THERE IS ALWAYS a little frisson of alarm through my frail flesh whenever Google Alerts tells me my name has appeared afresh on the internet. Thankfully it is rare, and overwhelmingly the mention proves to be benign, often merely incidental. Occasionally it is not. Today is such a day.
Catholic apologetics is a noble apostolate. Classic figures include such greats as the lay Australian publisher Frank Sheed, or the American prelate Fulton Sheen. In more recent years converts such as Scott Hahn have made important contributions to sound apologetics, Dr Hahn able to write attractively for cradles and yet speak in a vocabulary that engages those formed as Protestants. He writes with the happy zeal that marks the best of the evangelical tradition, and it is contagious.
Not all convert apologists are so positive. America seems to have a goodly share of convert apologists who began well and have deteriorated into polemicists. They even seem to manifest what is called by many now hyper-papalism, and any word of criticism, however mild, oblique or muted, against Pope Francis is the dog-whistle for them to attack. And attack is the word.
They do not practise apologetics any more; the trade they now ply is polemics. It is not attractive. In fact, there is something sinister about it. Mark Shea is one such. Indeed his worsening online content caused the termination of his connection with EWTN and its journal, National Catholic Register.
Another is Dave Armstrong.
Armstrong began his convert’s apologetical career with very useful works demonstrating to Protestants how the Catholic Church is more biblically faithful than the so-called bible-based evangelical, reformed and generally Protestant denominations. They were just as useful for cradle Catholics. But now he has become a polemicist, but with a twist. More on that later.
In an article on the online religious platform Patheos, Traditionis Custodes Results: No Fallen Sky (I Called It) [note the title], Armstrong declares,
I hate to say “I told you so!” but yes, this article is essentially that, I freely confess. I catch so much hell from radical Catholic reactionaries for my criticism of their errors and excesses that I do think it is worthwhile (not to mention educational: if they will accept it) to point out to them that I was dead-on in my predictions about what would happen after the issuance of Pope Francis’ Motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (16 July 2021), which regulated the Tridentine Mass and placed the authority of approval with bishops rather than priests.
The article begins with the perpendicular pronoun, and this is the key to understanding the apologetic polemics of such as Armstrong. It is all about them. A man has to earn his living, of course, but when a Catholic apologist becomes the product, there is a grave problem.
I am not going to link to the article as it is not nourishing fare for Catholics of any stripe. You can Google it. A few screenshots will suffice here.
The proof of the transition from apologetics to personalised polemics is literally plain to see. For example,
Things to note: the language of invective and polemic; his marvellous insight; and his utter naivety…or is it disingenuousness? For example, most leaders who want to avoid a riot do not explicitly state their ultimate intention; one works through proximate intentions as stepping stones to the ultimate. Inch by inch, row by row, festina lente. His reading of the passages he actually quotes stands reasonably well. But in the context of other sections, a different picture emerges.
For example, article 4 of Traditionis custodes states that “Priests ordained after the publication of the present Motu Proprio, who wish to celebrate using the Missale Romanum of 1962, should submit a formal request to the diocesan Bishop who shall consult the Apostolic See before granting this authorization.” This is hardly the return of liturgical authority to the local bishop! What is the reason for this requirement to get Rome’s consent? This question becomes especially moot in light of article 3, sections 2, 5 and 6, which forbid the celebration of the old Mass in a “parochial church,” forbid the erection of new parishes that serve those who adhere to the old Mass, allow the bishop to decide whether current traditional parishes can continue to exist, and forbids the creation of any new ones.
The force of these articles alone creates what the British government would call a “hostile environment” for the old Mass. That can be seen from the glee of partisans of the motu proprio like Andrea Grillo, Massimo Faggioli and Austen Ivereigh who interpret it precisely as the death knell, long overdue, for the old Mass.
So Armstrong, ignoring the bishops who have outright forbidden the old Mass in toto, looks at the many bishops who have not suppressed the old Mass but have allowed the status quo ante to continue. What he does not acknowledge is that in these cases the bishops have been clear that this indulgence is temporary, while they decide a more lasting response, since the motu proprio caught them on the hop (collegiality did not extend to warning the bishops it seems).
So, Dave is right that the sky has not fallen in for traditionalists…yet. We’ll see how prophetic he is in a year’s time.
But it is really about Dave anyway. It is him the whole way through:
There seems to be a radical insecurity underlying polemics like this. Having converted to popery, these ex-evangelical converts must now double-down on hyper-papalism to shore up their own faith. Or so it seems.
My involvement comes in that I am listed, indiscriminately among writers of often quite different hue and tone, as one of those who offered an “hysterical, unhinged, and ridiculous” response to the motu proprio. Moreover, he has not bothered to note subsequent posts which reflect further not only on the document itself but also on the impolitic attitudes of some traditionalists. But perspective and context would spoil the force of his self-promoting polemic:
It is of note that Armstrong does not really engage with the arguments of any of these writers, most but not all of whom are traditionalists. Nor does he engage in any way with the upset that prompts them to express their misgivings and hurt. He does not care about them or their feelings. Nor does he try to argue how the attempt to curtail the most vigorous part of the western, first-world Church might be justified in any pastoral or evangelistic way, nor what it says that most of the vigour and new life in our section of the Church lies precisely in the more traditional observance.
For you see, he is a polemicist, not an apologist. Vitriol drips from his pen. It is sad to behold. Read him by all means, but at your own risk, for you will be exposed to what is essentially Catholicism à l’Armstrong, and not the faith of Christ unadulterated. If you can stomach it, go for it. But you might want to vaccinate yourself first.
Or far better, read some Frank Sheed, Fulton Sheen, Scott Hahn, Carol Robinson… the list is longer of apologists who will nourish your faith rather than fan your passions.
It should be said that no further word will be offered on Armstrong here, no matter what fresh outrage he might commit.