Not long ago, Austen Ivereigh took to Twitter to compare conservative Catholics to feces. He called them racists, anti-Semites, and sedevecantists. In another tweet, Austen compared faithful Catholics—specifically the Pachamama Dunkers—to ISIS head-choppers. The only difference between the Dunkers and Islamic terrorists, said Austen, is that the terrorists have the “guts” to show their faces on camera.
Before he became the “Pope’s biographer,” he was known to some of us as the guy who created Catholic Voices, an organization to promote laymen in the media talking sensibly about Church teaching. This started before Pope Benedict’s visit to Great Britain, which was expected to receive a purely hostile response from the secular press. What an excellent idea to raise up thoroughly trained and catechized laymen to talk about the pope and the Church! The program appeared to take off swimmingly: when Benedict touched down on British soil, there were young and smart voices amidst all the hatred. Bravo. Well done, Austen.
Ivereigh’s proposition was that you could talk about the Church without “raising your voice.” The central notion of the training was to “reframe” the usually hostile question by finding common ground. For instance, you might be asked: “Why does the Church forbid contraception when it is clear that the use of contraception reduces the risk of abortion?” According to the Ivereigh method, you take the positive concern of the questioner—in this case, abortion—and reframe it so there can be some sort of agreement. “I hear your concern that there are too many young women left with the hard choice of abortion, and that contraception might be a way for them to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. And I totally agree with you on that. But you might want to consider that the widespread use of contraceptives might encourage the risky behavior that leads to abortion.” Or something like that.
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The training was largely related to how to talk about the hard issues—contraception, abortion, celibacy, the sexual assault crisis, and homosexuality—that are the weapons used by the media against the Church.
It seemed to work: Austen was regularly announcing a new initiative somewhere in the world dedicated to forming bright young Catholics for careers in the media.
Some years ago, I flew to Rome to take this training with a small group of Catholic leaders from around the world. I found Austen to be a charming and engaging man who was eager to help shave off the sharp edges of public discourse and make the Church less judgmental and more appealing. In Rome, Austen had us listen to an interview with Anthony Ozymic of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. According to Austen, Mr. Ozymic had gone about it in completely the wrong way. Austen said he was too sharp-edged—using all the wrong words, being combative, and appearing not remotely winsome. As I recall, Austen mocked Ozymic.
We underwent hours of intensive training, learning how to recognize the interviewer’s real concern. We would then pivot, reframe the question, shave off the sharp edges, find the common concern, and achieve winsomeness. Now, however, I get the distinct impression that the purpose was not just to soften the edges of a particular conversation, but to soften Church teaching itself, which often has sharp edges.
Homosexuality is disordered. Homosexual acts are objectively evil. Abortion is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. Contraception is mortally sinful. These are hard truths that will turn off a TV audience, so they must be softened by Catholic Voices training. I was suspicious that something else was going on. Was this yet another way to get so-called conservatives to stop being so darned “uncivil”? Was there another agenda going on here?
Then came Francis, and liberal masks came off all over the world.
It was undoubtedly clear that Austen had eyes to become the new George Weigel, the biographer with remarkable papal access and insights and real influence in the halls of the Vatican. It appears now that Austen was at least privy to a rather tawdry political campaign to promote Cardinal Bergoglio as pope. Austen was upfront about this in the first edition of his first Francis hagiography. I’m told he excised that part in the second edition.
In those early days of his pontificate, we were all working hard to explain Francis when he said things that seemed to be confusing. When he asked “who am I to judge” a homosexual priest struggling with holiness, we quite happily swung into action with explanations of what he really meant. Yet, as the airplane comments came fast and furious, some on the starboard side of the Church eventually gave up trying to explain. Austen and his allies—Fr. Antonio Spadaro, Fr Thomas Rosica, Michael Sean Winters, and others—went another way. They spiced up their defense of Francis with increasingly vicious attacks on those they see as his critics. They now call critics “enemies of the Pope out to overthrow his pontificate” and other such un-winsome formulations.
It should be pointed out that those involved in the Catholic Voices project have not gone the way of Austen Ivereigh. His co-founder, Jack Valero, who is the chief spokesman of Opus Dei in Great Britain, has remained his ever-kind and winsome self. Austen’s partner in the United States, Kathryn Jean Lopez, hardly has an unkind word to say about anyone, spending her days publishing mostly inspirational essays and ferverini.
But that is not where Austen is. He is buried in the fight. Where once he argued Catholics ought to defend the faith without raising their voices, now he compares fellow Catholics to feces and Isis terrorists. It seems to me that Austen needs his own training. And I’d like my money back.
Photo credit: Catholic News Agency