Naturally, I’m not saying that such videos are always of low quality or that written pieces are always of good quality. Obviously, there’s a lot of good material to be found at YouTube and similar platforms, and a lot of garbage in written form. The point is just that, all things being equal, written pieces are likelier than quickly-made videos to be of intellectual substance.
There’s also the fact that watching a video requires a much higher time commitment. A book or article is all laid out in front of the reader, and typically organized into units – chapters, sections and sub-sections, paragraphs, and so on. You can scan the whole and get a sense of what it covers and where, and thus see relatively quickly whether it is necessary to read the whole thing, which parts are relevant to your interests, whether certain topics that are not covered in one part are addressed in another, and so on. Videos are not like that. You pretty much have to watch the whole thing in order to know exactly what’s in it. And though a video is sometimes broken into segments, the brief descriptions of these are nowhere near as helpful as being able to scan ahead in a text and see exactly what is covered in each section or paragraph. On top of that, if you want to reply to such a video, you have to carefully transcribe any remarks you want to quote and comment on, which requires playing and replaying the same segments, and this also sucks up time.
Finally, such videos are typically made either by amateurs, or by people who, though they may have some academic training, spend far more time making videos and other online ephemera than doing the much harder work of producing written material that is publishable and has to get through the gauntlet of an editor or a referee. Hence the videos and other online ephemera are not popularizations of their more substantive work. The videos and online ephemera pretty much are their work. Naturally, this work is simply not going to be as substantive as that of someone who has an intellectual day job, as it were.
The bottom line is that engaging with what I am calling “the extended YouTube hot take” requires a high time investment with the promise of a low intellectual return. And I’m just not interested in that, which is why I don’t watch a lot of this stuff. That includes material of this type that is directed at things I’ve written. Over the years, readers have often asked me to reply to this or that video commenting on some book or article of mine. I rarely do it, because I’ve got too much else going on. There is, for example, always a ton of written material, much of it of high quality, that I need to get through in the course of working on whatever book project or academic article I’ve got going at the moment. To be sure, the occasional respite from that is welcome. But even then, it rarely seems to me worthwhile to (for example) spend two or three hours watching snarky videos some kid has made about an academic book that I spent years writing.
All the same, occasionally I’ll make an exception. That brings me to Michael Lofton, about whom I know very little other than that he appears to fancy himself an upholder of Catholic orthodoxy and devotes a lot of time to making videos of this kind. This week he posted responding to my recent Catholic World Report article It’s quite bad, in just the ways that “extended YouTube hot takes” tend to be bad. But on top of that, it’s bad in a special way that online Catholic content, in particular, tends to be bad these days. I refer to the kneejerk tendency of a great many Catholic commentators of all stripes to approach any topic having to do with Pope Francis in a Manichean, ideological manner. Too many of the pope’s critics will accept nothing but the most negative and apocalyptic interpretations of his every word and action. Too many of the pope’s defenders refuse to consider even the most measured and respectful criticism of him. Everything one side says is folded by the other side into a simplistic “good guys/bad guys” narrative. And if you plead for nuance, you will be accused by each side of “really” aiming subtly to do the work of the other. It’s tiresome, intellectually unserious, and deeply contrary to justice and charity. And while each side self-righteously thinks of itself as defending the Church, all they are really accomplishing is tearing it further apart.
How does this play out in Lofton’s case? Over the course of an hour, he works through my article line by line, suggesting early on to his listeners that there is something “weird” or “odd” about it and hinting darkly that it “serves an agenda.” And what agenda is that? By the end of the video, it is finally revealed that:
To entertain talk about suspense in the magisterium… I think is to prepare people to reject magisterial teaching… to prepare people to reject papal teaching authority… to use it as an excuse to ignore the papal magisterium.
To be sure, he immediately tries to cover his rear end by acknowledging that he “[doesn’t] know what [Feser’s] intentions are, specifically.” But he insists that “at least… some people” have this agenda, and is “left scratching [his] head” about exactly what my own intentions could be. The obvious insinuation – especially given all the heavy going throughout the video about how “weird” my article is – is that this is my agenda too and that I am being cagey about it. Thus does Lofton fold my article into the hackneyed narrative of a dark army of bogeymen seeking by hook or crook to undermine Pope Francis.
The insinuation is defamatory, and a travesty of what I wrote. What follows is intended to correct the record. I apologize in advance for the length of this post. Unfortunately, Lofton has a gift for packing ten pounds of error into a five pound bag, and it all has to be carefully and tediously unpacked. I also apologize in advance if I lose my temper here or there – something that has been very hard to avoid given the many hours I’ve now had to waste on this that could have been devoted to something of greater intrinsic value. I hope not to watch another YouTube hot take again for a long time.
My CWR article essentially has two halves, and Lofton badly distorts what I say in each one. In the first, I explain what some of Pope Francis’s critics mean when they claim that the Magisterium has been “suspended” during his pontificate up to this point. Lofton gives the impression that I am at least somewhat sympathetic with this thesis. But in fact, not only do I not endorse it, I explicitly reject and criticize it. In the second half of my article, I suggest that the remarks made by Pope Francis and Archbishop Fernandez upon the archbishop’s appointment as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) imply that the DDF, specifically, will to a large extent no longer exercise its traditional magisterial function. Lofton transforms this into the claim that the magisterium of the Church in general will from here on out be suspended – something I never said and would not say. He accomplishes this sleight-of-hand by reading portentous meanings I never intended into innocuous remarks, and especially into my use of the phrase “organ of the Magisterium.”
The “suspended Magisterium” thesis
Let’s consider each half of my article in turn. Those who posit a “suspended Magisterium” claim to get the idea from St. John Henry Newman, so I began my article by rehearsing some of the remarks Newman made about the behavior of the Church’s hierarchy during the Arian crisis. Lofton gives the impression that my comments somehow make stronger claims than Newman himself did about the failure of the bishops, and about the temporary lapse of Pope Liberius. That is false. I simply report Newman’s own position, and in particular the position he took on the matter after his conversion to Catholicism in .
Lofton claims that my remark about Liberius’s temporary agreement to an ambiguous formula is “in error,” and cites Bellarmine in his favor. He makes it sound as if I had flatly made a simple historical mistake here and/or gotten Newman’s views about Liberius wrong. But that is not the case. Newman himself claims that Liberius “sign[ed] a Eusebian formula at Sirmium,” and approvingly quotes remarks from saints Athanasius and Jerome to the effect that Liberius had under pressure temporarily “subscribed” to the heresy, and a claim by another authority that Liberius temporarily “[gave] up the Nicene formula.” Moreover, Bellarmine is neither infallible nor the final word among orthodox Catholic historians on the matter. That is not to deny that Bellarmine, Lofton, and others have the right to defend Liberius against this charge. That is not the point. The point is rather that the matter is controversial and Catholics are at liberty to take either position. Hence Lofton has no business claiming that I flatly made a historical “error” here. The most he is entitled to say is that reasonable people can disagree about the issue.
Lofton is also right to note that Newman’s remark about there being no “firm, unvarying, consistent testimony” for sixty years after Nicaea needs to be qualified. But Newman himself does qualify it, and nothing in what I said is affected by the qualification. In any event, I was not trying in my article to offer a detailed account of what happened during the Arian crisis, to defend Newman’s own account of it, or to draw momentous lessons from it. I was simply giving a brief summary in order to let readers know where this notion of a “suspended” Magisterium came from. So, it is misleading for Lofton to go on about it to the extent he does.
In a passing remark about the nature of the Magisterium, Lofton asserts that “there is a protection and assistance of the Holy Spirit to non-infallible teachings as well,” and that this is something I ought to address. If what Lofton has in mind here is the claim, which some have made, that even non-infallible exercises of the papal magisterium are somehow protected from error, then that that thesis is incoherent and not taught by the Church. (That is not say that such non-infallible teachings are not normally owed religious assent. They are owed it. But that is a different matter.)
Anyway, the main topic of the first half of my article is the claim that the Magisterium has up to now been “suspended” during Pope Francis’s pontificate. Again, I explicitly rejected this claim. Indeed, in the past, I have defended the authoritative and binding nature of Pope Francis’s magisterial acts even in cases where my fellow traditional Catholics have resisted it. For example, the CDF’s document (issued at the pope’s direction) on the moral liceity of Covid-19 vaccines – and, I will add, I took a considerable amount of grief from some fellow traditional Catholics for doing so. against the charge that he has departed from just war teaching. against the charge of heresy. those who have claimed that his election was not valid. It is true that, like many others, I have been critical of parts of Amoris Laetitia and of the pope’s revision to the Catechism. But that is not because I do not regard these as magisterial acts. Rather, while they are magisterial acts, they exhibit “deficiencies” of the kind that Donum Veritatis acknowledges can exist in non-infallible magisterial statements. Lofton would presumably disagree with that judgment, but the point is that my own objections do not rest on the claim that the pope has not exercised magisterial authority.
Lofton suggests that it is “weird” or “odd” that, when in my article I gave an example of Pope Francis’s magisterial teaching, I cited documents issued by the CDF under the pope’s authority. Why, he asks, did I not cite instead a document like Amoris? He suggests I have an “agenda” and insinuates that there is something suspect about the example. In particular, he seems to think it a ploy to try to reduce the papal magisterium to the CDF.
But there is nothing suspect about the example, and by no means do I reduce the papal magisterium to the CDF. For one thing, what I actually wrote is this:
For there clearly are cases where [Pope Francis] has exercised his magisterial authority – such as when, acting under papal authorization, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under its current prefect Cardinal Ladaria has issued various teaching documents.
As the words “such as” show, I was clearly saying that such CDF documents are examples of Pope Francis’s magisterium. Nowhere do I say or imply that they are the whole of it. For another thing, there is a reason why I chose that particular sort of example, and it has nothing to do with what Lofton’s fevered imagination supposes it to be. I wanted to pick examples that are as uncontroversial as possible, especially among the pope’s critics. Citing Amoris would not do for that purpose, not only because it has been widely criticized, but especially because there are those who (again, wrongly) claim that it is not magisterial. By contrast, some of the CDF documents issued under Cardinal Ladaria at the pope’s behest could not possibly be objected to by the pope’s critics – one example being affirming that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions. It is clearly intended to be magisterial, and not even the pope’s harshest critics could dispute its orthodoxy. Hence it is an ideal piece of evidence against the thesis that the Magisterium has in recent years been “suspended” under Francis – a thesis which, again, I was criticizing, not sympathizing with.
It is true that I also say that “because Pope Francis has persistently refused to answer [the] dubia, he can plausibly be said at least to that extent to have suspended the exercise of his Magisterium” (emphasis in the original). But Lofton reads into this remark exactly the opposite of what it is saying. He asks, shocked: ““What?! Pope Francis is teaching constantly! He hasn’t suspended the magisterium!” But I did not say that he has; indeed, I had just got done saying the opposite, and I immediately go on to say: “Again, though, it doesn’t follow that the ‘suspended Magisterium’ thesis is correct as a general description of Pope Francis’s pontificate up to now.”
What I meant by the remark Lofton expresses shock at should be obvious to any fair-minded reader. I was saying that even if one could maintain that Pope Francis has failed to exercise his magisterium in the specific case of not answering the dubia, it simply would not follow that his magisterium has been suspended beyond that – and, again, I gave specific examples of acts of Pope Francis that are magisterial in nature.
Lofton also, as it happens, goes on to claim that the pope has in fact answered at least four of the dubia, but that is irrelevant to the present point. For the present point is that even if he has failed to answer any of them, that is no grounds to think his magisterium has somehow been suspended beyond that particular example. Lofton’s problem is that he completely gets my intentions wrong in interpreting what I say about this example. He seems to think that I am citing the dubia controversy to lend plausibility to the “suspended Magisterium” thesis. No, what I was doing was citing it precisely to deny plausibility to the thesis. I was not saying: “Consider the dubia controversy – that’s pretty good evidence for the suspended Magisterium thesis.” Rather, I was saying: “Consider the dubia controversy – that’s very weak evidence for the thesis, because it does nothing to show that the pope has failed to exercise his magisterium beyond that one case.”
Organ of the Magisterium?
But what Lofton tries to make the most hay out of is my reference to the CDF (now the DDF) as an “organ of the Magisterium.” He treats this as if it were a bizarre claim or even a theological howler. First, he objects that DDF documents have no teaching authority on their own, but only when issued under papal approval – as if this were something I don’t know. But in fact I explicitly qualified my claim in just this way when I said that Pope Francis “has exercised his magisterial authority… when, acting under papal authorization, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under its current prefect Cardinal Ladaria has issued various teaching documents.” (Indeed, Lofton admits this later on in the video. Here’s a good example of the limitations of the “YouTube hot take” format. If, instead of his stream-of-consciousness commentary, Lofton had tried to put together a well thought-out written response, he would have caught this and avoided giving his audience the false impression that I had made some rookie mistake.)
Lofton even claims that the CDF/DDF “is not a magisterial organ” at all, and that in fact there are “only two organs of the magisterium, the pope and the college of bishops.” This makes it sound as if the phrase “organs of the Magisterium” has some precisely delineated technical meaning in Catholic theology, and that I misidentified what these well-defined “organs of the Magisterium” are. But neither of those things is true, and in fact it is Lofton who is using the term in an unusual way.
First of all, the phrase has no precise technical meaning or doctrinal significance, but is simply an expression that crops up from time to time in writing about the Church to refer to agencies through which the Church might speak or operate. And it is in fact often used in these contexts to refer to the CDF and other such bodies (as a little Googling will reveal to anyone ignorant of the fact). For example, in a Pontifical Biblical Commission , then-Cardinal Ratzinger noted that “Paul VI completely restructured the Biblical Commission so that it was no longer an organ of the Magisterium” (emphasis added). Note that this entails that the Biblical Commission once was an “organ of the Magisterium” – which suffices to falsify Lofton’s claim that the term is used to refer only to the pope and college of bishops. (Of course, the CDF/DDF and other such bodies are magisterial only insofar as they operate at the pope’s or bishops’ behest. But I never denied that, and in fact implied it when I spoke of the CDF “acting under papal authorization.”)
Now, in my article, I also referred to the CDF/DDF as “the main magisterial organ of the Church,” and Lofton reacts as if this were somehow especially suspect. Indeed, he calls it a “jaw-dropping error” and reiterates his claim that “it’s not an organ, it’s inappropriate to call it an organ, and… it’s not the primary mode or means by which the pope teaches.” But my remark is only an “error” (jaw-dropping or otherwise) if one understands “organ” in Lofton’s idiosyncratic way. Certainly it is perfectly innocent if one reads “organ” in the sense in which I meant it. The Church is a body with the pope as its visible head. The “organs” of the Church, as I was using the term, are those agencies through which the pope and the Church act, just as a human being acts by using organs such as the tongue (to speak) and the hand (to manipulate objects). An office like the Dicastery of Divine Worship is the “organ” or agency through which the pope and the Church he heads handle liturgical matters. And the DDF is that “organ” or agency through which the pope and the Church he heads handle doctrinal matters, specifically. As I was using the term, it wouldn’t make sense to call the pope himself an “organ,” because, again, the “organs” I had in mind are the agencies the pope works through. It also wouldn’t make sense to call other modes by which the pope teaches – encyclicals, for example, or sermons – “organs” of the Church, for they are not agencies in the sense in which the DDF is an agency. Issuing an encyclical or giving a sermon is an action that the pope carries out, not an “organ.”
When properly understood, then, my remark that the DDF is “the main magisterial organ of the Church” is perfectly innocuous. If Lofton or anyone else wants to argue for using the expression “organ” in some other way, that’s fine. But he has no business accusing me of an “error,” jaw-dropping or otherwise. Again, my use of the expression is in line with common usage, and the term has, in any event, no precise technical or doctrinal meaning that would render objectionable my description of the DDF as an “organ” or “the main organ” of the Magisterium. Certainly, Lofton has no business drawing from my remarks an absurd inference to the effect that I am trying to reduce the entire Magisterium of the Church to whatever documents the DDF happens to issue. This is a sheer fantasy on Lofton’s part, and not anything I either said or implied.
Archbishop Fernandez and the DDF
Let’s turn finally to what I said in my article about Archbishop Fernandez’s appointment as Prefect of the DDF. My claim was quite precise. I said that the pope’s and the archbishop’s remarks implied that the DDF would largely no longer be exercising its traditional magisterial functions. Each of the words and phrases italicized here is crucial, and they highlight aspects of my remarks that Lofton ignores in order to make his inflammatory charges.
First, I spoke only of the DDF. I did not say that the remarks in question implied that the pope or the Church as a whole would cease exercising their magisterial functions. It’s true that in the second to last sentence in my article, I quoted Newman’s phrase “temporary suspense of the functions of the ‘Ecclesia docens,’” in order to wrap up the discussion by tying it into the reference to Newman with which the article began. Read in isolation, one might suppose from that one sentence that I was speaking about the Church as a whole. But the larger context makes it clear that that is not what I meant. I was clearly referring to the “temporary suspense” of the exercise of the DDF’s traditional function within the Church, specifically.
Second, I did not say that the archbishop’s and pope’s remarks implied that the DDF (much less the pope or Church as a whole) would lose its magisterial function. I said explicitly that what was in question was the exercise of that function. Naturally, even if the DDF did stop exercising that function, it could take up its exercise again immediately any time the pope wanted it to. Hence the point is not nearly as radical as Lofton implies. Third, even then I explicitly said that the archbishop’s and pope’s remarks implied only that the DDF would largely no longer be exercising its traditional magisterial function – largely, not entirely. Lofton says that the pope’s and the archbishop’s remarks make it clear that the DDF would still be teaching, as if this were something I denied. But I did not deny it. On the contrary, I quoted those remarks myself, and – again – claimed only that the remarks implied a partial refraining from the exercise of the teaching function, not a complete refraining.
Finally, I was not putting forward any bold thesis about the nature of the Magisterium, or furthering an “agenda” to “prepare people to reject magisterial teaching,” or whatever else Lofton fantasizes might be my motivation. I was simply noting the logical implications of what the pope and the archbishop themselves had said. And I did so tentatively, explicitly remarking that “it is possible that the remarks will be clarified and qualified after Archbishop Fernandez takes office.”
It is true that I went on to indicate that I doubted such a qualification would be forthcoming. I was definitely wrong about that, because as it happens, the archbishop issued some clarifying remarks only a few days later, as I noted in . And his latest remarks essentially nullify the implications of his earlier remarks. But as I argue in the follow-up article, that makes the significance of the earlier remarks less clear, not more. The whole episode amounts to yet another instance of a pattern of action exhibited by the pope and his subordinates throughout his pontificate – a tendency to generate needless confusion and controversy by failing to speak with precision.
Lofton himself halfway admits this. Speaking of Francis’s magisterium in general, Lofton says: “I would like to see more clarification from Pope Francis in some cases.” Of the pope’s letter announcing Archbishop Fernandez’s appointment, Lofton admits: “I have some criticisms of the letter.” Specifically, with respect to the goals of upholding orthodoxy while allowing for different ways of expressing the Faith, Lofton acknowledges that the pope regrettably seems “to kind of pit these things against each other.” In that case, though, it is intellectually dishonest for Lofton to insinuate that when I and others have criticized the pope’s and the archbishop’s recent remarks, this criticism must reflect some suspect “agenda.”
There is one more concession that Lofton makes that is extremely important, and the significance of which he and other self-appointed defenders of Pope Francis routinely overlook. Commenting on Archbishop Fernandez’s remarks about the “persecution” some theologians suffered from the CDF around the time of Vatican II, Lofton says:
There were things that the Second Vatican Council taught that ended up vindicating some of the people that… previously… [had] a negative judgment against them [by the Holy Office]… Over and over and over, the Holy Office did render negative judgments about people who were later on vindicated… That’s a fact, and it’s a fact we see often.
End quote. For those unfamiliar with the details of this period of Church history, what Lofton is referring to is the situation of thinkers commonly classified as part of the nouvelle théologie (“new theology”) movement – Henri Bouillard, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, and many others. These writers were highly critical of, and engaged in a sustained controversy with, the Neo-Scholastic Thomists who represented the mainstream of Catholic theology in the decades prior to Vatican II. Some of them were considered suspect by the CDF at the time, and Pope Pius XII’s was in part a correction of nouvelle théologie excesses. (For example, Pius’s famous criticism of those who “destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order” is widely understood to be a shot across de Lubac’s bow.) These thinkers had to “fly under the radar,” as it were, until the arrival of a more friendly pontificate. With Vatican II, they were rehabilitated. Some of them even became cardinals, and Ratzinger, of course, became pope.
The irony here is many of these thinkers are heroes to Pope Francis’s most ardent defenders – who nevertheless condemn the pope’s critics for doing exactly what the nouvelle théologie writers did! They can’t have it both ways. If it was legitimate for nouvelle théologie writers respectfully to criticize the shortcomings they claimed to see in the Magisterium of their day, then it cannot be denied that it can be legitimate respectfully to criticize the shortcomings some see in Pope Francis’s magisterium. If the nouvelle théologie writers shouldn’t be dismissed en masse as “dissenters,” then it is not fair to dismiss Pope Francis’s critics en masse as “dissenters.”
More to the present point, if Lofton is willing to acknowledge the good will of the nouvelle théologie writers and the soundness of some of their views, despite their having been at odds with the Magisterium of their day, then justice and charity require him to afford the same courtesy to the sober and respectful critics of Pope Francis. For example, he should refrain from insinuating that they have an “agenda” of “prepar[ing] people to reject papal teaching authority.”
One final comment. Apparently worried that his video was insufficiently condescending, Lofton adds a little trash talk in the comments section, remarking: “I think [Feser] needs to stick to his lane which is philosophy.”
Well, as the Scholastics and the pre-Vatican II popes who commended Scholasticism emphasized, training in philosophy is a prerequisite to doing theology well. The reason is that it disciplines the intellect, teaching one to use words precisely, to make careful conceptual distinctions, to reason with logical exactness, and to evaluate texts and arguments with caution and charity.
Lofton’s response to my article provides evidence that he is lacking in these capacities. Hence I’d suggest that he might consider sticking to his own lane, which is making facile YouTube videos – but about topics other than theology, which requires levels of rigor and charity that he appears to lack.
UPDATE 7/25: A follow-up comment on the controversy this article generated on Twitter and YouTube.