OTTAWA, Canada (CCN) – “My Jesus isn’t ‘meek and mild.’ ... He turned water into wine – not the other way around. And he told us to pray for our enemies; he didn’t say don’t have any.”
These words from Kathy Shaidle’s 1998 book God rides a Yahama; Musings on pain, poetry and pop culture provide some insight into the personality behind the provocative, controversial blog (a contraction of Web log, or online diary) “Relapsed Catholic” (www.relapsedcatholic.com).
Relapsed Catholic ranks among the influential and popular Catholic blogs in North America and Shaidle believes it may be the oldest. With an average of 50,000 unique visits a month, her readership spikes when controversy erupts like that over the Danish cartoons. Shaidle says well-known U.S. Catholic bloggers, such as Mark Shea and Amy Welborn, were persuaded to start blogging after visiting her site when they found out anyone can start a blog for free.
Opinionated, witty and sometimes cranky, Shaidle’s tart observations have won her both a loyal following and a more than a few enemies.
“I’m a huge fan of Kathy Shaidle,” said Mark Steyn, international columnist and author of the bestselling America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It.
Steyn said he recently told the editor of the National Post “he should quit his doomed campaign to get me back at the paper and hire Kathy instead.”
“It’s interesting to me when I see these lame-o attempts by wimpy Anglican clerics to incorporate bits of pop culture to get the kids cool with all this religion stuff – it’s so hamhandedly done, like watching your parents do the Macarena at parties,” he wrote. “But Kathy actually does address both religion and pop culture in a way that’s authoritative and fun and all her own. She’s groovy on the cultural stuff but she’s morally serious, which is a rare combination.”
“She’s a beautiful prose stylist, too, unlike a lot of folks on the Internet and in the newspapers,” he said. “I’m sure if she were in Fleet Street she’d have one of those Evening Standard/Daily Mail-type multi-item columns where you kick around five subjects vigorously for 300 words apiece. If the Post or even The Toronto Star wanted to do readers a favor, they’d hire Kathy and introduce the format to Canada.”
Diagnosed with Lupus in 1991, Shaidle was bedridden for two years and recovering for another two. During that time, she wrote a series of columns not only about her illness but also about her observations about religion and pop culture for the left-leaning Toronto-based Catholic New Times, where she had worked in production since 1985. Those columns were compiled into her book. Today, she is free from any symptoms, but continues to observe religion and pop culture on her blog.
“I don’t see the point of writing if you’re going to write nothing but sunshine lollipops,” she said in an interview, describing herself as “contrarian by nature.”
While Shaidle has attracted fans like Steyn, she’s also made some prominent enemies, among them National Post columnist Warren Kinsella, best known for using a stuffed Barney dinosaur to discredit Stockwell Day’s religious beliefs, and Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias. Both have used their blogs to accuse Shaidle of racism and Islamophobia. Shaidle takes them on glee.
“Most people who try to argue with me lose,” she said.
In a Jan. 10 post she wrote: “Pretty much the only Dead White Male inventions I can’t bring myself to defend are all those rules of the rhetorical road that take all the fun out of fighting. They’re like condoms for your brain. Slippery slopes are real. Straw men? Come on – he was the neatest guy in Oz. Ad hominem? It is SO relevant that Michael Moore is fat and you know it, too.
”I insult people all the time. Other bloggers insult me. If only they would – I dunno – do it better....”
Her willingness to jump into the fray with humor has a serious underlay. Steyn said he quotes her in his latest book. “She was one of the first to spell out very clearly why hyper-secular Europe is not the solution to radical Islam but the vacuum into which it’s poured,” he said.
In addition to her blog, Shaidle writes a column for Our Sunday Visitor, a U.S.-based Catholic national newspaper. In 1998, her poetry volume, Lobotomy Magnificat, made the Governor General Award’s shortlist. However, Shaidle said she needs a lot of time with little responsibility to write poetry, so she has no more volumes planned for now.
Born in 1964, Shaidle describes herself as a Generation-X-er who was brought up in a working class Hamilton, Ontario, family, attending Catholic schools.
“I would have appreciated more grounding in the faith in elementary school and high school,” she said, noting “feeding hungry children in Guatemala” seemed to be higher on the agenda. “I’m sure they’re all learning about global warming now. I feel sorry for them if that’s the case.”
Shaidle hungered for the faith that “went back centuries.” As a child, she loved holy cards and statues. “I don’t know if they make that kind of child anymore,” she said.
In God Rides a Yamaha, she wrote about playing nun, fashioning habits from blankets and sheets, “a tea-towel ‘veil’ bobby pinned to my four-year old head.”
“No loaf of Wonder Bread was safe from my pinching fingers, as I squished slice after slice into bite-sized ‘hosts.’
”And I much preferred ‘holy’ statues to Barbies. True, you couldn’t change Joseph’s hair or Mary’s outfit, but that didn’t stop me from concocting elaborate adventures starring my nativity scene ‘dolls.’”
As a teenager, however, Shaidle drifted away from the Catholic faith. “You read one bad book by Bertrand Russell, and think you’re smarter than everyone else,” she said. “It wasn’t really that I was an atheist, I decided God and I were not speaking to each other.”
After obtaining a media arts degree from Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., she moved to Toronto and, in the 1980s, became actively involved in the peace movement.
Pro-choice on abortion, she adopted a libertarian, anarchist philosophy fed partly through her interest in punk rock. She and her friends thought government was inherently evil. They especially hated U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whom they believed was going to “nuke” everyone.
Political correctness drove her out of the movement, she said.
“Not everyone has three-hour debates on whether women should shave their armpits or if deodorant was fascist,” she said. “I got fed up with the dumbing down of all this. A noble enterprise ended up being grim and tedious, run by people with all brains and book-learning but very naïve about the way the world worked.”
As she drifted away, she found aspects of Dorothy Day’s and Thomas Merton’s writings stayed with her. “I found I cared more about the actual Catholicism than the political stuff they were talking about.” She also realized that perhaps her faith grounding as a child had not been as shallow as she had thought.
Her natural contrarian nature also led her back to faith. After hearing too many times that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was “the great Satan,” she began to distrust the judgment of the people saying that and check him out for herself.
She described her investigation into a more traditional faith as a “rebellion against the hippie-dippy Vatican II folk Mass with the felt appliqué banners, the whole wheat host and lots of bad art.”
She disliked the way the Baby Boomer generation “took the statues down, fiddling around with the music so we could all be experimented upon. It failed because we all took off.”
The Internet also helped her go from lapsed Catholic to Relapsed Catholic. On the ‘net she found other alienated Catholics who objected to “awful hippie liturgies.”
Shaidle still struggles with some church teachings, such as contraception. However, she has realized that if she disagrees with the church she’s the one who has to do the changing.
“I’m making an effort to do so,” she said. “Now I feel it’s up to me to change my mind. That’s a little more mature than thinking the church has to change for me.”
Relapsed Catholic came into being in 2000 when she was trying to keep track of news stories she might need for freelance religion articles she was writing for the Toronto Star and other publications. Visitors started popping by and word of mouth brought more. Then came the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“All I could do was go on the ’web and try to connect up with someone who wasn’t an idiot. I was getting e-mails saying America deserved it.”
She found, however, that most of her peacenik friends were siding with the terrorists.
“I have got to do something about this,” she thought. “There’s a war on. Either you believe that or you don’t. I like to think I’m doing my part to keep the world from blowing up.”
Radical Islamists need not feel singled out. Relapsed Catholic is described on the site as “Where the religious rubber meets the pop culture road. ... A daily blog about religion: in the news, in the media, on the web, in the world.”
If some evangelical is selling biblical action figures or scriptural pajamas, Shaidle is on it. Recently she took the Knights of Malta to task for planning to honor a Catholic politician who supports late-term abortion. Other bloggers and news outlets picked up the story, and the Knights have withdrawn the award.
Shaidle has been a guest on radio and television, including a spot on MSNBC after Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. She found it ironic that her interviewer, Ron Reagan, the son of the president she used to hate, asked her questions that seemed to suggest it was “the end of the world” because the “evil Cardinal Ratzinger” was now pope. She said she was old enough to have once believed that his father was insane, stupid and senile and her opinion proved to be false.
“History has a way of surprising us,” she said.
The former peacenik is more likely to be wearing red on Fridays to support the troops in Afghanistan.
Recently, The Catholic New Times, the left-leaning newspaper she used to work for folded. “I have more readers now than they ever did,” she said, noting the one of the problems the paper had was that it “didn’t get” the Internet.
For a Generation X contrarian Catholic, the Internet has provided a niche, a growing readership and an influential place in the new media or blogosphere.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Canadian Catholic News Service.
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