Let's Get Raw & Real For a Hot Second
Some things I need to get off my chest even though I don't want to
Hi everyone. Happy New Year. As I sit down to write this, the only thing I can tell you is how much I don’t really want to.
As someone who has made his living for years writing thousands of articles, a guy who believes writing is a craft, not a manifestation of the muses tickling your brain when they happen to feel like it, it bothers me how little content I’ve been able to put out lately. It bothers me more because some of you are paying subscribers, and as one of you complained in the commbox yesterday:
I am disappointed and feel a bit scammed that I subscribed to your substack. I did it when you were in the midst of an existential crisis and just before you left One Peter Five. (Full disclosure: I am not a Trad) What did I subscribe to? You don't even write anything. I follow you on social media but all I see there are angry comments about how much you hate traditional Catholics and lame attempts to appeal to others who have had similarly bad experiences with the Catholic Faith. I hope you can pull yourself together. I don't want my money back, but you might as well have run a GoFundMe; it would have been more honest.
I have no honest defense against this complaint. All I can do is apologize. And promise you that if I can’t get my shit together soon, I will pause all subscriptions and cancel any upon request.
I keep thinking the fog is going to clear. 2021 was a crazy year. Working through healing the things that almost ended my marriage has been an ongoing process. We had a baby — our 8th — in June, in our mid-40s, and it required a complete mindset adjustment. The fallout from the articles I wrote when our “pastor” wouldn’t baptize that baby without making us jump through ridiculous, arbitrary hoops, and the way that was, for me, the last straw in holding together a faith that was already falling apart kind of set my world on fire, what with my entire audience knowing me for being the guy who ran the biggest traditional Catholic website in the world for a while. Then there was the decision to move out of our house in Arizona, which carried a lot of bad memories, the seemingly interminable remodeling projects to get it ready for sale, the trip to New England to see if we wanted to live here (it had been on our bucket list since my 16 year old was a newborn), and ultimately, the move itself, which was complicated by incompetent bank folks, an asshole seller, and a nearly month-long stay with my large family (and dog) in a tiny hotel room as we waited for it to get settled. And then the move itself, and the sea of boxes that has lingered like the dregs of a tsunami for months, and the holidays, alone, in a new place, where we know nobody, and aren’t even certain we belong.
Turmoil. I’m sure many of you can identify with it. I know I’m not unique, and that the last year has been freaking insane for many of you as well. And you just find yourself reeling from it all.
But I finally got my desk set up, and I sat down to write like I always do, and nothing came.
Every day, I think tomorrow is going to be that day. Every tomorrow, I think the same. It’s not that I can’t write — I’m obviously doing it now — it’s that I can’t write anything worth reading.
It all feels too personal, too raw, too repetitive, too self-focused, too much about my own current state of naval-gazing recursive angst. I want to offer things that can help others. That can help you. I don’t want to do all this “me, me, me” BS all the time. But it’s all I can think about, so the other ideas just aren’t coming right now.
And to be honest, I’m pretty sure I’m dealing with an actual case of clinical depression. One of the delights of being in the top percentile of neuroticism and being a massive introvert is that the idea of going out and finding an actual diagnosis for such a thing, and whatever treatment it might entail, is about as appealing as having my fingernails ripped off. But I see the signs. Last night, as I left the grocery store to go home and make dinner for the kiddos (my lovely wife is out of town), I felt a heavy blanket of bone-deep sadness fall over me for no apparent reason.
For most of the evening, I felt myself wanting to just weep, without knowing why. That’s a weird thing for a dad to do in front of his ten-year-old son as he’s just standing there over the air fryer in the middle of a conversation, so I managed not to. But that urge was strong, and it was of no specific origin I could identify.
I’m stuck in that loop where I just keep thinking about the way the universe as I understand it has crumbled. Don’t get me wrong - there are very good things in my life, and I really do practice the art of gratitude every day. But there are also things that are very, very wrong — like my rapidly metastasizing antipathy towards God and religion that I can’t seem to get the brakes on, as my wife can attest to after listening to my occasional spontaneous rants, and as the commenter above pointed to regarding my habitual Twitter brawls with other Catholics as I try to figure out just what the actual fuck I’m going through right now.
I’m angry, yes. But as I’ve learned about myself, the thing that underlies most of my anger is fear and hurt. And there’s so, so much of that.
I know I’ve talked about it too much, but I have to go back to the well again: when I was 15 or so, and started going on retreats with the Legionaries of Christ, they quickly became my life. Raised in a kind of family where being Catholic is the primary descriptor in your identity, I had been looking for something that felt less silly and shallow than small town, post-conciliar parish life. It was like finding the Catholic version of the Marines, in my boyish, earnest mind. Cassocks and chant and adoration and incense and Masses more reverent than I’d ever seen.
By my senior year of high school, I was living with their priests in community a couple thousand miles away from home. The year after that, I was doing missionary work with them and living in a house of apostolate and teaching in one of their schools.
And then it all fell apart.
You see, the Legionaries kept telling me they knew I had a vocation to the priesthood. And all I wanted was to get married and have a family. They found my desire to please God, and my fear of displeasing him and earning his wrath, and dug their fingers in deep. They had convinced me, the summer before I had joined their “co-worker” program, wherein you volunteer to do a year of apostolate work, to try out the seminary. I didn’t want to, but these men I was looking to as the wise, guiding father figures my own dad just didn’t know how to be were saying that they knew it was where I belonged. And so, like a dutiful son, I did what they said.
I was so miserable, still so in love with my high school girlfriend — who showed up that summer looking beautiful for her brother’s religious professions, since everyone I knew at that time was in the Legion’s orbit — I couldn’t do it. I started becoming a problem for their other seminarians, because I couldn’t keep my thoughts to myself. And by thoughts I mean doubts, desires, anxiety, concerns, a rush of emotions and logic and words in a potent brew that got their other true believers questioning, too.
So they told me to go, but keep considering. You know, because they knew. As the pseudo-saintly district superior said to me one night, “Like Christ said to the man under the fig tree, I saw you and I knew.”
But the hooks of vocational anxiety in a neurotic mind with CPTSD and an instilled fear of hell and the omniscient surveillance deity who would send you there were a helluva drug. I was making the wrong choice. God would be angry. I was supposed to be a priest and my resistance just meant I was fighting my vocation. The thoughts were endless. The gnawing in my stomach was incessant. I started having my first experiences of how stiff drink could alleviate that awful feeling, which would become a habit I still haven’t kicked.
When I went home that Christmas and the new pastor at my parish who I didn’t even know told me God wanted him to talk to me and would I go to breakfast with him, I went. As we ate our pancakes and sausage, he let me ramble, and when I touched, as I inevitably always did, on the way I felt about all of it, he said, “And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I don’t think you’re supposed to be there. I have this very strong intuition that you need to get out.”
And I knew he was right. I knew. So I went home that day and wrote a letter and faxed it to the superior of the house where I was assigned and let him know I was done.
The thing was, I had spent the past several months prepping a two-week mission trip in Miami, Florida, and I was the Mission Director. People had booked flights. Venues had been set up. The parish there was expecting us. I had every intention of doing my job, and so, with the help of a friend from home, we drove from my parents’ house in Upstate New York to Florida, stopping in Atlanta along the way to get my things.
The mission trip was odd, to say the least. It was a liberating moment, but the beginning of a series of betrayals that would effect me long after. It also felt like a peek at what life could be like without all the Legion drama. I had the use of the parish pickup truck, and when I had nothing better to do — and sometimes even when I did — I’d find an excuse to rune an errand, then drive through Coconut Grove and look at the beautiful homes there, red tile roofs under the palm trees, or cruise by South Beach and feast my eyes on all the sun-kissed, bikini-clad bodies like any 19-year-old boy with a pulse would do.
Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t just playing the deadbeat. I was out knocking on doors, evangelizing just like everyone else. I just needed to be away from it all every now and then. But the priests, both of whom I knew well, would let me have my alone time, and then secretly meet without me so that they could figure out how to take over the mission I’d spent so much effort setting up and building relationships with the locals to manage, and exclude me from leading it.
I only found this out because one of my fellow “co-workers,” a tall, lanky guy named Tim, from just outside of Philly, who always had the ghost of a smile on his face and loved to play the guitar and sing — not in a geeky, praise and worship way, but in a cool, John Mayer before John Mayer was John Mayer kind of way — got serious one day and told me, no trace of the ever-present smile to be found. “They wait until you go somewhere and they meet without you. They want me to take over. I think it’s really crappy and I thought you should know.”
This conversation was the beginning of a series of discussions that I have begun thinking of as “the Catholic ‘Me Too’ movement.” It’s the thing where you talk to other people about your bad experiences, and suddenly you see the light go on in their eyes, and they sit up and say, “Wait, that happened to you too? I thought it was just me!” And then what seemed like an anomaly turns quickly into a pattern.
You see, the Legion had this thing where you didn’t talk shit about what was going on amongst your peers. You only complained up the chain of command, so they could properly lie to you and betray your trust from a position of authority. Little did I know, that January in Miami in 1997, that the following month some of the horrific sexual predation of the order’s founder would be revealed in a Hartford Courant article that would make national news. I mean, I should have known, since they flew me and Tim and all of the full-time workers in houses of apostolate to Cheshire, Connecticut, the previous month, to tell us accusations would be coming out and that they were false and we shouldn’t read about them an oh, by the way, deny everything. Thing was, that was all they told us. Not what, not who, not how, not anything. Just plug your ears, close your eyes, and lie like crazy to anyone who asks you.
And that is what a culture of coverup and deceit looks like on a practical, day to day basis. You can get a lot of the way towards cult adherence behind slogans like, “Missionaries never complain!” Keep reminding us not to complain, not to criticize, to practice “Gospel charity,” to only talk to our superiors about problems, and the truth can be kept buried for a long, long time. It can even hide under the cover of support from the Most Beloved Pope Of All Time.
But the thing was, just like when I was in the seminary, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. These guys I was on the mission with? They were my friends. One of them, 14 years later, would become the godfather of one of my sons. And so we sat, and we talked when the priests weren’t around, and as we compared notes, we started realizing there was something rotten in Legionland. Our “me too” conversations quickly became a realization that would lead some of us to leave before our year was over; others would fight back in different ways.
I left that trip already feeling the knife in my back from one of the two priests there, who I knew well and was quite friendly with, but who had given me the cold shoulder the entire time. I found out later that month that my superior in Atlanta had been lying to me in spiritual direction about my girlfriend, who was undergoing psychiatric treatment under the care of, you guessed it, a Legion-approved psychologist. He’d been telling me the whole time that I couldn’t have contact with her because it would set back her therapy, which was related to some serious childhood abuse, and because I loved her, I bought it. It was bullshit, and she told me as much. I also wound up finding out how fast a cult can close ranks. They started a whisper campaign as soon as I sent that fax saying I was done, talking smack about me to every member of the movement who knew me, turning folks against me and closing ranks to fill the gap left by one of their top recruits. Luckily, again, many of these people were my friends, and knew better. Some even pushed back. But remember, I had turned to the Legionaries as surrogate father figures, and as priests of Christ, and the betrayal rocked my world — and my faith.
I suffered severe depression that spring. When the accusations finally came out about Maciel, I didn’t see them at first. The internet then wasn’t like it is now, where you can’t miss a story like that everywhere you look. When I did see them, I wasn’t even sure I believed them. But I knew something was rotten right to the core. It was the only thing that explained why so many people I was talking to felt manipulated, deceived, and abused by the religious order they were giving everything to.
I went to Steubenville that fall, and many of the people I knew from my Legion days did as well. Some were my good friends. Others got the memo not to trust me. As time wore on, I started fighting hard against their recruitment efforts on campus. I was still battling vocational anxiety, still kind of numb from depression and the end of the relationship that had helped to keep me from losing myself under their influence, but I had to cause to fight for and it was righteous. And they hated how effective I was, to the point where they would tell their recruits to avoid talking to me at all costs.
I saved people from their clutches, and I’m proud of that. People who came back and said I was the lifeline that got them away from what would have been a bad situation for them. And that was when I learned what I’d later see encapsulated perfectly in a quote from holocaust survivor and author Elie Weisel:
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
So why this stroll down (unpleasant) memory lane?
Because I feel like I’m right back there again. Ever since I wrote Against Crippled Religion, everything has changed. I pushed back against the institution, I said “to hell with your rules, I’m talking about the bad stuff you’re doing,” and almost instantly, I’m on the outside looking in. The whisper campaigns, the gossip, the attempts to destroy my reputation, they all started right back up again. This time, they weren’t an organized attempt to circle the pedophilic wagons, but the traditionalist tribe pushing me towards exile, one “last” big purity spiral in an endless string of purity spirals.
It was deeply telling to me that nobody in trad media I wasn’t already working with at 1P5 offered a word of unsolicited support when I outlined my struggles.
You know who did? Karl Keating and Jimmy Akin and Dave Armstrong and Dawn Eden Goldstein and a bunch of other people who either ignore or actively criticize me most of the time. People from the Patheos crowd, people who prefaced their emails with disclaimers like, “I don’t agree with a lot of what you say, but I just wanted you to know that I understand and I’m praying for you.”
You see, I don’t think I wanted to admit it to myself, but I replaced one cult with another one. I told myself, when I left the Legion, that I had to learn to find my identity in the Church as a whole, not in this or that religious movement. But the fact is, traditionalism is not the Church as a whole. It is, on the one hand, a top-level category for folks who just want reverent liturgy, better sacramental forms, and more nourishing devotional lives. I have no argument with these people. I agree with them, or I wouldn’t have championed this stuff for most of the past 20 years.
But it’s also an ideology, full of hubris and vitriol and negativity and gotcha journalism and conspiracy theorizing and vice masquerading as virtue. “I’m going to be a complete asshole to you but label it ‘admonishing the sinner’ so I can consider it a spiritual work of mercy.”
And so when you see me railing against trads, that is what I’m going after. Trad culture, especially online trad culture, is dominated by this type. (For those who say it doesn’t happen in real life, you’re wrong. A well-established trad priest I know once took me aside and said the reason he doesn’t do more coffee hours after Mass is because they inevitably turn into “trad bitch sessions.”) It’s toxic, it builds itself up primarily by tearing others down, it’s adversarial and contrarian about everything, and it actively cultivates hostility with anything not perceived as ideologically pure.
I didn’t get to the top of that particular heap without knowing how it works. People who tell me it doesn’t need to wake up.
But I also know I’ve offended a lot of people who used to support me, including financially, by going after tradistan all the time. And if you’re one of the good ones, I owe you an apology. I’m not meaning to hit out at you, or your desire to fulfill your obligation to God in the best way possible, or to give your children the best shot at heaven. But look at what rises to the top of the thought leader charts in the traditionalist movement: panderers, malcontents, and shit-slingers. People who prey on your justifiable fear, and need to keep you anxious and riled up so you keep reading or watching. “Did you see what the pope did now” is a solid business model. I know. And when I realized what I was doing, I had to stop. Even when it’s true, it’s NOT HELPING ANYONE BE A BETTER PERSON.
I was desperate to separate myself from these people, and from the LARP some of them are trying to create, and so I kicked off, hard, to get some space from their orbit.
But that leaves me adrift. It doesn’t change my opinion that the post-conciliar Church is a failed experiment that is dying before our eyes and holds no real appeal for people serious about religion. It doesn’t change my opinion that this pope is a moral and theological monster who has called into question the very dogmas of the Church on some critically important matters. It doesn’t change my opinion that the old Mass is objectively superior to the new, or that the older sacramental forms more clearly convey the grace they attempt to signify and institute, or that a lot of the older Catholic ethos was better.
But not all of it was.
A lot of it was dour, and dire, and debilitating. I’d like to talk more about that in a future post, since this one is already rather long.
For my part, I’ve totally lost faith in the Catholic Church’s ability to be believed at face value. I know it might be as right as I always thought it was, but I don’t know how to find a path to making sense of that when those put in charge of the Church, given authority by God himself, are doing the most to undermine its very teachings and sacramental life. Some guy once said something about how a house divided cannot stand, and a lot of people thought he was onto something.
I’ve also come to realize that my belief in God was entirely predicated upon my trust of the Church telling me a) that it was true b) who he was and c) what that meant I had to do. It wasn’t because I think he’s self-evident, or because I feel that he loves or cares about me, or that we can possibly know what he wants with any degree of certitude. I took for granted all of these things because the Church told us he left them in charge, and that was that.
And now that the trust is gone, I realize the faith I thought I had was mostly illusory. And so yes, without the solid ground of belief firmly beneath my feet, I’m questioning everything actively, and openly, because like with the Legion, I feel like I’ve been played. They saw someone eager and zealous and took advantage of me and now my life is more than halfway done, my best years are gone, and they’ve almost all been given to the service of an insufferably corrupt institution that didn’t even make me a better person. That’s the thing I can’t get over. I’ve been a better man, a better husband, a better father, a more decent and loving human being since I stopped actively practicing the Catholic Faith than I ever was when I was receiving the sacraments regularly. If they are supposed to transform our lives, how does that even work? And why is it that so many of the nastiest people I encounter are overtly devout in their religious practice?
Of course, I’m not supposed to be saying any of this out loud. Over and over, people tell me I shouldn’t be airing my doubts and grievances in public. Just like the Legion, the Church has inculcated a terror of “scandal” in us, as though any grown up person with real faith is going to lose it because some dude on the internet says he’s not so sure anymore. And this fear of scandal is enforced by an army of fellow tongue-clickers. But really, all this speaks to is a lack of confidence that the “truths” of the faith can bear scrutiny. If you know they can, you should invite people like me to throw everything I’ve got at it, because I’ll do no damage and the Church will come out smelling like roses, triumphant again, just like always.
I have people telling me I sound like Richard Dawkins or other angry atheists. First of all, I’m not an atheist. I just don’t claim to know what is impossible to know. Second, I’ve never read Dawkins or any of those guys. Which really makes me wonder if maybe the conclusions I’m reaching are just obvious, following from the tenets of Christianity — also something I want to cover in a future post.
The way I see it, I’ve already been through this, guys. I’m not just going away, and I’m not just going to shut up. I need answers, and the more I speak up about this out loud, the more people who reach out to me and say, just like they did with the Legion, “Wait, I thought it was just me! I have been having this same struggle!”
People need to be heard. They need to be understood. They need not to feel like they’re crazy or evil or alone. That matters. And people are way more important to me than the reputation of the Church, or the faith, both of which the hierarchy is doing a fine job destroying without any help from me.
In any case, I’m sorry to those of you I’ve hurt unintentionally in my anger and pain, & to those who have felt ripped off by my absence here. I didn’t mean to disappear. It’s just really, really hard to do this right now. I had to promise myself that I wouldn’t edit this or even re-read it, or I might get cold feet and not post it at all. So apologies there, too, because it’s probably quite a ramble, and there may be errors that I’ve missed. This is what my unfiltered first drafts look like, so make of it what you will.
And for those of you who keep sticking with me for some unfathomable reason, thank you.