‘Protect the Pope’ was a blog established in 2010 by the Rev’d Nick Donnelly, a kindly, humble and intelligent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church (and the second-nicest Catholic in the Twittersphere). His blog soon became one of the most important go-to Romish blogs in the UK (if not the world), with a million hits a year from people eager to read his incisive commentary and robust defence of Roman Catholic orthodoxy against the “lies, half-truths and misrepresentations of a coalition of aggressive secularists, atheists and homosexual activists” of the left-liberal intelligentsia (mainly media), who weren’t overly fond of Pope Benedict XVI for various reasons.
“I set up Protect the Pope to defend Benedict XVI during his state visit to the UK,” Nick Donnelly tweeted earlier this week. “Vicious attacks in the media. Now the media love Francis.”
And the media loves Pope Francis mainly because he is not as ‘rigid‘ as Pope Benedict XVI: “@Pontifex appointing pro-abortion/euthanasia advocates to the Pontifical Academy for Life was the last straw for me. Not Catholic”, Deacon Nick explained, before adding rather mournfully: “I hoped for the best, but my worst fears for the Church are being realized. He is destroying the Catholic nature of the Church”
This destruction, Deacon Nick avers, is evidenced in the appointment of the pro-choice moral theologian Professor Nigel Biggar to the Pontificia Academia pro Vita. What on earth is a pro-abortion Anglican doing on a body which was founded with the purpose of promoting and defending human life?
And so ‘Protect the Pope’ has morphed into ‘Protect the Faith’, just to dispel any notion that ‘Protect the Pope’ was actually protecting the Pope – as opposed to protecting the Pope Emeritus, which ‘Protect the Pope’ was established to do. And ‘Protect the Pope Emeritus’ is a bit of a clumsy name for a blog (and Twitter handle), so ‘Protect the Faith’ it must be, because the cardinals and bishops obviously aren’t doing it.
There’s quite a bit of backbiting (not to say backstabbing) in the Roman Catholic Church at the moment, principally down to the Francis-Benedict hermeneutic of discontinuity (or the very easy perception of such). Intra-ecclesial division is nothing new, of course: there has been a liberal-traditional fissure in the Roman Catholic Church at least since the Second Vatican Council, and arguably those consultations, declarations and decrees were an attempt to codify a response to preexisting divisions on the nature of Christ and the Church and the application of Christian theology in the (post-)modern world. The Church has always been divided (1Cor 1:12; 3:4), but the Benedict-Francis sectarianism seems to be heading inexorably toward schism.
Tweets and blog homilies abound referring to Francis quite brazenly as the Antipope who must resign for the good of the Church. These critics aren’t Protestants (well, technically, they are, by definition) but devout Roman Catholics (or a bit more devout than the Pope). There are plots and rumours of plots to depose the Pontiff; accounts of a pope utterly despised by his own clergy; tales of infighting and factionalism which is escalating to ecclesial civil war. Every utterance made by the Pope Emeritus is seized upon by traditionalists as the word of the ‘true’ Pope or the ‘real’ Pope – the one they wish had never resigned and inflicted this disastrous Papacy on the world. Did Benedict write about the “dictatorship of the zeitgeist“? He must mean the befuddled Francis. Did he mention a capsizing boat? That must be the Holy Mother Church under the heretic Francis. Many of the faithful believe that the Petrine ministry still properly resides with Benedict: God will preserve the Magisterium through him. The charisms of indefectibility and infallibility cannot be defectible or fallible, and Francis is seemingly a thousand errors and wrongs all rolled into one.
Rome seems to have become the seat of the Antichrist, or at least one of many antichrists (1Jn 2:18). And so ‘Protect the Pope’ must die in order that the Rev’d Nick Donnelly may preach Catholic truth and distinguish himself from the Pope who does not preach anything like that truth. Of course, Pope Francis would say to Deacon Nick that he is being “too rigid” in his understanding of doctrine; that he lacks mercy, grace and goodness. This upstart deacon is trying to be “more Papist than the Pope“, as the Pope once accused those Catholics who put doctrinal phariseeism before the work of the Holy Spirit.
Deacon Nick would take it on the chin, and respond along the lines of: “When the pope (lower-case) appoints pro-abortion/euthanasia advocates as advisers and no cardinal or bishop protests, I have to speak out, come what may.” The Spirit of the Lord is upon him, you see. He might add: “Also, it’s very easy nowadays to be more Catholic than the pope (lower case): you just have to uphold the doctrines contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
And that would be his rationale in two tweets.
Nick Donnelly is no stranger to disputation, occasionally correcting, rebuking and exhorting ‘with all longsuffering and doctrine‘ (2Tim 4:2). And in his ministry he has corrected and rebuked eminent Roman Catholic theologians, quite a few bishops and the odd cardinal. But on 2nd March 2014 his ‘Protect the Pope’ blog fell silent.
On 7th March of that year, his wife posted an explanation for this absence: “Nick has been asked to observe a period of prayer and reflection.” She did not specify why this reflection was being observed or by whom it had been requested. But the Diocese of Lancaster (ie Bishop Michael Campbell) helpfully issued a swift statement to the press, freely disclosing the Bishop to be the initiator of the request. It read:
After learning that a notice had been placed upon the Protect the Pope website on 7 March saying: ‘Deacon Nick stands down from Protect the Pope for a period of prayer and reflection’ the Bishop’s Office at the Diocese of Lancaster was able to confirm that Bishop Campbell had recently requested Deacon Nick Donnelly to voluntarily pause from placing new posts on the Protect the Pope site.
Meanwhile, it was also confirmed that the Bishop asked Deacon Nick to use this pause to enter into a period of prayer and reflection on the duties involved for ordained bloggers/website administrators to truth, charity and unity in the Church.
Deacon Nick has agreed to the Bishop’s request at this time.
It was interesting phraseology: Deacon Nick was “requested…to voluntarily pause” from writing his blog. What was one to infer from this other than that Deacon Nick had been somehow failing to fulfil his diaconal duties or had been otherwise deficient, disobedient or unfaithful to his church’s teaching?
This “period of prayer and reflection” was manifestly nothing of the sort: the “request” carried more than a whiff of absolutist clericalism; an enforced disciplinary censorship imposed upon the Deacon who had presumed to defend the Pope (ie the embodiment of Roman Catholic orthodoxy) against the more liberal winds blowing through the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBEW). It was even more disconcerting when one considers that a conversation between a bishop and a member of his clergy remains, by convention, totally confidential: while the Diocese was happily issuing its defensive press releases, Deacon Nick was faithfully Trappist, having evidently been given no dispensation to speak or write about any conversations he may or may not have been having with his Bishop.
Filling the void – as nature requires – a number of interesting explanations about the reasons for the Bishop’s censoriousness surfaced. The Tablet stated: “Protect the Pope… regularly criticised groups and individual bishops – including Cardinal Vincent Nichols – for being at odds with church teaching on issues such as homosexuality, women’s ordination, contraception and abortion. It is understood that concerns about the site had been raised with Bishop Campbell by fellow members of the English and Welsh hierarchy.”
Fr Z, who runs the popular eponymous US blog, said: “I, for one, can imagine that a lot of pressure was exerted on the Bishop of Lancaster to have gone to such an extreme as to command a cleric under his charge not to think aloud in public.”
And Fr Tim Finigan of The Hermeneutic of Continuity wrote: “I think that it is no great secret that Catholic blogs are indeed a frequent topic of conversation at the meetings of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.”
It appeared, then, that Deacon Nick Donnelly was just a bit too Catholic for the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. For as long as Pope Benedict XVI sat upon St Peter’s Throne issuing the occasional motu proprio favouring the old paths (Jer 6:16), Deacon Nick’s commitment to immutable truths and infallible moral law were tolerated, not least because they chimed with the Vatican under Benedict, if not quite with the CBEW. But under Francis, the traditionalists appear to be on the retreat: they are sidelined or censored while those progressive Roman Catholics who advocate a more tolerant approach to priestly celibacy, same-sex unions, abortion or divorce and re-marriage are not merely tolerated but actively promoted.
Benedict XVI was a Catholic Herald kind of pope; Francis inclines toward The Tablet. Or at least that’s how it appears. Certainly, the Diocese of Lancaster isn’t averse to promoting the latter on its website, giving high profile coverage to liberal bishops who are calling for a “radical re-examination of human sexuality”, while downplaying (/ignoring) the traditional teaching.
For Deacon Nick, such a radical re-examination is unnecessary, unholy and un-Catholic. Indeed, for him it amounts to apostasy: such teachings do not ‘develop’ through synodical debate and legislative resolution, for that would incline toward the more heterodox Anglican view. No, if the Magisterium is infallible, its teaching must be protected and the Deposit of Faith defended. Dissenting bishops and cardinals must be called out, corrected and rebuked using Scripture and referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Those who do not repent ought to be excommunicated.
But it was Deacon Nick who was “requested” to “prayerfully reflect”.
The Catholic Herald wrote that it is impractical for bishops to seek to “censor the blogosphere”, not least because this sort of medieval inquisitorial heavy-handedness has a tendency to backfire in this fragmented digital age. Indeed, a perplexed (if not deeply upset) Mrs Donnelly reluctantly assumed the role of protecting the Pope during her husband’s voluntary-mandatory period of reflection. They might have muzzled the Deacon with appeals to lofty episcopal authority, but it’s nigh impossible to censor the new media altogether. When Bishop Michael wrote demanding that no one post on ‘Protect the Pope’, she immediately stopped out of respect for his office.
Deacon Nick was tolerated (just about) by what may be termed the ‘protestant’ bishops of the Roman Catholic Church for as long as Benedict reigned. Since his abdication, the liberals have been doing what liberals, clerical or civil, always do – silencing the opposition and using the levers of the institution to destroy it.
The Church needs more prophetic blogging watchmen like Deacon Nick Donnelly, exposing hypocrisy, challenging double standards and shining a light into its mysterious workings and often impenetrable darkness. And the Church needs more bishops like Michael Campbell who will exhort the faithful into long periods of prayer and reflection, for ‘Protect the Faith’ is the undoubted fruit of this profound reflection. Michael Campbell’s request was for Nick Donnelly “to voluntarily pause from placing new posts on the Protect the Pope site”.
That leaves him free to post to his heart’s content (as the Holy Spirit leads) on a new ‘Protect the Faith’ site. Laudate Dominum!