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[T]he consequences of having your rational intellect divorced in some way from your being—divorced enough so that it actually questions the utility of your being. It’s not a good thing.
It’s really not a good thing because it manifests itself not only in individual psychopathologies, but also in social psychopathologies. That’s this proclivity of people to get tangled up in ideologies, and I really do think of them as crippled religions. That’s the right way to think about them. They’re like religion that’s missing an arm and a leg but can still hobble along. It provides a certain amount of security and group identity, but it’s warped and twisted and demented and bent, and it’s a parasite on something underlying that’s rich and true.
I think it’s very important that we sort out this problem. I think that there isn’t anything more important that needs to be done than that. I’ve thought that for a long, long time, probably since the early ‘80s when I started looking at the role that belief systems played in regulating psychological and social health. You can tell that they do that because of how upset people get if you challenge their belief systems. Why the hell do they care, exactly? What difference does it make if all of your ideological axioms are 100 percent correct?
People get unbelievably upset when you poke them in the axioms, so to speak, and it is not by any stretch of the imagination obvious why. There’s a fundamental truth that they’re standing on. It’s like they’re on a raft in the middle of the ocean. You’re starting to pull out the logs, and they’re afraid they’re going to fall in and drown. Drown in what? What are the logs protecting them from? Why are they so afraid to move beyond the confines of the ideological system? These are not obvious things. I’ve been trying to puzzle that out for a very long time.
I don’t like getting overly personal, because I don’t like making things about me. I much prefer to ponder ideas than constantly make myself a reference point. When we talk about things that have happened to us, particularly negative things, some people naturally recoil.
Here’s the thing: experience changes us. Experience creates our stories. And I have a story to tell right now that, if I’m being honest, is very difficult for me. It’s about something I’m just starting to understand about my own life, and it requires a level of vulnerability that even I, a guy who has been doing online confessional writing for nearly two decades, don’t feel comfortable with.
But it’s important. It’s fundamental to who I am, where I’m going, and whether or not you might choose to continue to listen to anything else I have to say. And if you’re struggling with anything like the same things I am, maybe you need to to hear you’re not alone.
So let’s talk about anger, spiritual abuse, and crippled religion.
As I sit down to write this, I’m so unbelievably angry.
I’m angry because I’ve spent my life trapped within various ideological subsets of Catholicism that subvert autonomy, critical thinking, and reason itself.
I’m angry because I can’t take another second of clericalism — and by that I mean, “I’m a member of the ordained clergy, so you can never speak a negative word about me and I get to order you around and do whatever I want to you because of my God-given authority.”
I’m angry because I bought into this stuff like my eternal life depended on it for most of the past 40 years, and it did damage to me over and over again. It was used to manipulate me, it was used to make me feel guilty, it was used to make me fall in line, it was used to capitalize on my fear of offending God, and ultimately, of eternal punishment. It, along with some other issues stemming from my childhood, made me afraid. And perpetual fear often manifests as chronic anxiety and constant anger. The anger I’m talking about isn’t the righteous sort I’ll be discussing today, but the sort of aimless, destructive rage that seeks to inflict our inner pain on others, or helps us to overpower our fear of others being angry with us. Think of the child who is so afraid to express his feelings to his parents that he can only do it when he’s so angry that he’s screaming. Multiply that times a lifetime.
The relentless presence of those emotions in my life, seemingly without connection to any immediate cause, hurt me psychologically, damaged my health, and worst of all, caused me to treat people I love very poorly. Inexcusably so. I lashed out at them. I have existed in a constant state of pain avoidance for as long as I can remember, and that makes you incredibly selfish. It’s a miracle that I have received so much forgiveness. I didn’t deserve it, but I am grateful.
I’m angry because this isn’t just an abstract conversation for me at this moment. It’s concrete. I was spiritually abused as a young man by priests in the Church, and I suddenly find that it’s happening again, when I thought it was far behind me. My young, inexperienced, and frankly arrogant pastor has overstepped his canonical authority and denied sacraments to my children — a Baptism for my soon-to-be born son, and a First Holy Communion for my 8-year old. Why? Because my family hasn’t been physically present at our parish enough during COVID for his liking, even though there’s a dispensation in place. His reasoning, reached entirely without a second of consultation with me, is that he’s not sure my children are getting a “good Catholic upbringing.” He has never so much as once reached out to myself or my wife to express this alleged concern, and had to be chased for months to get an answer about sacraments in the first place. He knows nothing of our observance at home, or why we’re not there. He’s merely taken it upon himself to issue declarations, based solely on his own rash judgment.
I’m angry because when families attend his little parish, more than half of them have to sit packed into the parish hall, telling their children to kneel down in front of the all-powerful television screens on which the Mass is livestreamed from the chapel, and it’s been this way for years. Since long before COVID. In his view, it appears to be OK that the bishop kept us in this situation for far too long, in a highly dangerous neighborhood where one of our priests was murdered, another shot, and even our present pastor assaulted. Although his requests for help fell on deaf ears until very recently, when an old, neglected, closed down parish was finally offered, we were told from the pulpit that we should be so grateful to the bishop for allowing us to have the Latin Mass out of his great beneficence — as though the bishop has a right to say no — and that we should generously give money to his appeal instead of putting it into a much-needed building fund. The message was clear: we should sit like dogs begging for scraps from the table, and like it.
But somehow, livestreaming from home with the bishop’s permission instead of livestreaming from the parish hall makes you a bad Catholic.
I’m angry because this isn’t some “modernist” priest, but a priest of the FSSP, an order I have promoted for many years. People love to tell you, “Just find a TLM community if you want to escape the madness in the Church!” But that’s a lie, as many people have found out in various ways. And of course, our pastor knows that he’s the only game in town, unless you count the SSPX, which he believes is a completely invalid option. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to make sure others who have left his parish to go the SSPX knew they were no longer in good standing in his eyes, and could no longer receive sacraments from him.
I’m angry because he thinks this gives him power and leverage, instead of making his humility and example absolutely paramount.
I’m angry because he refuses to apologize for how atrociously he has handled this, and my discussion of the matter with his superiors indicates to me that the situation will likely never be satisfactorily resolved. And even if it were, the results of having to do battle over so basic a need will leave feelings of begrudging contentiousness hanging over what should have been joyful occasions.
I’m angry that I had to fight this battle in the first place — it’s bizarre to think that it’s happening to me — when what should have happened was actual pastoral outreach from a man who has eaten at my table and is ostensibly concerned about my soul. The best we got was a vague demand for a meeting, sent through his secretary, with no explanation as to why, even though we asked multiple times. When he finally did answer, months later, he insulted us as parents, and as Catholics, and declared that his decision had already been made.
I’m angry because I no longer even want to make an effort to work with clergy who act this way, and that leaves me up the sacramental creek.
I’m angry because 24 years after I escaped the Catholic cult known as the Legionaries of Christ, where I was lied to and manipulated in spiritual direction, I am still dealing with this clerical hubris, and my family is now being abused along with me.
I’m angry because I have been so conditioned to respect and demur to Catholic priests that my refusal to allow my family to be abused in this way, and my subsequently forceful objection to this absurd injustice, feels like an act of outrageous rebellion. Somehow, I’ve gotten it in my head that anyone who has a grievance with their personal treatment by members of the clergy who are not actual predators must either lie down and take whatever is done to them, or only whisper their objection in the meekest of terms.
Standing up and saying no feels like an unforgiveable sin.
I’m angry because at times I find I’m worrying more about the rules concerning whether I’m allowed to baptize my child myself — whether this constitutes a case of necessity — than about the fact that I’m in this predicament. I’ve been in a rules and regulation cult my entire life. An idolatry of the law. I’m terrified to break those rules, even though his refusal is a direct violation of canon law.
I’m angry that my big-hearted and eager boy, Liam, who already missed his First Communion last year because of COVID, is going to go without it again this summer as he approaches 9 years of age, while every pro-abortion Catholic politician in this country WILL be allowed to receive. After all, the only discipline in the Church is for those who are struggling to do the right thing and figure out how to navigate the crisis of faith the current state of affairs is inflicting on them. Those who brazenly defy the Church are allowed to do whatever the hell they want, with no temporal consequences.
As I look outward, away from my personal life, I’m angry about a great deal that’s still happening in the Church: the ongoing corruption, the bishops who don’t give a damn, the deeply troubling pope, and the way so many Catholics are lining up in tribal lockstep behind anyone who says what they want to hear, even when there are warning signs that they should not be trusted. To make matters worse, there’s a segment of the commentariat that cashes in on these hot button issues, whipping people into a frenzy for clicks and profit, taking them on a rollercoaster from one outrage to another. Discord and dissent are a cottage industry, and business is booming. (I’ve done this too, thinking it was my duty. It’s my hope that I’ve left it in the past.)
I’m angry because I feel as though we’ve all been abandoned and left to the wolves, and it’s incredibly frustrating to watch as people turn to this increasingly uncritical tribalism to feel safe, or conspiracy theories to “explain” things, or even in some cases an explicit desire for the end of the world so that the madness will finally cease.
I’m angry because my entire identity, my entire life, has been inextricably intertwined with Catholicism, and as all of this collides and comes apart, I feel as though that identity is being flayed from me, one strip of flesh at a time.
I’m angry — but perhaps even more sad — because I have begged God to help me find my way through all this mess, to do the right thing, and to hold on to my faith, but I get no perceptible answer, and I don’t know where to go from here.
I’m angry because people think I shouldn’t tell any of this to you, because apparently we’re supposed to keep everything bad that happens in our faith a secret — abuse, corruption, crises of faith, and serious questions about certain teachings that seem false based on real evidence. “You’ll lead souls astray,” they tell you, as though the problems you’re reacting to were of your own making. As though adults are infants with no agency of their own. As though the real scandals aren’t the problem, it’s the people scandalized by them who are.
I know many of you have stories like mine, and you’re angry and hurt and lost and confused too.
How I Got Here
I am a cradle Catholic, born into a family of cradle Catholics. And yet the Catholic Church I grew up believing in turned out to be a joke. The Church of the Second Vatican Council was in so many respects an entirely unserious affair that it’s a wonder I held onto my faith for the 27 years I was trapped in it. It was a given during my entire childhood that Catholicism itself was hostile to the Catholics who practiced it. The adults in my life would trade war stories about liturgical abuse, or what crazy thing a priest had said from the pulpit. They’d shake their heads as they discussed how that great seminarian we’d had over for the barbecue had been kicked out for being insufficiently liberal about homosexuality. We’d talk about which parishes were ok, which ones were generally solid, and which were to be avoided like the plague. (Most parishes wound up on the avoid list, obviously.) It was a given that the Church was an absolute mess, and that the only way to really survive it was to actively pursue whatever islands of orthodoxy you could find in the cesspool.
At 14, I almost lost my faith. I knelt in front of our hideous tabernacle on the plush blue carpet to the side of the main sanctuary and told God that I knew He was supposed to be in there, but that so few people who went to church really acted like it, and that made it pretty hard to swallow. “If you want me to believe, you have to help me.” I said.
When I was 15, my kind, elderly pastor — one of the good priests in my life — invited me to go to World Youth Day in Denver as a representative of the parish. Despite my doubts, I was actively involved for my age. I was an altar boy and a lector, and my pastor hoped I had a vocation. When I went on retreat at the diocesan seminary, however, I was treated to a Mass where the priest commanded everyone not to kneel during the consecration, and said in his remarks at one point, “Jesus — he or she as the case may be…”
(Several years later, when our auxiliary bishop asked me after a meeting if I’d ever considered the seminary, I looked him in the eye and said, “Have you ever been to your seminary?” He tried immediately to tell me it was getting better. I didn’t believe him.)
I went to World Youth day in Denver and my eyes were really opened to how bad things were. I witnessed how some of the priests who came with us were in the hotel hot tub every night, along with bikini-clad chaperones. (I have no idea who was attracted to whom, and I don’t really want to know). I was presented with absurd theological arguments against respecting the Eucharist. I sat fuming as Christ was played by a woman at the Stations of the Cross, which launched Mother Angelica’s most famous tirade. I was abandoned, along with a few others, at the papal Mass — the ONE thing I came for — because I wanted to stay to receive Communion. It was hot and dry, folks were getting dehydrated, and the diocese decided to pile everyone on the buses and leave without us. We had to walk ten miles back in that same heat to get home.
It was one of the earliest memories I have of how doing the right Catholic thing often leads to negative repercussions from the Catholics who run the Church.
Around the same time, I got involved with the aforementioned Legionaries. One of their priests, a cousin of my uncle by marriage, started taking a bunch of us boys — myself and my cousins — on retreats when I was a freshman in high school. For the first time in my life, I saw the aesthetics of orthodoxy — chant, incense, adoration, Eucharistic reverence, and so on. I actually considered the priesthood. At that same Legionary priest’s invitation, I left my home in upstate New York to work a summer camp in Texas in 1995. The camp was held at a Legionary school; while there, I met one of the priest’s nephews who was my age, and we became instant best friends. I decided to go back to the school for my senior year, which the priests who ran the place encouraged. I wound up living in community with the priests and seminarians stationed there that year, and it was at that point that they started trying to exert undue control over me. They were not happy, for example, when I started dating a girl in my class who I’d fallen for. Started trying to tell me it violated our agreement pertaining to my living there — even though no such agreement actually existed. I was 18 and in love, so I wasn’t about to let them take that from me. But then the vocational pressure started, and it never let up. I was told by multiple Legionary priests that they knew I had a vocation to the priesthood. I was a scrupulous, anxious, and insecure kid, and I was terrified that this might be true. I wanted to make God happy, and I wanted to make these priests that I looked up to so much happy, but I also knew I wanted a wife and a family.
I graduated from their school in 1996, but I was still on their hook. By this time I was deeply involved in their work — I helped run their youth groups, I went on their missionary trips, I was the first American young men’s team captain of their lay apostolate, Regnum Christi, and I was an excellent recruiter for the cause. I wound up “giving a year” with their “co-worker” volunteer program. During my summer formation retreat leading up to that assignment, they convinced me to go into the seminary. There was all this talk about “knowing” I had a vocation. But the brainwashing being done in their program was too obvious to me, and it bothered me. Then my girlfriend, whom I would have married the day after graduation if my impulsive heart weren’t attached to a semi-prudent head, showed up for her brother’s religious professions. Our relationship was in a kind of stasis -- she lived in Dallas, I lived on the other end of the country, and we both had to figure out college -- but when I saw her, I cracked. They finally let me go, primarily because I was starting to cause a disturbance among the other seminarians with all my second guessing and critical thinking. That kind of thing isn’t allowed in a cult, after all. But they told me that I still should consider the vocation they were trying to straightjacket me with, and possibly even come back to rejoin the seminary later. It was the spiritual equivalent of giving a fish a little bit of slack in the line to wear some of the fight out of him so you can reel him back in when he’s tired.
I spent the next six months in Dunwoody, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, living and working in a house of apostolate there and teaching 7th & 8th grade religion at their school. My superior, Fr. John Hopkins, was a nasty piece of work — the kind of guy who would take off his Roman collar in traffic so he could scream at other drivers without them knowing he was a priest — but he was also a gifted charmer. The ladies of the Regnum Christi loved him. He was a hustler for the cause. He also lied to me repeatedly in spiritual direction about my girlfriend, whom the rules said I was allowed to stay in contact with. She was receiving psychiatric counseling for a childhood trauma, and he told me that since the psychologist was a member of the “movement” and a friend of his, he’d talked to him, and was told that if I contacted her, it would set back her therapy. I dutifully complied because I was sincerely concerned for her well-being, even though I missed her terribly. Month after month, he would give me an “update,” telling me it was still too soon. She would later tell me that her psychiatrist flatly denied having ever spoken to Fr. Hopkins about her, as it would have been a violation of patient confidentiality. She also revealed that she had had no restrictions on her social interactions whatsoever.
When I went home for Christmas, I was miserable. At the urging of my new parish priest at home, I decided to tell the Legion I was leaving, thinking *I* was the problem because of my vocational anxiety. Fr. Hopkins — who had once disgustedly accused me of poor “integration” because I dared question a directive that was sketchy — activated a campaign to destroy my reputation within my peer group inside the “movement.” My girlfriend’s mother got a phone call within the first two days of my departure. My friends across the country, many working in their own apostolates as volunteers, just like me, were told how I wasn’t “generous” and was a “fallen soldier” and how they didn’t know the “whole story” of everything I’d done. They were closing ranks. They wanted me on the outside.
Fortunately for me, I have good taste in friends. Every single one of them stood by me. But the Legionary betrayal was devastating. I had looked to them as the father figures I was desperately seeking at that critical moment of my life. I had trusted them implicitly because I was raised to do exactly that. Their systematic cauterizing of my every connection to their organization, work, and the people I’d come to know over my years of involvement was brutal. This, after they’d essentially taught me that there was no more righteous way to be Catholic than to be a member of their “movement,” left me feeling totally unable to connect with God. It was like being excommunicated. I had become spiritually co-dependent on them, and they had utterly rejected me for leaving. Emotionally, I alternated between numbness and depression. I was probably in some kind of shock. Although my feelings for her had really been the thing that helped me leave their clutches, my relationship with my girlfriend ended that summer with the realization that we had an excess of chemistry but a dearth of substantive connection. I never saw her or spoke to her again. I spent that summer working long, physically taxing days with a friend in North Idaho, trying to get past what I was feeling, but I was in rough shape.
In college, at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I tried to heal. Tried to salve my wounds. But I was broken. The betrayal hung over me, as did the vocational anxiety, which I just could not escape. They’d done a real number on me, convincing me that not wanting to be a priest meant I probably had a vocation and I was just fighting it. Many of my friends and acquaintances from the “movement” wound up there with me. Over time, I started to realize that I wasn’t the problem. The Legion was. I started piecing together a pattern of corruption that led to many young people being left broken, in the same way I was but often much worse. I came to the conclusion that the founder of that order must have been the problem at about the same time allegations of his monstrous sexual abuse started to go public. To be clear - I was never sexually abused, nor did I suspect it. This was before the big 2002 reveal of clerical abuse, and it was unthinkable to me. But I had been spiritually abused — although I didn’t recognize it at the time — and I knew something was deeply wrong. I spent a lot of time during my four years at Franciscan fighting their recruitment efforts.
In 2001, near the end of my senior year, I wrote about the problem of liturgical irreverence, on campus and elsewhere, in my column in the school newspaper, I was attacked by the university chaplain in the final issue. I was never warned that this attack was coming, nor given an editorial opportunity to respond. It was a knife in my back as I graduated from the very school that had taught me most of the theology I knew.
I left feeling dejected and betrayed. Once again, I had attempted to fight for the faith, and once again, I had paid the price for it at the hands of its custodians.
The year after I left, I was contacted by Fr. David Morrier, a Franciscan who was doing an investigation into the Legion’s activities on campus. He seemed truly concerned, and said he believed that they used the sacraments to gain access to good Catholics, and that they’d stop at nothing to protect and advance their agenda. His investigation was eventually stopped by someone higher up the hierarchical food chain, where it was passed off to a group at Ave Maria University, led by the late Prof. Charles Rice, whose son was also in the Legion. That investigation’s results were given to Cardinal Ratzinger not long before he became pope, and may well have helped lead to the discipline of their founder.
(This year, Fr. David Morrier himself stands accused of raping and carrying on a three year sexual relationship with a mentally disabled female he was counselling. Everywhere I look within the Church, there’s a trail of bodies. You can trust precisely no one. )
When I found traditional Catholicism in 2004, I thought I’d finally discovered a safe haven.
This, at last, is a Catholicism that makes sense!
It was historical. It was reverent. It was liturgically and theologically sound. I started reading, and not only did I become compelled, I got angry. I saw what had been stolen from us. Saw the bad actors swoop in and change everything. Saw how the problem went right up to the papacy, and how the faithful had been incredibly damaged by what followed.
And so, finding solace at last, I’ve spent the past 17 years of my life as an apologist for traditionalist Catholicism — the most recent seven of which have been devoted to founding and running 1P5, which was, for a couple of years at least, the most-read traditionalist Catholic website in the world.
I thought I had, at long last, found my place.
But during that time, I have gradually come to realize that if the post-conciliar Church I grew up in isn’t really Catholicism, traditionalism isn’t either. Instead, it is an ideological mask more identifiably in the shape of true Catholicism. It is, in some respects, a long-running Live Action Roleplay — a LARP — in which participants act out what they think Catholicism looked like in “the good old days” while perpetually running down any kind of Catholicism (or Catholic who practices it) that isn’t traditionalism. But it is essentially an affectation; an attempt to reconstruct and live within a historical context that no longer exists. Traditional Catholicism does exist, in the sense that all history exists. The Traditional Catholic liturgy exists not just historically, but even now. But traditionalism, as a “movement,” as an ideological oxbow lake, is a novelty. It’s not a historical reality, because it is merely a reaction to a modern innovation.
Let me try to explain it another way: no matter how many old movies you have in your DVD collection or how often you watch them, you can’t go back to the time and cultural context that forged them. Any attempt in the present to make something like Casablanca or The Manchurian Candidate or [insert your favorite here] will essentially fall short. It will be a reproduction that apes the signature characteristics — dress, décor, modes of speech, vehicles, and so on — of another time. Similary, a Civil War re-enactor’s club may help keep the memory of that history alive, but it doesn’t make that history present. At the end of the day, the actors put away their muzzle loaders, change back into their normal clothes and drive home to their modern dwellings with electricity, indoor plumbing, and internet.
Without a present-day Church that not only allows but actually lives the traditional Catholic ethos, traditionalism remains akin to that DVD collector or civil war re-enactor: a recreation out of place and time needing to justify its own existence in the present as a nostalgic aberration. It no longer has a context that gives it a place at the heart of the Church, which is the only place it could ever truly belong. It cannot exist as a “preferential option” and be still what it once was: essential.
And so traditionalism, though it retains real treasures from the past that enliven the faithful today, becomes predominately ideological. A version of Catholicism that remains in constant tension with and sometimes open rebellion against the only institution that can give it life: the very Catholic Church that discarded it.
It’s paradigmatic crippled religion. And that is a problem.
It’s easy enough to see if you look at it objectively. Traditionalism, in my experience, is often attracts an unrelentingly toxic and negative sort of person — particularly online, but this filters down into the real world, too. Everything that is seen as non-traditional is perceived as hostile, even malicious. Since it has no authority structure of its own, no governance, no recourse to anything but old documents interpreted however the reader wishes to read them, it gives rise to an autonomous collection of mini-popes, all of them reveling in their “duty” to speak truth to power, analyzing anyone who ostensibly professes the same creed to death, searching for every “gotcha” moment with which they can be browbeaten for being insufficiently pure. Or, to recall the scoffing words of that malignant little cretin Fr. Hopkins, “Ha! Shows how integrated you are.” The same mantra is repeated countless times a day in trad commboxes and social media, “Ha! And you call yourself a trad!?”
Anyone still involved in the post-conciliar Church, whether or not it’s any fault of their own, is reduced by this kind of person to an epithet like “neo-Cath” or “modernist.” The purity spiral comes for us all, and there’s nobody trads would rather eat alive than other trads who have fallen short in some way. I’ve never endured more calumny, more vitriol, more outright enmity in my life from any group of people as I have from certain members of my own in-group. And all of it is in response to imagined deviations from this or that dogmatic opinion held by whichever mini-pope was standing in judgment that day. To give a recent example, I watched in complete incredulity as Roberto de Mattei, a global traditionalist & pro-life leader of the past forty-plus years and widely-respected Church historian who literally wrote the book on the revolution at the Second Vatican Council was summarily dismissed as having “no credibility” for arguing that the Vatican’s position on the moral permissibility of the COVID vaccine is consonant with her constant moral teaching.
These people all need to read Darkness at Noon, and not as a how-to guide.
I sometimes feel as though in my own work, all I’ve been doing, day after day, year after year, is staring into the abyss that is the Catholic Church in the 21st century and pulling out monsters to display in public: “See? Do you see this twisted, evil thing? This is what’s going on! We have to stop it!” But there is no stopping it; it is an absolute radioactive sinkhole of abuse, corruption, cronyism, perversion, and heterodoxy, much of it concentrated around the pope himself. We have no power to change it. It’s enough to make anyone despair, and some have broken under the pressure. There are any number of examples, but perhaps most obvious are those who invented bizarre conspiracy theories to explain things away, like the one about how none of the present papal crisis is really happening, because Pope Benedict hadn’t really resigned and was still in charge, and a handful of bloggers had decoded his secret signals telling us all would be revealed.
It’s the equivalent of a child sticking their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, humming a tune, and chanting, “Not listening!”
This is, it should be noted, the exact same kind of childish thinking that led people to keep saying Trump was going to suddenly pull off a deus ex machina reversal of the election months after the results were in. That he would surprise everyone by returning triumphantly to office while the imposter who stole the presidency from him would be led away in handcuffs. It doesn’t matter if you voted for Trump and wanted him to win, just as I did; it’s absolute nonsense; a dissociative break from anything even adjacent to reality.
And yet, that is the exact kind of political thinking that traditionalists have begun mixing with their religious dogmas. The two arenas have become inseparable.
Over the past year or so, I came to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I came to a point where all of this crippled religion was threatening to asphyxiate me. I kept trying to find hope, so I could offer it to the sincere seekers who rarely left comments or social media replies but would send pleading emails about what to think of all that was happening. But I started finding that hope was slipping through my fingers. Burnout set in — I’d been on this damn merry-go-round since I was at least 15, just in different iterations — and God was not coming to the rescue. Every time the pope crossed a new line nobody thought he could cross without being struck down, the belief that there was a failsafe on any of this grew a little dimmer. Every time a bishop or cardinal spoke out against what was happening, only to retreat long before any action took place, the same feeling grew.
Nobody is coming to save us. Not even God.
That’s not the kind of thing you’re allowed to think, but I couldn’t stop thinking it.
When Archbishop Viganò offered his testimony about the coverup of Ted McCarrick’s sexual abuse as one of the most powerful cardinals in the Church, I thought maybe we’d found SOMEONE who would do SOMETHING. He certainly seemed to send the rats scurrying with each additional piece of information. When he added his incisive critiques of Vatican II, I thought maybe we were seeing an answer to our prayers. I was only too happy to publish his thoughts when the opportunity presented itself.
But then COVID hit, and the world went insane.
Viganò quickly turned into the Catholic Q Anon. Squandering his prophetic role for a more reliable job as a pundit, he started offering comment on all things political, even as he failed to produce the additional documentation about Church corruption he seemed to hint at possessing. A poor scientific grasp of epidemiology was no impediment to his pontifications about how this fake pandemic was a tool of the New World Order to usher in the Antichrist.
Oh, and only Trump could stop him. Because that’s eschatologically sound.
But Viganò spoke with conviction against nefarious and undefined global powers, and that was enough to earn him a slot at the top of every traditionalist speaking list. Although I published a number of his earlier pieces, I remember coming to a distinct point where I couldn’t, in good conscience, do that any longer. Some of what he was saying was simply wrong. He turned out to be a big, bright, canary in the COVID mine. Like the rest of the secular political landscape, COVID conspiracy theorism has become inextricably intertwined with mainstream, online traditionalist Catholicism, and its dogmatic axioms are no longer up for discussion — under pain of excommunication.
17 years after thinking that traditionalist Catholicism was the bold answer to what ails the Church, it became startlingly clear to me that it was, perhaps, quite the contrary. It had real roots in timeless truths, but as a movement, it was only a collective construct put together by a bunch of (justifiably) disgruntled people to resist damaging changes in the Catholic religion. That resistance has been operating for half a century, and it hasn’t changed much. Summorum Pontificum freed the old Mass, and things got brighter for a time, but it’s always under the threat of being suppressed again. The rot in the Church set in, the trajectory worsened, and traditionalists spun their wheels as they set about the Sisyphean task of trying to convince the Church to go back in time. Pope Francis gave them a focal point for their fire, but they got cocky. They got way too political. And now as a group, I think they’ve lost their way.
They also can’t stop eating each other alive.
While I am typing this, my cautionary posts about the completely uncritical adulation being thrown like laurels at the feet of a particular imprudent and overly political priest are being barraged with negative comments by precisely this sort of person. I’ve had something like 700 comments in the last 24 hours alone. My appeals to historical precedent of celebrity priests who appear orthodox but turn out to be bad actors as a reason to proceed with caution are being scoffed at as though I’ve announced that the moon is made of cheese.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I can no longer reach people. I can’t break through the tribal walls. And maybe it’s just not my job.
But as a group, I don’t think we want to do better. We are begging to get our asses kicked again and again and again, because we refuse to learn anything. We don’t want to do the work of becoming the change we want to see, we want a savior. And so we latch on to everyone who sounds like what we think a winner should, carrying them around on our shoulders, treating them like heroes. Even if we know next to nothing about them or the skeletons their closets might hold.
For me, being a lifelong card-carrying member of crippled religion has led me to an existential crisis; I have been betrayed and maligned again and again while trying to remain faithful. I have put my faith in things only to be left in a worse situation than when I started. I have been relentlessly attacked for saying unpopular things I believe are true because I think the truth really matters and should (prudently) be said - even when it’s costly.
And as I look around me for spiritual consolation among those with whom I share a creed, I mostly see shallow, superficial appeals to rules, regulations, ideological beliefs, biases, and axioms as though these are the substrate from which real faith is nourished.
But this is a lie.
I have to be honest: when I look at the Catholic Church, I feel this weird sense of displacement, like when you drive by a place you used to live, but see someone else’s car in the driveway, someone else’s stuff in the yard. It was home, but now it’s not. You know every detail, but you’re not allowed inside. I no longer think I see God in the institutional Church. In many, if not most cases, I struggle to see the efficacy of His grace in many of its adherents. Don’t get me wrong: all of my best friends are Catholic, my family is Catholic, and I’ve met lots of great Catholics along the way. But many of the worst, most twisted, most vitriolic people I’ve ever encountered are those who hold themselves up as paragons of orthodoxy and faith. It is pasture infested with wolves in sheep’s clothing.
And there is. No. Shepherd.
The Last Straw
When I was told last week that my young children would be denied sacraments for totally unjust reasons, something inside me finally snapped. I have fought for this absurdly broken, self-contradictory, overly-bloated, irretrievably corrupt religion since I was old enough to know how to think. I studiously avoided the hedonistic pleasures of youth enjoyed by my peers. I devoted my life to spreading and defending its teachings. I have been driven to the brink of leaving on multiple occasions, only to swallow my pride, stomp on my doubts and come back again, ready for another beating.
Worst of all, I have allowed myself to be cowed by the message of the Church when it presents itself in the language of an abuser: “You don’t like how I treat you? Well tough shit. You have nowhere else to go. You think you can find salvation somewhere else? Ha! You’ll go to hell without me. You have no choice but to stay here and do whatever I tell you. You’ll put up with whatever I do to you, and if you complain it will only make you look like a fool. A deserter. An ingrate. You’re stuck with me whether you like it or not. You can never leave!”
Some of you may have endured much worse abuse than I have. I have little doubt you’ve heard this insidious voice as well.
About a decade after I left the Legion, I ran into that little weasel, Fr. Hopkins, at a fundraising dinner. I was a grown adult, married with children, and twice the man’s size. And yet, I was afraid to confront him over what he’d done. Afraid that somehow, I had misinterpreted things, and it would all turn out to be my fault. Afraid of making a scene. Afraid of standing up for myself and demanding an answer for why he refused to treat me with respect and decency, with the confidence that I was not wrong for doing so.
Afraid because he was a priest, and that’s not what we do to priests. My limiting beliefs still held that much power over me.
But when my pastor said no to the sacraments last Friday, I found myself back at that dinner, pretending not to see the man who had used me without a second thought. And when I realized I had a chance to correct my failure to say something, which I still regret, I pushed right past the fear. I let my pastor have it with both barrels. I told him he had no right, and that barring an apology for the spectacularly insulting pastoral failure he had just perpetrated, we had nothing left to discuss. I went back and forth with him three times without so much as an “I’m sorry.” I finally had it, and showed him how easy it was to do:
"Dear Steve and Jamie,
I realize now that I came across very poorly. I've been under a lot of stress lately, and I didn't handle this matter with the delicacy it requires. For that, I want to apologize. I recognize that I've offended you and that was never my intention.
As your pastor, I'm concerned about the spiritual wellbeing of your family and would like to see if there's any way I can help. Would it be possible for us to meet some time this week?"
It's that easy, Father. That's how you handle a situation like this. Pretty basic stuff here. If you can't bring yourself to do this, we have nothing left to discuss.
That was two days ago. Still no reply.
I then wrote essentially the same thing to his superior, after I received a somewhat dismissive communication from him about my concern. It’ s been another 24 hours and I’ve not gotten so much as an acknowledgement of my email.
So I’m going to move on. I don’t want what they’re offering anymore. I’m not going to be a part of a system where they have all the power and I have to bow and scrape to get what I need. Where my wife and I get to be insulted and talked down to by a child in a collar, while we’re the ones expected to fall in line and follow orders if we want to smooth things over. Where my children will be subjected to the kind of thinking that will perpetuate this problem in their own lives.
I’m being penalized BY the Church for having a crisis of faith the Church CAUSED in the first place. Well pardon my saying so, but fuck that.
If there’s a God out there who actually loves me, I’ve yet to really come to meet Him through the ministers of the Church. Oh, I’ve known good priests, and I’ve seen glimpses here and there, but really my entire life as a Catholic has been about God as Big Brother who watches, keeps score, and waits to punish if I don’t dot all my “i’s” and cross all my “t’s.” That’s the God I was raised to believe in, and it’s been about rules and regulations and scrupulous observance and defense of the letter of the law ever since, as thought that’s what real virtue looks like.
A good friend of mine who has also been struggling with the faith said to me yesterday:
I hate to say this, because it risks sounding trite, but I don't think you have ever really been Catholic.
And peeling off this false thing, made of false things, is the first step to finding out who you really are.
I actually am discovering that I do believe in God, and all that, and I think He's trying to fix you.
Maybe He is. I hope so, because I cared about all of this so much I made it my whole life. I put it before family and friends. I was so invested, I thought it was my dream job. I risked everything I had, in a material sense, to rush to the defense of the Church when I thought she was at her darkest hour.
And I lost everything I had anyway — in a spiritual sense. Which was not at all what I expected.
I look at photos and videos of myself when I started in 2014, versus photos now. I looked like a kid then. But now, I’ve gained a lot of weight. My beard has turned white. I’ve lost a lot of hair. My face looks so much older. My voice has deepened. I suddenly have high blood pressure. I’m unbelievably tired and stressed out all the time. I’ve lost my sense of meaning and purpose.
And I’m left standing here holding the broken pieces of myself, older and more brittle and less resilient and unable to put myself together again to take yet another beating.
I’m done with crippled religion. Crippled religion will ruin you.
Peterson says that crippled religion is “like religion that’s missing an arm and a leg but can still hobble along. It provides a certain amount of security and group identity, but it’s warped and twisted and demented and bent, and it’s a parasite on something underlying that’s rich and true.”
How do we get to the underlying thing? The one that’s rich and true? Does it really exist, or is it just layer upon layer of ideology holding the thing together, like endless coats of paint gluing together a bunch of rotten boards?
I hope to find out.
Maybe my friend was right, and I never really was a Catholic. Maybe if God is trying to fix me, He’ll show me the way to be a real one. Maybe I need to unlearn everything I thought I knew so I can learn something new. Something better.
I’m not sure how that’s going to work in a Church where I’m just a nobody and other people call all the shots, but I’m open to being shown.
I’m just not going to take the abuse anymore.
How can I say thank you? How does one High five with printed words? Steve, I just finished this, and maybe I will comment a lengthier reply later, but for now, I just want to say, you rock, man. That's telling it like it really is, and I loved every word. I agree with pretty much most of it too.
So much to say. But I will spare you most of it. Honestly, I am completely heartbroken for you, and I will be praying for you and your family. I don’t mean that in a cloying or haughty sense. You’ve been put through the ringer. I have plenty of my own stories, though none probably as bad as yours. Having spent five years in the seminary, I too found that I met some of the best and some of the worst people I have ever known in that context. It didn’t seem to matter which you were when it came to suitability for ordination, and I mean this for both seminarians who saw themselves as liberal and those who saw themselves as conservatives. I also have a lot of residual guilt from having left the seminary. And I also have a lot of fear associated with my Catholicism. From the bottom of my soul I know what it’s like to have a relationship with the Church as an institution that seems eager to take but reluctant to give, and not just money, but time, years of my life, the prime of my life, and then tell me as a consolation, "thank you for your yes".
I feel like I know you a lot better than I actually do because we have shared some of the same struggles. In reality, we have exchanged a few emails. But, I just want to tell you to be honest about where your search takes you. I want to tell you not to leave the Catholic Church, because I do still believe that it is the only Church. What else am I supposed to tell you? I suspect that is not what you want to hear. I know that. At least intellectually, I understand why you are leaving. You are not the first person I have known who has left the Church because they felt manipulated and used by people who saw themselves as conservatives/traditionalists. I understood why she left and has no desire to come back and I understand why you feel that way too. But I also know that some of the people I have watched leave became completely unmoored once they did leave, and ultimately stop looking for God at all. Thomas Merton (a checkered man, I know), said that though we may not always know how to please God, a sincere desire to please Him is itself pleasing to Him. Please don’t disappear into the abyss of our present dystopia. It may be horrible inside a Catholic Neverland, but it isn’t any better out there either. Most of all, I hope that God leads you home, leads all of us home. He does love us. That’s what He really wants, and in the end finding our way home is all that matters. Please don’t forget us in your wanderings.