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A Flood of Angry (and Grateful) Responses to American Pope: Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism | Righting America

by Sean Swain Martin

Sean Swain Martin is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Theology at Viterbo University in La Crosse, WI. His American Pope: Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism (October 2021) published by Pickwick Publications explores the centrality of epistemological certainty in the work of Scott Hahn, attributing to Hahn a specific Protestant fundamentalist approach in his very popular Catholic theological contributions. Sean specializes in American Catholicism, Christian Fundamentalism, John Henry Newman, and early modern philosophy. He holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. in theology from the University of Dayton as well as an M.A. in philosophy from Georgia State University. When not teaching or endlessly grading, Sean and his wife, Beth, are raising two insanely adorable children, Gwen and Milo, and a wildly destructive dog, Luna, in Onalaska, WI.

Book cover of American Pope: Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism by Sean Martin. Image via Pickwick Publications.

Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a two-part series Sean shared about his book, American Pope. You can read part one here.

In the course of trying to make it through yet another season of this seemingly endless pandemic, I binged watched the first season of the new, hit show Ted Lasso. Ted Lasso is the ridiculous story of an American football coach who embarks on a new career coaching an English football team, despite knowing almost literally nothing about the sport of soccer. Lasso, along with his constant coaching companion, Coach Beard, are met in their new roles with ridicule and derision from the rightly outraged Richmond Football Club fans who see Lasso’s hiring as a commitment by the team owner to self-sabotage. While clever in a variety of ways, what is truly compelling about the show is Ted Lasso’s perennial optimism. In the face of a stadium of angry fans chanting their displeasure with him personally, Lasso cheerfully wades through a dismal ninety minutes of football without ever succumbing to the taunts and jeers of the fans. As the season continues, Lasso is challenged, betrayed, heartbroken, and rejected. Yet, through it all, Ted carries with him the constant conviction that he is doing what he truly believes is best. 

While compelling, however, this is not what makes Ted Lasso so attractive to me. Ted also carries with him throughout all his adventures (and misadventures) his brokenness, a recognition of his shortcomings, and a commitment to allow himself to be bettered by those around him, friend and foe alike.

In October 2021, I published my first book, American Pope: Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism with Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf & Stock. While the more academic reviews of the book are still forthcoming, notification of its publication took off on the more Catholic corners of Twitter and I was soon inundated with a host of opinions on the work. Before American Pope even became available for purchase, my tweet announcing the book had been viewed over 120,000 times and interacted with (retweeted, liked, or commented on) more than 35,000 times. 

Given Hahn’s popularity, I expected strong reactions to my announcement but as I had never experienced anything like this before, I had no idea what this kind of response might look like. Among the many comments, however, was one that I found quite unsettling. Surprisingly, it was not the private message that I received informing me that the writer was praying for my death so that I may soon experience the judgment of God. It was also not the comment that suggested that I was possessed, nor the one that raised the possibility that I was funded by certain liberal powers to take down faithful Catholics, nor even the host of retweets that assumed that I hated both God and the Catholic Church.

Instead, it was the comment to a supportive retweet, “I hope this author knows what he’s in for. This is going to get bad for him.”

In the weeks that followed and the book began to reach readers, my institution, Viterbo University, received complaints concerning my employment there. Discussions of the book began appearing on Catholic radio stations, blogs, and social media. My book was ridiculed as embarrassing and I dismissed as a jealous, liberal academic who should have never made it through a doctoral program. 

Along with all of this, however, I also began receiving emails and private messages from people I had never met thanking me for writing the book. 

Such a bizarre experience. On the one hand, my book is riddled with errors, falsehoods, and the most uncharitable of critiques on one of Catholicism’s most faithful scholars. On the other hand, it successfully demonstrates a thoroughgoing fundamentalism in the theology of one of the American Catholic Church’s most prolific writers. I am a failure who should be ashamed of my work, or I have written a good discussion on a topic that needed to be brought to the fore. 

So, which is it?

A constant theme in the negative reactions to the book’s publication (not necessarily to the content of the book) is that I must have written the book because I am either jealous of Scott Hahn’s success or because of a hatred for the Church. I am sure that what I say here will not satisfy American Pope’s critics, however, I feel the need to address the question.

There are many reasons that I did not have in mind in publishing my book. First and foremost, I did not write American Pope out of a hatred of Catholicism. It is quite the opposite, in fact. The Catholic Church is my home. It is where I am allowed in my fallenness to be brought together with my family and community to become united with Christ’s goodness in the perfection of the sacraments. It is within the Body of Christ that I have tried, and will continue to try, to offer the little that I can for the good of God’s Church. 

The second charge often leveled against me is that I wrote American Pope out of a jealousy for Scott Hahn’s success. All I can offer in response is that I have been fortunate enough to have been given a the most wonderful of spouses, two beautiful children, family and friends, the privilege to teach theology at a good and courageous Catholic University. In short, I have more than I ever even knew to dream was possible. This is all that I could want.

Third, I actually did not write American Pope because I believed that Hahn was wrong in his theological positions. To be clear, I do believe that Hahn is wrong about certain of his beliefs, but the entire community of Catholic theologians is predicated on the notion that we find our theological beliefs in conflict. And those of us who work in the academy work within the context of that conflict in the hopes that in so doing we can together come closer to the truth. American Pope, then, is not about which of Hahn’s beliefs I happen to regard as incorrect.

Rather, I wrote American Pope because when I engage Hahn’s theological contributions I find a conviction in his own thought that allows for no other. In Hahn’s Catholic world, there is but one approach, one set of truths, one way to read the scriptures, and one way to live in the world – Hahn’s. The reason that I decided to write the book is because what I found in the works of Scott Hahn was the same fundamentalist certainty of my past. The church of my childhood was one that divided the world between those who thought like them on the one hand and evil on the other. In that world, there was no place for the radical grace, hospitality, and humility that I saw in the person of Jesus Christ and the Church he established. I wrote American Pope because I saw in Hahn’s claims of exegetical simplicity, epistemological certainty, and moral clarity the same fundamentalist hubris that poisoned my past.

My faith is not certain. I am insufficient. But I am better, made whole, perennially optimistic from within my brokenness because of the goodness of the people I love. And, miraculously, ridiculously, in the story of Catholicism throughout human history I find a place for me. I wrote American Pope because I am a sinner who walks with a community of sinners always in the work of being saved by a grace we neither deserve nor will ever fully understand. I wrote it because the working out of Catholic faith in fear and trembling will always be our present and never a forgotten part of our distant past.