Shea, Fisher, politics, and the Catholic Media

We note at the outset that we did not follow either Mark Shea or Simcha Fisher all that closely. This will surprise no one, but we probably were not the target audience or the ideal reader for either of them. However, from time to time, something they wrote at the National Catholic Register (or elsewhere) would bubble into our sphere. Sometimes we agreed, sometimes we disagreed, but never especially vehemently and never often. The fact of the matter is that neither of them wrote regularly on topics in which we ourselves were interested. Over the last few days, it appears that the National Catholic Register (or its parent company, EWTN) has fired both Shea and Fisher. This has provoked a lot of reaction, both cheering the firings and lamenting them. It seems to us that the firings, which may or may not have been just considered on their own terms, say something important about the state of American Catholic media.

Shea’s firing was very strange. The Register, in a statement issued concerning the firing, stated that Shea never violated their editorial standards. However, it appears that statements he made on other websites were sufficient to cause them to terminate his employment. (It does not appear that Shea broke those other websites’ rules.) In other words, the Register admits that Shea’s work for them was at least minimally satisfactory. Strange, then, that he would be let go. Fisher’s firing was stranger still, since it remains hugely unclear to us what she was let go for. Some people have suggested that it was due to some vulgar language in a political context, others that she expressed too much support for Shea. It seems that one explanation that has been given is that Shea and Fisher can be pointed in different ways in their interactions on Facebook, but that hardly seems like a justification for firing someone, not least since a platform like Facebook encourages pointed interactions.

And we have spoken with some folks who have had less than charming interactions with Mark Shea in particular, and they believe that he could be very pointed and very dismissive of his opponents. Though we have yet to see a debate on matters of faith conducted on the internet that does not involve someone being very pointed and very dismissive of one’s opponents. Perhaps Shea exceeded the limits imposed by charity, perhaps he didn’t. That’s a matter for him and his confessor. We mention it only to say that sharp elbows seem to be a known hazard among those of us who discuss these matters on the internet. One may celebrate Shea getting at long last his comeuppance, but one shouldn’t whistle past the graveyard quite so cheerfully. We wouldn’t want to be judged on our worst interactions. Likewise, people feel that Fisher could be pointed. However, it seems to us that Fisher does not quite have the same reputation for nastiness that Shea does.

It is also, we will say only briefly, something else to see traditionally minded Catholics, who have been tone-policed and concern-trolled, to say the least, by everyone from high prelates in the Church on down at various times, engaging in exactly the same sort of behavior that was intolerable when applied to them. Error has no rights, it is true, but let us be humane about these things, even if our opponents are not.

At any rate, we have seen some gloating among traditionally minded Catholics, many of whom never had a lot of use for EWTN or the National Catholic Register to begin with, over Shea and Fisher’s firings. The thrust of it is that Shea and Fisher weren’t traditionally minded Catholics and maybe even weren’t all that conservative, and, thus, they deserved what they got. Some folks might even be able to point to specific issues on which Shea and Fisher were insufficiently orthodox or whatever, but even that may presuppose a traditional mindset. (Certainly, we have questions about NFP as it is currently understood popularly, to take one example at semi-random, but we strive to avoid discussing the matter at any length for a variety of reasons.) But it is unclear to us that EWTN or the Register is especially known for the sort of precise, clear-eyed orthodoxy that other outlets are. They seem to be, instead, the voice of a center-right, middle-of-the-road American Catholicism.

This seems to us to be the crucial problem. It seems to us that Shea and Fisher were not heterodox in a relevant way (at least from the corporation’s perspective), so much as they were inconvenient to the specific coalition that EWTN and the Register serve. A traditionally minded Catholic might call the coalition “neo-Caths on the American political right.” (The Reporter is, of course, their left counterpart. More on that in a second.) This is, of course, insider jargon, but what it means is, essentially, a Catholic for whom the doctrine of the Church begins and ends with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the platform of the Republican Party. Shea and Fisher often pitched to the left, speaking in American political terms, of this alliance, though I don’t think either of them is a leftist in conventional terms. Shea perhaps is more explicitly to the left, insofar as part of his project was rejecting the implication that Catholics have to be on the American political right. But, notwithstanding their precise personal categorization, neither of them spends a lot of time making nice with Catholics on the American political right.  And that seems to be a big part of the problem for us with the Shea and Fisher situation. Perhaps Shea is uncharitable in online interactions; perhaps Fisher uses vulgar language when she oughtn’t; but both of those things seem to be convenient pretexts for the Register getting rid of some contributors who don’t fit in with the broader political tendencies of the Register‘s constituency.

Just as EWTN and the Register is the house organ of the neo-Cath/GOP coalition, so too is the Reporter the house organ of Catholics on the American political left. And both sides have essentially guaranteed that their readers will never be challenged by a contrary view. Name one politically conservative writer for the Reporter. Try to name one politically liberal, or relatively politically liberal, writer for the Register (after Shea and Fisher got canned). There is, then, no contradiction to either publication’s contention that they represent the correct expression of Catholicism in the United States, which involves fusion with one or the other major political party, when anyone with eyes to see can identify the serious problems with either. Moreover, the ideological purification of the publications only furthers this toxic, erroneous notion that Catholics ought to engage wholeheartedly with the categories of the American political spectrum.

We have said and said, both here and elsewhere, that the alliance between Catholics and the American political right, forged largely on the basis of the Republican Party’s laudable opposition to legalized infanticide, is one of the most damaging relationships that the Church has entered. It seemingly locks Catholics into a set of policies that in many ways deviate seriously from the traditional teaching of the Church, especially on issues central to the Church’s social teaching. Consider Republican nominee Donald J. Trump’s immigration platform. Are a border wall and aggressive background investigations for some immigrants consistent with the natural right of migration that Pius XII articulated in his radio address on the 50th anniversary of Rerum novarum or in his Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia Nazarethana? (We leave it to you to decide, though we suspect you know what we think.) And other issues could be mentioned, if you think immigration too hot button an issue. A Catholic who wants to be a good Republican is, therefore, in a bind. And Shea and Fisher, each in their way, did little to make that situation more comfortable for those Catholics.

We note in passing that Catholics who want to be good Democrats have been in a very serious bind for a very long time, and we will not rehearse all the problems with that approach, since they are all too obvious and all too well known. We don’t want to minimize this difficult, but we don’t want to bore you (or ourselves) by repeating the all the allegations of the libellus. Suffice it to say that no Catholic can wholeheartedly support—or, indeed, even support in the slightest way without the gravest reservations and for a grave cause—a political party that makes a “right” to infanticide and contraception a cornerstone of its platform.

Indeed, it goes beyond mere discomfort: Trump is causing strain within this traditional coalition. George Weigel and Robert George came out strong against Trump in March, when the Trump candidacy was still a contingent thing. (We probably criticized it here then, as little more than an objection that Trump was outside the neo-Cath/GOP consensus, which still seems a just critique to us.) And even sources that aren’t hugely in touch with Catholic thought realize, especially in the light of Steve Bannon’s comments, among other things, that Trump has a hard time connecting with Catholics. In other words, not only is the dual loyalty of this neo-Cath/GOP coalition a difficulty philosophically, but also the concrete problem of Donald Trump is a tremendous difficulty. A Catholic who wants to be a good Republican is in a very serious bind in the age of Donald Trump.

Catholics—at least Catholics who are serious about the Church’s teachings—know that all this is exactly backwards. The American political spectrum ought to engage wholeheartedly with the teachings of the Church. Catholics should not run to figure out how they can combine their political beliefs and their faith comfortably. Indeed, the only way the sickness in American culture gets better is by submitting to Christ the King and His Church, not by demanding that Christ get out of public life and that the Church accommodate whatever novelty, however wretched, people come up with.