to ignore the campaigners intent on bludgeoning other Catholics into a Catholicism of someone else’s making. Most Catholics, whether they attend regularly or irregularly to their official duties, want to live out their own faith according to their own lights and react negatively to religious excess of any kind, particularly that which tends to consign them to a lesser rung on the Catholic ladder.

And most Catholics, don’t want to get into any form of tension, religious or otherwise, and their silence in the face of crusading neighbours can sometimes be taken as consent.

For those who want to disparage the faith of the vast majority of Catholics, social media has become their platform of choice. It affords the opportunity to attack those who offer an alternative view and it can allow the most noxious and contemptible form of abuse to wreak havoc on an opponent while hiding behind the guise of anonymity. Little wonder that for many, the word ‘toxic’ seems the most appropriate to describe the often low-life values of the ‘Catholic’ debate on social media.

Everything it seems is defensible – at every level, from cardinals in Rome campaigning to undermine the pope by making outrageous, unsustained and unsustainable accusations to local ‘Catholic’ experts disparaging at will and sometimes bullying those who hold contrary views. In a debate about something as precious as religious faith, you’d imagine that minimum standards of discourse would apply. You’d imagine that at least a modicum of respect and the fundamental Christian virtue of charity would apply to those of a Christian faith.

Salvador Ryan is right to have named and shamed this adoption by Irish ‘Catholics’ of the worst excesses of the cultural and liturgical wars within a deeply polarised American Catholicism. We are in his debt for belling this particular cat.

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  1. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Somehow I am never confronted by the trolls in question – which must mean that as yet I have no media presence wherever they are. Where exactly is this noxious Irish ‘Catholic’ phenomenon on social media to be encountered – and might it not be best simply to avoid going there?

    Not feeling the need to go there as yet I am wondering if anyone truly needs to. Are the particular social media locations so afflicted vital to the survival of civilisation or the church, or merely akin to the forest glades of the past, where antagonists went to murder one another with sword or pistol?

    Was Christianity ever better defended by the attempt to dominate any social space than by quiet, prayerful service of those most in need, outside the noisiest places? Was anyone ever converted by verbal argumentation? Are any particular online social media spaces truly vital to the life of the church?

  2. Jim Stack says:

    Fr Hoban’s article reminds me of recent media coverage of the immigration debate: Identify a few extremists involved in the protests, target these in the coverage, and include all the other protestors in the resulting condemnation. Genuine concerns of the protestors can then be ignored.

    Fr Hoban takes the same approach: Pick on individuals who can be fairly characterised as “not nice people” and use the existence of these people to dismiss the legitimate concerns of all the other Catholics who are not as enthusiastic as Fr Hoban about the direction the Church is taking.

    The bad guys, in Fr Hoban’s world, are always on the conservative side. One need go no further than the ACP website to find plenty of ammunition to attack the liberals, who so often come across as intolerant and judgemental themselves. But our secular media simply would not countenance any such criticism of the liberals, whereas they seem to have an insatiable appetite for articles like Fr Hoban’s.

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    An excellent article, as always, Brendan. Thank you.
    Thank God we still have priests like you, and courageous men with vision, Tony, Seán and yourself who founded the ACP and the good men who still work to keep that vision alive.
    Shame on you, Jim Stack !

  4. Thomas Lynn says:

    Oh my, what a remarkable piece, a perfect display of the sin it finds in others. The lack of self awareness is stunning.

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