Places (70)

Copyright Steve Skojec, 2010

For most of human history, there have been gatekeepers through whom one had to pass to acquire knowledge. Widespread literacy being only a recent development, these individuals and the information they possessed came at a premium, and endowed these elect individuals with power, status and influence.

Some things have changed, but some things have stayed the same. As I watch new media platforms unfold, I can see that the landscape is under rapid development. I can remember a time when there were only three television channels — ABC, NBC, CBS. Then came cable news and the rise of CNN. Now, networks like The Blaze are changing the paradigm again.

But gatekeepers persist. I’ve had my own run-ins.


Trouble at The Troubadour

When I was a senior at Steubenville (back in 2001) I had a column in The Troubadour, which was the college newspaper.

It was not so different in tone and scope from this blog, although my writing is better now. I had a lot of leeway in my column, either because I was good or because my editor was very kind. I wrote what I wanted, and I almost never had to make changes. It was my first paid writing gig.

In one of my final columns, shortly before graduation, I wrote about a topic which had come to weigh on me increasingly over my time there: the way our liturgy reflects our belief.

Now, I’ve always cared about appropriate, reverent worship. I remember being in second grade, doing prep for my first communion, and seething at the polyester-clad nun who brought a boom box into the sanctuary so she could inflict us with the mandatory duty of singing “City of God.” I was little, so of course I didn’t know what it was about that song, but I hated it. Within a year or two, I would sometimes get up earlier than the rest of my family and walk the three blocks to our parish by myself, just so I could go to the 7AM Mass. The priest who celebrated at that hour actually preached about hell and sin, and there was no sappy music. (I’m pretty sure I did this at least in part because I got to go home and watch cartoons without anyone bothering me while the rest of the family went to the 8:30 Mass, but it still left an impression on me.)

I was of course taught to receive communion on the hand and to sing awful songs was generally inundated for much of my life with many of the most commonplace abuses — if thankfully not the most egregious ones — that were part and parcel with the post-conciliar liturgical free-for-all that was the Missal of Paul VI. Over time, I had this creeping sensibility that this wasn’t how things were supposed to be. At some point along the way I started receiving on the tongue. Don’t even remember making the change, although I now look back and have a hard time remembering doing it any other way. I gravitated toward masses with incense, latin, and chant. I craved architecture that reflected the divine mysteries celebrated within. When I found a parish that allowed us to receive communion on our knees, I was in heaven.

I was not a traditionalist yet. In fact, my first exposures to the Traditional Latin Mass left me very disinterested. But in every other way, I was moving in that direction.

Which made Steubenville masses an absolute shock to the system.

I’m not going to take the space to make a list of criticisms here. Suffice it to say, going to Steubenville had a lot to do with my subsequent traditionalism. So as I neared the end of my time there, I had to get a few things off my chest:

The Eucharistic Christ is unquestionably the cornerstone of the Catholic faith. It is this presence around which all other Christic presences revolve. It is our redemption through this sacrament that, as an old eucharistic prayer says, Christ “took upon himself our human nature and endured a bitter death.” This sacrament is free to us, undeserved. It is the physical, palpable communion with the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ our God and redeemer. He is that stone the builders rejected that became the cornerstone – but he is being rejected again. Not simply by secularism or atheistic humanism, but by Christians who are placing our humanity above his divinity, shoving him further from the altar as we become more visible there.

Yeah. I have certain thematic consistencies.

My critique focused on several elements: the way in which contemporary overemphasized preaching and de-emphasized the Consecration; the superfluous and distracting involvement of the laity in the functions of the altar; the replacement of sacred music with banal, pop music; and the failure of modern Church architecture to emphasize what is sacred and sacramental.

All of these criticisms targeted things I had seen done in Steubenville, but they were applicable to the larger Church as well. I was tired of feeling like I was at a concert or a pep rally instead of Mass. I was disturbed that I had to search for the tabernacle but had to stare at music ministers. I had grown weary of priests filling the role of entertainer or motivational speaker rather than Alter Christus. (If you’re so inclined, you can read the whole thing here.)

I thought I had made my case fairly well. It was a real discussion starter. People were talking about it in the cafeteria and the dorms. Students I didn’t know approached me to tell me they really appreciated it. Little did I know, however, that it was upsetting the powers that be. They didn’t mind a little innocuous freedom of speech, but I had taken the university newspaper away from the approved message.

So when the April 27, 2001 issue of The Troubadour — the final issue of the year — was published, it contained a response from the university chaplain, Fr. Dominic Sciotto, TOR, and he took me to task:

I must say that I was shocked, not only by the confused and mistaken theology expressed, but mostly by the judgmental dogmatism of the author. He stated many things well, but then abrogated them by carrying them to erroneous con-clusions. Above all, it was a very subjective article, devoid of sound specifics and filled with generalities and purely personal opinions. When he does rarely quote from some document, it is done in a cafeteria style of pick and choose.

The assessments of my “mistaken theology” went on in no small detail. What was most noticeable, however, were the phrases he used to refer to my thinking:  “confusing statements”, “exaggeration and inaccuracy”, “subjective, misguided and judgmental”,  “deserves complete condemnation”, “wild, unspecified and vague accusations”, “misleading statement”, “irresponsible, vague, and general statements”, “so ludicrous as not even to merit a response”, “cavalier, careless and judgmental”.

There’s a line like that in almost every paragraph.

And of course, I was reminded that “the church is not a museum”, that he was “always most happy when” he could “reasonably discuss some Liturgical question with a student who is genuinely interested in learning more about the Liturgical life of the church” and that “The only reason that I am responding to this article is so that our student readers may not be confused or misled by it.”

So you see, the theology I learned at Franciscan University which helped lead me to the conclusions in my article was apparently rotten.

You know what else was rotten? That this response from the chaplain was published in the last issue of The Troubadour, and I was given no chance to respond. I wasn’t even given the courtesy of knowing that the attack would be published. As I headed toward graduation, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. A feeling of betrayal.

The message was clear: I was just some upstart punk theology student who had gotten too big for my britches. He was the gatekeeper of liturgical for the university.

And then, someone informed me that my article was hanging on the bulletin board outside the door of one of the professors, right smack in the faculty wing. I went to visit him. He was a professor of languages and history, if I recall correctly, and I had never taken a class with him. I knocked on his door, and when he called me inside, I thanked him for what he had done.

“You know what?” He asked me. “This is something that many of the faculty have been wanting to say for years. But we feel like we can’t. You said it. I’m done hiding it. I don’t care anymore. I’m going Byzantine.”

My smile must have been huge. But I’d hardly say I won that battle.


Rubbish in the New York Times

Years later, in 2006, when I was working in PR for General Motors, I watched a similar saga unfold in our conference room as visiting GM executives tried to get a letter to the editor (rebutting a hack piece by Thomas Friedman) published in the New York Times. At the time, GM was the world’s largest automaker by sales, bringing in over $200 billion in annual revenues, making them one of the top three biggest companies in the world. They were generating over 60,000 media impressions a year, and had an advertising budget north of $3 billion annually.

In other words, this was a company that should have had more than enough clout to get a letter to the editor published.

But the Times wouldn’t have it. They didn’t like what GM executives had to say about the work of one of their star columnists. GM used the word “rubbish” in describing some of Friedman’s outlandish criticisms. The Times editors wanted the language toned down and sanitized. Ray Wert at the popular automotive blog Jalopnik described the dust up as follows:

Steven Harris, GM’s VP of Communications came right back with a scathing post on their corporate FastLane Blog asking for Friedman to be “intellectually honest” in his claims — and basically asked Friedman to take his own head and shove it straight into GM’s Warren Tech Center to see the progress GM’s made on flex-fuel vehicles. In addition to Harris, GM must have called for all hands on deck — because there was a second salvo fired from the RenCen in the form of Brian Akre from GM Corporate Communications. Brian was hard at work trying to write the perfect letter to the editor to the New York Times — unfortunately, the “perfect letter” included foul language like “rubbish” — words which just wouldn’t pass muster with the conserva-nazis at the Times. Akre pointed out on GM’s other corporate blog, FYI, the seperate and totally unequal treatment his wording was receiving in comparison to what Friedman was allowed to use. Apparently if you’re a columnist you can use such language as “crack dealer” — not to mention “whore of Babylon”, “slut-ho-bag”, and “scruffy-looking nerf-herder” when describing GM.

Akre shared his bemusement and frustration on GM’s (now-defunct) FYI blog:

You’d think it would be relatively easy to get a letter from a GM vice president published in the Times after GM’s reputation was so unfairly questioned. Just a matter of simple journalistic fairness, right? You’d also think that the newspaper’s editing of letters would be minimal — to fix grammar, remove any profane language, that sort of thing. Not so. Even for me, who worked for nearly 20 years as a reporter and editor, this was an enlightening experience.


The Times suggested “rubbish” be changed first to, “We beg to differ.” We objected. The Times then suggested it be changed to, “Not so.” We stood our ground. In the end, the Times refused to let us call the column “rubbish.” Why? “It’s not the tone we use in Letters,” wrote Mary Drohan, a letters editor.

At the time, corporate blogs were a very new thing. GM was pioneer in corporate social media. And they didn’t need to go through the Times to get the word out. The gatekeepers were guarding gates in a now wide-open field. GM published the letter the way they wanted to write it and garnered massive response. To this day, GM’s innovative response is a case study in effective corporate communication.


Social Media is Changing Everything, Isn’t It?

Fast forward to the present. Blogs are now everywhere. Major media outlets are competing with upstarts for market share. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest — the list of social media networks that allow for the sharing of information are everywhere. They’ve been used in revolutions, to report on news that nobody else will cover, and to break stories through citizen journalism faster than any reporter can reach the scene.

But there’s too much information. People are overwhelmed. I know I am. So what do we do?

After all this time we’ve spent wrestling the control of information out of the hands of a few, we now self-select gatekeepers to tell us what we need to know. 

Sometimes this works out. If we find good sources of information, voices we can trust, they can help us to filter the fire hose of information we’re trying to drink out of every day. The danger, of course, is that we become too dependent on them to tell us what we want to hear, and they become too dependent on us liking what they have to say.

This co-dependency damages the relationship between gatekeeper and consumer. It creates an echo chamber. A feedback loop. They have to keep us clicking so they can make a buck (which I have no problem with) and we only keep clicking if what they say fits our worldview.

When we trust gatekeepers to do our thinking for us, we are effectively putting on blinders and shutting out any information that we find challenging. We’re self-selecting comfort over truth. We begin to lose the instinct to do our homework, think for ourselves, and make sure we’re on the right path. Basically, we all — gatekeepers and consumers alike — become lazy and uninquisitive.

Inevitably, a disruptive force comes along and starts making trouble. Starts challenging assumptions. Starts throwing chum in the water. And that threatens the status quo, which makes just about everyone in the gatekeeper/consumer continuum get ants in their pants.

And this, my friends, is when gatekeepers ATTACK! (Cue dramatic music!)

This is what we saw happen over the past few days, and in a lesser way, the past year. The big-name writers in the Catholic online media world have been challenged in a way that makes them incredibly uncomfortable. A few upstarts with opinions of their own have been making waves and finding resonance with ideas that shake the status quo in Catholic thinking to its foundations. The comfy, cozy, orthodox Catholic bubble where everyone was on the same team and all The Bad was on the outside is suddenly full of dangerous ideas that are really flipping hard to process or explain. Uncertainty and doubt are becoming a daily struggle. And the clarity of, “Hey, the pope’s in charge and everything is fine!” isn’t convincing people any more. Well, some people. But lots of people are waking up and asking questions.

This is bad for a business model that says…


Back to our Regularly Scheduled Brawl, Already in Progress

Maybe this partially explains why, when I pushed back on those individuals who tried to take down a Catholic journalist for writing a factual report about questionable papal activity simply because she has some unconventional opinions on the papacy, I was savagely attacked. Why I was accused by one Mark Shea of being a “documented hysteric” and why a certain Catholic blogger with a rather large following has been telling those who will listen that I “literally said” that I pray for Pope Francis’s death.

For the record, I do NOT pray for the pope’s death, and this blogger has never prayed with me or so much as met me in person. But that doesn’t stop him. When I confronted him about this falsehood on Facebook, he labeled my response a “festival of crazy” and then blocked me.

He also said to a commenter just this weekend, “[Y]ou continue to be angry at me no matter what I do or say. So, God bless you. It’s what Jesus says to do for people who treat me like an enemy.” went on to write a post addressed by name to myself and several others which said:

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.

I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I tried to comment to point out that I was being labeled an enemy when in fact I was the one being calumniated, all the comments were deleted and the comment thread was closed. (No, I will not link to it. Mo’ pageviews, mo’ problems.)

Similarly, a blog post was written by Elizabeth Scalia, the Catholic gatekeeper-in-chief at Patheos, dismissively dealing with the concerns of those who had been attacked and treating the whole situation as just a bunch of kids fighting. She evidently doesn’t see anything wrong with the behavior of two of her writers. They apparently are, in her estimation, doing a fantastic job representing Patheos, and they have nothing to apologize for. Their only fault is that “they just don’t know how to ignore a provocation”.

Scalia had this to say about the complaints she’s receiving concerning two of her headliners:

As to the emails and notes I’ve received calling for the heads of Mark Shea and Simcha Fisher for their deep crime of having an opinion and posting it to Facebook (heavens! No one does that!), I’m afraid there will be no guillotine hauled out, today.

But then, Shea is Irish, so I do sympathize. And Simcha, of course, wears the pants. They are both smart, faithful, passionate Catholics, and talented writers with strong perspectives and something to say. That shouldn’t scare anyone. It is good that they exist.

When I tried to comment about the reckless way in which my reputation was being attacked on the blog post of the person responsible for giving this writer a platform, my comment got lost in the moderation queue for over 24-hours. When I emailed the person in charge, my email never reached her. When I finally tweeted her (after seeing her retweeting more posts from her perspective, including one lampooning me yet again) she finally found my comment and released it, then closed the comments — but not until providing a snarky repsonse about how I was harassing her while she was sick:

I’m absolutely not interested in people running to me saying “mommy, mommy look who is being mean on facebook”. I’m going back to bed with my inhaler now, and thank you for your good wishes. Truly, your charity in tugging at me — apparently in email too? — when I am trying to prevent a return to the hospital is impressive. Why not try offering up some of your anger and angst, for a while? And pray about what God might be up to with this pope (and the resignation of the last) rather than indulging in this fantasy that the church is ending because of one pope. Which is exactly what the devil wants you to believe, contra Christ’s own words.

Had she seen my email, of course, she would have known that I wrote:


I know you have been feeling very unwell. I pray that you will soon return to health.
I’m curious if this is the reason why the comment I left yesterday morning on this post never left the moderation queue even though some others did.
What Mark Shea is attempting to do to my reputation is serious. We disagree. We can even disagree vehemently. But to attempt to paint one’s ideological opponent in the worst possible light, throwing out charges such as that I am “praying for the pope’s death”, is unbelievably irresponsible. I think it’s also manifestly sinful.

I understand that things can and do happen to eat comments, but I have faced a certain (and very strong) hostility from several Patheos writers, which makes me suspicious. Contrary to what they may believe, I’m not a blood-sucking monster who spews hate and bile on all those with whom I don’t see eye to eye. I’m also Irish. I also have a temper. But I do believe in civil discourse.

I’d very much like to know if my comment is going to appear, and if not, why not.

When I later brought this to her attention on Twitter, she apologized, to her credit. But she still said what she said. The “indulging in fantasy” line is particularly off the mark. What she fails to understand is that those who fear the Church’s direction don’t fantasize about the Church ending, we fantasize about Her remembering who she is.
By the end of our Twitter interaction, things had come full circle. This whole cage match started when Patheos bloggers attacked Hilary White for being a biased reporter writing about the pope. Not one of them disputed the facts of her story. But they complained that she expresses her opinion of the pope on her personal website and Facebook account and as such, her bias disqualifies her. Which is why Simcha spoke on the phone with her editor. Which is why LifeSiteNews as an outlet was also maligned. But when I pointed out to the person responsible for managing the Catholic writers on Patheos that they were guilty of intentional character assassination, this was the response:

So apparently, if Patheos writers engage in uncivil behavior outside of Patheos, there’s nothing Patheos can do. But if a LifeSiteNews writer expresses her opinion of the pope outside of LifeSiteNews, she should be disallowed from covering the pope.

This is the logic of gatekeepers. Attack and discredit the messenger. Ridicule opponents. Protect the status quo. Shut down opposition. Close comment threads when challenged. Completely ignore the rampant hypocrisy. It’s just about textbook Saul Alinksy.

There’s an old saying: “If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that barks the loudest is the one that got hit.”

The Patheos crowd is barking loudly. And they still have enough influence to cause concern.

I backed off of our Twitter exchange because Miss Scalia was complaining of her serious lung ailment, and how she simply couldn’t continue. Oddly, she found the strength to write this today, taking another crack at one of the concerns papal critics share — the question of how there can be two popes in Rome.

I’m not saying she’s lying about her illness. I believe her. But actions speak louder than words. I can’t help getting the feeling that the only truth to people like Scalia, Shea, Fisher, and company is the convenient kind. Too sick to debate, not too sick to bait.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we need new Catholic gatekeepers. The current crop have done their part, and for a time, they probably did it well. But in my opinion, they’ve lost their way. Maybe it isn’t intentional on their part, but they are serving an agenda, not the truth. I’m not electing myself as a replacement. You should go where you want to go. Do your homework. Read what makes sense. Question everything, including me.

That said, I have to thank those of you who have been like that professor at Steubenville who hung my column up and said, “This is something that many of the faculty have been wanting to say for years. But we feel like we can’t. You said it. I’m done hiding it. I don’t care anymore. ” That makes it worth doing. But I’m just one guy.

We need a strong Catholic media. I’d love to have the Catholics who care about doing what’s right all be on the same team, since we’re supposedly all working toward the same goal. I am frustrated, but I don’t bear ill-will toward any of those bloggers who have come after me or my friends. I’d bury the hatchet in a heartbeat with Mark Shea if he decided we could work together, even if we disagree. But it appears that’s too much to hope for.

I’m ready to move beyond this infighting, but I wanted to set the record straight and offer some perspective on how we got here. From now on, I’d prefer to focus on what’s happening that we need to be aware of and ignore the distractions, as well as the people who create them. People who don’t care to follow the facts where they lead them do a fine job making themselves irrelevant without my help.

Onward and upward. Are you with me?


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