Fact-Checking the “Climate of Fear” and the “New Crackdown on Catholic Theologians”

Writing in Catholic Herald, Dan Hitchens says this:

Orthodox Catholics are facing “persecution” – and not from secularists, but from their fellow believers. That’s the startling claim made last week by Professor Josef Seifert, the philosopher and friend of St John Paul II. His remarks echoed some recent comments from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who told the National Catholic Register that Vatican officials and university teachers were “living in great fear.” And Seifert and Cardinal Müller are only saying publicly what many will say in private.

This is rapidly become a meme, the supposed oppression of orthodox Catholics under Pope Francis. It’s time somebody gave some critical scrutiny to the claims.

First of all, I’m highly uncomfortable with identification of one group of Catholics within the church as “orthodox.” The unsaid but strong implication is that other Catholics are not orthodox – a claim which is hardly supported. Find another word, please.

It’d be good to fact-check the claim of Hitchens and Seifert and Müller about their lot being persecuted. It’d be good to compare this with the silencing of theologians on the progressive side of things. It’d be good to get accurate data across the entire church about banned and disinvited theologians and clergy.

But despite the title of my post, such fact-checking is not possible. And for this simple reason: by nature the whole thing takes place in secret. Priests and theologians and speakers very much avoid broadcasting the fact that they have been silenced, for understandable reasons. The exceptions are few.

If more of this thing were above ground, most people would be very shocked. The ongoing widespread silencing of mainline theologians would surely make the front page of the New York Times. If, as I say, it were possible to write that story.

I know many, many theologians whom I would characterize as ‘mainstream,’ some of them perhaps ‘progressive’ or ‘left-leaning’ but certainly never credibly accused of heresy, who have been and are being banned from speaking at Catholic events and on Catholic grounds.

It has become standard practice – a change from a generation or two ago – that conferences have to submit all proposed speakers to the bishop during the planning stage. Speakers are regularly crossed off the list, not because they are heretical or in manifest error, but because the bishop (or his men) don’t like their approach to things.

I know of a right-leaning deacon who had difficulty getting preaching faculties because the bishop didn’t like (and didn’t understand, I’m pretty sure) his development of a traditional, Catholic understanding of his area of specialty.

I know of at least one priest in good standing whose compositions were banned from diocesan liturgies – not because of the quality of the music, but because the bishop just didn’t want this kind of guy to get coverage.

Because of my views on translation, I was once forbidden to speak on any topic of liturgical ministry in one diocese, and given permission to speak only on Latin chant interpretation – and this after I pledged to say nothing against the authority of the Church.

I know of one theologian after another – if I were to give their names you would be horrified – who have been banned from speaking in this or that diocese.

It would be very interesting to take, say, 10 or 15 mainline Catholic universities in the U.S. and do a confidential poll of all the Catholics in the theology department, to see how many have been banned at some point in the last 25 years. Would it be one-tenth of them? one-fourth? a third? I don’t know. I’m sure it would be more than a handful.

Cardinal Müller claims that many Vatican officials are living in great fear. Let us be precise: these are people who work for the pope. The claim, then, is that people who disagree with their boss are fearful. It makes sense that they are – in any organization, anyone who is at odds with management probably has at least some reason to be fearful. Put in that light, Cardinal Müller claims lose some of their shock value.

As I say, fact-checking all this is not possible. Is the proportion of ‘progressives’ banned, compared to ‘conservatives,’ 10 to 1? Or 25 to 1? We don’t know.

But if anyone tells you that conservatives have a corner on the market of suffering persecution, be very skeptical.


(Featured image: The Spanish Inquisition.)


  1. I was theology professor at Seminar in Cuenca, Spain. 2007 I was banned from teaching because I had written (privately, to my bishop and the other theology professors) some criticism about “Summorum Pontificum”. My arguments were similar to those of several authors, e.g. A. Ruff. My bishop come from Opus Dei. So, what can I say, when I read things like “university teachers were living in great fear” under Francisco?

  2. I’ve encountered such folk on social media. I suggested it was worse in 1978-2013, and they snickered. I suggested the case of Bishop Bill Morris who was willing to listen to ideas unpopular in “orthodox” circles, and he got an Archbishop Chaput-led witch hunt. I was told error has no rights.

    Let’s face it: this is a very human face of the Church. People who are different and slightly confident about it are perceived as a threat. Often enough threats are carried out in secret and some people don’t ever get the whole story, much less a chance to dialogue or defend.

    “Find another word, please.”

    Thanks for that.

  3. Harvey Weinstein is not the only boss with a “It’s Good To Be The King” attitude, which I used more broadly and less specifically sexually to cover a general sense of abusive and self-serving entitlement that brooks little to no opposition. I have seen seemingly progressive pastors with that attitude, and traditionally-leaning pastors as well. What I regularly witnesss on leading OrthodoxCatholic(TM) blogs gives me no comfort whatsoever that many of those (but I assume in charity far from all) pleading of persecution now would for a moment hesitate to indulge mightily in schadenfreude when the time and opportunity comes. Harvey Weinstein merely lacked the self-ennobling rationalization of Doing The Lord’s Work – in the Church, that what makes it bite so hard.

    As Todd says, it’s the very human face of the Church.

    And it’s a reason I bleat so fiercely about always considering first how the tool one wishes to wield to Do Something Good can and will be wielded against you to Do Something You Will Regret. And the enduring cognitive blindness to this reality rather amazes me; I would have thought it’s a lesson most except the most privileged learn by young adulthood, but then again maybe I was too isolated on my Island of Misfit Toys to realize how rare those lessons were.

  4. Oh well…. As Archbishop Fernandez said the Curia is not an essential structure but rather the Pope and the Bishops.

    I can certainly sympathize with those who would like to AL to be a bit clearer but Cardinal Schönborn, Rocco Buttigilone, and the recently published journal article by Archbishop have shown that AL is completely orthodox. And the Pope has disavowed “situational morality”, so all that is left in terms of AL is for what Pope Francis described in another context as “faithful reception, practical obedience, [and] wise implementation”.

    And the Curia and theology professors at Catholic institutions can’t help then they should get out the way.

  5. “The claim, then, is that people who disagree with their boss are fearful. It makes sense that they are – in any organization, anyone who is at odds with management probably has at least some reason to be fearful. Put in that light, Cardinal Müller claims lose some of their shock value.”

    This power dynamic needs to be understood in terms of the very first point you addressed in your post: these folks who are now allegedly working and living in fear are the self-styled “orthodox” Catholics. They define themselves as the stalwart defenders of the true faith. For someone who seems himself in that light, it can only be sinister that the Vicar of Christ or his henchmen would want him to lose his position. They would see this as quite a different matter than a dissident who fears losing his position by reason of his dissidence.

    FWIW – I don’t think we should accept any silencing or banning by secrecy, regardless of the ideology of the victim. Any exercise in silencing or banning should be open to scrutiny – and to defense by the person in authority. I happen to agree that some things can be taught or claimed that are so far afield from what the church teaches that the church needs to clarify that the teaching or claim in question is not what it teaches. And that may become a more urgent necessity if the teacher/claimer in question is a priest or religious or a public minister of the church – someone who, by reason of title or honorific might be presumed by the public to think and teach with the church. But silencing or banning – if there are ever any circumstances that justify it, I’d think they are very few and far between.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.