Six Criticisms of Father Z.

Father John Zuhlsdorf writes a popular blog: Fr. Z.’s Blog — “Clear, straight commentary on Catholic issues, liturgy and life.” He is a faithful Roman Catholic priest, in good standing and active in his priestly ministry. Without doubt, he has helped many souls through the Sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel. His blog, in particular, has some good articles on a range of topics useful to the Catholic laity.

Even so, in this post, I offer a few criticisms of Fr. Z., especially concerning his blog.

1. Finances

It is quite noticeable that Fr. Z. frequently travels. He posts photos of his travels on the blog, including a “my view for a while” photo inside the airplane. He also frequently posts photos of his meals, as when he is traveling and dining at a restaurant.

Most priests do not travel so much. They have parishes to serve. Travel, especially to other nations, is also somewhat expensive. Most priests can’t afford to travel much. But Fr. Z. appears to have more money than many priests.

Through his popular blog, Fr. Z. requests and receives regular (automatic) monthly donations. A person signs up to donate a sum of money ($5, $10, $25, or more), every month on a particular day of the month. I read a post on his blog here, a while ago, in which he notes that some days of the month have only a few persons donating. He then updated the post to indicate that 25 more persons had (soon after) signed up for that particular day, for a monthly donation, in addition to the 4 who had done so previously (so 29 total).

What is the average daily donation amount per person? Let’s suppose it is a low $10. And how many persons sign up per day, for a monthly donation? Let’s use the above value of 29 persons, as an average. That’s $290/day times 30 days times 12 months = $104,400.00 in donations by readers of his blog. Now that value is only a rough estimate. But it could conceivably be higher. If the average daily donation is $20 times 30 persons times 30 days times 12 months, the total yearly would be $216,000.00.

Does he receive any money from his diocese in the U.S. (though he seems to be incardinated in a diocese in Italy)? In this post from a few years ago, he says No.

Now I don’t know what he does with that money, except that he does travel and dine out frequently. Perhaps he uses the money wisely and generously. But it is a problem when a priest has an income that is more than sufficient to meet his needs, apart from his work in any diocese. He can easily pick up and leave, if he wishes. The authority of the diocese over him is lessened, at least in the practical sense.

2. Following

But the above financial concerns would not be much of a problem, if not for the large following that Fr. Z. has online. He ministers to tens of thousands of persons daily via his blog posts. And they are not merely readers. Many see themselves as his supporters. He is a priest to them, not merely a blog author. They are his flock, and he is their shepherd.

The combination of having finances and a group of supporters entirely independent of any parish or diocese is problematic. If Fr. Z. has a conflict with the Bishop of his diocese, he is not at all dependent on the diocese for financial support nor to assign him to a flock. He has developed his own inter-diocesan virtual parish, which does not have much oversight from any Bishop.

What will happen if Pope Francis approves of women deacons? Or what if Pope Francis teaches some doctrine contrary to the understanding of Fr. Z. and his supporters? Fr. Z. has plenty of supporters and money, apart from any Bishop or diocese. And he has frequently spoken about Pope Francis in a condescending manner, as if he, a lowly priest, had the role to judge and correct the Pope, and as if the Supreme Pontiff had no role to teach and correct Fr. Z. (or any of the traditionalists). The danger is that he will break away from the Pope and the Church.

Suppose, instead, that Fr. Z. takes the side of the Pope on some controversial issue, contrary to the majority opinion among traditionalists. He would quickly lose the financial and moral support of most of his readers. There would be pressure on him to conform to the traditionalist view, and to reject, in this hypothetical, the papal teaching.

Not a good situation, either way. It reminds me of the problem faced by the Church in past centuries, that of itinerant preachers, who traveled from diocese to diocese, with no oversight from Bishops, preaching whatever version of the Gospel pleased them, with the financial and moral support of their listeners.

3. Ridicule of the Left

I’m not a traditionalist Catholic, but I’m fairly conservative. Even so, it is appalling to read, on a regular basis on Fr. Z.’s blog, his effortless ridicule of liberal Catholics. Granted, they are often making some kind of mistake in discipline or doctrine. But when did Jesus teach us to correct others by ridiculing them? If a fellow Catholic is making a mistake, correct him by explaining the mistake in a charitable manner.

He calls the National Catholic Reporter the “Fishwrap”. His readers often use the same expression in comments on his blog. When speaking of the open theological question of whether the Church has the authority to ordain women deacons, he uses the disrespectful term “deaconettes”. Instead, he should be presenting his theological argument on the question. And when speaking of the idea of women priests or women who unfortunately support abortion, he uses the term “Wymyn. Instead, he should be presenting theological arguments against these grave errors.

In general, when speaking of liberal Catholics, on any points of doctrine or discipline with which he disagrees, he is flippant, derisive, and sometimes contemptuous. I’ve post on this bad behavior by Fr. Z. before.

Then there is the issue of scandal. Tens of thousands of Catholics read Fr. Z.’s blog. And so his condescending and contemptuous attitude toward those who disagree with the traditionalist point of view affects their minds, hearts, and souls. This harm is clearly seen in the many comments, permitted after the moderation process on the blog, which join with Fr. Z. in this type of un-Christ-like behavior toward persons who, at worst need charitable correction, and at best merely have a different point of view on discipline or liturgical form or on an open question of doctrine.

Do Catholics on the left deserve mistreatment because they are supposedly wrong whenever they disagree with the conservative or traditionalist point of view? No. They should be corrected with a theological argument or with pastoral exhortation. And no one should assume that the correct answer on any question of doctrine or discipline is always conservative, or always liberal, or always consonant with a particular subculture within the Church.

4. Support for the SSPX

The contrast between the way that Fr. Z. treats liberal Catholics and the way that he treats the schismatic and heretical group called SSPX is stark. The priests and Bishops of the SSPX have rejected the Second Vatican Council and have rejected many magisterial teachings since then, and have departed formally from communion with the Pope and the body of Bishops. Yet Fr. Z. is much more mild toward the SSPX than towards liberal Catholics who remain in communion with the Pope.

Fr. Z. is critical of the SSPX, to some extent. But he declines to admit that they are automatically excommunicated (latae sententiae) because of their rejection of Papal and Conciliar authority (formal schism) and their rejection of numerous teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium (e.g. that the Church is indefectible). It seems he would readily welcome them back to the Church, even if they do not repent from their sins of formal heresy and formal schism, as well as their sin of arrogantly presuming that the successive Popes and the body of Bishops since Vatican II have all gone astray, while only their little group has remained faithful.

I don’t see any way that the SSPX can return to communion with the one true Church, without repentance and confession of their grave sins of schism and heresy and arrogance. And they are blatantly publicly unrepentant. Yet they receive Communion. How is it that persons who commit the manifest grave sins of schism and heresy are considered worthy to receive?

5. Condescension toward the Supreme Pontiff

The way that Fr. Z. speaks about Pope Francis is scandalous and shameful. He does not see the Supreme Pontiff of the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church has having the role to teach or correct him. He assumes that, whenever he and the Vicar of Christ disagree on a matter of discipline or doctrine, he cannot possibly be wrong and the Teacher of the Universal Church cannot possibly be right.

See my post: Fr. Z. profits by ridiculing Pope Francis.

But this is also a common error among many traditionalists. They assume that the traditionalist point of view is utterly infallible on doctrine and discipline. They consider that the Magisterium is beneath them, and that they have the divine role to judge and correct the Magisterium itself. In truth, the Church does not claim that all magisterial teachings are infallible, nor that decisions on discipline are infallible. But many traditionalists tacitly assume that their own subculture within the Church is infallible on every point of doctrine and discipline — it is as if they have a gift of infallibility which exceeds that of the Church.

It is a scandal when Fr. Z. speaks about Pope Francis with condescension. If Pope Francis decides to teach that the Church does have the authority to ordain women deacons, how will Fr. Z. respond? His every word about Pope Francis indicates that he will not accept teaching or correction from the Shepherd of the Universal Church. But even if he does accept the teaching, his bad example of treating the Pope as if he were incompetent and untrustworthy — whenever the Pope’s words depart from the traditionalist point of view — will lead some of his readers to depart from communion with the Pope.

6. Written theology

Does Fr. John Zuhlsdorf have a Ph.D.? I can’t find any information on that point. He was in a Ph.D. program, at some point in time.

In any case, if Fr. Z. has such a profound understanding of Catholic teaching that he should be the judge over Synods and Popes, then where is his written theology? If he understands the errors that so many other Catholics are supposedly making in their view of the faith, where is his theological argument correcting them? He should write and publish books of theology, setting his theological arguments before the faithful, for their edification and discussion. If Fr. Z. understands the Faith better than the Pope and better than some Cardinals and Bishops, why hasn’t he published anything?

His blog posts do not contain much by way of theological argument. Perhaps he feels that a blog is not the best place for a formal scholarly argument. Fine. But how can he rail against so many Catholics, who supposedly error so much, and treat the Pope with such condescension, without presenting his case?

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to Six Criticisms of Father Z.

  1. Ellen H says:

    I am so happy that you have addressed these issues about Father Z. I keep wondering about whether he actually has a Bishop or not – he is now, I think, living in Madison Wisconsin. Why do no clergy say/write anything so that the faithful have a handle on how outlandish he is ???? I agree that he is a very divisive figure.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I believe he is incardinated in Italy, but assigned to the diocese in Madison. So two Bishops have some authority over him. The issue is that priests who have a large following online are rather independent. I suppose there are pros and cons to that situation.

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