A key to unlocking the mystery of Washington Post writer Manuel Roig-Franzia and his animus towards Catholicism is the fact that he once called Henry Allen a c*cksucker. If we could solve the puzzle of the name-calling, which resulted in a fist fight, we may be able to pin down the reasons for Roig-Franzia’s liberal bias against the Catholic Church.
The incident happened in November 2009. Henry Allen, then a 68-year-old Style section editor and veteran journalist at The Post, was given a story by writer Monica Hesse. Allen called the piece “the second-worst piece I have seen in Style in 43 years.” Hesse allegedly asked for the story back and began to tear up, at which point Roig-Franzia, a veteran foreign correspondent who was born in Spain, wandered by. “Oh Henry,” he said, “don’t be such a c*cksucker.” At this point Allen, a Marine and Vietnam veteran, lunged at Roig-Franzia. Allen landed a punch to the face before the fight was broken up by Post editor Marcus Brauchli.
This is relevant because Roig-Franzia specializes in writing long, loving profiles of liberal dissenters in, and secular critics of, the Catholic Church. The latest, on September 21, was about Jason Berry, author of “Render unto Rome: the Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.” Berry, writes Roig-Franzia, “chisels an image of his church that reads like an ecclesiastical version of recent Wall Street scandals.” This hosanna was only outdone last June, when Roig-Franzia offered a wet kiss in The Post to communist priest Ernesto Cardinal.
After the mash note to Jason Berry was published, I had three questions for Roig-Franzia. I called and emailed him wanting to know: 1) if he considers himself a liberal, 2) if he’s a Catholic and 3) what his views are on homosexuality.
These questions are relevant for several reasons. For one, it’s 2011. The era of reporters claiming objectivity is over. We are now in the age of disclosure. People recognize that a writer revealing his prejudices makes him more, not less, trustworthy. Doing so allows the writer to make sure he uses sources and presents arguments he may not agree with, and allows the reader to keep track of him doing so. It should not be an issue for Roig-Franzia to come clean on his politics. Seeing as he writes for the Style section of The Post, it’s not like readers don’t already know.
If Roig-Franzia is a liberal Catholic, it would account for his sponge-bath treatment of certain dissenters; indeed, it would explain his coverage of them to the exclusion of other Catholics. A week before Jason Berry spoke at Georgetown University, where Roig-Franzia interviewed him, Fr. Robert Barron, a popular orthodox Catholic priest, had a book signing at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. Fr. Barron has just completed a 10-part documentary on Catholicism. He is the author of several books, including the companion volume to the documentary, and is a popular personality on YouTube. The Washington Post was not at Fr. Barron’s book signing. Why not? It’s as if The Post still thinks that it’s 1980, that we can’t get information anywhere else and will therefore never get tired of reading it. The paper’s financial health, or lack thereof, should convince its management otherwise.
Finally, there is the question of how Roig-Franzia views homosexuality. Normally this would be irrelevant, but mixed with Roig-Franzia’s liberalism, it becomes key. Since the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal first made headlines a few years ago, liberals and conservatives have been arguing over the nature of the abuse. Liberals call it pedophilia, but conservative defenders of the church (like the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue) insist that more than 85 percent of the cases involved not children, but priests with young boys. They argue that in the 1960s and 1970s there was a massive influx of homosexuals into the clergy, and that this created an atmosphere where abuse was condoned.
There is something to this argument, but it’s more complex than either side acknowledges. Kids weren’t abused because homosexuals are more inclined to abuse minors, but because in the feverish left-wing atmosphere of the 1960 and 1970s, it became cool to “let it all hang out” in all kinds of dumb and dangerous ways.
Of course, the homosexuality of many priests may also have played a part. But that argument can, excuse the expression, go both ways. I’ve often thought that, in the past, the sexuality of gay men exploded in all kinds of compulsive and unhealthy ways due in large part to societal repression. As a Catholic I don’t support gay marriage, but a live-and-let-live philosophy — as well as treating others with love and recognition of their inherent dignity — goes a long way towards correcting compulsions that have arisen out of people’s fear and furtiveness about their sexuality. America was still very fearful of gays in the 1960s and ’70s, when the abuse in the church was at its peak, even as the sexual revolution was tearing through the country. Which aspect, the fear or the enslaving sexual “freedom,” was more responsible for the abuse is for an honest sociologist to figure out. But to deny that the majority of the abuse cases were between men and adolescent boys is to ignore facts.
Which brings us back to Roig-Franzia and his “c*cksucker” smackdown with Henry Allen. There are two ways to interpret this. One way is to view Roig-Franzia as an old-school Hemingway hardass, a Spaniard who came to the defense of Monica Hesse and went mano a mano with Henry Allen by in essence calling Allen gay. The second explanation is that Roig-Franzia is himself an activist for gay causes and in the tradition of liberal journalism is simply pushing his causes through “objective” profiles of people — particularly those crusading to change the Catholic Church. The Post being The Post — let’s face it, Dana Milbank ain’t no George Clooney and E.J. Dionne has “low T” written all over him — I tend towards the latter. In 2010 Roig-Franzia profiled hunky writer Sebastian Junger. The D.C. gossip site FishbowlDC noted “the intricately detailed physical description of Junger,” including this heavy-breather: “Before taking his seat, Junger pauses to survey the landscape. He’s a solidly built man’s man, with a square jaw and penetrating eyes. When he sheds a light jacket and lifts his arms, biceps perk up beneath a snug black tee-shirt.”
Roig-Franzia never returned my calls or emails.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Monica Hesse’s last name was spelled incorrectly.