That sneaky lawyer again…

Chris Ferrara vs. Mark Shea:
The Mystery of the Changing Debate Resolution

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It may have escaped a lot of people, but it didn’t escape us.

On January 12, 2016, a debate took place between Semi-Traditionalist spinmeister Christopher A. Ferrara and professional Novus Ordo muckspout Mark Shea. This debate was held at St. Augustine Novus Ordo parish in South St. Paul, Minnesota, as part of their Argument of the Month (AOTM) men’s club. When we first heard about the resolution to be debated between the two opponents, we were shocked that apparently Christopher Ferrara would be so foolish as to agree to take the affirmative in the following resolution: “Has the Catholic Church abandoned the Great Commission of Jesus Christ to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost?” This is the exact resolution that was posted verbatim at The Remnant’s YouTube page on January 6, 2016, in the description for the debate preview/advertising video produced by the AOTM club, which you can verify for yourself at this link. A screenshot appears below:

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Click to enlarge – red ellipses added

Why would it be “foolish” to affirm such a thesis? Because it is totally contrary to Catholic doctrine, for it denies the indefectibility of the Church. A whole host of magisterial teachings could be cited here, but we’ll leave it at just a single one:

In the Catholic Church Christianity is incarnate. It identifies itself with that perfect, spiritual, and, in its own order, sovereign society, which is the mystical body of Jesus Christ and which has for its visible head the Roman Pontiff, successor of the Prince of the Apostles. It is the continuation of the mission of the Saviour, the daughter and the heiress of His redemption. It has preached the Gospel, and has defended it at the price of its blood, and strong in the Divine assistance, and of that immortality which have been promised it, it makes no terms with error, but remains faithful to the commands which it has received to carry the doctrine of Jesus Christ to the uttermost limits of the world and to the end of time and to protect it in its inviolable integrity.

(Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Annum Ingressi; underlining added.)

Chris Ferrara is a very intelligent man. Surely he would know better than to debate such an obviously flawed and easily refutable resolution. But then he is also a lawyer, and he knows his trade. This he proved beyond any shadow of a doubt during the course of the debate. More on that in a moment.

The AOTM club, which sponsored the debate, was actually advertising a slightly different version of the resolution, but one that in essence was still identical, namely: “Has the modern Catholic Church abandoned the Great Commission?” In fact, this seems to have been the real resolution from the very beginning, because this is how it was advertised on AOTM’s Facebook page on January 5. The Remnant apparently didn’t pick it up right, but that’s really negligible because it’s clear that both sides — The Remnant’s Ferrara as well as Mark Shea — believe that the “modern Catholic Church” is identical in essence to the “Catholic Church”, so there is no real disagreement there.

And so the resolution was officially advertised by the AOTM as, “Has the Modern Catholic Church abandoned the Great Commission?”. We prove this by providing screenshots of various places on the internet where the debate was advertised this way (click each picture to enlarge; all red underlining added for emphasis):

AOTM Facebook Page (Jan. 5) – Link here

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Official AOTM Flyer – Link here

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Advertisement on FishEaters.com forum (Jan. 7) – Link here

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Official Advertisement on AOTMclub.com (Jan. 12) – Link here

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So, one would think that the resolution for the debate was pretty clear, and it was even posted on the official AOTM site as late as the day of the debate itself, January 12, as shown above. Most importantly, the official flyer advertised the debate using this resolution.

But the story doesn’t end there.

When the debate actually took place, the resolution mysteriously changed. The resolution actually debated was, “The modern Catholic Church has effectively abandoned the Great Commission”. This can be verified not only in the debate itself (video linked below), but also in the video of the “pregame” interview Michael Matt conducted with Ferrara (see 15:40 mark), as well as in Ferrara’s follow-up post for The Remnant’s blog: “Shea vs. Ferrara: So Who Won the Debate?” (posted Jan. 15, 2016).

So, the all-important adverb “effectively” had sneakily been added, and, wouldn’t you know it, Ferrara’s entire case ended up hinging on that very word! This change to the resolution was crucial, because it allowed Ferrara to maintain that the Great Commission had been abandoned in fact but not “officially” (wink, wink).

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You can watch the entire debate in the video found on this page. Pay close attention in particular to what is being said beginning at the 48:48 mark, where Ferrara has the audacity to say to Shea, with regard to the resolution of the debate, that “you’ve got to read things closely to understand what we’re debating here tonight. I didn’t say the Church has totallyabandoned her mission. This proposition is worded very carefully. It says, ‘The modern Catholic Church has effectively abandoned this command’”. As Ferrara then elaborates on what he means by this, Shea signals his agreement and says, “I agree with that too, sure” (50:32 mark). At 50:41, the laywer from Virginia then “clarifies” his position as follows: “I didn’t say the Church failed. I said Church men in the modern Church have effectively let go of that mission….” So not only does he stress once more there the all-important qualifier “effectively” he somehow managed to smuggle into the official debate resolution, he even converts “modern Church” into “men in the modern Church”, which is definitely not stated in the resolution either, not in the original one and not in the one used in the debate. Shea then points out that although he can agree with this particular point his opponent is making, “it’s not the total story”. This Ferrara then concedes, and Shea responds: “But if it’s not the total story, then the mission hasn’t been abandoned”. At that point — and we’re at the 51:05 mark now — Ferrara gives it his lawyerly all: “I didn’t say it was totally abandoned, I said that, effectively, … everyone … [unintelligible]…” —Shea interrupted, bursting into hearty laughter, telling his opponent, “You are a lawyer!”

Unbelievable, but, alas, not surprising. Ferrara went from “the modern Catholic Church has abandoned the Great Commission” to “the modern Catholic Church has effectively abandoned the Great Commission” to “men in the modern Catholic Church have effectively abandoned the Great Commission” to “men in the modern Catholic Church have effectively abandoned the Great Commission for the most part but not totally.” No wonder Mark Shea started laughing. (And as any faithful visitor to our site knows, we are not fans of Mark Shea — see our podcast TRADCAST 007.)

But apparently Shea was not the only one to fail to pay close enough attention to the wording that Ferrara was harping on. Even AOTM president Kent Wuchterl and Ferrara’s theological twin Michael Matt, editor of The Remnant, were not aware of this nuance, because in the preview video in which they advertised the debate, posted on Jan. 6, Wuchterl and Matt discussed the resolution to be debated and said the following: “Chris Ferrara, of course, will be taking the stance that the Church has abandoned the mandate of making disciples of all nations” (4:57 mark). This was Wuchterl speaking, but it’s not like Matt corrected him in horror. And why should he? That is what they actually believe.

That the changing of the debate’s resolution was not just slick and unfair but also bizarre is further evidenced by the fact that even after the debate, The Remnant still presented the resolution as essentially the original one: “Has the Catholic Church abandoned her defined dogma on the necessity of Baptism and membership in the Catholic Church?”. In this phrasing of the resolution, found in the description of The Remnant’s “AOTM Pregame Show” YouTube video on Jan. 14 — two days after the debate —, the word “modern” doesn’t even appear, and the adverb “effectively”, so important to Ferrara’s case, is likewise nowhere to be found. Have a look at this screenshot we took of the evidence:

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click to enlarge (red ellipse and underlining added)

So, what happened here? Is the key word “effectively” not that important after all? And yet, it was extremely important during the debate, as Ferrara happily pointed out. Since the difference is so crucial that to omit the word in the resolution would be stating that the Catholic Church has failed — thus contradicting Divine Revelation in Matthew 16:18 —, will Ferrara now call up Michael Matt to tell him to immediately fix the description on the YouTube video so as not to lead viewers into heresy? Or could it be that the whole thing was just a facade, a word game needed to “win” the debate?

On Jan. 15, a day after the above “pregame” video was posted, The Remnant advertised this video in a post on its web site, and — what do you know — the resolution was again the original one, leaving out both “modern” and “effectively”: “Has the Catholic Church abandoned her defined dogma on the necessity of Baptism and membership in the Catholic Church?”. Here is the link to the page, and here is the screenshot:

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click to enlarge (red ellipse and underlining added)

This changing of words as needed, this rhetorical peek-a-boo, proves exactly what we’ve been saying about these Semi-Traditionalists. In practice they really do believe the Catholic Church has defected — it is only when they are called out on it, or when they are arguing with sedevacantists or Novus Ordos who tell them that’s not possible, that the lawyerly tricks come out and all sorts of slippery rhetorical devices are introduced that they rely on to try to get out of the obvious doublethink they’re engaging in.

Unfortunately, Chris Ferrara has a history of skilled rhetorical maneuvering, as can be seen in the following critiques of him:

And these people are supposedly the last “remnant” to save the Church from going to hell? Far from it! They are skilled rhetoricians keeping the status quo alive, making sure that people will not abandon the false Vatican II Sect, the “Church of Darkness” in Rome (words of Ven. Anne C. Emmerich). The Remnant and its theological cousins can mount all the “resistance” they want — as long as they acknowledge the Modernist hierarchy as the true and valid Catholic hierarchy, they are giving the usurpers all the power they need to inflict their damage, for all their power comes from the belief that they are the legitimate and lawful pastors of the Mystical Body of Christ. Take this away from them, and the whole thing collapses faster than Francis can say “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian.”

Well, Mr. Ferrara, we have one word for you: BUSTED!