My Recent Adventures in the Public Sphere

featuring the Washington Post & Breitbart

Almost two months have passed since my Op-Ed appeared in “Acts of Faith” at the Washington Post, and conservative media vilified me for it. I wrote up an account of what happened and sent it to my subscribers. But as Breitbart continues to be a cultural force, and “truth” continues to be at issue, it seems best that I should set out the facts for anyone who might be interested in them.

The title of the Op-Ed was this: “Our culture of purity celebrates the Virgin Mary. As a rape victim, that hurts me.”

Having my first by-line in the Washington Post was very exciting. People warned me not to read the comments, but of course I did. At least at first. A lifetime of listening to parishioners’ feedback about my sermons, and editors’ suggestions about my writing has predisposed me to listen. I care what people hear in my words. More than 300 comments appeared. Some were just trash, but others showed that I had offended some Catholics. I quickly realized the enormity of the emotions behind the worship of Mary, or Mariology, which I had previously understood in a purely intellectual way. I love Mary too, but I love her as if she were my Big Sister, which is quite different than loving her as if she were a Deity.

So I chewed over that. Maybe I had tried to say too much in too little space. Why didn’t I phrase it with a bit more nuance? I had lots of emotions all at once — pride and excitement and chagrin and self-recrimination. I had never before put something controversial into the public sphere. I told myself — rather sternly — “Well, Ruth, you wrote a thought-provoking article. So surprise! People are provoked! Live with it.”

The article was published on the Friday before the fourth Sunday of Advent. On Saturday, a friend contacted me. He had done a Google search on my name, and wondered if I was aware that Breitbart had “picked up” my piece?

You’ve probably heard of Breitbart. It’s Steve Bannon’s mouthpiece — which he declared to be “the platform of the alt-right.” I don’t like the word alt-right as it feels like whitewash to me. To put it plainly, Breitbart is the online gathering place for white supremacists, misogynists and zenophobes.

I had never actually clicked onto the site or read any Breitbart content before. What Breitbart had published was an article about my article. The author was “Dr. Thomas Williams” whose byline connected him to the Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame University.  Williams’ article was shared on Facebook nearly 25,000 times, and generated more than 5,500 comments. Similar articles — 3 or 4 more — appeared in other conservative outlets and were widely shared. At one point I made a list of more than 30 online magazines and blogs. Then I just stopped googling my name.

Some persons sought out my social media and left me venomous messages. Some even found their way to my church’s social media. In nearly every case my “title” was “so-called Reverend” and my existence as a female pastor was mocked. Most commenters had apparently not read my Op-Ed, but only the articles about my Op-Ed. Actually, a huge number of the comments were about the war between the Washington Post/Jeff Bezos and Breitbart.

I took screen shots of a few messages before I deleted them. Then I tried to erase them from my mind. But it’s true that you cannot un-ring a bell.

At least three radio shows or podcasts discussed my heresy that week. I listened to one of them, which treated me as a “poor victim” who had somehow been exploited by “the liberal media.” It then used me as Example A for “America’s War on Christmas.” I tried to chuckle at that. If a single Op-Ed about Mary’s purity was the best they could scrounge up to prove a cultural war on Christmas, I would say the topic was a non-starter.

And there were some positive outcomes as well. A few people went to lengths to send me touching letters. They thanked me for shedding light on the culture of sexual purity, and how it oppresses women. Some said that they had never read this kind of thing in the Washington Post and it gave them hope for the church. Some staunch Catholics asked me questions, and I engaged them in dialogue. I might publish those responses in a separate post if it would be helpful.

Eventually the furor died down, of course. The brevity of the news cycle is perhaps a blessing.

Then, on January 10 the New York Times published this article about the person who authored the Breitbart piece. The article reveals some interesting history about the author who mocked me about sexual purity. It turns out that Thomas Williams was a priest who spent years defending a superior, who was guilty of fathering children, and who was also a drug abuser and pedophile. What’s more, Williams himself was later defrocked for fathering a child. He married his lover, and they live together with their child in the shadows of the Vatican, where they consult to outlets such as Ave Maria Radio.

The irony of all this could perhaps be contained in a dump truck.

I did write to Thomas Williams to tell him about the fallout of his actions, but of course he did not respond.

Obviously the subject of sexual purity and the church is not something we have dealt with once and for all. People of faith have work to do.

Perhaps the best result of all this is that I’ve been inoculated.

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I'm an essayist, memoirist, and Presbyterian pastor. My books are both spiritual memoirs -- "Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land" and "Ruined."

I welcome your comments.

2 thoughts on “My Recent Adventures in the Public Sphere

  1. I’m happy for you to know who I am. And, as I’ve said before, I trust that the more this issue is discussed, the more likely that the right people will find your healing words. I’m sorry so many must sort through the nasty stuff, but apparently there’s no way to avoid it.

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