Mike Lewis is the founding editor of Where Peter Is, a site dedicated to defending Catholic teaching and the pope from the myriad attacks launched by Pope Francis’ fiercest critics. Millennial editor Robert Christian recently interviewed him on the site, its aims, and the nature and prevalence of right-wing dissent in the US Church.
Why did you create Where Peter Is?
We started WPI because we saw a gap in Catholic media coverage and commentary of Pope Francis in the English-speaking world. Many conservative Catholic media outlets were regularly criticizing Pope Francis, his priorities, and his teachings. They were stoking all kinds of controversies and creating scandal among ordinary Catholics, including many of my friends and family members. The outlets that supported Francis were largely ignoring these issues. Hardly anyone was addressing the growing opposition to the pope, and the reactionary narrative was starting to take hold, because no one was offering the other side of the story on a consistent basis.
By the time we launched the site in early 2018, battle lines had already been drawn: Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia in April 2016, and four opposing cardinals published their dubia against the document later that year. When all that unfolded, I imagined that this would certainly draw the attention of our Catholic leaders. Here we had four cardinals of the Catholic Church—including an extremely outspoken American with a large following, Cardinal Raymond Burke—insinuating that the Successor of Peter had promulgated a heretical document.
At the same time, at the ground level—particularly in the English-speaking world—there was this narrative developing in Catholic media: Pope Francis was destroying the Church, he was teaching heresy, he was undermining the truth of Catholicism. And every single day, conservative Catholic media would challenge something the pope said or did. Yet hardly anyone in Catholic leadership ever stepped in to respond on Pope Francis’s behalf or to defend him against this criticism.
After Amoris, we had prominent and popular voices of Catholic “orthodoxy”—people like Archbishop Charles Chaput, the writers for First Things, George Weigel, Phil Lawler, Ross Douthat, talking heads for EWTN and Catholic Answers—who were saying the document didn’t say what it said, if they weren’t challenging it outright. One after another, respected theologians such as Fr. Thomas Weinandy, the folks with the John Paul II Institute, Fr. James Schall, Germain Grisez, Robert Spaemann, Fr. Aidan Nichols, and others would go more or less into open revolt against the pope and add more fuel to this narrative.
That doesn’t even begin to address the more reactionary anti-Francis media. LifeSiteNews, Church Militant, Crisis Magazine, and the Wanderer all abandoned any pretense of support for the pope. Obscure radical traditionalist outlets like the Remnant and Catholic Family News found new life, fueled by Catholics who previously would have been turned off by their antipathy towards the post-Vatican II Church. At the same time, people like Taylor Marshall and Steve Skojec were making a huge splash in the Catholic media world.
Other than maybe an occasional essay from Austen Ivereigh, Massimo Faggioli, or Michael Sean Winters, very few Catholic media voices were challenging this narrative. It seemed that the only person out there consistently defending and explaining Amoris Laetitia was Stephen Walford, a Catholic author in England whose day job is teaching piano. He mounted a heroic effort, and he was attacked mercilessly by the pope’s opposition.
So I watched all this unfold over the early years of Francis’s papacy. I watched my own Catholic circle succumb to this narrative, but not many supporters of Pope Francis seemed to notice or care. Like I said, there was hardly any response to it from Catholic leadership. Moderate and progressive Catholic media seemed to have an attitude of, “Ignore them, it’s just the fringe.”
Frankly, although I didn’t know how big it was, I believed that this phenomenon went far beyond the fringe. At the very least, the small group of us who started WPI did know was that even if it was “just the fringe,” it was our fringe. These were the writers we’d read, the media outlets and publishing houses that had helped form us. And the people who fell into the anti-Francis worldview were the same people with whom we’d gone on retreat, with whom we’d praised John Paul and Benedict, with whom we’d shared our faith and our struggles, with whom we’d served the poor or with whom we’d walked with side-by-side at the March for Life.
Why do you think the site has been able to gain a foothold in the US Catholic media? What is it providing that other outlets generally have not?
Because we tapped into something that is both widespread and rarely addressed in the public forum. The reactionary Catholic media outlets are covering a completely different universe than mainstream outlets. The reactionaries construct a narrative about something and feed it over and over.
If you take the story of the dubia, for example, that is still an active story in that universe. For them, it was a serious theological inquiry made by four highly respected, holy, and orthodox cardinals. In their telling, the fact that Pope Francis didn’t dignify it with a response is further proof that he is a nefarious figure who is undermining the faith. They are still writing and blogging about it. It was featured prominently just a few weeks ago in Catholic News Agency’s article about the upcoming Year of the Family, not to mention countless blog posts in the last year.
To most people in the mainstream Catholic media, the dubia is an old story about how four old cranky cardinals who no one listens to (and two of whom are already dead) had the audacity to write a letter accusing the pope of heresy. It’s, at most, a minor annoyance that’s still brought up occasionally by marginal reactionary figures.
While I agree that the latter point of view should be the story, that’s simply not the reality. You can’t underestimate the effects on ordinary Catholics when the largest Catholic media outlet in the world is pumping the reactionary narrative into millions of homes; when the Catholic websites that continue to address the issue are all pushing the same point of view; when this phenomenon is ignored by 99% of the bishops and non-reactionary Catholic media; and when their most respected bishops and priests are repeating the same refrain.
Committed Catholics who haven’t been pulled into this ideology feel very alone and abandoned. When people discover that someone is addressing this disaster that they’ve witnessed firsthand, they are extremely grateful. These are devout, orthodox Catholics who love the Holy Father, and they’re horrified by what they see around them. Our audience also includes some Catholics who were a part of the anti-Francis movement for a while, but something along the way helped them realize how barren and hopeless that mentality is.
We’ve received countless emails and messages from people all over the world. One of the most common words in these emails is “oasis.” Our work has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Vietnamese, Hungarian, Polish, and Malayalam. I think it’s largely a US problem, but like so many other things, we’ve exported it.
I’ve seen you getting into these drag out debates with media figures and others on the right on social media, yet you yourself seem like a temperamentally conservative guy and you never identified as a political progressive in the past. What does this tell us about the state of American Catholicism or maybe the nature of Catholic Twitter? Do you think social media offers a good window into American Catholicism or do you worry it presents a distorted picture?
This specific problem is particular to the right. And I think it takes a conservative Catholic (or I guess ex-conservative in my case, because I’ve been kicked out of the club) to accurately diagnose the problem and to address it head-on. Most of our contributors, including myself, were “JP2 Catholics” or “Ratzingerians” who were shocked to realize that for many self-professed orthodox Catholics, fidelity and support for the Vicar of Christ was totally contingent on whether they liked what he had to say.
I think social media offers a good window into the variety of perspectives that exist in American Catholicism, but I wouldn’t say that it’s an accurate picture of the US Church, if that makes sense. Most Catholics aren’t Vatican news junkies, nor are they paying attention to the latest apostolic exhortations. Nor is it necessary, really. The problem is that those Catholics who do take an interest in something that happens in the Church, or get emails about news from the Vatican from a fellow parishioner, or who happen to be watching EWTN, are hearing only one side of the story.
There’s a trickle-down effect. I find that among white Catholics in the US who are very committed and devout, whether they spend a lot of time following this stuff or not, have adopted the basic idea that Pope Francis is not orthodox, isn’t a good pope, and teaches a lot of erroneous stuff. Something to keep in mind, however, is that for many young priests and seminarians—people who do tend to follow the Church more closely online—these ideas have sadly become entrenched and distorted their worldview.
You have taken on many right-wing dissenters who claim to be orthodox (often more orthodox than the pope!). Why do you think this group is more influential in the US than the rest of the world? How would you assess their overall impact on US Catholicism?
My understanding is that for all its problems, the Church in the US is more active and engaged than in other parts of the world. Compared to other Western nations, we are a very religious people. We are also a very politically engaged people. I think people tend to overestimate the influence of the intellectual and rational in both religion and politics. We follow the leadership of those we trust. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this religious polarization increased as the election approached. There are certainly politically-motivated people trying to influence Catholics that it is “orthodox” to oppose the pope and march in lockstep with Trump. That said, I believe they are exploiting the genuine religious fervor of our people.
As the US faces the issue of combatting racism, how important is it to confront alt-Catholicism, which shares ideas with the alt-right? Who are some individuals and sites that have substituted bigotry or populist nationalism for Catholic values but try to cloak this under a pseudo-Catholic facade?
First of all, the degree of racism and bigotry that this movement has shown has been astonishing to me. I realize now that it was already present and I was mostly blind to it. It’s been relentless in the past year, obviously, but the real wake-up call for me was the Amazon Synod. That people like Taylor Marshall, Tim Gordon, Michael Voris, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, Raymond Arroyo, Cardinal Burke, Fr. Gerald Murray, and so many others could callously and heartlessly accuse indigenous Catholics from the Amazon—people who have been marginalized and abused by so-called Catholics for centuries—of idolatry or “demon worship” for glorifying God according to their own Christian tradition was infuriating and heartbreaking. They denigrated an entire group of marginalized Catholic people so they could score points against the pope.
Since then my awareness of the self-absorption and self-righteousness (which is at the heart of all racist and nationalist sentiments) of this movement has grown. From the attacks by people like Austin Ruse against those who stood up for racial justice over the summer (while praising the Proud Boys), to the firing of Gloria Purvis by EWTN for speaking about race, to the extremely cruel bigotry that many—notably Michael Voris—showed toward Cardinal William Gregory last year, there are no words for the evil on display here.
I know I am late to the game. I don’t deserve any awards for being outspoken against the evil of systematic racism. But I am committed to doing everything I can to promote the voices of Catholic people of color and those from marginalized cultures. In the last year I’ve learned a lot about the heritage of Black Catholics in the United States, especially. One of our contributors, Nate-Tinner Williams, has launched an online publication of his own, the Black Catholic Messenger. I want to continue to support his work, and to encourage other Catholics to promote the apostolates of Catholic people of color. In all honesty, the way many marginalized peoples have been treated by the Church, we should be on our knees thanking them and thanking God for their faith and perseverance despite what we’ve put them through.
Beyond addressing various attacks on the pope and the magisterium, what is the vision for the Church that animates the site and your work? What should the US and global church look like in 2021?
The vision for the Church that animates the site is a global Church that is united through fidelity to the pope and in fraternity and familial love with one another. In 2021 and beyond, the US and global Church need to turn towards healing the wounds that we’ve inflicted. This will require growth, listening, and accompaniment. I don’t think it’s a one-year process, or even a 100-year process. But I firmly believe that we won’t get there at all unless we follow Pope Francis’s lead.