Summer is coming, which means Catholic conferences are beginning to crowd the calendar, which these days also means that Cancel Season is upon us.
For decades Catholic conferences have been a staple in Church life. Most of these conferences select from the same stable of Catholic speakers, rotating them every few years. I should know: for five years I worked for a diocese and scheduled many diocesan-wide conferences. I also helped parishes organize their own events which included outside speakers. I found there were a few dozen speakers to choose from, from A-Listers like Scott Hahn to lesser-known but still dynamic speakers with a small following.
I often felt constrained by the limited choice of speakers. Most of my target audience had already attended previous events with many of these speakers, so I wanted to provide a fresh voice. Why were my speaker choices so limited? Mostly because of Church politics.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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You see, all the usual speakers were “safe.” They had no scandal in their past (at least, no scandals after they became practicing Catholics), and they expressed no opinions publicly that were too critical of Church leaders or too controversial. The bishop approved them knowing he wouldn’t have to deal with any fallout from a dreaded “controversial” speaker.
As a conference organizer, I always had to keep avoidance of controversy in mind. If I wanted a speaker off the “accepted” list, I needed to do a basic background check to ensure my choice didn’t ruffle too many feathers. Also, if a parish wanted a speaker to come, our office needed to approve that speaker…after checking to make sure he had no controversy in his closet.
One example of a speaker who was not allowed was Robert Spencer. At the time he was a Catholic author who wrote against the dangers of Islam; he was blunt in criticizing Islam and its erroneous beliefs. A Catholic organization in the diocese wanted to invite him to speak, but the request was denied due to his “controversial” views.
To be fair, certain aspects of this process are good. We weren’t just checking for controversy, but for heretical views. A bishop has a job to protect the faithful from error, and so checks to make sure a speaker is orthodox are important.
I’ve been out of diocesan work for eight years now, but I’ve noticed that since then there have arisen self-appointed “Acceptability Police” that monitor conferences and the speakers they invite. They act as hall monitors, using social media to pressure Church leaders to avoid inviting anyone who disagrees in any way with their views to speak at any Catholic event. They also work to ensure that no speaker will attend an event in which any other personage they deem controversial might be involved. Note that the Acceptability Police is not monitoring for orthodoxy or even immoral behavior, but instead whether a speaker runs in lockstep with their narrow views on what is acceptable (which often tracks perfectly with prevailing cultural “woke” views). The Catholic Acceptability Police act as hall monitors, using social media to pressure Church leaders to avoid inviting anyone who disagrees in any way with their views to speak at any Catholic event.Tweet This
The latest example is the event Hope is Fuel organized by Patrick Coffin. Now, according to the Acceptability Police, this event has two major problems: first, it’s organized by Coffin, the former Catholic Answers host who believes Pope Benedict was the valid pope until his death last December; and second, one of the speakers is E. Michael Jones, a controversial figure who has often been accused of antisemitism.
Note that this event is not about the papacy or about the Jewish people. Its stated mission is “to bring truth through a variety of channels to instill calm, cultivate courage and generate hope (temporal and eternal) for anyone struggling with worry, hardship, and fear.” But to the Acceptability Police, the mere association of Coffin and Jones to the event is enough to render it cancel-worthy.
Soon after the impressive list of speakers was announced, the Acceptability Police went into high gear, demanding that the speakers drop out. Their professed concern was that by participating in the event, their association would validate Coffin’s beliefs about the papacy or Jones’s views on Jews.
Note I said “their professed concerns.” I don’t actually believe that they care about Coffin or Jones or any of the other speakers. Their demands were simply an effort to tarnish any and all Catholic speakers who don’t share their woke view of Catholicism.
The Acceptability Police are also setting their sights on the upcoming Coalition of Canceled Priests conference, at which I will speak. As soon as I announced my involvement, one of the lieutenants in the Acceptability Police commented,
“Speaking at the same conference as a lady who said racial profiling was okay to do to her “brown son” (Abby Johnson) and a priest who said that lynchings were only done to criminals and murderers who deserved it, from the pulpit (Fr. James Altman)…There’s a reason why these people have been cast aside. They’ve been confronted on what they’ve said and/or done, and have refused to be accountable for their behavior. You’ve shown me who you are, and I believe you. Yikes.”
Note the assumptions underlying this message. First, these two figures (Johnson and Altman) are unforgivably guilty due to single comments they made in the past. Second, by agreeing to speak at this conference, I must obviously agree with everything that every other speaker has ever said and done, and therefore everything I now say going forward is to be rejected. Cancel culture at its finest.
And again, recognize that this person is not actually concerned for me or for those who are attending the conference. She doesn’t bother to look into my (very public) views on any number of issues to see if I actually agree with the other speakers. This is just an effort to marginalize those with whom she doesn’t agree; it’s to mark people as “unclean” and irredeemable.
To rational adults (of which there are none in the corp of the Acceptability Police), this whole effort is nonsense. Speaking at a conference or event does not mean that one agrees with all the other speakers. Considering how most of these speakers have a long public record of their actual views, this is obvious. No rational person would assume that a person who agrees to speak at Coffin’s Hope is Fuel event must share Coffin’s view that Francis isn’t the pope, especially considering these speakers are on public record accepting his papacy. The Acceptability Police’s jihad is not about protecting innocent Catholics from thinking a respected speaker might be embracing falsehood; it’s about making sure orthodox voices are silenced.
Sadly, some speakers have decided to withdraw due to the demands of the Acceptability Police. I highly respect many of these speakers, including Janet Smith, who writes about her reasons for withdrawing here. I admit I am disappointed, though. Any person of good will would only need a few minutes to confirm that Smith and the other speakers did not agree with Jones or Coffin, and in fact Hope is the Fuel had a clear disclaimer that the speakers “do not necessarily support views and/or opinions endorsed by other presenters nor those of the host.”
While I don’t want to conjecture at their motives, I can’t help but wonder if at least some of the speakers are worried that their association with controversial figures might dry up future invitations. As I said, I was intimately involved in organizing diocesan and parish conferences, and even the slightest association with controversy sometimes led to passing over a speaker for an event. And based on the actions of the Vatican in recent years, priests and bishops might fear ecclesiastical reprisal if they have any involvement at all with those who have been critical of current Church leadership.
Ultimately, caving to the Acceptability Police is a mistake because they are never satisfied. First they will target anyone associated with a “fringe” figure like Jones, and next they will move on to more mainstream figures. We saw this in the secular world with another fringe Jones, Alex Jones. When he was banned from social media a few years ago, very few came to his defense, because, after all, he’s crazy Alex Jones! But in very short order the sitting President of the United States was banned. It’s a very slippery slope—today it’s E. Michael Jones, tomorrow it will be Peter Kwasniewski, and pretty soon even Scott Hahn isn’t acceptable.
This needs to stop. Catholics need to stand up to the Acceptability Police, and not give in to the demands of those who do not have the best interests of the Church in mind. Guilt by association is not a Catholic virtue; instead, Catholics must be open to vigorous disagreement and public discussion, and be willing to engage with those with whom we might not completely agree. It’s time to cancel the Cancel Culture.
[Image Credit: Ben Raynal]