Yes, Make Catholicism ‘Weird’ Again. But Not Stupid and Tribalist.

By John Zmirak Published on May 16, 2018

In a column reflecting on the trainwreck that was the Met fashion gala featuring half-clad actresses dressed up in Catholic vestments, Ross Douthat tries to squeeze some lemonade out of lemons. Yes, we weep that New York’s Cardinal Dolan arranged for this scandal. (Big donors to the archdiocese serve on the Met’s board, you see.) But Douthat dries his eyes and tries to see something deeper. A crowd full of campy, secular New Yorkers wanted to gawk at copes and chasubles. That tells us something. We need to “make Catholicism weird again.”

I agree. We Catholics should stop dumbing down the liturgy. Watering down doctrines. Apologizing for every aspect of the Faith that makes us stand out from other post-modern Americans. We should be marching Corpus Christi processions down New York’s Madison Avenue. Make it complete with Gregorian chant and silk canopies. Solid-gold monstrances that display the Body of Christ. We should scrutinize ourselves, see all those times when we deep-sixed devotions and customs that once powerfully passed on the Faith. Everything from question-and-answer catechisms to praying grace in restaurants should be back on the table.

Embracing the Strange

All that is true. I devoted a series of Bad Catholics’ Guides to promoting just such a project. I cover the wackiest saints’ days, the most outrageous customs, and the many types of alcohol that monks have made over the centuries. And I don’t soft-pedal doctrine. Quite the contrary.

By all means, let’s embrace those “weird” externals that edify believers and transfix outsiders. For one thing, most of them are intrinsically worthy. For another, they counter a culture that is dying anyway and mostly deserves to: a secular West that has abandoned not just faith but reason and even beauty.

Catholicism as an Angry, Incoherent Ideology

Alas, a column by Matthew Walther to which Douthat linked as an example of “making it weird” does something quite different. In it, Walther questions the value of Catholics cooperating politically with evangelical Protestants. He claims that this alliance is responsible for Catholics abandoning their principles. The result?

Forty years of infanticide, economic exploitation, and spoliation of the Earth as the forces of capital and technology disrupt all our settled customs, habits, convictions, and affections, at an increasingly rapid pace.

He pounds on the table claiming that Catholic politics should be guided by the construct he calls a “social Magisterium.” Which in fact does not exist as he imagines it. It’s just a myth.

Reading Walther reminds us that there are aspects of old Catholic culture that aren’t worth digging back up. We can make the Faith “weird” again without making ourselves bigoted, mindless tribalists. And that was part of the mix in the past, make no mistake. When I helped organize traditional Latin Masses in New York City, I’d run across people who clung to old outrages against reason, common sense, or simple charity. That’s the dark shadow cast by the wholesome desire to recover what’s good that we lost.

Real Catholics share far more in common with Robert Jeffress than we do with liberal Jesuits.

Most people I met at those beautifully chanted, reverent Masses were earnest, bourgeois believers. Others were delightful eccentrics. Still others were cranks. They would urge me to read the books of Fr. Denis Fahey. He’s the Irish conspiracy theorist from the 30s who warned that “organized Jewry” is the “synagogue of Satan.” Others would press on me the broadcasts of pro-fascist radio celebrity Fr. Charles Coughlin. Or the works of E. Michael Jones, who today talks of Jews as “the mystical body of Antichrist.”

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Contempt for Fellow Christians

I also found in such circles an easy, unthinking contempt for Protestant fellow Christians. By this I don’t mean considered criticisms of Luther, Calvin, or even contemporary Pentecostalism. No, I heard constant, flippant, lazy rejection of people who sincerely live their faith. Who agree with orthodox Catholics on 80-90 percent of traditional Christian doctrine, compared to the 5 or 10 percent we share with the Jesuits at Georgetown. Protestants, by the way, do much of the heavy lifting nowadays defending innocent life, the family, and basic American liberties. Too many bishops are busy replacing the 40 percent of U.S. Catholics who apostatize with shiny new immigrants. Or chasing federal contracts for their “charities,” while equating the sale of aborted baby parts with Medicaid cuts.

Getting drunk on mindless tribalism is a great way to get key facts grossly wrong. And to keep Christians helpless, divided among themselves just long enough for the secularists to silence us.

From brainier types at the Latin Mass coffee hour, I’d hear arguments like Thomas Pink’s. He suggests that Catholic bishops have the right to use force to “coerce” every baptized Christian into repeating Catholic doctrine or staying silent. Or Fr. Romanus Cessario’s, who wrote in First Things, defending Pope Pius IX for using such authority to kidnap a baptized Jewish child and raise him in the Vatican.

Tribalism Makes You Stupid

None of this is “weird” in the amiable sense that Douthat meant it. No, it’s repugnant, on a profound and visceral level. It offends what natural law theorists call the “deep conscience.” That’s the foundation of every moral insight. It’s the part of your mind that tells you that Jewish children belong with their parents, who should guide their religious education. That terrorizing people with prison for their deepest beliefs is evil. Whether it’s done by the Spanish Inquisition, Elizabeth I, Iranian mullahs or Chinese commissars.

Worst of all, perhaps, such attitudes make you stupid. They let you breeze past complex arguments, avoid serious questions, and cling to faith’s externals like some comforting tribal totem. You can spurn real allies and rally around real enemies, just because they check some comforting boxes.

Walther did just that when he demanded the reinstatement of House Chaplain Fr. Patrick Conroy. That’s the guy whom conservative Catholic Rep. Paul Ryan, with the support of other conservative Christians, sought to remove. And, as it turns out, Fr. Conroy is a pro-LGBT activist who politicized his ministry. Stream columnist Joseph Sciambra (a Catholic) wasn’t too blinded by sectarianism to find out Conroy’s views. But in an eruption not of Catholic citizenship but blind tribalism, Catholic groups rallied to Conroy, and now he’s back. The Catholic League embarrassed itself by weighing in reflexively for Conroy. It demanded that Ryan’s chief of staff  be fired for opposing him, and requesting a Protestant chaplain for a change. Pro-choice House Democrats ate it all up.

Tribalism makes you stupid. It lets you breeze past complex arguments, avoid serious questions, and cling to faith’s externals like some comforting totem. You can spurn real allies and rally around real enemies, just because they check some comforting boxes.

Mainline Protestant Catholics

Real Catholics share far more in common — believe more of the same things I mean — with Franklin Graham or even Robert Jeffress than we do with the likes of Conroy. That’s just a fact. Conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox have disagreements, of course. Important ones. But nothing like the yawning gap that divides us from the post-modern posers we variously label “Mainline” Protestants or “progressive Catholics.”

Getting drunk on mindless tribalism is a great way to get such facts grossly wrong. And to keep Christians helpless, divided among themselves just long enough for the secularists to silence us. Giving into that isn’t “weird” or countercultural. It’s just lazy and scandalous.


Note: The Catholic League has issued a response to this piece. It appears below.

We did not weigh in “reflexively” as you state. We cautiously AVOIDED jumping in immediately, concluding that Fr. Conroy’s forced resignation was NOT based on religious grounds. As such, we saw no role for the Catholic League, and stayed out of it.
·         That changed when Rep. Walker, one of the leaders of the search group selected by Speaker Ryan to find a replacement for Fr. Conroy, appeared to pointedly exclude celibate Catholic priests from consideration. That clearly WAS a matter for the Catholic League to speak out about.
·         We did not demand that Ryan fire his chief of staff “for opposing” Fr. Conroy. We called for his firing for a similar remark attributed to him, that it was time to find a chaplain who wasn’t Catholic.
·         At no time did we weigh in “for Conroy” as you erroneously state. We weighed in AGAINST assertions that Catholic priests in general are not qualified to be U.S. House chaplain.  
·         Your assertion that “Pro-choice House Democrats ate it all up” shows your lack of understanding of the role of the Catholic League. Our mission is to defend the Church and individual Catholics against defamation and discrimination from wherever they emanate. Suggestions by powerful members of Congress—from whichever party—that Catholic priests should be  disqualified from serving as House chaplain smacks of such discrimination. Failure to address it would have been a betrayal of our mission.
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  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Yeah, most of what I know about Catholicism has come from reading Mr Zmirak’s writings here on the Stream. Apart from a general knowledge gleaned by virtue of being a believer of course.
    As such, I make no pretense for being authoritative where Catholic doctrine, dogma or duplicity is concerned.
    Likewise my being born to non practicing Jewish parents doesn’t qualify me as an authority on Jewish doctrine, dogma or duplicity either. Where the non Judeo – Christian faiths so called , are concerned my relative knowledge of scripture & my personal knowledge of God through faith in His Son & the illumination the HS provides qualifies me for this one thing. The ability by faith to understand. To understand the distinctives that differentiate “true religion” if you will from the false religions masquerading as the truth.
    I can rejoice in the discoveries each historical expression of this so great a faith may offer . The world is a richer place in light of these different reflections of the multi faceted glories of our God & His Christ.
    Yet it all pales in comparison to the incomparable grace of the knowledge of God. Both the Word & the Spirit agree on that sentiment.
    That’s an agreement hard to beat. One which should unite the very diverse yet exclusive family of believers. One which transcends all other cause celebre – or at least it must …

  • Anne Hendershott

    Having taught brilliant evangelical Protestant students at The King’s College in New York City, I appreciate Mr. Zmirak’s observations that we need to strengthen our alliances with people who sincerely live their faith–who agree with faithful Catholics on 90 percent of traditional Christian doctrine, and do the “heavy lifting” in the pro-life and pro-traditional marriage battles. This was a great column!

    • Dr. Hendershott, this alliance is the cause of our current malaise. Very little good has come of it, and while I welcome such good, like the ban on partial-birth abortion signed by George W. Bush, I dislike the rest, such as the rise of more Protestant theocratic views of society, which Catholics must resist, or, on something of the flip side, the further erosion of the rights of workers in this country, as we saw this past week with the decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis.

  • William Knox

    Mr. Zmirak, I’m still waiting for your Bad Catholic’s Guide to New York City. Does the project really hold no attraction for you?

    • Zmirak

      Thanks, but the Church isn’t funny at the moment. Maybe someday, under Pope Leo XIV (Cardinal Sarah), it will be again.

      • William Knox

        I’ll try to be patient.

        It is difficult (for me anyway) not imagine what such a work might look like: “Dagger” John Hughes could serve as interlocutor/guide. Perhaps the work could be divided into three parts like the Divine Comedy with Hughes leading the narrator through NYC Inferno & Purgatorio.

  • Shannon Kessler

    Thank you Mr. Zmirak for this terrific article. As a Catholic and Episcopalian raised currently non-denominational Christian I have had to defend Catholicism from fundamentalists and I appreciate you efforts from the Papist front on the behalf of Evangelicals. We are all Christians in an increasingly hostile world and we need to build on another up.
    Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Romans 10:13

  • I basically agree with this, but the Spanish Inquisition was not as bad as it has been painted.

    • Nostromo

      The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision by Henry Kamen, a scholar of no bias being of another fatih, is a must read to rid history of the Black Legend of Protestantism that even Catholics widely believe.

      • Zmirak

        Notice that I listed alongside the persecutions of Elizabeth I, which were roughly as bad.

        • Nostromo

          One of the things you would learn from Kamen’s work is that the few Inquisitors that there were (mainly in large urban areas), were mainly faced with cases of Jewish converts to Catholicism, who did so to gain economic status but were denounced by their former community to Inquisitors, often out of spite for apostasy and accused of secret involvement in Jewish ritual. Protestantism in Spain never posed any challenges, and muslims were initially tolerated in Spain until uprisings happened often fueled by the belief, and maybe rightly so, of Ottoman interference in Spain.
          Elizabethan England never tolerated anyone being outside the Church of England.

  • disqus1836

    Hey Zmirak, what’s with the attack on Dr. Jones? If you’ve bothered to study any of his works, you’d know this man is not anti-Semitic. You may not agree with him, but he’s upholding what the Church taught prior to the disastrous Second Vat Council.

  • michael

    This is an injustice to Dr Pink. Sanctions, not physical force, per canon law.

    • Zmirak

      The word he used was “coercion.” He subsequently has defended the use of force, in online exchanges. If he wishes to clarify that he rejects the use of physical coercion, I will GLADLY, delightedly, withdraw my criticisms of him.

      • michael

        First of all, coercion boiled down to meaning only or even primarily physical force is not doing justice to the full meaning of the word. MWebster give “physical” force only the 3rd meaning. If you listen or read Pink it’s pretty clear he means primarily fines, sanctions, strong disincentives. Sort of what is in effect in 1983 code of canon law, in fact.

        • Zmirak

          Given that Pink accepts Vatican II’s ban on the State enforcing such sanctions, how would the church enforce such sanctions? How would it collect such fines? What if people refuse to pay? The power to take people’s money by force implies the right to use physical force to do so, on threat on imprisonment. That’s why we give the IRS our money. The idea of the Church grabbing the sword of the state to punish heretics logically implies its use of force. But I’ve seen Pink say nothing to discourage Integralists who cite him to justify the silencing of heretics in the old style. If he really believes what you’re saying, he has a duty to correct them.

          • michael

            You’re missing many distinctions that Pink makes in his arguments. For instance, the state has no authority of itself to enforce religious teachings; the sanctions he mentions are all included in current canon law; he is not talking about torturing people so they will live as Catholics; a sanction is an incentive that punitively brings about certain behaviors and/or beliefs—drop the heresy or leave your chair at a Catholic University.

          • Zmirak

            Your reading of him is so minimalist that it makes his argument trivial. Has anyone really contested that Canon Law is incompatible with Dignitatis Humanae? Maybe Fr. Curran, but no one orthodox. Why does he set up an elaborate mechanism to show DH is compatible with Tradition, if all he means is that the Church can enforce Canon Law within its institutions? Why state that the Church retains the coercive authority it once granted the State–which included use of violent force?

          • michael

            Your last point: many have forgotten or reject the proposition that the Church can use negative sanctions—vide Cardinal Wuerl. Pink’s point isn’t trivial and I don’t think I’m misstating it. Your second point is missing his main interpretation of DH—it mainly applies to non-baptized or those in a secular state. He is arguing for its consistency w previous magisterium. DH itself maintains that all previous teaching on these issues remains intact. See his discussion at ND from their conference “Freedom Set Free”.

          • michael

            I think your reading of him so extreme that he appears to relish the thumb screws. Which of course is wrong.

          • michael

            Your first point: only when the society is secular, not majority catholic.

          • I am not Spartacus

            The One True Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church has a threefold power


            The One True Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church has the power to impose both Temporal and Corporal punishment.

            It does not belong to the Church to exact obedience to her decrease by external force

            The Church has no right to coerce the violators of her laws by temporal punishments

            are propositions properly condemned.

  • Patmos

    Acts is a good book to read, as the early Apostles and believers weren’t always in harmony on everything, but they feared God and rejoiced in the good news of the Lord.

    We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

    The one caveat to that verse from Ephesians is spiritual warfare is pretty clearly ramping up in this current age, with more and more doing the devil’s bidding, and that includes more and more so called believers. Brother David Wilkerson has a sermon about this you can see on YouTube, dubbed “Satan’s Final War Plan Exposed”. He was particularly keen to these things, and I can attest to it myself: That the more you press into God’s word, the more the devil comes after you, but greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.

    Truth is, the devil and all who serve him are no match for the light of Christ, and they don’t want anything to do with it. The devils believe and do tremble. Stand firm against the devil and he will flee like lightning.

    The devil then is reduced to trickery, not being able to take on believers face to face, again we turn to Ephesians: Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

    Notice that, the “wiles” of the devil.

    One final word here, from the master Jesus: “In this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.”


  • tz1

    As Pentecost approaches, I should plan on imbibing the “spirits” of the various monks, even to the point of incoherency. And insure I’ve scheduled a confession.

    I also consider terrorizing people over their deepest beliefs is proper if it includes a lack of belief in property rights enabling burglary and robbery, or that women are sentient and can say “No”, etc. It doesn’t matter if the belief is deep or shallow, but whether the depth is trying to get beyond the bedrock of reason or beyond the sand of relativism to find that same bedrock.

  • Morenowthanever

    Heck I long for the day Catholicism is “Catholic” again. I’m not holding my breath.

  • Aqua

    I agree with you very much. As an Ex-Protestant, I do miss the zeal for Christ bred into the culture of my Baptist upbringing.

    But, while we may agree with them on much, what we disagree on is fundamental and bedrock. That gap cannot be bridged without complete conversion.

    My Protestant heritage is filled with very good people with large hearts. But they are missing many things that are key to salvation. And the last thing they need, if we wish their conversion, is a Met Gala where the holy things of God are presented in a sacrilegious festival; sexualized, paganized, played with by evil people. Uzzah (II Sam 6:7) was struck down and killed by God for merely touching the Ark of the Covenant, and his intentions were arguably good. Our Church is holy. It contains God Himself in the Tabernacle. We should act as if we believed we held and presented God Almighty, creator and sustainer of the Universe; life.

    Conversion of the world, starting with our good-hearted Protestant brethren, starts with converting ourselves back to God in all His majesty and might; to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, body and strength. Such a Christian will return to the Sacred Tradition you recommend here, “like a deer returns to water”.

    • Patmos

      My favorite part of your post, besides the broad condemnation of Protestants, is how you backed up that condemnation with absolutely nothing.

      Of course, considering such a ridiculous assertion has no chance of being supported, maybe that’s why you omitted any such support?

      Oh well, I guess I’ll continue to enjoy that measly Christ effecting me, being justified by grace. (Gal. 5:4)

      • Aqua

        Don’t think ya read it carefully if you got condemnation as a takeaway, (“good people, large hearts, miss their zeal, etc”).

        Having been raised from birth in a Protestant family, my extended family all Protestant, I know what the Protestants believe as good or better than many of them, (I have been around a few years). But, I also know, unlike you, what the Catholic Church offers.

        I would point out, as one example of an essential and fundamental difference, the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6. Red words of Jesus to his large following of disciples, most of whom left because they could not accept what Jesus clearly insisted on as a prerequisite for salvation: you must eat His flesh; and you must drink His blood; if you do not, then you do not have life in you. No mere symbol. Jesus: body, blood, soul, divinity. That must be read literally, according to Christ Himself.

        The Eucharist is a Sacrament. One of seven the Catholic Church offers Christian Faithful, all based on the words of Christ in Scripture. Sacraments: visible signs of an invisible reality, and the Catholic Church administers them. Always has. Christ stated clearly, and St. Paul affirms in his epistles, that communion with Christ in the Eucharist is necessary for salvation. That is one of many differences.

        But do I respect my Protestant brethren? Absolutely. Many of them, very much. How do I judge their salvation? I do not. I dare not. I often fear for my own. We are all in the hands of merciful, but almighty, judging God. He did give us the one, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church, however. This I know.

      • What a shame you felt you had to demean a thoughtful contribution.

        • Patmos

          There was literally no thought involved, the person claimed to agree with the piece, only to proceed to resort to the very tribalism the piece rebuked. Get a freakin’ clue.

          • Aqua

            I find it fascinating that you summarize my observation that Protestants and Catholics have different beliefs as “tribalism”. It’s simply a fact. You cannot bridge the gap, between one and the other, without conversion. You are either one or another. By definition.

            And once you are truly converted to the Catholic Faith, you will love the Lord God, in all His majesty: heart, soul, mind, body, strength. That is not controversial. Mere Christianity.

  • Hello. This is my first visit. I think I’m a fan. Your point that we agree more with traditional Protestants than with progressive Catholics is well made.
    Would anybody here agree that a useful contribution to the traddie position would be to explore what was wrong with pre-Vat2 Catholicism, and what was right about the conciliar reforms – ?

    • Aqua

      What was wrong with 2,000 year old pre-Vatican 2 Catholicism, in your view?

      Sorry, I can’t help you with your other question, as I see nothing good about the 50 year old conciliar reforms experiment. Objectively, it corresponds to complete collapse of Vocations and faithful practice.

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