Thomas Peters is the owner of the popular Catholic insider blog American Papist (www.americanpapist.com/blog.html), which recently received its two millionth visitor. Peters has attracted a large audience by regularly giving readers smart, quick news and analysis of all things Catholic: from papal appointments to scandals to new ministries. Peters talked with CWR in March about blogging, Notre Dame, Barack Obama, and the “Papist Picture of the Day.”
CWR: The title of your blog is interesting. Many Catholics would not use the term “papist” to describe themselves, or would do so half jokingly. You provide an actual definition for readers. (“n. A Catholic who is a strong advocate of the papacy.”) Are you trying to rehabilitate the term?
Thomas Peters: I’m not necessarily trying to rehabilitate the term, I’m trying to rehabilitate the idea that following the pope is, in the final analysis, a really good idea. “Papist” is, of course, historically a term of derision used against Catholics. Using the term to describe myself is both a way to send a clear message about who I am, and it challenges the world to confront and (ultimately, I pray) discard the anti-Catholicism that has dogged the Church, particularly since the Enlightenment. Give us a second look—we’re nice people.
CWR: Why do you blog? What do you hope to accomplish with your website?
Peters: I blog because the topics I cover interest me, and people tell me that it’s useful to them. My set of goals for American Papist has developed over time as my circumstances have changed and its popularity has increased. I hope American Papist is a service to the Church, and specifically to Catholics in America.
I don’t necessarily have a plan for where it’s going to go next, but whatever decisions I’ve made so far, in general, seem to have been for the good. I’ve tried to embrace the flexibility of the blog format that lets me go where the story is, and change course quickly to focus on something that’s important at the moment. Long-term I think I’ve retained readers because of focusing on highly important stories, providing reliable commentary that is hopefully at least a tad more informed, and well, the Papist Picture of the Day seems to keep people smiling.
CWR: Who is more photogenic: John Paul II or Benedict XVI?
Peters: In all fairness to Papa Benny, I think JPII was more photogenic. His acting experience made him more aware of the camera and I think he’d love to see how Catholics have taken to using new media to spread his New Evangelization. Papa Benny looks best as Cardinal Ratzinger with a beer stein in his hand—there are many such photos circulating on the Internet.
CWR: Church scandals are a frequent subject at American Papist. One writer who was upset with your coverage of the Legionaries of Christ accused you of practicing not “Catholic journalism” but “Catholic punk.”
Peters: There is always a danger toward sensationalism in reporting, and especially the reporting of scandal. I think mainstream journalism—and especially blogs—are especially prey to this, but Catholics are called to a higher standard.
I would say, as an aside, that the majority of the criticism I’ve received for my reporting of various scandals comes from those with some sort of personal ties to them. You can always tell when you’ve hit a nerve, because the intensity of backlash is of a very different kind and higher level than simple disagreement in perspective. It takes a great deal of experience to report a volatile story fairly, and it’s something I’ve had to learn quickly as American Papist’s readership—and correspondingly, responsibility to the public—has multiplied so rapidly.
Luckily there are two built-in critique avenues available to a blogger: I have open comments boxes where people are free to (charitably) disagree with me, and I post my email publicly.
I make a careful effort to listen to criticism but only if I’m presented with an argument. Shouting never convinces anyone, and neither does ALL CAPS. I do think truth is fundamentally at the service of the Church and her members, so that’s my guiding light when it comes to how I report a story.
CWR: What got you started blogging?
Peters: I had done some social-networking type journals before. I was a literature major in college and like writing, plus I’m a “newsie.” I found I was emailing people stories I thought were interesting, and some of them suggested starting a blog, probably because they were annoyed by my emails. At that point I realized if I wanted people to read my stuff I’d have to make it interesting and accessible.
I took a lot of cues from popular Catholic bloggers at the time in terms of finding sources, but soon realized that no one was presenting quite the take on things that I wanted to supply. It was one of those situations where I thought, “Someone should be doing this, and until they start, I’ll do it in the meantime.” I wanted to write a blog that friends my age and with similar interests would want to read. One of my measures of blog success is if I find I can be writing a story, and seamlessly transition into a conversation with a friend about it later that day. Blogging for me is a high-level conversation, just online.
CWR: What do you think of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama to deliver the commencement address?
Peters: I have a lot to say about the Notre Dame invitation. Catholic education in America is of intense interest to me, having gone to a Catholic college and two Catholic graduate schools. Plus it’s a small Catholic world and an even smaller Catholic academic world, so I have friends at most of these institutions.
While the signs in the past few years have been encouraging when it comes to Notre Dame, I see Father Jenkins’ invitation of President Obama as a scandalous step backward when it comes to Catholic institutions providing a distinctive voice in the public discourse and challenging secular society to uphold fundamental human goods like the right to life.
CWR: What do you think about the calls to rescind Obama’s invitation to speak?
Peters: I think people have to be careful what they demand after they decide that they don’t like the fact that Obama has been invited. As I said in my first sustained coverage of the story, I don’t see a way that Notre Dame can realistically dis-invite a sitting president once they have invited him. At minimum I think the university should honor its claim that it invited the president to promote dialogue.
I’d like to see them take another step and provide a challenging critique of his record on issues of fundamental importance to Catholics. I think they also should seriously re-examine how they interact with the culture on important issues of the day. This whole situation makes it way too easy to conclude that the administration of Notre Dame weighs their success not by their fidelity to the teachings of Christ and his Church, but by their incorporation into the mainstream of secularizing America.
CWR: The Notre Dame flap wasn’t the only example of a prestigious Catholic institution recently lending its clout to pro-choice politicians. For instance, you wrote about the fact that the Knights of Malta were about to induct former Washington, DC Mayor Anthony Williams. Why?
Peters: Again, I think we’re witnessing the gradual erosion of Catholic institutions in the US. This sort of thing is already far more advanced in Europe, and it’s a wonder that Catholic institutions in America have retained their integrity thus far.
We have to fight to preserve this, and I think public accountability—through blogs and new media—is an excellent way to do this. We also have to be aware of our audience when we call these Catholic institutions to task, otherwise regardless of the outcome, the media will continue to perpetuate these harmful stereotypes of what it means to be a convicted Catholic today.
CWR: One of the things that differentiates your blog from many progressive Catholic blogs is that you write about both threats from within the Church (scandals) and threats from without. A recent American Papist story had to do with the Connecticut legislature. Tell us about that.
Peters: I think it was Mark Shea whom I first heard call Catholic Internet tipsters his “web elves.” They do yeoman’s work in keeping me and other “uberbloggers” up to date on what’s happening around the country and in the Church. Most of these people are regular Catholic Joe’s and Joelle’s who read their local paper, but there are also many “involved” folks who keep me up to speed.
I heard about the Connecticut situation from Catholics in the Connecticut pews, from people who work at Catholic organizations and parishes, and from some of the “players” on the Catholic side of things. From what I understand, the legislators who introduced it have a vendetta against the Church—because of her public resistance to homosexual marriage—and tried to sneak through the Connecticut Congress this bill that would essentially deny bishops and priests their right to administer parish finances. The whole idea was absurd because their stated reason for the legislation (fraud by a couple Catholic priests) was actually a situation in which the Church was the victim of robbery. No legislation should punish the victim in a robbery, and the bill was blatantly unconstitutional as well.
But the difference this time around was that Catholic blogs (humbly, American Papist played a big part) and Bishop Lori (who is a real firebrand despite his soft-spoken way) spearheaded a concerted public protest. I think anti- Catholic legislators will think twice before they try something like that again.
CWR: Do you expect these sorts of attacks to multiply in the future?
Peters: Yes, it will happen again, so I’m proud to see how willing Catholics of all walks of life are to defend the Church when she comes under attack. The Church becomes a sign of ever greater contradiction in a world that is trying to avoid God and the good news announced by his Son. It’s my little prayer that a few people might hear that good news by stumbling across American Papist. So spread the word.