Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
December 31st, 2009

Catholics and the Culture of Hate

A plea for an end to our culture wars

by and William Doino Jr.


The uproar over Notre Dame’s honoring President Obama in late May exposed the fissures within American Catholicism that will no doubt be on display following the President’s July 10 visit to the Vatican.

But while it is no secret that American Catholics have been publicly bickering with one another since the end of Vatican II (and well before then, if one reads a little history), what we are seeing now is more disturbing than a simple clash of ideologies.

It is a culture war — but not the broader, endlessly discussed “culture war” between blue- and red-state America. Rather, it is a more specific, more intense, intramural Catholic culture war. It is not pretty and, more importantly, its viciousness serves only to confirm to those outside the Church that, while we call ourselves Christians, we are unable to live out the most basic precepts of Christian compassion and charity.

Vitriol and name-calling

As Catholics who write and debate from a conservative perspective, we’ve witnessed this clash close up. The vitriol and name-calling has been raging online, all too often anonymously, for quite a while. But what was previously regarded as fringe or extreme, and confined to heated exchanges on web forums, has increasingly seeped into the Catholic mainstream. The verbal abuse among fellow Catholics has gotten out of control, and Catholics need to address it if they care about healing the Body of Christ.

The verbal abuse among fellow Catholics has gotten out of control, and Catholics need to address it if they care about healing the Body of Christ.

Just about all of us involved in the Catholic culture wars — especially those who write and blog — have, at one time or another, been guilty of rhetorical excess, or transgressed Christian charity in some way. We often rationalize our behavior by emphasizing the gravity of the situation — After all, what could be more demanding of severe rebuke than life-and-death issues like abortion and war? — or by telling ourselves that this is just the culture we live in, and everyone is doing it.

It is true that “everyone is doing it” — and that is precisely why Catholics should not be doing it. If we prided ourselves less on destroying those we disagree with and more on the Christian values of humility and charity, then we wouldn’t be emulating the secular culture by engaging in vulgar, ad hominem, slash-and-burn tactics.

Witness the response that the Rev. James Martin S.J., associate editor at America magazine and author of the best-selling My Life with the Saints, received after appearing on CNN, along with EWTN host Raymond Arroyo, to comment on President Obama’s Notre Dame honor.

In the course of the discussion, Martin said, among other things, “If anyone deserves a degree in law, it’s this constitutional law scholar”; “I don’t think you can call President Obama pro-abortion,” and, “for a lot of people in the pro-life movement, life begins at conception, but seems to end there.” He acknowledged that abortion is a “preeminent moral issue” but lamented that “some of the bishops have turned the Gospel of Jesus Christ into simply abortion.”

Arroyo immediately challenged these claims, noting that there is an abundance of evidence to show that President Obama is indeed “pro-abortion”; the honor he received was in flagrant contradiction of the stated policy of the U.S. bishops, and it was supremely ironic that Notre Dame was bestowing a law honor on a politician who, whatever his other virtues, has used the law to deprive an entire class of people — the unborn — of basic human rights.

Open season on priests

However, in the midst of making many good points about the incompatibility of Obama’s positions with Catholic teachings on life, Arroyo unhelpfully injected the name of Herod — causing Fr. Martin to properly push back.

We think Arroyo won the debate on the merits, but also think Martin, a gifted inspirational writer who has devoted his entire life to the Church, deserves the presumption of having acted in good faith. Unfortunately, that’s not what he received.

Fr. Martin, a gifted inspirational writer who has devoted his entire life to the Church, deserves the presumption of having acted in good faith. Unfortunately, that’s not what he received… Catholic commenters… questioned the validity of Martin’s vocation. One accused him of denying the Resurrection; another likened him to an apologist for slavery, and another asked simply, “Is he on crack?”

After his appearance, in the face of criticism from bloggers, he emphasized that he was “unabashedly pro-life.” But that wasn’t good enough for some Catholic commenters who, having spent weeks attacking Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, now took aim at Martin. An outside observer seeing them shift their target of anger might have easily concluded it was open season on priests — especially since several commenters questioned the validity of Martin’s vocation. One accused him of denying the Resurrection; another likened him to an apologist for slavery, and another asked simply, “Is he on crack?”

On the flip side, two and a half weeks before Arroyo’s point-counterpoint with Father Martin, the dotCommonweal blog took aim at him and Acton Institute’s Rev. Robert Sirico over a discussion about torture they had on Arroyo’s EWTN “The World Over” program. One blogger inferred that Father Sirico was suggesting “political motivations” should be “allowed to obscure strict principles of justice, legality, and ethics.” That sparked a flood of vitriol from commenters opposed to such “right-wing Catholics,” many of whom claimed to have inside knowledge of Sirico’s personal failings. One claimed the priest was known to be “cunning” and could “bamboozle even some of the most perceptive folk.” When another liberal-leaning blog, Vox Nova, picked up the story, pseudonymous commenters likewise piled on personal attacks. One called Sirico a “weirdo,” another gossiped that Arroyo was a “jerk.”

Martin, contacted about the CNN controversy, noted that the responses he has received via e-mail were “overwhelmingly, almost embarrassingly positive.” What does that say about the intramural Catholic culture war we have described? Though we disagree with them, Martin and his supporters represent a significant number of people in the Church — Catholics who consider themselves pro-life but do not always agree with the political strategy, or voting decisions, of those of us on the conservative side. There needs to be a way of speaking to our fellow brothers and sisters without reinforcing divisions. Venting serves only our pride — nothing else. The proper response to intramural divisions is not anger, but Christian charity.

When it comes to the kind of assault Martin received, he is in good company. Recall the vicious presumptions that mainstream reporters and bloggers alike made about Pope Benedict’s supposed motives after his “pardon” of Bishop Richard Williamson — a well intentioned, albeit badly mishandled, effort to heal a schism. Others have also been subject to high-pitched complaints from liberal Catholics for taking perceived “neoconservative” political positions. A Catholic author and friend who endured such abuse observed, half in jest, “There’s no hate like Catholic hate.”

More reason for seekers to keep their distance

Spiritual seekers who visit places like Busted Halo — many of whom were raised Catholic… are wondering how institutional faith communities are even relevant to their lives and the example we often set doesn’t do anything to convince them otherwise.

Truth be told, for the enormous number of spiritual seekers who visit places like Busted Halo — many of whom were raised Catholic — the debates raging among Catholics in the blogosphere are equivalent to discussing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. These seekers are wondering how institutional faith communities are even relevant to their lives and the example we often set doesn’t do anything to convince them otherwise. We should keep in mind that Christ made disciples by forgiving, healing and loving others, not by debating them.

An increasing number of Catholics have been overcome by a kind of spiritual split-personality disorder. Each week, they go to Mass, say their prayers, and perform corporal works of mercy, exuding the spirit of Christ. But then, at the witching hour — whenever that might be (often late at night, on the Internet, under the cloak of anonymity) — they turn into the most feral-minded polemicists, smiting and mowing down their opponents, especially those who happen to be Catholic.

What it means to be Catholic

The problem here, we believe, is a lack of understanding of what it means to be a Catholic. Catholicism is not a game of one-upmanship, to see who can make the most savage comment, or humiliate one’s opponent best, during an Internet “flame war,” or elsewhere. Catholicism is about reaching out and embracing people and bringing them to Christ, and to the truth which His Church teaches.

The problem here, we believe, is a lack of understanding of what it means to be a Catholic…. Catholicism is about reaching out and embracing people and bringing them to Christ, and to the truth which His Church teaches.

We are in no way trying to stifle constructive, public debate — even among priests and popes. But it should always be done in a spirit of Christian charity, not hate.

Yes, Catholics can — and perhaps even should — disagree publicly but the judgment of other’s motives and consciences should be left to God.

Surely we can agree to follow the wisdom of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which called upon all Christians to practice charity, citing St. Augustine: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity.”

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books, 2004), and writes for Inside the Vatican magazine.

Originally published on July 10, 2009.

The Author : Dawn Eden
Dawn Eden is author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and holds an M.A. in Theology from the Dominican House of Studies. She lives in Washington, D.C.
See more articles by (4).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • William Doino Jr

    Thanks to everyone for their contributions. Though we don’t agree on all the particulars, I think this has been a productive discussion: many Catholics in the Church don’t even speak with one another, and that can’t be healthy for the Body of Christ.
    A few clarifications. First, our article was not a call to create an artificial “niceness” in the Church, or an attempt to paper over serious wrongdoing, especially when it is done by our leaders. That is why we wrote, of the President:”Whatever his other virtues, [he] has used the law to deprive an entire class of people–the unborn–of basic human rights.”
    Second, I think we made it clear that, in our opinion, Fr. Martin, whom we respect but ocassionaly disagree with, went off track during the CNN debate; where we drew a line, however, is against the subsequent ad hominen attacks against his integrity and faith, as well as certain comments made against Raymond Arroyo and Fr. Sirico. There is an enormous difference between criticizing someone’s objective statements and actions, in the spirit of “fraternal correction,” and mocking or attacking them personally, and judging their souls: the former is perfectly legitimate; the latter, in our opinion, is not. We also believe, as we wrote, that ultimate judgments about someone’s motives and conscience should be left to God.
    Third, when Catholics make over-the-top or abusive statements against someone else during a debate, that then becomes the issue, and the main point of upholding truth becomes secondary, if not lost amidst a flurry of overheated rhetoric. I think it is quite possible to make a powerful case for truth, through our faith, without ever once invoking Herod, Henry VIII, Hitler, or Nazi Germany.
    Finally, I appreciate Dawn’s comments about the intent of our article, which was meant to elevate discussion in the Church, and highlight our obligations as disciples of Christ, not to offend. None of us are perfect, but we can pray for wisdom on how best to communicate our faith, and bring about unity in the Church, based on truth–and in a way that reflects well on Catholics everywhere.

  • Bill McGarvey

    Again, we appreciate all the comments generated by this article, but in the spirit of the topic at hand, we ask that all comments posted here are accompanied by real names instead of anonymous screen names.
    Thank you.
    Bill McGarvey

  • Morning’s Minion

    The use of terms like “liberal” and “conservative” in this debate is precisely the problem. These terms are routinely misapplied in the secular debate. For instance, those who support the Republican party are inclined to adopt a peculiar individualist ethos that comes from out of liberalism, in rather undistilled form. It is not “conservative”, and it is certainly not Catholic.

    These terms are even more meaningless in the Catholic context. As the pope notes in Caritas in Veritate, there is a single Catholic social teaching, undivided, and connected. You cannot oppose abortion and dismiss social justice, and vice versa. It is one thing to disagree on political strategies, but another altogether to dismiss the teaching. And here is the difference in the blog post to which you linked: Fr. Martin disagrees with the political strategy, he does not defend abortion. But Fr. Sirico defends torture, at least when the US does it. See the distinction?

  • Kell Brigan

    One of a dozen thoughts…

    Charity requires not only love for one’s enemies (or, opponents), but also just plain clear thinking. As a fairly recent revert, I’m seeing first hand how Christians and nonChristians, Catholics and nonCatholics, liberals and Conservs, etc. are far more alike in the general inability to fight a fair fight than they are different. Yes, the infighting has to stop, but so does the illegitimate blarney aimed against nonChristians/Catholics. Some stuff that’s especially childish on “our” side:

    1) Describing all abortion clinic escorts as “lesbians”. I was one of those escorts for a few years; while the percentage of gay women escorting is probably a bit higher than in the general public (say 10% instead of <5%), by no means is it everybody who does excorting. But, of course, that’s not the point. Calling all clinic escorts “lesbians” is a way to hate them in an especially enjoyable way. Not Christian. Also, intellectually sloppy. And, it means women (many married, with kids) who are escorts a handy set of reasons to continue believing that “Catholics hate women.” Way to witness, folks (not).

    2) Attacking women working for women’s welfare (who may or may not assume the label “feminist”) as “angry”. Anyone reading the minutes from the last few week’s examiniation at the Vatican of global slavery issues, as well as anyone with any experience in emergency room treatment or social services, knows that women have plenty to be angry about. Sneering at someone as “angry” who has been raped, beaten, denied fair employment, denied education is an especially ugly way to make sure women continue to stay away from Catholicism in droves. And, it’s cruel. And intellectually sloppy.

    The only way I came back to Catholicism was by ignoring most Catholics, and going back to the source. IMHO one of the most feminist forces in this world right now is the Catholic Church; what’s amazing is how few Catholics understand this, or why advocating for women is an essential part of the charity spectrum, or why indulging in hateful rituals like condemning all “angry” women as somehow unimportant or disposable or ridiculous is about as unChristian as it gets.

    Not a complete list.

  • Dawn Eden

    Henry, again, it was neither William’s nor my intention to offend. I believe we are acting from different first principles here. The Faith is above politics, but we as Catholics are involved in an ongoing struggle to be in the world but not of it, which can and does involve taking political stances that may be construed as left or right. Again, if you would like to continue this conversation, I would be happy to do so offline.

  • Henry Karlson


    First, you made an open comment. That, to me, suggests the discussion should be in the open. Second, what “editorial stance” is there on Vox Nova? Seriously, it would do well for you to actually know what you are talking about instead of just using words to sound like you are making a point. There is no “editorial stance.” Third, you claim you have biases, so it is appropriate for you to use it; but that, again, goes against what you write — the problem with biases is they close one off from the insults they use on others… When someone claims the bias of “conservative” the term “liberal” has connotations with it. Now, since you claim a “liberal-leaning” bias, I would suggest, in all charity, you defend your claim or you do apologize and take it back — you can’t just make up claims, say you don’t have to be sorry, and then think that answers everything — when it just proves the spirit which you denounce in others is in you. Seriously, VN is not “liberal leaning” because VN is outside of the categories of “conservative” and “liberal” as Catholics should be. I would recommend you read what Dr. Peter Casarella has to say about the terms here: http://www.nplc.org/commonground/casarella.htm . As long as you look within the secular “left” and “right” or “conservative” and “liberal” you have already shown yourself to be thinking and acting in ideologies outside the Church.

  • John Wilson

    Interesting article, Dawn and William. Always good to keep in mind the demands of Christian charity when discussing issues like this. I’m not sure you can discern a crisis of civility just from comments on blogs, though. Every movement in all of human history has had partisans who hold uncharitable positions about the other side. Paying too much attention to comments from people who would, absent blog-commenting technology, just be grumbling to themselves seems unhelpful.

    Other than that, I’d second Eileen’s point about Fr. Martin’s impugning the broader social consciences of pro-life activists. (Amy Welborn, in one of the links above, picks it apart quite nicely.) *That* was truly unfair, even if came with a veneer of civility. And, coming from a respected authority like Fr. Martin, it has the potential to truly damage the prospects for honest debate.

    Perhaps the first step towards civility would be if everyone agreed to pick on someone their own size.

  • Dawn Eden

    Henry, you write:

    I find it interesting that a post against ‚Äúname calling,‚Äù uses typical rhetoric ‚Äúliberal-learning‚Äù [actually, “liberal-leaning”] for sources the authors apparently do not like, which nonetheless, is not true.

    I won’t apologize for using the term “liberal-leaning” in an article about civility, because William Doino and I characterize ourselves as writing “from a conservative perspective,” so we’ve made our personal biases clear. My understanding is that “conservative” and “liberal” are not generally considered offensive terms unless misapplied. They’re not deliberately inflammatory in the vein of, say, “radical right-wing,” “fascist,” “pinko,” or “nutroots.” The reader is free to assume that what William and I consider “liberal” may be what he or she considers “moderate” or even, in the parlance of the (what I would call liberal) mainstream media, “objective.”

    As to your second point, it seems William and I have personally offended you via our passing characterization of your Vox Nova group blog, which was obviously not our intent. I was trying, via the modified “liberal-leaning” rather than simply “liberal,” to acknowledge that, while Vox Nova’s overall editorial stance strikes me as liberal, you make an effort to publish a range of viewpoints. But that strikes you as inaccurate, please let me know via http://www.thrillofthechaste.com/contact.php and we can continue this dialogue via e-mail.

  • Eileen Rebstock

    I agree with most of what this article says, but I’ve thought since the Martin/Arroyo debate that Dawn’s analysis has a blind spot. She knows Fr. Martin very well, and can vouch for his good intentions, but I think it’d be quiet reasonable for someone who didn’t already know him to have reacted badly to his interview statements.

    Making assumptions that he didn’t really believe in Church teaching would *not* be reasonable, but some of Fr. Martin’s remarks came across as extremely uncharitable and sabotaging to fellow pro-life Catholics.

    If you’ve been in the pro-life movement for any length of time, you’ll be aware of the friendly fire we get all the time, often from people who should know better. An example from my country of Canada:

    Bishop Henry of Calgary, Alberta, was invited to give the opening address to the provincial pro-life conference. He said that he looked forward to the day when the movement would be really pro-life, and if it was really pro-life, there’d be sessions about worker job safety, not just abortion.

    His speech was extremely hurtful to Catholic pro-lifers, and scandalized the Protestant and Mormon attendees.

    Fr. Martin’s remarks about many pro-lifers only caring about life until birth, and his criticism of some unnamed bishops of turning the gospel into only being anti-abortion are exactly the sort of uncharitable sabotage that his opponents then turned on him. What was the benefit of saying these things that would only serve to widen the distrust between fellow Catholics? Fr. Martin didn’t intend harm, I’m sure, but he was just as intemperate as Arroyo who brought in the Herod epithet.

    I mentioned Bishop Henry’s story with a larger purpose, because it has a happy ending. Lots of people reacted very badly to Bishop Henry, accusing him of not being really Catholic. Others, however, calmed their tempers, and showed charity and forbearance, even though they’d felt attacked by the bishop.

    Today, Bishop Henry is known as Canada’s most outspoken bishop in defence of the unborn, and predictably comes in for all sorts of friendly fire himself. An imprudent or uncharitable remark is not the end of things, and doesn’t need to met in turn by lack of charity.

    Fr. Martin’s further responses have shown that he is not an enemy, and even if he had been, he would still demand charity.

  • Bill McGarvey

    In the spirit of the essay above, BustedHalo asks that all those who wish to comment here do so using their real names instead of anonymous screen names.
    Thank you.
    Bill McGarvey

  • Michael McDonough

    As the Pope has this past week reminded us (“Caritas in veritate”), charity entails truth, and encapsulates justice. Sins of the tongue are as sinful as any other sins, but when one devolves to defamation, slander and calumny, contrition entails making amends. Thus, if I smear someone’s good reputation publicly, and I am sorry, I am obliged to repair the damage I have done to that person’s reputation in as public a way as I defamed him.

    I don’t know if this is entirely possible to do on the Internet which is so ephemeral, but the obligation remains. Perhaps this needs to be made better known to Catholics and others, but Catholics first. Another thing that might help: When Catholics who are aware of this speak publicly, or blog, they should try their utmost to abide by what their consciences dictate after having meditated for some time on “Caritas in vertitate” #73.

  • James Martin, SJ

    To James Naveau:
    Yes, fantastic. The first comment in an article about the prevalence of ad hominem attacks in the church is an ad hominem attack. QED.
    James Martin, SJ

  • Ivan

    A very inspirational text. Thank you for this wonderful editorial. It is nice to see some moderate voice of reason and healthy debate sprung out of this too common personal and ideological attacks.
    As a roman catholic myself I do find several of these public debates non constructive. The level of maturity when discussing sensitive topics should be raised and Christian principles should always guide those debates.

    Debates as much as you want but do not spread wild bush fires bu using incendiary languages.

  • Henry Karlson

    I find it interesting that a post against “name calling,” uses typical rhetoric “liberal-learning” for sources the authors apparently do not like, which nonetheless, is not true.

  • Aubrey S

    1) To suggest that Christ made disciples without debating is hardly an accurate presentation of the life of Christ as revealed in the gospels. Christ constantly debated the Pharisees and others to assert the truth, clarify his identity and our obligations as Christians and, yes, to make disciples. 2) While the vitriol ought to be contained and channeled into a civilized presentation, one much assert the Truth as such and identify Lies as such. 3) As of yet we can still voice our opinions freely. Should we judge the motives of Henry the Eighth in killing his wives? Or just write it off as a misunderstanding? Can anyone reasonably assert that Obama is pro-life? That sounds like Chamberlain suggesting that Germany invaded Poland by accident and they deserve the benefit of the doubt, after all “judgment of others’ motives and consciences should be left to God.” Do abortionists accidentally kill unborn children again and again and again? The evidence to the contrary presents itself at every turn and overwhelms any rational deduction otherwise. To suggest that “charity” calls for us to treat such lies as serious and merely uninformed positions is to misunderstand “charity.” When an educated and eruidite Obama apologist such as Martin asserts that Obama is pro-life, he’s lying and lying to mislead millions of Catholics. He motives are as clear as the evidence that indicts his statements as lies. There is no “reasonable doubt” about Obama’s stance. To suggest that Martin has no motive to mislead is as ludicrous as suggesting that Martin was unaware of Obama’s many pro-abortion votes in the Illinois Senate, his many pro-abortion votes in the US Senate, his many campaign speeches in support of abortion rights, his first executive order as POTUS, his executive order regarding relaxing all standard uses of Gov. funding of research with embryonic stem cells, etc. Please, save the group hug for those who still honor our faith over their politics.

  • Michaeljc4

    Part of what drives the flame-war in American Catholic circles is our deeply divided political culture. Catholics are, for the most part, either Democrats or Republicans (or lean either left or right on the political spectrum). Each party speaks to some parts of our Catholic faith, and offends other parts. If there was an anti-war, pro-life party in this country, I’d be in it. As it is…we are stuck with what we have, and deeply divided from one and other because of it. Politics is a zero-sum game: one side wins, and one side loses. It’s little wonder that this sort of political warfare bleeds over into discussions about areas of our faith which are connected to public policy. The role of our government in addressing poverty, waging war, addressing climate change, maintaining legalized abortion, funding stem-cell research, legalizing gay marriage, allowing the death penalty…Catholicism has much to say about each issue, and we as citizens must decide how to vote for one party or another. I fear for our nation, I honestly do. A house divided cannot stand…and we are a people divided.

  • Elizabeth K

    I appreciate this article. It has always confounded me how one of the main goals of the pro-life position is to get others to see the humanity and human dignity of the unborn, yet many pro-life individuals cannot recognize the human dignity of a fully-formed person who happens to disagree with them. If we wish to create a culture of life, part of that must include respect and love for ALL people regardless of their politics.

  • James Naveau

    Interesting that the first comment on the column completely misses the point of it and goes straight to the invective and name calling.

  • William Doino Jr.

    I certainly agree that, as Catholics, we are called upon to uphold the principles of our faith (in season and out), and even engage in “fraternal correction” at times. On the same token, how we communicate our beliefs and try to persuade, can be all-important, and make or break our goal. Trying to see the sincerity and fundamental goodness of a person we disagree with, and are trying to reach, is difficult–especially in the often-anonymous world of the blogosphere. But I think it is the standard the Gospel sets. Patience, prayer and good will, combined with a commitment to eternal truths, is the wisest strategy, in my view. If we do that, we just might find more common ground than seemed apparent; and-God willing–find a resolution to at least some of our conflicts.

  • Jack Bandage

    The question here is how to best handle those within the church who have been infected by the popular culture and spread scandal and error within our ranks. (Fr. Martin) Thank God for individuals like Raymond Arroyo who seek to hold those like Martin accountable to the teachings of the Church. I agree this must be done in the spirit of charity. I have always known Arroyo to take this approach. (Father forgive them….)

powered by the Paulists