An Epidemic of Brokenness
I wrote about "crippled religion," because I needed catharsis. What I discovered instead was an army of kindred spirits.
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I’m overwhelmed. I’m stunned. Frankly, I’m a little exhausted.
When I sat down to write “Against Crippled Religion,” I had fire in my veins. I couldn’t wait anymore to talk about this thing that has been eating me for three years straight, growing more intense with every passing month. I had finally been pushed too far, and I felt as though I could no longer continue to be honest with my audience without sharing some of the seemingly insurmountable brokenness I was experiencing.
But when the moment came, five or six hours after I started typing and several revisions later, I was afraid to hit publish.
“You’re kind of blowing stuff up,” my wife said, a concerned look on her face.
“I know.” I replied. “But I don’t know what to do. I need to get this off my chest. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been pushed one too many times, and I was already on the edge.”
We talked it over. For the past seven years, I’ve made my living running a Catholic website. There are currently eleven people living in my home — including an elderly parent and my grandchild — all of whom are fed and sheltered by the income it provides. That number will rise to twelve some time in the next few days, when baby number eight finally arrives.
It’s a lot of responsibility.
“Worst case scenario is that everyone just abandons me. Donors all cancel. Gig is up.” I said. “I don’t think it would happen like that — the people who have supported me all this time do so because they like the way I think and write and appreciate my honesty.”
“But some will probably leave,” I conceded.
Nevertheless, the moment had arrived, and it was inevitable. It was years overdue. So I made one last editing pass, and then I pushed the button.
I expected a mixed response. Some would appreciate it, others would excoriate it.
What I got was something else.
In the past 36 hours or so, the post was viewed over 15,000 times. (This little Substack only has 400 or so subscribers.)
Not long after it went live, the messages started coming in. First a trickle, then a flood. Over and over again, people poured their hearts out, in variations of the same themes:
I am so sorry for what you’re going through. I can’t believe your pastor denied your children sacraments. So much of what you’ve written is so close to what I’ve gone through. I feel every word of this. I feel so homeless in the Church. I’m so tired of the abuse.
Just this moment, I happened to glance over at Twitter, sitting open on the left side of my screen. And I saw this:
“Thanks for writing and sharing this… Your story is very much my story. Praying that the Church offers your family and you the justice you deserve.”
Hundreds of comments and private messages. Dozens of emails. I spent over 12 hours yesterday responding to people. I typed until my wrists ached. I was so grateful for every single message of support, and so floored by how deep and wide the path of destruction caused by crippled religion turns out to really be.
It goes largely unseen, because we are admonished not to talk about it, but it is an epidemic of brokenness. Of people trying to get to God while the Church and her ministers throw obstacle after obstacle in their way.
A commenter named Jen wrote:
As you know from comments in various places, there are many of us in the same boat with you. People are hurting. People who are trying to be good, faithful Catholics and raise good, faithful families are being harmed in environments we have been told are the ideal. And we’re invisible, or written off, or feel like we can’t say anything because we all “know” that only “beige” or “marginal” Catholics are falling away. There can’t be a problem on our side. I have no desire to leave Catholicism itself—I know I can’t, even if I wanted to—but I am angry.
This needs to be sorted out, now. I’m just not sure who the people who need to change will actually listen to. Thank you for giving a voice to this struggle. It’s a start. I will pray for you.
Even my pastor, who struggles to engage in helpful, timely communication, found a reason to call my wife yesterday after three days of radio silence. He left her a voicemail. There was no attempt at an apology, but instead that familiar, condescending tone: “I read some of Steve’s most recent post. I think if he really is zealous and solicitous for the sacraments for his kids that he’ll come to meet me.”
There it is again. The sacraments, but only on his terms. The implication that I’m just grandstanding, and not taking things seriously. The air of superiority, because he has what we want, so we’ll do things his way. The sudden interest in our kids receiving the sacraments now, when he was so ready to brush us off last Friday right until “next year.”
Zero humility. It wasn’t, “I’m sorry for the way I handled this and I want to make it right.” You know, like a pastor would say.
It was merely grease for a squeaky wheel, by means of another grab at control.
We live 50 minutes away from the parish. There has never been a need for an in-person meeting over this, whether at our house or his office, when the answer isn’t rocke science: “Oh, great, you want a Baptism and a First Communion? Let’s make it happen! Congratulations!”
I received several offers of help from canon lawyers, who were stunned at the overreach. I told one that while I'd prefer to see Father corrected so he does the right thing for others in the future, at this point I don’t want anything from him. That moment has passed. I’m not having an awkward, begrudging Baptism or first Holy Communion. And I’m not knuckling under so he retains his sense of power. For my own well being, I know I have to walk away from this situation. I can’t imagine going back to that parish, and I doubt we ever will. We’ve heard from some parishioners, and others who have already left, and we’re not alone in our experience or concerns.
(I should have asked you all to pray for him, by the way, but I was too angry at that moment to even think of it. Some of you said you would do so of your own accord. Thank you for that.)
As for the rest of what I wrote, I feel like I opened a wound. A deep, festering wound in the Mystical body of Christ. I didn’t know I was doing that, but suddenly, there it was. All this pain and heartache and sorrow gushing out.
People have shared so many stories with me that there’s no way to relate them all here. Some are too personal. Others are absolutely heart wrenching. A few were hopeful — people who found the courage and strength to stand up for themselves after reading what I wrote, or who shared their happiness at having finally found a parish with a good priest where they feel they belong.
But brokenness remains the dominant theme. The culture of abusive behavior from clergy does, too. The feeling of homelessness, of jumping from one “island of orthodoxy,” as one commenter put it, to another, trying to find home, never feeling like the effort is rewarded with much beyond more betrayal, disappointment, and heartache.
Pretty much everyone is fed up.
“We are held hostage by essential sacraments,” writes a commenter named Marie. “Which is obscene, even with the latitude for in persona Christi.”
It makes me wonder if they think we’re too stupid to realize that’s what they’re doing, or if they’re too stupid to realize it themselves.
But either way, it’s wrong.
So what do we do now? Where do we go?
The honest answer is: I don’t know.
That’s not a popular way to sell content, I suppose. Admitting your limitations and confusion is a lot less appealing than selling your outrage expertise and rallying the troops behind the shameful issue du jour. The truth is, the Church isn’t a grassroots organization. We laity are all powerless, and we don’t like to think about that, so getting “righteously” angry about lots of things and posting strongly-worded comments about it online, or sending emails to chanceries, or shooting off scathing tweets, all makes it feel like we’re doing something.
But we’re not. Not really. We’re mostly just self-soothing. And weirdly, we’re self-soothing by taking shelter within constant anger. We can read yet another Remnant screed, or listen to Michael Voris fantasize about vanquishing “Nazi Pedophile Cults,” or watch the umpteen-millionth hour of Taylor Marshall’s Fun-Time Masonic Scandal Hour, but none of it is making any of us a better Catholic. I don’t give a damn about “uniting the clans” — for that you need a strong leader who can quell their divisions by the might of his sword and lead them to victory. Not a single Catholic media figure is holding Excalibur, however, and the lot of them need to start taking themselves a hell of a lot less seriously.
We need to be asking much deeper questions. They’ll be different for each of us, in some respects. But we’ll all have some common ones:
“What do I really believe, and why?” is a big one on my list.
“How can I actually come to know and love God and not just fear Him?” is another.
How about: “In what ways is my experience of the Church getting in the way of answering these questions? Is my belief in the superiority of one liturgy over another becoming a fetish? Do I treat others with disdain because they do not live up to my standards of what being a ‘real Catholic’ entails? Have I made an idol of the Church, or my attachment to her laws?”
I’ve been saying for years that I have never in my life seen a healthy Church. That’s a harrowing thing for souls who are taught to take shelter within her mantle. Unity, one of her four distinguishing marks, is no longer in evidence. Her liturgical and theological schizophrenia is completely unsustainable, and only foments conflict and division. Her many constantly-warring factions are the clearest sign that our leadership has utterly failed.
How can anyone find peace in an environment like this? How can anyone ever feel as though they’ve truly found home? How do you get to God amidst all this damned noise?
I recognize that despite the outpouring of support and the sharing of experiences, my views on this are not universally shared. Some folks who have contacted me have found exactly what they’re looking for, and I’m happy for them. Others have sought to shame and silence me for speaking out about this at all — which is both predictable and sad.
If Catholicism is true — and yes, I’m saying “if” — then it should never need to silence honest questioning. The truth and beauty of a divinely-founded institution should by necessity withstand any scrutiny, and should stand as a beacon for those who have lost their way to find the path home.
The preceding paragraph will send certain people into howls of indignation. “How dare he question! He’s scandalizing the faithful! He’s leading them astray!” Attack! Attack! Attack!
Let them howl.
How dare I not question? How dare I not examine what I have taken for granted to ensure its veracity? I have lived my life by it. I have raised my children in it. I have shared it and explained it to millions of people by means of my work. I have a duty — a moral obligation — to ensure it is correct, and not merely a reflexive, default position. This examination is particularly necessarily at a time when the Church as an institution offers so many substantive reasons to question her claims.
If God is truly protecting His Church and guiding it, if He hears our prayers that He help us, will He not lead us to the truth?
What hurts people even more than someone in my position saying difficult, uncomfortable things out loud, is nobody doing so.
All those hundreds of people who expressed gratitude for my willingness to assure them they are not alone? Their brokenness, their wounds, their doubts and insecurities were festering. For a moment — for maybe the first moment ever — someone shone a light into the darkness and proved to them that this is not just their imagination, that it’s not just limited to their parish, or their particular experience. That it’s not their fault, because as good guilt-ridden Catholics, we often blame ourselves first as we masochistically convince ourselves that “we deserve bad things because of our sins.”
If God sends bad clergy to punish us, when clergy are here to help us get to heaven by providing us spiritual guidance and sacraments, what does it say about His desire that we be saved?
Seems pretty counterintuitive, doesn’t it?
Catholicism is broken. (More howls.) It is a broken religion run in this earthly realm by broken men. Corrupt men. Very often evil men. Men who do not care one iota for your wellbeing, spiritual or otherwise. Yes, there are good men too, but by and large, it has gone so far off the rails that there is virtually no possibility that human intervention can set it aright. Only God can do it, and so, that’s His job. Not ours.
The simplest, arguably most effective pragmatic response to a crisis this deep is one many have already identified: focus on personal holiness and the duties of one’s state in life. To do this, and do it sanely, many have chosen to ignore what is happening in the Church.
Prudentially, I think this is probably wise if not pursued to the point of complete ignorance. But I think this approach, necessary though it may be, only underscores the problem: if the Church is the means Christ established for our salvation, but the Church via its hierarchy and ministers is also such an impediment to salvation that its condition must be ignored in order to obtain it, something is very, very wrong.
It’s an ugly paradox indeed.
In one of my many conversations with readers over the past couple of days, I spoke to a man I used to have very contentious interactions with. He was very gracious, sincere, and kind. During the course of our conversation, I recalled that I had once, years ago, mocked him for telling me I needed “epistemic humility.” It felt to me at the time like a haughty term, hewn from the psychobabble of modernism.
But I was wrong. It was exactly what I needed, and as the realization dawned on me, I apologized.
So what is epistemic humility? Simply put:
The word “epistemic” means, essentially, anything dealing with knowledge.
Epistemic humility, then, is being humble with your assumptions about understanding. It’s recognizing that you may not know something—may not know a great many things—and that this is natural and okay.
This doesn’t mean deciding that you’re ignorant and therefore know nothing about anything. And it doesn’t mean proudly declaring that you’re ignorant so as to seem wise or rebellious.
It means recognizing that your understanding of the world is incomplete, and that as a consequence you may not perceive things as clearly as you believe you do.
Something I’ve experienced for many years is the urge — found most strongly in traditionalist Catholicism with its love for old papal documents, catechisms, rubrics, and rules — to have a theological explanation for everything on speed dial. To respond to any doubt or question or objection with a quick, “But the Church teaches [X]!”
But over the years, I’ve come to see that this doesn’t always work. Sometimes, the answer is right, but the delivery makes it impossible for the person being browbeaten with it to hear it. But the truth is, there isn’t always an answer, or at least, there isn’t always a clear, well-defined one. And the impulse itself to always pull that kind of response from our quick-draw holsters has a deleterious effect on our ability to think.
It makes us reach for confirmation bias before we even examine what is in front of us.
It causes us to beg the question, rather than entertain a question and see where it leads.
It closes our minds to possibilities, cripples our imaginations, makes us terrible listeners, and drains us of the ability to empathize with the pain caused by doubt and uncertainty.
“Shut up and do what you’re told” is a rough starting point for any honest conversation.
I think I found solace in the framework of all these scripted replies because it eased my uncertainty by outsourcing the difficult act of thinking for myself and drawing my own conclusions.
Think about it: if you reason your way to a conclusion about something, your opinion is only that. You’d better have the confidence and the wherewithal to back it up. You’re pretty much on your own.
But if you can say, “Well, the Church teaches X, and the Church is infallible, and so nobody can argue with this unless they’re a heretic,” then you don’t really have to do any work at all, except maybe some memorization of the teachings themselves. You feel good about life because everything is black and white. The buck doesn’t even slow down with you.
And you don’t have to explain anything. You get to be lazy. You get to pull the argument from authority card with the glowing approval of people who would nail you to the wall for making recourse to other logical fallacies.
The tribe has spoken, and the tribe cannot err. Ergo, if you wish to be part of the tribe, you WILL fall in line.
Now it may well be that the Church’s answers are, in fact, right. In my experience, this is very often the case. But taking that for granted because we are afraid to examine whether it is true in any particular instance drastically limits our effectiveness in a) understanding any of what we believe and b) being able to effectively persuade others of it. And it dulls our minds.
On the other hand, I’ve come to see that sometimes, there are prevailing views about the Church’s mind on this or that thing that pretty clearly don’t add up, and are therefore at least possibly wrong. (Is that howling I’m hearing again?) On those occasions, it’s even more important to buck the impulse to obeisance.
The kind of Catholic who is immersed in the view I’ve described finds the following statement completely unpalatable:
“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; for, if there be a God, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”
— Thomas Jefferson
I think it’s one of the most beautiful compliments God could ever be given: the idea that He trusts and respects the intellect and free will He gave his creatures so much that he’d rather they use them to examine the thorny question of His existence than to merely cower before an imposed belief.
Cowering is a result of fear; it is a manifestation of control: “You must believe X! You must not think Y! You may not say Z! Who are you to even entertain such things?!”
I don’t want to be controlled any longer. I don’t want to be cowed. I have spent many years running from my doubts and questions, pushing them down when they arose, only to have them eventually overtake me. In his book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson tackles the daunting nature of this task:
The world is full of hidden dangers and obstacles—and opportunities. Leaving everything hidden in the fog because you are afraid of the danger you may find there will be of little help when fate forces you to run headlong toward what you have refused to see. Impaling yourself on sharp branches, stumbling over boulders, and rushing by places of sanctuary, you will finally refuse to admit you could have burned away the haze with the bright light of your consciousness, had you not hidden it under a bushel. Then you will come to curse man, reality, and God himself for producing such an impenetrable maze of impediments and barriers. Corruption will beckon to you, led as you increasingly will be by dark, unexamined motivations—bred by failure, amplified by frustration—viciously culminating in the resentful belief that those who have transgressed against you are getting from you exactly what they deserve. This attitude and the actions and inactions it will inevitably produce will impoverish your life, your community, your nation, and the world. This will in turn impoverish Being itself (and that will be exactly what your darkest unexamined motivations desire).
With careful searching, with careful attention, you might tip the balance toward opportunity and against obstacle sufficiently so that life is clearly worth living, despite its fragility and suffering. If you truly wanted, perhaps you would receive, if you asked. If you truly sought, perhaps you would find what you seek. If you knocked, truly wanting to enter, perhaps the door would open. But there will be times in your life when it will take everything you have to face what is in front of you, instead of hiding away from a truth so terrible that the only thing worse is the falsehood you long to replace it with.
Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
For those of you who choose to stick around this Substack — I do hope many of you will sign up for our free content, and perhaps consider subscribing — my goal here is to pursue these questions of greatest interest to our existence. I’m on a personal search for meaning and purpose, which is parallel to, if not always intertwined with, the re-examination of my lifelong religion. In other words: this is not an explicitly religion-themed project, but it will touch on religious themes where appropriate, as we’re doing right now.
Rather than suppress curiosity out of a fear that it threatens my beliefs, I want to indulge it — even when it takes us to places that are a little weird. Needless impediments to imagination are indescribably boring. Life is an adventure, and it is made for exploring.
I’m leaving behind the culture of policing everyone else to make sure they’re toeing the line. I want to spend my time helping people find their way — including me. I’ve come to recognize the truth of the maxim that “hurt people hurt people,” and how I’ve lived that in my own life, and my own faith.
It’s quite possible that my journey will lead me right back to where I started, but I hope I’ll be a better man when I arrive. As G.K. Chesterton says at the outset of his book, The Everlasting Man:
There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote. … I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are scrawled along the flanks of the hills. It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen.
“The point of this book, in other words,” Chesterton concedes, “is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it.”
I am not outside of Christendom. Contrary to some reports, I haven’t left, and without the conviction that doing so is the only right answer, I don’t plan to. But I am re-orienting myself, trying to get my bearings, and would like to get some outside perspective. I’d like to look at things from a vantage point I’ve never seen: namely, with my preconceived notions, biases, and beliefs at least temporarily set aside.
If you’re one of the many people who responded to me that you, too, are at this difficult point in your journey, searching for answers and not sure where to find them, I hope you’ll stay. One of the benefits of our low-cost subscription model, incidentally, is that comments are only open to subscribers, and trolls don’t much like to pay the people they show up to hate. That makes it possible to finally build a community where discussion can happen freely among people of like mind, without all the howling, the wailing, and the gnashing of teeth.
We didn’t get here alone, and we’re not going to figure it out alone. We may never unbreak what is broken. But maybe that’s not the best path anyway. Perhaps we should embrace the Japanese concept of Kintsugi, or “golden repair” — the art of embracing damage, and making something even better come from it:
It’s a beautiful idea. Seems like it’s worth a shot.