Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dear FIRST THINGS: Please Cancel My Ascription

"We're boring. You're fired."

First Things, which calls itself "America's most influential journal of religion and public life" just fired its premier blogger.

The proximate cause was Maureen Mullarkey's most recent piece, which was highly critical of the Pope and the "roadshow" of quasi-fascistic adulation of him. The post lasted a few hours on the First Things website before being replaced by a note from Editor R. R. Reno entitled "No More Tirades" in which Reno trashed his longtime writer in (in my opinion) a dishonest and malicious way. Her post was then published by OnePeterFive, which has quickly become one of the most interesting and important Catholic sites on the web. (Full disclosure: a short post of mine was published by OnePeterFive a few months ago, and I was one of the more grumpy participants on the "No More Tirades" comment thread--at last check, 90% of the comments/votes were supportive of Ms. Mullarkey.)

I want to talk about Mullarkey and her post, but first let me say a bit about First Things, R. R. Reno and the recent goings on.

I was once a subscriber to the magazine and have occasionally still checked the website. Over the years they have published a wide variety of authors and articles, many of which stand out in my mind quite positively. It's not officially (or even unofficially) a Catholic journal, but the chief editors have all been Catholics (it was founded by a priest). And it is generally thought of as having a conservative or neo-conservative slant.

But it has had it's share of controversy. A few years ago, its Editor in Chief, Damon Linker "came out" as a sort of anti-conservative mole, who while editing the magazine was at the same time cashing advance checks for a book length expose of First Things and religious neo-conservatives in general. More recently, Joseph Bottum, the magazine's most well-known conservative Catholic writer (and a former Editor in Chief) wrote a 20,000 word (or something) essay for Commonweal giving a probably heterodox (for a Catholic) opinion on gay marriage. I say, "probably" because throughout the piece he meandered back and forth on the matter in the style of a tweedy Hamlet, and I've never yet met someone who made it all the way to the end of his essay to find out where he actually ended up (though the title does help).

At its best, First Things hosted some of the most useful and serious writing on religion out there. At its worst it was boring and pretentious to the point of being creepy.

Now it has become irrelevant.

R. R. Reno allowed Mullarkey to put up posts on her own without vetting. But Mullarkey's negative views on the Pope and the current state of the Catholic Church had been well-known for some time. Reno publicly took her to task on January 9 (ironically, one day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and while Paris was still in lockdown), but continued to host her material. It's fair to say her last ill-fated piece, while strong, was an extension of her other writings. So why did Reno trash her?

Let me back up a step, why anyway would Reno be against publishing or hosting the occasional negative piece on the Pope? First Things puts forward diverse religious viewpoints and is explicitly not merely a pro-Catholic organ. So why does he care?

I suspect a few of his donors do care. And we know that it's supported by them. First Things is not exactly a checkout counter money maker.

Reno's hit job on his own writer begins with the now predictable back-handed compliment, "Maureen has a sharp pen and pungent style." Shortly after, he disingenuously writes, "I do not ascribe to the view that Catholics should not criticize the papacy."

We should first note that for an editor, Reno has a peculiarly imperfect grasp of the English language, beginning with his misuse of the word "ascribe". A friendly observer also pointed out his somewhat limited vocabulary, using one particular word in virtually every public utterance. Here's Reno's book cover blurb for another one of his writers:
George Weigel's range and intelligence is wonderful, full of urgency, romance, and wickedly pungent wit. Read and enjoy.
And here's another cover blurb:
Rich, accessible, immediate, pungent, challenging, and often wise, these theological reflections by Telford Work help us understand our Christian vocations in our world of doubt...
And about another famous figure:
He likes to make pungent, often hyperbolic statements about economic and other matters, but by my reading the consistent source of his rhetoric is biblical, not ideological.
That quote was referring to the Pope, by the way.

Everything is pungent. It's almost like compensatory wish-fulfillment for editing First Things.

But then the real trashing begins:
Maureen’s commentary on (Pope) Francis goes well beyond measured criticism. She consistently treats him as an ideological propagandist, accusing him of reducing the faith to secular political categories. This is her way of reducing him to the political terms she favors. And those terms are the ones used by radio talk-show hosts to entertain the public with mock-battles against various Empires of Evil. I don't want First Things to play that game.
And we should of course add a tweedy "Hrumph!"

But anyone familiar with Mullarkey's resume should find the implicit insult laughable. She started out (and for the most part, still is) an artist and art critic. And much of her writing, when not done for art journals, was for liberal publications such as The Nation and Commonweal. Now she's being equated with Rush Limbaugh.

Did I mention that her most well-known paintings have been Edward Hopperish portrayals of drag queens?

But to address the substantive criticism, the charitable and reasonable assumption is that Ms. Mullarkey, as a Catholic, honestly believes the Pope has demeaned and weakened the Church's mission by politicizing it, and as a journalist, that this is something worth writing about. While perhaps still a minority view, it's not exactly a new or unique one.  But Reno wants his readers to believe that her argument stems from the fact that she favors reducing everything to politics. This is of course almost a complete inversion of the truth, and Reno must know it. He ends his dishonest and sanctimonious piece by pleading:
But in all this we need to have the moral and spiritual generosity to enter into our adversaries’ ways of thinking, if but for a moment. We’re in this American project together. We need to accompany each other, even as we contest for the future.
Which of course doesn't apply to his own author of over two-hundred pieces for First Things. For Maureen Mullarkey (according to Reno), we won't attempt to "enter into" her "ways of thinking", we'll simply equate her ways of thinking to those of Howard Stern and fire her.

It's ironic that after going from a mainly liberal milieux to part-time slumming in a neo-conservative one, Mullarkey was shut down for being too "radio-talk show" conservative. Interestingly, when the Pope "Malted" Cardinal Burke, Commonweal published a sincere piece on the constructive importance of his right to speak.

Maybe First Things should take some lessons on tolerance and diversity from Commonweal.


On to Mullarkey's piece itself, "Notes on a Roadshow." It's unique and brilliant. Yes, as a known anti-Francis partisan I basically "agree" with it. But that's not the point. It's original and insightful, whether you agree with it or not. Her comparison--illustrated by the appropriate photographs--of Italian Fascist rallies with camera pointing FrancisPriest gatherings--is acute and funny. And her counterpoint treatment of ISIS savage hordes sweeping across the desert crucifying Christians with the Western narcissistic selfie-culture--now iconically represented by priests taking selfies while celebrating Mass with Pope Francis (!)--makes one angry, then makes one cry. As an editor of any publication, I would pay for that.

I think she came out the winner. OnePeterFive is now running her (I assume we will see more) and The Remnant--the premier Traditional Catholic publication--has just invited her in, in the quickest Michael Matt hiring decision ever.

Not bad for an illustrator of gay pride parades.

The Times They Are A Becoming-More-Interesting.

Eat your heart out, R. R. Reno, you tweedy, lying bore.


  1. The reiterated "tweedy." How delicious. Masterful analysis.

    1. Thanks, "friendly observer". Someone once attacked me for being a "tweedy Catholic." Turnabout is fair play.

  2. >>...and I've never yet met someone who made it all the way to the end of his essay to find out where he actually ended up (though the title does help).<<

    I'm so glad to learn this. Now I don't feel guilty for not making it to the end of the essay despite two or three attempts.

    The experience reminded me of my attempts to finally slog all the way through Ayn Rand's exemplar of turgid writing, "Atlas Shrugged".

    1. Agree/Disagree. I love Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. Take a three-week vacation and give it another chance.

  3. Excellent commentary. The war is surely here and it is a war that is waging on all fronts, both secular and religious. Battle On!

  4. I stopped reading First Things when Fr.Neuhaus died. It became duller version of National review. Then they hired Maureen. Now that she's been fired I can happily forget them again.

    1. Firs things, for me, ended when Fr. Neuhaus died.

    2. Yes, I had a long time subscription to FT, and still have a couple boxes of all the back issues in the basement; but I bailed out sometime in the Jody Bottum era. And it wasn't just because Fr. Neuhaus was gone.

  5. Great post Oakes.

  6. I love that you write in a way that makes it easy to "hear you" saying these things.

  7. Quite a pungent analysis here. Time to double down. The "Road Show" slight of hand is over and the next three weeks will be trying. ..... St. Joseph, Ora Pro Nobis

  8. You're right, my friend. These times are "more-interesting" than I have ever lived through before. It's funny how one step in the wrong direction will get you thrown off a cliff by some people.
    I have to ask though, who are Damon Linker and Joseph Bottum whom you speak of in the First Things Combox?

    1. See the 5th paragraph in the above. The Damon Linker thing was really quite amazing. I've never heard of anything quite like it. Bottum wrote some great stuff--one of the most important defenses of Pius XII against the "Nazi Pope" accusations for example--but his pro-gay marriage "coming out" was weird, not so much because he did it but because of how he did it with that interminably long essay. It gave him a certain 15 minutes of fame, but I think he subsequently faded.

  9. Now, if the Remnant and 1P5 would hire Hillary White too, we'd be cookin'.

    1. Hilary already writes for the Remnant. Link here

  10. Because it has to be said: that was a very pungent article.

  11. I want a "hurrah" button at the end of this article which I can hit fifty times. Someone invent it, please. This is brilliant and Mullarkey's post was brilliant. There is an interview with R. R. Reno making the rounds in which he "clarifies" Pope Francis. It is Jesuitical. (Oh yes, I said it.)

  12. Excellent, as always. Were it not for my strong faith and writers like you, Maureen Mullarkey and some others, I fear I'd be 'round the bend by now. Even my own extended family members recite the platitudes, make the excuses & justifications. Then again, I shouldn't be surprised since I heard a lot of the same pap leading up to the 2008 presidential election.

    Now, back to trying to recover from the Papal visit (live just outside Philly) without drugs or (a lot of of) alcohol. Then I can relax until...The Synod!

    Thanks for your work, always enlightening and engaging to read.

  13. Thanks for the informative article. I love Maureen's take on Francis. She assessed him so very well.. If only more could see through the 'bishop of Rome' as she does. The adulation of so many is scary.

  14. What a great post! (I'm confused about the Commonweal link, though. The article is not by Mullarkey and actually is quite critical of Burke.)

    1. Thanks. I linked to the wrong article. But the "right" article--which while not pro-Burke per se is pro-"let Burke speak"--was not written by Mullarkey. So I took that part out. It was probably just a stupid mistake on my part. I ascribe it to the pungent beverage I had been drinking.

  15. I'm just figuring out who is in what camp now. As a faithful Catholic I never thought that this would be necessary. It is not straightforward, and some people or blogs who seem orthodox are not, as in, First Things. I will cross them off my list post haste.
    God bless you all. Viva Christo Rey!