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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Pro-Life “Manichaeism” and the Mark Shea Intellectual Tradition

By:   Tom Riley
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Pro-Life “Manichaeism” and the Mark Shea Intellectual Tradition

Pseudo-Catholic blog bloviator Mark Shea used to pretend that he was pro-life on the abortion issue, but the pretense has worn increasingly thin in recent years.  Shea revels in expressing his detestation of the pro-life movement.  His clarity on this point, as on so few others, has become a matter of dollars instead of sense to him.  His current blog – “Stumbling toward Heaven,” a title ripped off from an old book issued by Our Sunday Visitor – attracts exclusively a leftist set of nominal Catholics.  And Shea needs to cater to them.  Like him, they have nothing but contempt for pro-lifers.  Like him, they revel in their own comparative intellectual superiority.  Pro-lifers, you are so ridiculous!

What’s worse, as Shea argues in a recent post, you’re a bunch of MAGA Manichaeans.

Shea’s understanding of Manichaeism is about as profound as his understanding of Catholicism.  He doesn’t know much.  The definition of Manichaeism that he applies to you pesky pro-lifers doesn’t take into account the voluminous writings of Mani or even the commonly-recognized Manichaean doctrines.

Shea only means that you pro-lifers use such terms as “pure evil,” which the jovial Shea chuckles at from his more elevated point of view, as do his acolytes.  Slaughtering infants isn’t pure evil, you silly twits!  It’s just another way of looking at things.  If you say otherwise, you are a vicious anti-Semite – because the Jewish religious tradition positively embraces abortion.

You don’t have to know much more than Shea to recognize several problems with his highly-intellectual argument.  These radiate out like concentric circles from the plunge of an oversized whale into the icy waters of the Puget Sound.

First – and most readily apparent – is Shea’s obvious transgression against his own elevated standards.  He not only contradicts these standards within the body of the post.  He even manages to manifest radical inconsistency within the confines of a single sentence, the last of the piece:

But maybe someday, when God has crushed this evil cult [the MAGA pro-life movement] and its slaves have repented, the prolife movement will return to the Catholic intellectual tradition it has abandoned and try addressing those who differ with it as though they are thinking being [sic] capable of reason and not “pure evil.”

You get it, don’t you?  You mindless pro-lifers, having abandoned the Catholic intellectual tradition, mindlessly characterize the dismemberment of prenatal children as evil.  You fail to reason with your opponents.  That makes you evil – and Shea doesn’t have to reason with you.  Take that, anti-abortion fanatic!

Second – and this will be clear to anyone who has watched Shea vomit forth leftist clichés on capital punishment, global warming, or whether George Floyd died for our sins – Shea invests less zeal in his professed opposition to abortion than he does in his preference for a favorite ice cream.  (“Don’t go cheap on the Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby, Janet!”)

“I speak as one who opposes abortion,” says Shea.  But how exactly does he oppose abortion?  Only by saying he opposes it?  Shea tells pro-lifers that they should argue with pro-aborts – or at least with Jewish pro-aborts – in pro-abort terms.  But does he try to persuade pro-aborts, in a reasonable way, toward respect for human life in the womb?  He does not.  When pro-aborts comment on his blog, he responds with a tremendous sucking sound.  Hey, let’s not argue about abortion!  As long as you hate Trump the way I hate Trump, everything’s copacetic.  Can I drive you to the local murder mill?  My cooperation will be so remote that it won’t matter at all….

But third – and by far most important – Shea’s representation of the Catholic intellectual tradition constitutes a display of ignorance so abysmal and demeaning that it’s hard to see how he manages to sell it.

Shea’s argument against pro-lifers rests on the assertion that they fail to respect the Jewish religious tradition – which, according to Shea, sidles up to the nearest third-trimester abortion specialist like a purring kitten.  But where does Shea get his information on the Jewish religious tradition?  From a single criminally-superficial internet search, that’s where.

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Shea does this all the time.  He wants to pretend to know something.  And, in this case, he wants to pick a fight with pro-lifers after Trump’s exit from the White House.  So he googles a term, seizes on the first or most self-affirming site he can find, copies and pastes a lengthy passage – and there it is:  instant expertise!  This time, he fixed on the pro-abortion sentiments of the National Council of Jewish Women.  Then he pronounced his chosen passage an authoritative statement of the Jewish religious tradition.

Is it?  As an incipient Manichaean for whose religious tradition Shea evinces no respect, I say:  “Hell no!”  If Shea had even done a thorough internet search, of the sort required of students from the seventh grade on, he would have found plenty of statements from pro-life rabbis.  One even responds directly to this nonsense from the NCJW – and does so in the virtual pages of Newsweek, hardly an obscure source with a conservative bias.  Even in his own realm – where the internet has the force of revelation – Shea is just dead wrong.  The Jewish religious tradition does not unambiguously endorse abortion.

Shea could have figured this out through logic alone – although logic is no more his strong point than erudition.  Shea could have reflected that the NCJW was founded in the late nineteenth century, when statutory laws against abortion were being passed – and never lobbied against them till the era of Roe v. Wade.  Where was your treasured pro-abortion Jewish religious tradition in 1920, O Pseudo-Catholic Blogger?

All this, however, is beside the point.  Keep in mind that Shea makes his living by convincing his fan base that he is an expert on such stuff as the New Testament.  In one early effort, he pretended to defend the historicity of the infancy narratives of St. Luke.  But even an undergraduate grasp of the New Testament requires an acquaintance with the first century of the Christian era – and especially with a source that would have instantly refuted Shea’s blockheaded assumptions about the Jewish religious tradition.

That source is Flavius Josephus, our foremost non-Scriptural source on the practices of ancient Judaism.

Josephus addresses the morality of abortion in his polemical work Against Apion – and in a specific context.  He is defending the Jews against Apion’s charge that they are a people of low culture:  weird barbarians from the region of Palestine, but now spread all over the civilized world.  Part of the way into Book II, Josephus hits his opponent with a devastating uppercut:

The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward, and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be the murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature (II, 25).

“Back off, Apion!” is what Josephus is really saying here.  “We Jews don’t commit abortion and infanticide like you Greeks.  That means we’re more civilized than you are!”

It’s important to recognize that Josephus knows his audience.  The “Flavius” is in his name because of his long association with the Flavian Dynasty.  He knows the Romans and he knows the Greeks.  And he knows that the philosophically-inclined will be impressed with the superior ethics of the Jews.

That’s the real Jewish religious tradition, circa A.D. 100.

It’s impossible to overemphasize the depth of Mark Shea’s ignorance on this point.  An ordinary lay Catholic doesn’t need to be familiar with Josephus.  But Shea does not represent himself as an ordinary lay Catholic.  No, indeed.  He is a “Catholic apologist.”  He is a “savant.”  And an apologist does need to know Josephus.  The Jewish client of the Flavian emperors is essential to a complete understanding of the Old Testament and of the Greco-Roman world in which Jesus lived and Christianity was born.

Hence, our third point marks the biggest problem with Shea.  He is a fraud.  He possesses not a trace of the scholarship that he lays claim to.  He doesn’t know Scripture.  He’s never bothered to study Greek (the language of the New Testament) nor Latin (the language of the Church).  He hasn’t bothered to read Flavius Josephus.  All he produces is blather derived from uncritical internet searches.

His commitments are as fraudulent as his scholarship.  The reason he finds it so easy to condemn the pro-life movement is that his former support of it was fake.

The good news is that his current commitment to various tenets of leftist orthodoxy is as fake as his previous commitment to the child in the womb.  When the winds shift, Shea will float on them like a hot-air balloon.

As he always has.


(Tom Riley is a freelance copywriter and the author of Love Poems of a Hatemonger and The Ghost of Biden’s Brain.)

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Last modified on Monday, August 2, 2021