The Fragility of Heavy-Handed Faith
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My first girlfriend came from a big Catholic family - 13 kids. I was 16 and she was 18 when we started dating, and the truth was, I’d had a crush on her since she first babysat for me and my siblings a few years before.
[OK, I have to digress for a second. John Mulaney has a great bit about the phenomena of barely-older babysitters that I feel the need to share with you at this moment before we move on:]
So I went from the babysat to the boyfriend the summer before I turned 17. Her parents were kind, but fairly strict and very religious. They were Three Days of Darkness preppers, and I remember going with them to big box stores to stock up on supplies, because the prophesied event was evidently considered to be imminent in 1995. Where that was somewhat amusing, the thing they did that drove me nuts was the way they’d use things like the Rosary as a mechanism of control.
One night, myself and several of their kids who were in their late teens had plans to go see a movie, and I met up with them at their house so we could drive together. The parents busted out the rosary right as we told them we were leaving to make the next showing. They insisted that we all stay and pray it together, a totally transparent ploy to derail our plans, passed off as a spontaneous act of religious observance. I didn’t have to stay. They weren’t my parents, but I was hoping to salvage the evening, so I reluctantly (and angrily) stuck around.
Pro tip: entangling the practice of devotions with feelings of injustice and resentment is a great way to create antipathy towards the faith.
I don’t know how often they did these kinds of things. I absolutely know they loved their children. But there was always a sense of excess in this regard that soured me on their brand of religion. (They were among the first people I ever met who went to the Traditional Latin Mass [TLM], so this set an early expectation for me about that crowd.) I also heard stories about some of those same children’s later prodigality. I’ve lost touch with most of them, and though I suspect most remained faithful in the long run, there was a good bit of rebellion in the interim.
I had a conversation with a different Catholic mother ten or fifteen years ago. She was upset that her 13 year old daughter was disinterested in attending daily Mass or devotions like Stations of the Cross. I asked the woman what she expected from a child that age.
“I expect holiness,” she replied curtly.
“Then you’re going to be disappointed,” I said. “You can’t force it. If you persist in that attitude, you’ll be lucky if your daughter keeps the faith at all.”
Last I heard, that daughter, now in her 30s, no longer even considers herself a Christian.
It’s a story I’ve seen play out time and again among friends, family members, and acquaintances. I could give examples, but most are too personal. These aren’t just anecdotes I’ve heard from others. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I’ve experienced the consequences of it in my own home.
This week, a related topic arose on Catholic Twitter. The idea was put forth that kids who are raised going to the TLM don’t necessarily fare better in terms of avoiding the temptation to fall away. This assertion, made by a priest who offers both the new and old Mass, seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
But to others, it was pretty controversial. (Just read some of the quote tweets Father Hilderbrand got on this opinion.)
Here’s a contrary view by one discussion participant I engaged with:
There’s a persistent maxim within Catholic traditionalism: “Save the liturgy, save the world!” It’s one I subscribed to for a long time, because my own study has led me to believe that the old Mass is a superior act of worship. I think that’s objectively true, and difficult to dispute outside of appeals to personal preference. But during the better part of two decades within traditional Catholicism, I’ve come to see that fixing the liturgy alone (as if that were even possible in the modern Church) is only part of the puzzle.
The TLM, just like any other singular religious practice, is not a silver bullet. And if those who prefer the New Mass — the Novus Ordo (NO) — can sometimes be too lax with the liturgy and too squishy with theology, within traditionalism there is a tendency towards legalism, clericalism, and a hyperfocus on rules/rubrics and externally imposed behavioral norms (see some of the debates about whether it’s morally licit for women to wear pants for an eye-rolling example) that can crowd out authentic love of God. Once you do that, there’s really only recourse to scrupulous observance.
(I should note that this isn’t strictly limited to traditionalism; Irish Catholicism, which has significantly influence American Catholicism, also seems to tend toward this position.)
In families like this, the heavy-handedness can plant the seeds of resentment. Certain religious practices, if not used judiciously, can become suffocating, producing an adverse effect. I’ve watched kids who grew up in strict Catholic families where the outside world was meticulously kept at bay and observance of the faith was scrupulously practiced at home nevertheless go completely off the reservation the minute they’re free of their parents.
So when it comes to the question of retention of children raised in the standard Church experience or the TLM, who wins?
I don’t think we can answer that. I don’t even think it’s the right question. The data is unreliable and incomplete. Certainly, cultural Catholicism has been eviscerated in the decades since Vatican II and the implementation of the New Mass. Nobody has explained why better than German novelist Martin Mosebach in his (non-fiction) book, The Heresy of Formlessness:
It was painful for the clergy to talk about these things, but they were not willing to admit that there had been a loss of spirituality. Kneeling was medieval, they said. The early Christians prayed standing. Standing signifies the resurrected Christ, they said; it is the most appropriate attitude for a Christian. The early Christians are also supposed to have received Communion in their hands. What is irreverent about the faithful making their hands into a “throne” for the Host? I grant that the people who tell me such things are absolutely serious about it all. But it becomes very clear that pastors of souls are incredibly remote from the world in these matters; academic arguments are completely useless in questions of liturgy. These scholars are always concerned only about the historical side of the substance of faith and of the forms of devotion. If, however, we think correctly and historically, we should realize that what is an expression of veneration in one period can be an expression of blasphemy in another. If people who have been kneeling for a thousand years suddenly get to their feet, they do not think, “We’re doing this like the early Christians, who stood for the Consecration”; they are not aware of returning to some particularly authentic form of worship. They simply get up, brush the dust from their trouser-legs and say to themselves: “So it wasn’t such a serious business after all.” Everything that takes place in celebrations of this kind implies the same thing: “It wasn’t all that serious after all.” Under such circumstances, anthropologically speaking, it is quite impossible for faith in the presence of Christ in the Sacrament to have any deeper spiritual significance, even if the Church continues to proclaim it and even if the participants of such celebrations go so far as to affirm it explicitly.
Many critiques of the NO miss an important distinction: if the average pewsitter no longer attends Mass most Sundays and no longer follows Church teaching on things like contraception, gay marriage, or abortion, there is a subset of “normie” Catholic who does. I grew up among them: conservative Catholics who go to the best NO Masses they can find and follow the Church’s teachings on fundamentals. These folks are not so dissimilar to those who have checked out of the mainstream Church and into traditionalism. Both groups are countercultural forces within the Church, which has a prevailing leftward drift. Both groups have the advantage of self-selection: actively seeking a more reverent parish with better preaching and more sacramental devotion is an intentional choice indicative of a higher level of commitment to religion than average. These are people who would naturally have higher retention numbers than those polled by Pew Research. And it’s hard to get accurate data from just these sub groups, because they aren’t as easily identified and separated nor as actively sought out.
All of which might help explain why polling of TLM-going Catholics vs. NO-going Catholics tends to be so lopsided. It’s not a direct-line comparison between conservative NO-goers and TLM-goers. It’s every kind of self-described Catholic under the sun, practicing or not, vs. people who’ve opted for the narrowest niche brand of devout Catholicism, whatever it takes. You’re comparing apples to astronauts. And you’re comparing millions of apples (only loosely categorized as such) to just a handful of astronauts. This method is fraught with inaccuracy.
So while the new Mass has been cogently argued to be deleterious to the faith, those Catholics families who attend it with devotion are not necessarily at a profound disadvantage in the long term to those who exclusively attend the TLM. I know too many people who have grown up in the context of “conservative novusordoism” and are doing just fine, faith-wise, to believe it’s a surefire faith-killer.
The upshot is that while liturgy as the highest act of worship of God is absolutely going to shape belief, it cannot, on its own, be THE game changer. The culture that surrounds that liturgy matters, too. Don’t take things seriously enough, and people will leave. Take them too seriously and act in an oppressive manner, and people will leave.
The virtue lies in the mean.
It must also be considered that a Church that has squandered its moral credibility, takes billions of dollars from world governments, ignores the pleas of her most devout members, and cozies up to progressive ideologues and others who hate her beliefs, represents a huge stumbling block. As I said in one of my earlier discussions this week:
It's hard to find a sense of the supernatural in a religion that is run by men clearly embarrassed by or antithetical to fundamental beliefs. We live in a very empirical age. That makes faith hard enough. Absent the widespread evidence of grace as a transformative factor, people don't take it seriously.
Like Mosebach said, the impression one is left with when looking at the Catholic Church in 2021 is: “It wasn’t all that serious after all.” And that, more than anything, seems to be determinant in retaining faith as an adult. “Does my Church take its own beliefs seriously, without being overbearing?” If you’re part of a subgroup that does, you’ve got better than average odds of sticking around. But even then, a look at Rome or your local chancery can leave you wondering if anyone in charge actually has faith.
A Protestant Perspective
Before I came across the debate over whether or not the TLM is more efficacious in avoiding the problem of “fallen away Catholics,” I was reading a piece in The New Yorker by Adrian Chen about Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the late founding pastor of Westboro Baptist Church. Known predominately for their off-putting brand of hate-based Christianity, they’re the people who picket various events, including funerals of soldiers killed in action, all while bearing signs with obnoxious slogans like “God hates fags,” “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “Most people go to hell.” Westboro got all the negative press they could ask for, and they embraced it. In the process, they quickly became a pariah; a living caricature of Christianity at its worst.
Phelps-Roper’s story is long, but worth reading. It is, in sum, the tale of a young woman living as a true believer who, in the midst of her own very zealous religious activity, found herself surprised by doubt. She began to see the harshness of her tribe as unbiblical and wrong. After a series of eye-opening moments, she eventually had enough:
In 2012, she was twenty-six years old, but she was still being treated like a child. Once-minor indignities, like being accompanied by an adult chaperone while eating lunch at a restaurant with other young church members, now seemed unbearable. In April, she was shocked when Westboro expelled a cousin of hers without adhering to the process that the church had always followed, which was derived from the Book of Matthew. Typically, expulsion resulted only after a unanimous decision, but in the cousin’s case she was excluded over other members’ objections. (Drain recalls no objections, and said, “Everything was done decently and in accordance with Scripture.”) “It stopped feeling like this larger-than-life divine institution ordained and led by God, and more like the sniping and sordid activity of men who wanted to be in control,” Phelps-Roper said.
I was immediately struck by that last line. Throughout the Catholic Church, especially at its extreme progressive and fundamentalist poles, this is the exact same thing I see. Men, both clerical and lay, who want to use doctrine, dogma, or ecclesiastical power to exert control. That’s what purity spiraling is: a naked power grab, using the shame of threatened banishment from the tribe as the means of keeping adherents ideologically in line. “Pay, pray, and obey” is the expectation from the faithful.
Despite my role as a fairly well-established thought leader within traditional Catholic circles, my quasi-openness about my struggles with faith over the past year have proven how quickly a tribe leader can find himself in exile. This was exemplified in a response to me as part of the larger online discussion I’ve been having on this topic:
This individual is someone I view as a generally friendly voice, not an antagonist. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how quickly one becomes a pariah? It’s not as though my past 17 years of experience, 7 of which were spent founding and running one of the biggest traditional Catholic publications in the world, evaporated when I started having doubts. If anything, my experience should make me more reliable as a critic, because I’m not an outsider.
But this is a feature of cult thinking. Every argument and manipulation imaginable is deployed to keep members inside. When those fail, the remaining members close ranks and turn their backs on the individual who leaves. It happened to me when I left the Legionaries of Christ; it’s happening again now with my distancing from the traditionalist movement.
My friend Kale jumped in to the Twitter exchange referenced above with his own perspective. “Steve’s year of ‘burning up his cred,’” he writes, “stems from his unwillingness to lie for the team. There are real problems in Tradutopia, and it’s best to own it.”
He then texted me to explain his position more:
Ideology requires that you ONLY consult the map, and if the map is off, you MUST ignore it, because "the party" needs you to lie for it.
Hyper-Tradism, like all ideologies, requires you to lie.
The map is, in this case, the existing parameters. The beliefs, dogmas, doctrines, and myths — not all of which are always authentic. Lies, Kale said to me, are ugly. And we have an obligation to say no, and not to live by them. Even when they’re convenient and keep us feeling safe.
This unwillingness to lie for the team, to engage in their enabling fantasy when it has been stretched beyond credulity, was the place that Megan Phelps-Roper came to:
She suddenly thought, What if Westboro had been wrong about everything? What if she was spending her one life hurting people, picking fights with the entire world, for nothing? “It was, like, just the fact that I thought about it, I had to leave right then,” she said. “I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin.”
“What if she was spending her one life hurting people, picking fights with the entire world, for nothing?”
That line resonates with me so much. Ever since going all-in on traditionalism and its “you should be so pissed about what the modernists stole from us” ethos in the early 2000s, I’ve been addicted to criticism and fight-picking. I’ve spent most of the past year trying to put the brakes on that, but the habits run deep. Phelps-Roper offers an unusually self-aware insight into the phenomenon:
Marvel’s Loki, at one point in his eponymous show, somewhat humorously proclaims that he is “burdened with glorious purpose!” That’s a decent summary of the feeling in question. “I have the right answers and others don’t, so I have a moral obligation to argue them into submission so they, too, do the right thing.”
This idea really is a burden. Almost a messianic complex. And it really does get ugly if you let it. The love of your fellow man becomes inconsequential compared to your “God-given” mission to go on an “unflinching pursuit of truth.”
I’ve written before about my experience last year of watching Jordan Peterson’s first lecture in his biblical series. Of how profoundly exciting it is to see a man of his intellectual talents tackle such a big, sacred topic without the fear of being attacked for his lack of orthodoxy, or of being labeled a “heretic” for making mistakes in his exegesis. Although recently, some have tried:
His analysis of the Bible as a totally unique historical phenomenon is worthwhile on its own, but it was the freedom he had to simply explore the topic without concern for whether the tribe would expel him for failing to toe the line that really struck me. It was an absolute epiphany. I knew that I could never attempt something so raw and unfiltered or I’d invite an avalanche of backlash. But Peterson is not overtly religious, so he doesn’t have to fear loss of status with a religious tribe, even if they’re critical of him. He is able to make a mess in the process of unearthing and discovering underlying truths without constantly self-censoring to avoid the ire of his peers.
It’s the difference between the scientific method and dogmatism, a theme that also came to the surface in Peterson’s recent podcast with Physicist Lawrence Krauss:
The difference between science and religion is, you can recognize later that those assumptions are wrong. That’s the beauty. That’s what, to me, is the distinction between science and religion.
We all make assumptions. I’ve loved the term I’ve often quoted from the X-Files where Fox Mulder says, “I want to believe.” We all want to believe! As a scientist, I want to believe. That’s why we’re all religious. We all want to believe.
The difference is science, eventually, as a technique, allows us to say, “Yeah, but that belief was wrong.” And that’s the beauty. That’s why I like science. It works in that sense. We all have to make some hypothesis, but the willingness to dispense with it — even if it’s central to our being, and that’s what I say to everyone — an education for everyone, if it’s at its best, should comprise one thing: that at some point you find that something that’s central to your being, something you feel that’s central to your existence, you find out to be wrong.
If you grew up Catholic the way I did, some part of you is already objecting to this notion. We’re so used to believing that the Church can’t be wrong on the big questions that we are unable to even conceive of the idea that she might be. It’s a perpetual state of begging of the question.
Watching Peterson’s lecture was the moment I realized I had, by founding and growing a publication rooted in very strict ideology, created a self-imposed intellectual prison. I built a platform so I could freely speak unpopular truths and be heard. But because I tied that platform to doctrines and dogmas that were not mine to do with as I wished, I could not then use it to question those doctrines and dogmas. Questions like, “Is this framework even the correct one, or have I just accepted that blindly because it’s what I’ve been taught to do my whole life, under pain of hell?”
It’s pretty terrifying to entertain the thought that you might have been wrong your whole life about something so vital. At times, it’s absolutely crushing, and can leave you feeling as though you have no identity. But it’s also incredibly liberating to think that if you are in fact wrong, at least about some of it, that it might help you make sense out of things you never really could, and were forced to just accept on faith.
Phelps-Roper again, with my emphasis:
The next day, she mentioned the possibility of leaving to Grace. Grace was horrified. “It just sounded ridiculous to even suggest it,” Grace told me. “These were the points I brought up: we’re never going to see our families again, we’re going to go to Hell for eternity, and our life will be meaningless.” Megan, still uncertain, agreed. But she plunged into a profound crisis of faith. “It was like flipping a switch,” she said. “So many other thoughts came in that I’d never pursued, and that’s every doubt that I’d ever had, everything that had ever seemed illogical or off.”
When they were together, Megan engaged Grace in interminable theological conversations. When they were apart, Megan detailed her doubts in text messages. One day, she texted Grace, “What if the God of the Bible isn’t the God of creation? We don’t believe that the Koran has the truth about God. Is it just because we were told forever that this is How Things Are?” She added, “Does it really make you happy when you hear about people dying or starving or being maimed? Do you really want to ask God to hurt people? I ask myself these questions. I think the answer is no. When I’m not scared of the answer, I know the answer is no.” Two days later, she texted Grace about Hell: “Why do we think it’s real? It’s starting to seem made up to scare people into doing what they say.” Grace replied, “But what if?”
Phelps-Roper spent the summer and the fall in an existential spiral. She would conclude that everything about Westboro’s doctrine was wrong, only to be seized with terror that these thoughts were a test from God, and she was failing. “You literally feel insane,” she said. Eventually, her doubts won out. “I just couldn’t keep up the charade,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do the things we were doing and say the things we were saying.”
The Catholic Church is hardly Westboro Baptist in its rhetoric, but it has some teachings that are “hard sayings.” Things like the absolute exclusivity of salvation to proper members of the Catholic Church (Cantate Domino) or the need to submit to the Roman Pontiff to attain salvation (Unam Sanctam) or that “the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished” — including unbaptized babies — (Council of Florence) or that it is not contrary to the will of God to burn heretics at the stake (Exsurge Domine). These can be real stumbling blocks. For those of us who have lost good and virtuous non-Catholic loved ones, or who have lost a child before baptism, or who think people are better off being evangelized than set on fire for being wrong, they — and yes, even the notion of hell itself — can seem irreconcilable with the concept of a truly loving God.
It’s an excruciating dilemma when something you’re obligated to believe just doesn’t make sense, but faith demands your assent…or else.
I know intimately the feeling Phelps-Roper describes: that of caroming between the thought that certain teachings must be wrong because they just don’t add up, and, conversely, the idea that I’m just not faithful enough to prevail. What if you just can’t see the lie in an alleged deception? What do you do when you ask God over and over to help you to see clearly, to help you to believe, to help you to love Him despite his seemingly unfathomable aloofness, but no perceptible aid arrives? How do you convince yourself that you’re not just talking to…yourself?
I’ve been trained my whole life believe that any failures of faith are my own fault. But the truth is, I didn’t want to doubt. I was looking for hope, and came up empty. I was looking to explain how things have gotten this bad within the Church when she was supposed to be divinely protected, and found no answer that would satisfy. I was seeking out assurance to give to others who were struggling, but every attempt I made felt as though it was wholly insufficient. And in the midst of it all, I was wondering why the grace of the sacramental life seemed to do so little to transform Catholics, myself included, into more virtuous beings.
For me, faith and reason have to work together. The minute reason gets kicked to the curb and I’m told to stop thinking about what’s bothering me and “just have faith,” alarm bells go off.
Ultimately, Phelps-Roper succumbed to her own doubts, fueled by the harsh contrast between her strict, other-condemning upbringing and her natural compassion for the humanity of those she was taught to see as enemies. She is no longer even a Christian. Asked at one point if she ever got tired of protesting, she said no, even after her doubts had flourished, but for a very specific reason: “It’s not about being tired,” she said. “it’s about not believing in it anymore. If I believed it, I could do it forever.” This is the nature of belief. When you have it, it can carry you through just about anything. When it slips through your fingers like so much sand, you wonder how you ever did it at all.
If I were more certain that the ship of the Catholic Church would ever be righted, that God was really coming to the rescue, that my religion is definitely what it claims to be, maybe I wouldn’t have felt that I had to walk away from my job as a Catholic commentator. But I’m a lousy faker, and as my doubts have grown, integrity demanded that I no longer pretend I could do the job. I needed to go on a serious pursuit to find these answers, not spend every day acting as though I already had them.
My own journey in search of those answers, therefore, is really just beginning. I have a great deal to consider as I try to untangle the mess.
So no, I don’t know which children who grow up in which flavor of Catholicism stay faithful the longest, but again, I think it’s the wrong question. It’s too simplistic, and the reality is much more complex. Some stay out of fear, not love, while others leave because they’re rebelling against overbearing parents or priests, not because they’ve lost faith. These are not the only scenarios. As someone who grew up in contemporary Catholicism, and who made the switch to traditional Catholicism nearly 20 years ago, I don’t see a panacea on either side. I see pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, all subsumed into bigger questions about how a Church that doesn’t take its own beliefs and traditions seriously can really sustain faith in any of us. I tried to do all the right things, to live my faith actively and learn as much as I could about it. All signs pointed in the direction of my never wavering, but somehow, doubt still caught up to me.
One thing I know is that for religion to work, you need real faith, and to feel compelled to love God more than fear Him. You’ve got to love your fellow man, too, not just try to ferret out his faults or look for opportunities to condemn him. Grace should be transformative, and should provide perceptible aid in living a life of virtue. None of these things have been at the heart of my personal experience of religion, and that’s made me take a step back to attempt a re-evaluation of where things went wrong.
Religious parents tend to fear not doing enough to teach our children the faith. We think that if we put them in the right environment or protect them enough or discipline them sufficiently, they’ll be OK. But I think we should be equally careful about oversimplification of the challenges to faith, and the way our own approach to it can make it feel onerous rather than beautiful. We have to leave room for free will when it comes to devotion, and not just bury the hard questions when they arise.
Faith is a fragile thing. It must be nourished like a seed. And like a flower slowly beginning to open, you can’t force it to blossom without risking its destruction.