It isn’t everyday that I get emails from Catholic readers, of one tribe or another, praising a New York Times article, especially one in which a Catholic leader is asked tough questions about some controversial points of doctrine.
That’s strange, in a sad kind of way. This phenomena was almost worth a “Crossroads” podcast in and of itself (CLICK HERE to tune that in).
But there are other worthwhile reasons to discuss the New York Times Magazine feature that ran with what was clearly meant to be a grabber headline: “A Catholic Podcasting Star Says Theocracy Is Not the Way.”
Yes, yes, we all know that there are armies of Catholics out there who believe that this diverse and rapidly secularizing nation can be turned into some kind of Catholic or ecumenical Christian theocracy. Try to imagine either of those political options in a culture dominated by Big Tech, Big Academia and Hollywood.
Before we get to the “theocracy” discussion, let’s note the identity and the credentials of the priest featured in this interview. In the end, we want to know: Why was this priest able to emerge relatively unscathed by this dance with the Gray Lady, to the degree that many Catholics were pleased with this encounter? Here is some of the introduction:
Since it was introduced by the Catholic priest Mike Schmitz, who goes by Father Mike, in January 2021, the little-heralded “The Bible in a Year (With Fr. Mike Schmitz)” has been the most popular Apple religion podcast for a majority of 2021 and 2022 and has even, on two occasions, reached the No. 1 spot among all podcasts on Apple’s platform. The show has been downloaded 350 million times and an average of 750,000 times a day.
That’s credibility, in our tech-defined world — even to Times-people. Let’s continue:
Each 20-to-25-minute installment … features two or three short scriptural readings and a pithy reflection by Father Mike, an affable 47-year-old Midwesterner whose upbeat and self-deprecating manner — not to mention regular-guy good looks — exude strong Ted Lasso vibes. The staggering success of the podcast has helped turn its host, whose day job is as a chaplain at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the director of the youth ministry for the Duluth diocese, into a kind of celebrity. He travels the country giving speeches, and some of his YouTube videos have racked up millions of views.
Now, on to the content that provided that click-bait headline for faithful New York Times readers. This brings us (an echo of another post earlier this week) to the fact that this long feature is based on a Q&A format with Father Mike getting to deliver quite a bit of content IN. HIS. OWN. WORDS.
Note that it is the priest who introduces the “t” word:
We as a people are the nation. We are not just the governed but we govern ourselves. That’s one of the reasons, I think, that John Adams said this representative republic can only be successful if we’re “a moral and religious people.” Because then we’d be informed by a standard outside of ourselves that we answer to. That makes sense to me. My perspective on religious people would be that there is no desire to ruin anyone’s life. There is a desire simply to affirm the dignity of everyone’s life. But I’m not talking about theocracy. I’m talking about government of the people, by the people, for the people. Which means all of us get a say. From the deeply religious to the convicted atheist and everyone in between. No one gets to ram it down anyone else’s throat, but we all have a say.
Now, the “standard outside of ourselves” could be seen as a very smooth delivery of the “natural law” conviction — normal in many traditional forms of religious faith — that transcendent, eternal truths exist and that believers are allowed to make a case for their convictions in public life. For more info, see the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor by St. Pope John Paul II, a document that had a wide impact among conservative Protestants, as well as Catholics.
Father Mike has also gently hinted at another issue. In today’s Big Tech culture, who has the power to “ram” controversial beliefs and actions down “anyone else’s throat”? At this point in time, the majority of American Catholics do not even believe their own bishops have the right to ask laypeople to affirm basic Catholic doctrines before receiving Holy Communion.
Later in the interview, readers are given evidence of another reason why this Q&A encounter “worked.” Reporter David Marchese notes that Father Mike provided him with a trio of books to read to prepare for the interview. They were C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” Peter Kreeft’s “Christianity for Modern Pagans” and “He Leadeth Me,” by the Jesuits Walter J. Ciszek. and Daniel L. Flahert.
Marchese read them, as well as listening to quite a few podcasts and reading several books by Schmitz, such as “Made for Love: Same-Sex Attraction and the Catholic Church.”
In other words, he prepared for this interview. Was he sympathetic to Father Mike? Perhaps, a little. Was he trying to pull a “gotcha” interview? Maybe. Was Marchese being a professional journalist? I vote for that last answer.
As you would expect, tough subjects are discussed — especially church teachings on abortion and sex outside of marriage. Here is one of those exchanges:
According to those [transcendent truth] principles, does a woman’s body count as her own property? That’s a great question. One of the arguments that people are making for the right to an abortion would be, This is my body. One would not argue against that. But there’s also another human being involved in this. That human being also has the right to bodily autonomy. That’s why they call it the right-to-life movement. Not that a woman does not have bodily autonomy or rights over her own life. It’s, I have rights over my own body, but I don’t have rights over someone else’s life or body. The Catholic Church’s position, and the Judeo-Christian position for millenniums, has been that the rights of this unborn baby are the same as the rights of the mom.
The discussion of same-sex attraction is quite complicated and includes the fact that Father Mike has a brother who is gay (readers are not told whether he is celibate or sexually active). This part of the interview needs to be read as a whole.
However, I’ll end with this key moment from that exchange:
I’m trying to better understand the heart behind the teaching. That’s the piece I’m missing and want to understand. Does that make sense? I think so. Here’s how I see it. Every human being is made in God’s image and likeness, which means intrinsically every human being has worth and is good. That’s the first step.
The second step is that we believe in original sin. Here’s this world, and here’s these people that are good but broken. Every one of us has experienced that brokenness in any number of ways. Every human being I’ve talked to has, to some degree, a disordered, we say broken, we say an issue with sexuality. The Christian message in all this is: You are good. You matter. God knows your name, and he’s entered into the brokenness so that you don’t have to be there alone. It doesn’t have to be the thing that defines your life.
All of Christianity can be summed up in this one question and answer: Does God have permission to love you as you are? If I say he can love me now, it’s not just a matter of a feeling of this affection. It’s letting that love change me. When I say that, I’m not saying those desires are gone or that I’m no longer pregnant. What I’m saying is, OK, if God has my permission to love me as I am right now, that means I don’t have to walk in shame. That means I’m not walking alone.
It means, in many ways, that my heart gets to be changed. When it comes to the big issues, the question is still the same, and the answer needs to be given: Does God have your permission to love you as you are right now? Yes or no?
The big words? “Sin” is one. “Change” is another.
Frankly, I think Marchese should have been a bit tougher at this point in the interview — asking Father Mike what he says during Confession when dealing with these kinds questions about what for pro-Catechism Catholics are (#triggerwarning) serious and even mortal sins.
If non-Catholic readers are interested in the Catholic reactions to this feature, this Aleteia commentary website feature might be helpful: “Fr. Mike Schmitz shares the Gospel with the New York Times.” For example, there is this:
On the way he shares the Catholic faith with others
“So with some of these hot-button issues, if I haven’t changed your mind, that’s fine. But if you can now have this thing you hold onto, which is true — that God cares about you — then that’s a win.”
As well as this:
On what’s behind hard teachings those related to sexuality
“The Christian message in all this is: You are good. You matter. God knows your name, and he’s entered into the brokenness so that you don’t have to be there alone.”
Here is something for religious thinkers and leaders to ponder, after reading this. Do we live in an age in which, when major-media professionals seek interviews, it is now advisable to request Q&A sessions that will, at the very least, be posted verbatim online?
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.
FIRST IMAGE: YouTube screenshot with feature entitled “Fr. Mike Schmitz Got a Tattoo & He’s Not Exactly Happy About It” at ChurchPOP website.