Rod Dreher

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A Lutheran on Mount Athos

Josh Jeter, a young Lutheran  Presbyterian, spends ten days on pilgrimage among the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos. You can’t read his entire long essay, most of which is paywalled, but you can read a lot of it. Here are a few excerpts I especially liked:

Something one notices almost immediately about Athos is the way the monks revere holiness. On Athos, the holy monk is an object of great respect. During my trip, I hear countless stories about Elder Joseph the Hesychast, the grandfather of Vatopaidi, and about Fathers Paisios and Porphyrios. For the monks, holiness is less a debate about sanctification than something one is meant to achieve. The story of the road to Emmaus—where Jesus appeared to two disciples after the Resurrection—is important for many Athonites, because it reminds them that contact with God through holiness is a warmed heart, a fire which can be lit and transmitted in living contact. Technically, the monks don’t seek this holiness, but they see it as the result of what they do seek—the obedience and humility of Christ. Holiness, in this sense, is the fragrance of a Christ-oriented heart; the outflow of a life in tune with God. Therefore, when the Athonites honor saints, they see it as honoring the reality of Christ, as his work has been made manifest in particular lives. The saints, in this respect, are like shards of glass before the sun: little fragments which—in the obedience and humility of Christ—became reflective of his greater light. Yet the monks don’t see this as something that happens on its own.

Protestants tend to emphasize the point of conversion, the Orthodox tend to see a more gradual, lifelong process (which only begins upon conversion). A friend once explained to me that, rather than a courtroom or a judicial metaphor (think penal substitution), the primary metaphor for the Orthodox is one of a hospital. Every patient is welcomed in, without condition. But then, through grace, the soul becomes more and more healthy with time. In other words, the monks agree with Protestants about the free nature of grace: the unmerited forgiveness which welcomes the prodigal before he does anything to deserve it. However, in the Orthodox view, after the prodigal is received, he comes to know and experience that grace more deeply as he learns to seek God’s kingdom first, and as he learns to love God with more and more of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. (And for many Orthodox Christians, this is where the ascetic practices enter in.) In this sense, the Orthodox see grace and human effort as more deeply—though mysteriously—intertwined. Grace and human effort don’t oppose each other, as some Protestants articulations imply, but rather love and obedience together produce a deepening experience of God. The saints provide the exemplars of this process, of what a heart can become through grace. And the truly holy lives are those who become radiant in the grace of God.

Jeter arrives as a Protestant and leaves still committed to Protestantism. But his time on Athos gave him some new things to think about:

After Vespers, in the courtyard, I meet a Protestant pastor from Brazil. He is the only Protestant I’ve met on Athos so far. The pastor says he’s having a hard time here, which doesn’t surprise me. He came to Athos with a friend who wanted to study New Testament manuscripts. But he struggles with the reverence for the saints and relics, and for Mary (both common hangups for Protestants). He said the icon-kissing is making him grateful for Luther, although he finds the monks themselves compelling. “You don’t have to talk to them long to see how much they love God,” he says.

I ask him how he feels about the state of Protestant practice back home. For example, what does he think of the rise of celebrity pastors?

He says, “Oh, I’m very concerned about that, and we have loads of it in Brazil. Very troubling. Pastors are turning into brands, and I wonder where it will end.”

He laments the fact that just a few days before he left, another pastoral empire in America had imploded. He said he knew all of us are human, but wondered if we were creating conditions for our pastors to fail. In contrast to that, the pastor said, the Athonites take a rather different approach. Humility is considered essential for growth in Christlikeness, and the monks live remarkably quiet lives. By custom you couldn’t even write about a saintly monk until after he was dead, because the praise was seen as so dangerous to a monk’s humility. (From the Philokalia, the de facto handbook of Athos: “To speak humbly is one thing, to act humbly is another, and to be inwardly humble is something else again.”) In essence, if you were prominent in Protestant circles, you probably had a big church and followers on social media. Whereas if you were well known in Orthodox circles, there’s a fair chance you were dead, after spending your life in a cave.

The pastor didn’t think we needed to become monks, and he wasn’t planning to convert—“the reverence for Mary is a problem for me”—yet there was something interesting about the contrast. “We could stand to be a bit more courageous about humility,” he said. I couldn’t help but agree with him. “True humility creates an opening in the heart for God,” one monk told me. “And this is why we need to follow Christ in his humility. Nothing nourishes humility like the perception of God, yet humility itself provides a deeper form of sight. Humility is both the foundation and the result of a closer sense of God.”

And at the end of his stay, this reflection on a conversation with Father Grigor, a monk:

The two of us agree on almost nothing: ecclesiology, baptism, the meaning of repentance. And yet it’s clear there’s something shared between us. Separated by differences in dogma and practice, we admire the luminous Christ.

Again, you can’t read the whole thing, but you can read some of it. 

I admire Josh Jeter for making this pilgrimage, which was, by his account, physically and spiritually arduous — and, at times, marked by monastic criticism of Protestantism. I confess that I am a bit afraid to go to Athos — afraid of the spiritual intensity. Afraid of discovering, among their rigorous asceticism, how truly slothful and worldly that I am.

I do believe, though, that all of us American Christians would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the ancient, and once-universal, Christian discipline of fasting. On my Facebook feed today, someone shared a October 2014 piece by the Catholic writer Elizabeth Scalia, who, noting a trend of Hispanic Catholic women converting to Islam or Mormonism, says that  these religions offers in part a sense of ascetic rigor that contemporary Catholicism has abandoned. Excerpt:

The “relaxations” of the [Second Vatican Council, which relaxed rules on fasting and other practicies], poorly implemented and largely untaught, replaced all of that with a nebulous sort of “do your own thing, make it meaningful for you, and we’ll see you on Sunday, then,” and that came up empty. Rather than making things “personally meaningful” for people, the church strangely gutted itself. Having lost a very stable structure, people were left feeling unsure of boundaries, bereft of their place. Untethered in the large universe of infinite spiritual sensibilities and choices, they either either chose poorly or passed out.

Parents know that children need and want boundaries; they need and want disciplines that make life sensible and orderly and safe. More and more I’m convinced that ending meatless Fridays took away something sensible and orderly — and culturally and communally unifying, which brings its own safety — and replaced it, essentially, with nothing, because when you leave people to find something “personally meaningful” to do, they often settle for what is new or capricious or vapid, or all three. Or they do the easiest thing of all, which is nothing.

Perhaps that has a great deal to do with why the strictures and obligations of Islam are Mormonism are now attractive to some who have been raised Catholic, but catechized poorly and left unsure as to what any of it means, from the kneeling, to the Crucifix, to the Trinity, and the Communion of Saints.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the worry was that Catholics were rote-bound, existing within the church but only shallowly nourished within the inauthentic constraints of duty and obligation. In light of these conversions, perhaps those lines were absolutely necessary, in order to help focus us and free us.

We are more inclined to cast ourselves out into the deep, after all, when we know our we are well-tethered to the barque.

We Americans don’t know how to deny ourselves anything.

UPDATE: A reader points out this Vanity Fair article from a few years ago exploring financial corruption and the Vatopaidi monastery. I had forgotten about it, but boy, is it tough.

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A Dirty Book for Philosophy Geeks


Nothing in Jonathan Rosen’s positive review of the new Milan Kundera novel makes me think it is worth reading, but I had to clap for this observation about the Czech emigre’s most famous work, which was my favorite book during my undergraduate years:

Part of the perverse thrill of reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984, was that you imgrescould feel politically enlightened while watching a beautiful woman in a bowler hat and little else open the door for her lover, a neurosurgeon who spends his spare time wandering around Prague telling random women to take off their clothes. This did not happen in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Reading Kundera in the ’80s was like watching Mad Men with the conviction that smoking, drinking, and grabbing the secretary’s ass were bold assertions of individual autonomy in the face of a cruelly repressive state.

Oh yes. Oh yes. To be fair, there’s some intelligent stuff in that novel — I still think often of the tension between Franz’s conception of the authentic life as the transparent one, and Sabina’s notion that only a veiled life is truly honest — but basically it’s a dirty book for philosophy geeks. I’m still quite fond of it, but I have to laugh at the recognition of my 1980s self in Rosen’s description.

Anybody here read the new Kundera? It’s set mostly in the Luxembourg Gardens, which makes it sound made for me, but Rosen’s review makes it sound like a novel of ideas that’s short on the novel, and long on the ideas … which aren’t very coherent or provocative to begin with. Am I wrong?

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Harmony, Communion, Incarnation


I have been struggling to know what to say about Pope Francis’s new encylical, Laudato Si. As my friend Frank Beckwith (who created the above graphic) notes, it really and truly hits the sweet spot for me — so much so that I have been stymied even knowing where to begin. So, like Francis, I’ll just start writing, with no idea where I’m going to stop.

Laudato Si (hereafter, “LS”) is sprawling, messy, wild, and visionary. It’s bizarre to consider that American conservatives were freaking out in advance about the prospect that the Pope was going to weigh in against climate change in this encyclical. He does, but to act as if that were the main thrust of the document is like judging Thanksgiving dinner by the quality of the cranberry sauce.

It is tempting to call LS a traditionally conservative document, but there is plenty in it that will unnerve free-market individualists, who generally call themselves conservative — and liberals will be just as challenged by it. What Francis has written is an encyclical that celebrates life as harmony, communion, and incarnation. He calls on all persons to revere nature as gift, and to think not as atomized individuals, but as stewards who owe a debt to others, as well as to the past and to the future.

If you have read my 2006 book Crunchy Cons, the roots of all this in traditional conservatism should be very familiar. LS is a radical challenge to modernity as both the political left and the right understand it. Catholic blogger Jennifer Fitz understands what’s it stake here, calling, tongue-in-cheekily, LS a “terrible problem” for Catholics who practice the separation of their faith from their entire lives:

This is the terrible problem.  When a pope writes about the Trinity, we can nod and smile and adjust our prayers to make sure we’ve got three Persons with one Divine Nature and our work is done.  But when he says, rightly, that actually we need to change the way we live all the other hours of the week, that gets uncomfortable.  Because either we have to change the way live, or we have to decide we’re not going to do the Catholic thing after all.

Where to begin? Let’s start with Francis’s statement that both the physical and the social environment have been damaged by human action:

Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless. We have forgotten that “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature”. With paternal concern, Benedict urged us to realize that creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”.

The root of all our environmental and social problems is selfishness, is pride, is the belief that we are the center and the height of all creation. Therefore, if we are to restore the environment, it can’t simply be a matter of applying an ingenious set of technical solutions. It requires, more deeply, conversion of the heart. The core of the problem, Francis indicates, is the mistaken belief that humankind lives apart from nature, and the related belief that we owe nothing to others, either those who share this time and place with us, our ancestors, or to our descendants.

And, it’s the unwillingness to see that everything is connected, a phrase that turns up over and over in LS. For example, says Francis, there is a solid scientific consensus that the planet is warming, and that humankind dumping of carbon into the atmosphere has a lot to do with it. (He’s right that there is a scientific consensus, by the way.) This means that the industrial nations, with the activity that has both made them wealthy and that is a result of their wealth, bear a disproportionate responsibility for contributing to a condition that affects the entire planet. The poorest people on the planet, though, are those who suffer the most from the effects of climate change, yet, says the pope, the richest nations feel little sense of obligation to help those whose suffering is increased, indirectly, by the way the rich nations choose to live.

He has a point. One weakness of LS, though, is the pope’s lack of recognition of the fact that the greatest force pulling the poor masses out of poverty has been … capitalism, and industrial development. (David Brooks has a valid critique of this out today.) On the other hand, the pope is correct that the planet cannot withstand a universalization of the industrial, carbon-based system. And he is certainly right that the solution cannot be found in a “deified market” — that is, a vision that treats the free market as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end, which is a just and harmonious life based on the common good.

“The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis,” says Francis. He means that our individualism and self-centeredness keeps us from seeing and doing what is necessary to meet the challenge. This, the pope indicates, is at the root of so many of our problems today — and not just environmental problems. Says Pope Francis:

This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.

It is a problem, in part, of vision. He mentions Dante early in the encyclical (and also St. Therese of Lisieux and her “little way” — thanks, Pope!), and I kept thinking as I read LS about how Dantean the encyclical is. In the Commedia, the pilgrim Dante’s journey is one of pilgrimage from darkness to light, from blindness to sight, from a radical bondage to the self and exile from God to harmony with Him and with a Creation in which everything is connected to and through God. The journey towards wholeness and harmony cannot happen without the pilgrim looking squarely at vice and resolving not to rest in helplessness before them, but rather to commit one’s will, powered by the grace of God, to fight the disorder.

Here is the theological-anthropological heart of Laudato Si:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence. This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world, for “he commanded and they were created; and he established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds and he set a law which cannot pass away” (Ps 148:5b-6). The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings. “You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and withhold your help… If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs; you shall not take the mother with the young” (Dt 22:4, 6). Along these same lines, rest on the seventh day is meant not only for human beings, but also so “that your ox and your donkey may have rest” (Ex 23:12). Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.

Ever read Matthew Scully’s amazing, life-changing book Dominion? You should. That last line of the encyclical is what Dominion is about. If Laudato Si speaks to you in any way, you need to buy Scully’s book.

More radical stuff from Francis:

A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Without recognizing that there are limits written into nature by nature’s God, there is nothing to keep humankind from transgressing nature, including human nature, to reshape it in our image. Says the Pope:

Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.

This is an insight that the Church applies not only to industrial development, but also to all aspects of “transhumanism.” Laudato Si applies to Monsanto, but it also applies to Caitlyn Jenner. It applies to ExxonMobil, but it also applies to abortion rights advocates. More:

Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature.”

To elaborate further:

The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology.

Francis gives thanks for the scientific and technological advancements that have cured diseases and relieved poverty. His encyclical is not anti-science or anti-technology. The problem is that too many of us think that because we can do something, we are free to do it. “A technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power,” he says:

But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.

This, by the way, is Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno, and the lesson of Ulysses’s damnation. If you want to see what a poetic version of Laudato Si looks like, read the Divine Comedy. 

Francis challenges the entire project of modernity, and its myth of progress. He is not against modernity, and not against progress. But the measure of progress he uses is not the same as many others':

All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Here is another part of Francis’s core argument:

 The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety “come from the intention of the first agent” who willed that “what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another”, inasmuch as God’s goodness “could not be represented fittingly by any one creature”. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships. We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan. As the Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other”.

Francis goes on to repeat an old idea in Catholic Christianity: reality is Trinitarian. Again, Dante builds his Commedia around this idea — literally, he structures the poem itself in homage to it, because it is at the poem’s thematic heart. What Pope Francis teaches in his encyclical is not new, but it is an old idea that the modern world desperately needs to rediscover:

The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways. The world was created by the three Persons acting as a single divine principle, but each one of them performed this common work in accordance with his own personal property. Consequently, “when we contemplate with wonder the universe in all its grandeur and beauty, we must praise the whole Trinity”.

For Christians, believing in one God who is trinitarian communion suggests that the Trinity has left its mark on all creation. Saint Bonaventure went so far as to say that human beings, before sin, were able to see how each creature “testifies that God is three”. The reflection of the Trinity was there to be recognized in nature “when that book was open to man and our eyes had not yet become darkened”. The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key.

The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.

Again and again, Francis repeats: Everything is connected. Our inability to perceive this truth about reality prevents us from understanding the root of our problems and doing something about it. Says the Pope:

Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other.


I’m going to take up a specific case of this dynamic at work in a subsequent post.

Laudato Si is a rich, complex work. It doesn’t offer solutions — the Pope admits that the Church is not competent to offer technical advice — but it does provide a framework for discussing solutions. Francis says that rather than give up in the face of the immensity of the challenge, each of us would do well to live by St. Therese’s “little way”: doing what we ourselves can do, within the limits of our own particular circumstances, to restore harmony to creation by restoring it in our own hearts and lives. Even that would be a radical countercultural act, because it goes against the dominant paradigm of our time.

Ross Douthat says that Francis, in the encyclical, sees a clash between what Douthat usefully terms “Dynamists” and “Catastrophists”:

Dynamists are people who see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past. They do not deny that problems exist, but they believe we can innovate our way through them while staying on an ever-richer, ever-more-liberated course.

Dynamists of the left tend to put their faith in technocratic government; dynamists of the right, in the genius of free markets. But both assume that modernity is a success story whose best days are ahead.

Catastrophists, on the other hand, see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled. What’s more, they believe that things cannot go on as they are: That the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis, disaster, dégringolade.

Like dynamists, catastrophists can be on the left or right, stressing different agents of our imminent demise. But they’re united in believing that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.

This is Pope Francis’ position, and the controlling theme of his encyclical.

I have been skeptical of Pope Francis’s pontificate, as you know, but on the matter of Laudato Si, and of harmony, communion, and incarnation, this Benedict-loving crunchy con is wholly Franciscan.

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Can We Really Know Our Pastors?

Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, has resigned his pulpit after confessing to having had an extramarital affair. More:

He released the following statement to The Washington Post, saying it was on behalf of him and his wife:

I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues. As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated. Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign. Both my wife and I are heartbroken over our actions and we ask you to pray for us and our family that God would give us the grace we need to weather this heart wrenching storm. We are amazingly grateful for the team of men and women who are committed to walking this difficult path with us. Please pray for the healing of deep wounds and we kindly ask that you respect our privacy.

Tchividjian, 42, has been married to his wife, Kim, since 1994 and they have three children. Rob Pacienza, executive pastor of Coral Ridge, provided the following statement from the church to the Post:

Several days ago, Pastor Tullian admitted to moral failure, acknowledging his actions disqualify him from continuing to serve as senior pastor or preach from the pulpit, and resigned – effective immediately. We are saddened by this news, but are working with and assisting Pastor Tullian and his family to help them through this difficult time, and asking people to join us in praying that God will bring restoration through this process and healing to all involved.

Many have considered Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) a rising star in evangelicalism, especially in Reformed circles. He is the fourth Florida megachurch pastor to resign after having affairs, including the son of megachurch pastor Joel Hunter.

Coral Ridge Presbyterian is a very influential church. This is big news. And it hit one of Tchividjian’s congregants hard, disillusioning him with the idea of the megachurch:

I don’t want to be presumptuous or speculative, but I can’t help but think that such an environment only feeds that sickening desire within us to have renown. Let’s face it, we live in a culture that can arguably best be described by the phrase, “Cult of Personality.” I admittedly was hesitant to go to Coral Ridge, and have oftentimes been hesitant because I’ve wondered if that had something to do with it. Whether it’s the latest celebrity vocalist or someone like Perry Noble, Steven Furtick, Troy Gramling, Joel Osteen, you name it – the cult of personality is everywhere. It’s their sinful inclination to be worshipped and our sickening sinful inclination to worship anyone other than God. I love Coral Ridge, but as much as I hate to say it, we are probably going to look elsewhere because we just don’t really want to be there. It really is painful. And I think we need to find something smaller, with pastors who don’t seem inconvenienced or too busy to talk to you.

I certainly agree that the megachurch model is pastorally problematic, but that doesn’t seem to me to be a plausible reason to explain Tchividjian’s fall. Or rather, to clarify, I don’t think that a small church would solve the problem. Sure, you will be able to “know” your pastor, in the sense of being on more personal terms with him, but how well can you really know who he is, ever? How many times have you read stories of priests and pastors revealed to have been abusers, and their congregants expressing shock that the man they thought they knew wasn’t the man at all?

The Minneapolis-St. Paul canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger, who blew the whistle on that Catholic archdiocese’s corruption, says that despite having been charged with criminal conduct related to covering up sexual abuse, and despite having seen its archbishop and one of his assistant bishops resign under fire, the archdiocese continues to lie to its people about what’s really going on at the chancery. Excerpt:

When you are in a hole, the only way to get out of it is to stop digging. The Archdiocese needs to stop perpetuating the deceptions of the past and most of all it needs to stop trying to convince Catholics in this Archdiocese that things are not as bad as they seem. There are not 825,000 Catholics in this Archdiocese. There weren’t before the Nienstedt administration, and there certainly aren’t now. We have not created a safe environment for children and young people, and if we continue to base our ‘improvements’ on recommendations developed through flawed processes we never will create one. And, don’t claim to be cooperating with any investigations or legal processes unless you are absolutely sure that the evidence is going to support that claim.

I don’t think that this culture of deception is ubiquitous in the Catholic Church. However, I think the actions of this Archdiocese call into question the statements and actions of other related entities. After all, the Archdiocese has now been criminally charged for failing to protect children during a period of time in which they consistently passed the annual USCCB audit designed to measure the Archdiocese’s efforts in creating a safe environment for young people. Surely this calls the entire audit process into question. And, we know now that the Archdiocese reported only a percentage of the priests who had committed acts of sexual abuse to the John Jay College research team tasked with investigating the causes and context and nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church. The National Review Board has said repeatedly that it does not comment on or investigate individual cases. Perhaps it is time that it starts.

Haselberger, who is in a position to know, warns that there are some other dark revelations about the archdiocese yet to come out.

The problem of maintaining authority in an anti-authoritarian age is one whose difficulty is not sufficiently appreciated. No society can exist without authority. Yet  in a free society, authority, to be meaningful, must be credible. I’m not exactly sure how the various strands of Protestantism see these things, but for Catholics and Orthodox, the priestly authority of a validly ordained priest does not depend on his personal characteristics. Here, though, “priestly authority” means the ability to administer valid sacraments; it does not mean that ordination confers wisdom or holiness upon the ordinand. Still, the presumption is that one’s priest and one’s bishop are trustworthy stewards of their authority. All churchgoers — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — share this general sense of respect for ecclesial authority, in the person of the pastor or priest.

In my own case, I was so badly burned by the things I learned in the Catholic scandal that even as I find it necessary to recognize and to accept ecclesial authority, I remain radically skeptical of ecclesial credibility. Do you appreciate the difference? My skepticism is self-protective, and comes from having seen up close and personal how diabolical some in the priesthood, especially in the episcopate, can be regarding telling outright lies to conceal their own sins, often grave sins. Let me be clear: I’m not telling you to be as skeptical as I am, only pointing out that it is possible to believe in authority, in a bare-bones sense, without accepting that the bearer of that authority is personally credible. I had to learn to do this to hold on to my faith.

This is very hard to do, and it explains, I think, why so many Christians refuse to think about church corruption, and why it’s easy for clergy to do bad things right under the nose of their congregations: because so many people want to believe the best about their pastors, and without always knowing what they’re doing, refuse to see what’s going on right under their noses. It’s not only in churches, but in most other institutions. We don’t really want to know what the CIA is doing, for example, because knowing it would make us responsible. We don’t really want to know what the NSA is up to, because we want to believe that our government is trustworthy, and always looking out for our best interests. We don’t really want to hold Wall Street accountable, because what we would discover if we started digging, seriously digging, could undermine our confidence in the capitalist system. We don’t really want to know if our police force is corrupt, because if you can’t trust the guardians of the law to be lawful, where does that leave you? And so forth.

The thing is, though institutions of government might be corrupt, we have to have government to get by. Same with market institutions. True, if things got extremely bad, there could be a revolution, but even in that unlikely case, the old institutions would have to be replaced with new ones, simply so society could function. It’s not that way with religion, not anymore. As a believing Christian, I hold the church to be the most important institution in society. But I don’t think most people, even most Christians, do. We have become so individualized in our religious thought and practice that if the institutional church disappeared tomorrow, I think many Americans, and probably most Americans, would not think of it as a catastrophe.

It’s like this: you need the government, the police, and the market to be there to get on with your life. If any of them disappeared, there would be chaos. Not so with the churches. I mean, I believe that the disappearance of the churches would mean the ultimate death of any society, but that is almost certainly a minority opinion in America today, and in any case it is by no means an obvious conclusion.

I wonder if the clerical leadership in the various churches understands this. Charles Taylor, as you know, said that ours is a “secular age,” not because people don’t have religious faith, but because in our time, they perceive religion as a choice. You can’t escape it, in fact, because in secularity, there is no way to avoid the knowledge that it is possible to live with a different faith than the one into which you were born, and even possible to live without faith at all. This is what makes the blindness, the folly, of clergymen like those that run the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, so tragic: they have no idea how fragile their position is in a postmodern society.

I have Orthodox friends who raised their kids in a good parish, and still the kids, as adults, left the faith. It’s hard even under the best conditions for people in our aggressively secularist culture to hold on to the faith. There may never have been a time in the history of the church in which the authority of the church depended on the credibility of its ministers. I’m not speaking in a theological sense, but in a sociological one. Theologically, the authority of the Bible, or of the institutional church, does not depend on the personal credibility of individual clergy. I want to make this clear. But that is not how it works in practice. If ordinary people come to believe that the church is a racket, they may lose their faith entirely, or at least may lose any sense of connection with the institutional church. And that is a prelude to losing the faith entirely.

In the past — and the not-too-distant past — the churches would be able to count on the general presumption of Christian faith in society to give them cushion from scandals. That, and an unwillingness of the media to report on many scandals involving the clergy. That’s gone, and we’re seeing the results. I often wonder if it is possible to maintain authority in an increasingly transparent environment, one in which the sins and failings of those in authority — in government, in the military, in the police, in business, and in the church — are known to all. I think it’s difficult but still possible for most institutions, if only because the alternative is unthinkable.

But not the church. I can’t be certain if this is a general principle, or if I’m improperly universalizing my own experience, but my sense is that people within the leadership class of churches have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, and the security of their position. No church — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — can ever have a clerical class that is free from sin, and to expect that is to be childish. We have a responsibility to be mature about these things, and not to be too scandalized by them. I have learned this the hard way.

What we can expect, and must expect, is for that leadership class to take holiness seriously, to take their responsibility before God and the people of God seriously, and to police themselves as if they believed the faith they profess were true. As Scripture says, “You will know them by their fruits.”

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Father’s Day


Spent a couple of hours this afternoon visiting my father, who is ailing. I find that I pray for him all the time now, in the twilight of his long life. He told me that every night, as he falls asleep, he “talks to the Lord a lot.”

“It’s just like having a normal conversation,” he said, and I thought I saw a flash pass across his eyes.

Julie and Nora made him a chocolate cake, and brought it over. Lucas brought his bass guitar, and played a little Rolling Stones for him. Remember this post from a couple of summers ago, when the Avett Brothers played St. Francisville? Here’s an excerpt:

An interesting thing happened. My son Lucas, who is nine, is the only one of my children who is musically inclined. He’s just like his uncle, Jud, who is a natural musician. I hear Lucas in the living room noodling around on the piano, and boy, does he ever have the gift. So we were standing in the darkness under the moon and the pine trees tonight, with the band about half an hour into their set, and Lucas was in front of me, and then he turns and plants his head into my chest, sobbing, saying, “I didn’t think I would love it like this.”

The power of music. I had tears too, thinking about how those chords, those harmonies, that power on the stage moved a little boy to tears. He couldn’t talk about it. All throughout the show, he was so moved he couldn’t speak, or even look at me. We’ve been home for an hour, and he still can’t talk about it. He’s going to be a musician one day, I know it. I liked music a lot when I was a kid, but what the music did to that little boy tonight was something that was beyond me at that age. It’s a beautiful thing to see. I bought him an Avett Brothers concert t-shirt, and gave it to him on the walk back to the car. You’d have thought it was a golden fleece.

Well, I took this shot on my mom and dad’s porch this afternoon. The t-shirt is a lot more worn today, and Lucas is all about music now:


We came home and watched the Rolling Stones concert movie Shine A Light, and talked about Mick and Keith. “Did you know that those guys are the same age as Mam?” I said, referring to his grandmother. He found this hard to believe.

We’re sitting at the kitchen table now, and Nora’s making a list of the Ten People, Living Or Dead, We Would Each Like To Have At A Fantasy Birthday Party. Julie’s not home yet. I had to run it through a filter several times because she used light green ink. It’s pretty indicative of our personalities. You may not be able to read Lucas’s list, but it includes Flea, the Rolling Stones, Trombone Shorty, and his two jazz camp teachers John “J. Greasy” Gray, and Wess Anderson.:


Finally, this shot of my dad from this afternoon. If you have ever wondered from where I get my cowlicks, here’s your answer:


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Down with the Confederate Flag

On several occasions in the past, I have defended the display of the Confederate battle flag. I have never displayed it myself, and would not display it. I believe the Southern cause in the Civil War was wrong, and I know that the Confederate flag’s display during the Civil Rights Era was a sign of racist resistance. Yet I have known white Southerners who really do consider the flag to be a symbol of Southern heritage, culture, and identity, and who mean nothing racist by it. On this blog, I have tried to tell people that not every display of the Confederate flag is meant as an expression of racism. I still think that’s true.

After the South Carolina massacre, I thought about the only person I personally know  who displays the Confederate flag. I believe him to be a genuine racist, based on things he has said. A visiting black friend of mine from New Orleans, driving around our area, saw the flag on the way to our house, and I was embarrassed by it. I didn’t want him to think that we were all like that white racist.

Well, what if I did not have good reason to believe that the Flag Man was racist? What if he was just a Civil War buff, and what if I knew that that’s all he was, and that he meant nothing racist by the display of the Confederate flag? Would I still have been embarrassed in front of my black New Orleans friend, and would I still have felt obliged to distance myself from the flag’s display, so my friend wouldn’t think the guy who lives in our parish represents me?

Yes, I would have. Even if I knew for a fact that the man’s display of the Confederate flag was not meant to symbolize racism, I still would have been troubled that the appearance of such would have offended my black friend. Yesterday, all that came to mind again, and I concluded that the Confederate flag has become impossible for most people to see as symbolizing anything other than white supremacy. Therefore, it cannot be redeemed. Therefore it should be retired from public display, except in clearly historical settings (e.g., museums, Civil War cemeteries, historical re-enactments), and then only in a limited way.

In South Carolina, by act of the state legislature, the Confederate battle flag flies over a Confederate War Memorial on the state Capitol grounds. I can see how some white Southerners genuinely regard the flag and its display as nothing more than honoring the Confederate dead, something that is noble even as the cause for which those soldiers died is not. I think about the one ancestor I know of who fought for the Confederacy. He was a poor country farmer, and almost certainly didn’t carry in his head the idea that he was fighting to preserve slavery (though he ultimately was); chances are he only thought that he was fighting for the people of his state, defending his land against invaders. He really did fight bravely, records show. I cannot and will not be ashamed of that man’s battlefield courage, though I wish he had not devoted his courage to the Confederate cause — which was not solely about maintaining slavery, but which undeniably included that evil end.

The widespread use of the Confederate battle flag during the Civil Rights era, to defend white supremacy, removed the benefit of the doubt that might have been extended to those displaying the flag in memory of the war dead. In other words, modern white supremacists robbed the flag, as a symbol, of a plausible claim of innocence. True, Dylann Roof did not display the Confederate battle flag in his rampage inside the church, but it can’t be denied that the Dylann Roofs of the Civil Rights era, and their fellow travelers, did openly associate that flag with their cause. In light of what just happened in Charleston, and considering things from the point of view of black Southerners, I believe that the Confederate battle flag is simply too tainted as a symbol to be displayed in good conscience anymore.

Russell Moore, a native Mississippian and a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, gets it:

The Confederate battle flag may mean many things, but with those things it represents a defiance against abolition and against civil rights. The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.

That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. White Christians, let’s listen to our African American brothers and sisters.

Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them. In Christ, we were slaves in Egypt — and as part of the Body of Christ we were all slaves too in Mississippi. Let’s watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors.

Let’s take down that flag.

I agree. I am proud to be a Southerner, and do not, and will not, apologize for my Southernness. I get defensive about it on this blog from time to time because I can’t abide non-Southerners using the South’s racist past as a scapegoat that allows them to safely ignore their own region’s racism, or that gives them the moral satisfaction of reducing all of Southern history and culture to bigotry. I will fight back against that sort of thing.

And I will do so even though I am ashamed of what my white Southern ancestors did to black Southerners, both during slavery and in its aftermath. It was evil, and it must be repented of. Russell Moore says:

As those in Christ, this descendant of Confederate veterans has more in common with a Nigerian Christian than I do with a non-Christian white Mississippian who knows the right use of “y’all” and how to make sweet tea.

Yes, this descendant of  t least one Confederate veteran does too. I can scarcely imagine the pain that black folks in Charleston suffer these days as they mourn the dead of the Mother Emanuel AME church, knowing that the banner under which their ancestors were enslaved, and that was flown in the twentieth century in defense of white supremacy — a defense that included terrorist killings of their own people — continues to fly over public space in South Carolina. It can’t be removed from the state Capitol grounds without an act of the legislature. 

I hope the South Carolina legislature will act, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it would be an act of solidarity with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who died at the hands of the white supremacist Dylann Roof. To take down the flag is not a sign of disrespect to the South, but a recognition that “the South” includes all Southerners, including black men and women. The flag is a symbol of our deepest and ugliest division. It’s time for us to leave that heavy baggage behind.

UPDATE: Here is David French’s case for keeping the Confederate flag. I don’t agree with him, but it’s an argument worth considering, in part because it highlights that there are people who are not racist who nevertheless honor the flag. I used to agree with this argument, and I recognize its integrity. But I think it’s, well, a lost cause. Excerpt:

It’s simply undeniable that the Confederate battle flag is a painful symbol to our African-American fellow citizens, especially given its recent history as a chosen totem of segregationists. So it’s critical to respond to the argument in good faith. And just as the history of the Civil War is personal to me, so is America’s present racial reality. As I’ve mentioned before, my youngest daughter is quite literally African-American (born in Ethiopia and now as American as apple pie), and when she’s a little bit older, we’ll no doubt have many tough conversations about history and race. If the goal of our shared civic experience was the avoidance of pain, then we’d take down that flag. But that’s of course not the goal. Rather, we use history to understand our nation in all its complexity — acknowledging uncomfortable realities and learning difficult truths. For white southerners — especially those with deep roots in the South — those difficult truths are presented front and center throughout our lives. Yes, the South seceded in large part to preserve slavery. Yes, had the South prevailed, slavery not only would have been preserved for the indefinite future, it may have even spread to new nations and territories. And no, while some southerners were kinder than others, there was nothing “humane” about the fundamental institution of slavery itself. As Coates and others have often and eloquently explained, it was a system built on plunder and pain. But there are other difficult truths. Among them, when the war began, it was not explicitly a war to end slavery. Indeed, had the Union quickly accomplished its war aims, slavery would have endured, at least for a time. When hundreds of thousands of southern men took up arms (most of them non-slave-owning), many of them fought with the explicit belief that they were standing in the shoes of the Founding Fathers, men who’d exercised their own right of self-determination to separate from the mother Country. Others simply saw an invading army marching into their state — into their towns and across their farms — and chose to resist. And no one can doubt their valor. Both sides displayed breathtaking courage, but the South poured itself into the fight to an extent the modern American mind simply can’t comprehend. If you extrapolated Southern losses into our current American population, the war would cost the lives of a staggering 9 million men, with at least an equivalent number injured. To understand the impact of that human loss, I’d urge you to read Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering — a book that explores the psychological impact of omnipresent, mass-scale death on southern culture.

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Nienstedt’s Millstone

A millstone <a href=""(Peter Turner Photography/Shutterstock)
A millstone <a href=""(Peter Turner Photography/Shutterstock)

A Catholic reader sends me the latest Minnesota Public Radio story about corruption in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul. He writes:

Two of the men quoted in the article are former pastors of mine; they are good men. There is much in the Church here that is rotten, though. I mourn for my children, who are being driven away by the hypocrisy and indifference.

The story is long, and shows that there are still, at this very late date in the Catholic abuse scandal timeline, stories that can shock the reader. What shocks about this one is the lengths to which members of the Catholic hierarchy will go, in its self-serving pride, to protect itself, the good of the Church and its faithful be damned.

The gist of it is that Archbishop John Nienstedt, under fire for covering up and abetting sexual abuse by at least one of his priests, approved an investigation into his own background after being confronted with sworn affidavits, two of them from priests, alleging that Nienstedt had made sexual overtures to them. The church-funded investigation began turning up information that sullied Nienstedt’s reputation even worse. From the story:

Nienstedt had authorized the investigation with the expectation that it would clear his name. Instead, it threatened to ruin it. At the meeting last spring, the advisers went around the room. Each said Nienstedt should resign.

A few days later, Auxiliary Bishops Lee Piche and Andrew Cozzens traveled to Washington to bring that message to the pope’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio. It was a brave move that threatened the careers of both men. Piche and Cozzens had hoped Vigano would agree that the future of the archdiocese was more important than the reputation of one man.

What happened at that meeting is unknown. Piche, Cozzens and Vigano did not respond to interview requests.

However, when the bishops returned to Minnesota, everything changed. The investigation, as it was originally ordered, was over.

Nienstedt would stay in power another 14 months after choosing to curtail and diminish efforts aimed at uncovering the truth about his private life, efforts that reached the highest levels of the Catholic Church in the United States. At one point he accused an investigator of bias for disagreeing with him on same-sex marriage. The investigation brought significant costs, as well: The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for it, and it destroyed Nienstedt’s reputation among the clergy.

In the end, his efforts weren’t enough. He would become increasingly isolated and desperate as his closest advisers turned against him. And on Monday, the Vatican announced that Nienstedt had resigned. Piche, one of the two bishops who met with the nuncio last year, stepped down the same day.

The MPR piece details Nienstedt’s very costly (financially) efforts to derail the investigation, and, it appears, to engineer a whitewash. We don’t know why the papal nuncio, Viganò, went along with Nienstedt’s plan to end the original investigation, but we do know that both men, as young priests, worked together in the same Vatican office. As reported, it appears that the papal nuncio intervened to do Nienstedt a big favor.

What emerges in the story is that Nienstedt appears to be a closeted gay man who has spent his clerical career abusing his authority. Nienstedt was a seminary rector from 1988 to 1994. According to affidavits, Nienstedt was unhealthily preoccupied with young men. A bombshell affidavit by a former seminarian named James Heathcott alleges that Nienstedt forced him out of the seminary because he resisted Nienstedt’s advances. From the story:

Heathcott had enrolled in Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit in 1987, when he was 18 years old. Nienstedt became rector of the seminary the following year, and immediately, the tone at the seminary changed, Heathcott said.

Nienstedt called him into his office and asked, “Have you explored your sexuality?” and “Do you think you have homosexual tendencies?” according to Heathcott’s affidavit.

“I responded truthfully that I was not gay. He nonetheless suggested that I should consider participating in a counseling program for reasons I still do not know.”

Later that year, Nienstedt stopped Heathcott in the hallway near his bedroom and invited him on a weekend ski trip at a “private chalet,” Heathcott said in his affidavit.

Heathcott declined and told Nienstedt that the invitation appeared to contradict Nienstedt’s own statements to seminarians about the importance of maintaining proper boundaries. “Nienstedt made little or no response other than perhaps ‘ok’ and walked away,” according to the affidavit.

A few days later, Heathcott found an envelope in his mailbox stamped “confidential.”

Inside was a letter from Nienstedt “to the effect that in light of my ‘recent behaviors’ I was sending the ‘wrong message’ to other seminarians and that it was in the best interest of the seminary and the formation of others for me to leave,” Heathcott said in his affidavit. “I was outraged by this.”

That night, Heathcott left to attend a wedding. When he returned the following morning, Nienstedt asked where he had been and told him to pack his belongings and leave the seminary.

“The situation was ridiculous and I could not take it anymore,” Heathcott said in his affidavit. “I was angry — and devastated.”

Heathcott left the seminary. A short while later, he wrote a letter to the archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, that explained how Nienstedt had kicked him out of the seminary. In his letter, Heathcott said, he expressed concern for the other seminarians.

Szoka never replied.

In his affidavit, Heathcott reflected on his contact with Nienstedt as a young man. “I consider Nienstedt’s interactions with me to be a kind of grooming,” he said.

“I believe that I was expelled from Sacred Heart because I rejected the invitation to go on a private ski trip with Nienstedt and two seminarians,” he said. “This event … impacted me significantly. I am often asked how I regard my time in the seminary, and I relate that my experience was wonderful although I would never wish on anyone what Nienstedt did to me. I believe that he denied me the chance to continue exploring my calling to the priesthood to its fruition. While I have no regrets — my life is wonderful today — there is a sense of ‘what if’ that I still carry with me.”

This is the kind of thing — gay men in authority in seminaries forcing those who resist out — documented in Michael S. Rose’s book Goodbye, Good Men I have heard that this is a thing of a past generation of seminary rectors, but I honestly don’t know. What seems hard to deny, at least in Archbishop Nienstedt’s case, is that the past is not even past — that his alleged homosexuality probably conditioned his behavior towards abusive priests. Whether it was a matter of him going easy on these bad priests because he hoped for, or was receiving, sexual attention, or out of a twisted sense of solidarity, or because he feared blackmail, nobody can say at this point.

What boggles the mind is that Nienstedt, knowing all of these things about himself, would not simply resign for the good of the Church, and of his reputation. He not only caused the archdiocese to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of the faithful’s tithes to investigate him, he caused it to spend even more on a separate investigation it looks like, from the reporting, that he hoped to manipulate to clear him. And for whatever reason, the pope’s representative in Washington backed Nienstedt on this.

It’s an appalling story. Read the whole thing.  It really does speak to the institutional corruption here, and of the utter selfishness of certain men who betrayed their offices and squandered their moral authority to serve themselves. I’ll repeat the words of the Minneapolis Catholic reader who sent me the MPR piece:

I mourn for my children, who are being driven away by the hypocrisy and indifference.

Nienstedt deserves a millstone, and he’s not the only one.

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The Work of Salvation


In his generous review of my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, the Orthodox writer Joel J. Miller says:

I’ve just finished How Dante, and what stands out for me is that word work. Grace is a labor, and it’s not one-sided. As Paul says in Philippians, God works in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Salvation is, says Dreher, “a matter of action.” God initiates, but we participate. He starts, and we join.

Dreher’s attention is focused on that participation, that joining of ours. What does it look like? One thing Dreher points out is that on our own we really don’t know. Not only does this come through the very premise of the book—that Dreher required Dante to show him the way—but it’s something Dante incorporated into the storyline of the Comedy itself.

Miller talks about how in the Commedia, the pilgrim Dante learns by observing others what to do, and what not to do, if he would gain salvation, which is to say, union with God. The pilgrim (mostly) learns not by direct instruction, but by being shown evil, and being shown goodness, and participating in the reality of these things in his body, for the sake of the purification of his soul. Sometimes the participation involves being absorbed so thoroughly in the artistic representation of a virtue or a vice that it converts his soul more deeply. Miller:


Discussing the power of these and other models to guide us, Dreher says this: “These weren’t principles, these weren’t arguments; these were people who displayed the whole panoply of human nature, from its most corrupt to its most pure.” And from them we learn to discard the impure and take on the righteous.

As far as I can tell, no reviewer yet has zeroed in on the “work” part of the salvation model Dante teaches. Protestant readers may recoil at the language, because it may sound to them like Dante says we can earn our salvation through good works. Fear not: he doesn’t. What Dante says, though, is that God’s saving grace is a free gift, but we have to respond to it, and respond to it every moment of every day. My priest Father Matthew once preached a sermon on the Gospel passage in which Jesus healed the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda. From John 5:

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.   In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

 The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

 Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

Father Matthew’s point was that Jesus, by His power, could have raised the man on his own. But he required the man to assent to the healing offered him, and he required the man to do what He gave him the power to do: walk. And so it is with us. We cannot earn our salvation, which is a free gift of God’s grace. But if our salvation is to be confirmed, if it is to be made real, the work we have to do is a work of acceptance, of submission, and of obedience.

This is what happens to Dante the pilgrim in the Commedia. At the beginning, Virgil, serving as God’s agent, offers the lost Dante healing, but tells him he has to walk. It’s not a perfect analogy, because for the pilgrim Dante, healing comes not prior to the act of walking, but through the act of walking, of undertaking the pilgrimage.

When Joel Miller talks of the Commedia‘s focus on the work of our salvation, he makes me think of the Christian life as an apprenticeship. You can’t really learn what it means to be a Christian through books. You can get the theory there, but you only truly understand it through working at it, and working alongside those who are farther along in mastery and craftsmanship, and who can teach you, by example and otherwise, how to live the life. As Miller says, even Protestant Christians imitate the saints, though they may not concede it, or frame it that way. To use an example Miller brings up, the great Protestant missionary Elisabeth Elliot, who died the other day, was a model of holiness for countless Evangelicals. As I mentioned earlier today, the example of the children of one of the slain Charleston church members serves as an extraordinarily powerful witness to the holiness of their mother’s life, and the faith that formed her, and them. There’s nothing like seeing and hearing holiness — and for that matter, seeing and hearing evil, such as what Dylann Roof has done — to make spiritual truths real, in a way that changes your heart.

Reading Dante changed my life by drawing me into the imagination of this greatest of all poets, and allowing the world he created inhabit me, and reveal things to me about myself that I had hidden. The Commedia was a powerful vehicle of divine grace; I saw myself in the all-too-human wickedness of its damned, and I saw myself in the poem’s struggling penitents, and I saw glimmers of what I could be in its saints. I learned from reading the Commedia very little that I didn’t already know as a theoretical proposition. But theory only gets you so far. Because I got up and walked with Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, the healing God offered to me all along became real.

It can for you too. Read Joel Miller’s review for more on this topic. And try the book, and see for yourself.  You can’t just sit there waiting for healing to happen to you. You have to get up and walk.

UPDATE: The Englewood Review of Books considers How Dante. Excerpt:

He does so by reading the Commedia, deeply and slowly, for its moral acuity, its knowledge of human nature, and the beauty of its theological vision. Beauty is the key here – Dreher may be our guide to Dante, but Dante is Dreher’s guide, leading him away from what Dreher calls the “idols of family and place” and toward the beauty of God’s love. The personal note sounded in Dreher’s book – how he conveys the sheer wisdom of the Commedia, and how it connects to both his own life and a larger Christian (and human) vision of flourishing – is what holds this book together.


For a lot of people who have difficult relationships with their family, with their hometown – for the people who, like Dante and Dreher, find themselves in spiritual exile – How Dante Can Save Your Life will not only resonate, but give hope. This book proclaims that the way home “out of the dark woods” can be indeed be found. And that makes it worth reading. If as a moral and spiritual writer Dreher is not yet the equal of, say, C. S. Lewis, parts of this book are as profound and moving as Lewis’s own memoir A Grief Observed. No mean feat, that.



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‘There’s Nothing But Love’

I have been struggling to know what to say about the Charleston massacre. It is such an evil deed that words seem to be an inadequate response. One of you readers reminded us yesterday that not too terribly long ago, this kind of racist violence — a Southern white supremacist murdering black people, even in church — would have been more common, and would have been seen by many as justifiable in the cause of preserving white supremacy. Think about the Birmingham church bombing, which shocked the conscience of a nation. The Atlantic this morning likens the Charleston shooting to that civil rights-era crime, and recalls the words of a young white lawyer, rebuking white Southern society over it:

All across Alabama, an angry, guilty people cry out their mocking shouts of indignity and say they wonder, “Why?” “Who?” Everyone then “deplores” the “dastardly” act. But you know the “who” of “who did it” is really rather simple. The “who” is every little individual who talks about the “niggers” and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter. The “who” is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law.

The suffering of the dead children of the Birmingham church, and their families, helped give impetus to a movement that overturned segregation, and changed America. As the Atlantic points out, prior to the Birmingham bombing, the Klan in Birmingham, “between 1947 and 1965 … planted more than 50 devices targeting black churches, black leaders, Jews, and Catholics.” The size of the Birmingham black church bomb, and the fact that it killed children, made the difference in the cause of civil rights.

It should not be forgotten that today, because of the success of the civil rights movement, the Charleston massacre, though demonic, is an extremely rare act. It has called forth prayers, support, and solidarity from all quarters, and all races. David Graham, the Atlantic writer, likens the racial division in America today to what it was in 1963, when Klansmen bombed the Birmingham church. That’s simply not true, and it’s important to say that it’s not true. Yes, there is racial division today, and it is serious, it is ugly, and it often seems intractable. But this country is not a place where racist terrorism is common and widely embraced, as it was in 1963. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement were real, and give us reason to hope.

It is impossible to achieve utopia; there will always be haters, of all kinds, and sometimes those haters will murder in service of the hate that consumes them. But to deny that things have changed for the better, and can change for the better if we work at it, is to deny to ourselves the hope that inspired Martin Luther King and the civil rights heroes, and kept them from being swallowed up by the injustice and rage over the murder of those little girls in Birmingham.

This morning, I stand in awe at the Christ-like love of the children of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, who was murdered by Dylann Roof in the church she served as a minister:

In a BBC interview at a service at a Charleston high school, her children Camryn and Chris said they felt “love” for the killer. “I just feel a lot of love, I’m a little bitter, but I’m overwhelmed with love,” said Camryn.

Chris Singleton said: “We already forgive him for what he’s done, there’s nothing but love from our side of the family.”

Watch the short video clip here. How do two teenagers respond with such amazing grace in the face of their mother’s murder by a white supremacist? It’s staggering. Those teenagers have the peace that passes all understanding. And here is an excerpt from an NPR interview yesterday with the Rev. Stephen Singleton, who pastored the Mother Emanuel AME church until 2010:

CORNISH: What are you hearing from members of the congregation today?

SINGLETON: Well, there are a lot of broken hearts, a lot of sorrow and a lot of healing to be done. And that’s what we’re going to work on, and that’s what we’re going to focus on because if we get bitter and angry, we just make a bad situation worse.

I was driving when I heard that interview yesterday, and a chill went down my spine when I heard the pastor speak. Here is a man whose community has just suffered unspeakable violence, and yet barely 24 hours since a racist killer defiled the community’s sanctuary, Pastor Singleton responds by refusing hate.

Amid all the darkness, the light shines in the people of Mother Emanuel, and the darkness is not overcoming it. Let them be an icon to the rest of us.

And let the words of the white lawyer from 1963 be a warning to the rest of us. We don’t yet know what kind of world Dylann Roof came from. From what I’ve read, he had expressed his obsession with white supremacy and race war to some, but nobody seemed to take it seriously. Did nobody challenge him? Did his parents know he had this obsession, but gave him a .45 caliber pistol anyway? We must, and we will, dig into Roof’s past, to figure out what made him this way.

The thing we have to remember most of all, though, is that this kind of evil always exists, and evil people will always find cause to do evil. The best we can do is make it less likely that evil seeds find fertile soil in which to grow. The fact that it is much harder today, in 2015, to find that fertile soil than it was in 1963 is a testimony of hope. Let’s not forget that those who died to defeat white supremacy did not die in vain. The best way we honor the sacrifices of the Charleston Nine is to allow their deaths to convert our hearts more deeply to the cause of love and reconciliation. We all need to be more like them, more like those now-motherless teenagers, more like the Rev. Singleton.

My family will be going to Charleston next month for a conference. Julie and I decided last night that we will make a pilgrimage to Mother Emanuel to pray and to honor the dead. Between now and our visit to Charleston, we are going to teach our children about the civil rights movement, and use what happened in Charleston to explain to them the power of evil, but also the greater power of love.

If we, as a people, are to overcome the evil of the world’s Dylann Roofs, we need the power of what the Mother Emmanuel community has in their hearts. We need the power of love. Nothing else will do.

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The Christ-Haunted Drugstore

Ralph C. Wood

My mother was in the drugstore in town today. As she stood in line to pay for her stuff, an ancient black lady, a woman she did not know, said to my mom, apropos of nothing, “You know where we are, don’t you?”

“Where’s that?” my mother answered.

“We in the middle of Revelation. You young people need to be watching.”

My mother, the young person, is 70 years old.

I love the South.

Ralph Wood, writing about Flannery O’Connor this week, said the writer couldn’t stand the popular civic Christianity of the 1950s, and “sought an alternative to the vaporizing spirituality of her age.

She found it chiefly in her own region. She both loved and criticized her native South, praising its transcendent virtues while lamenting its temporal evils. Chief among the Southern virtues that made O’Connor the Roman Catholic thoroughly at home among the folk Christians of the Protestant South was their saturation in Scripture. She shared their conviction that the biblical Story of the world’s creation and salvation is meant to master us rather than for us to master it. We have engaged Scripture aright, O’Connor declared, when, “like Jacob, we are marked.”

O’Connor admired the backwoods believers of the American South because they were thus “mastered,” thus “marked.” She was drawn to their self-blinding street prophets and baptizing river preachers. Despite their awful failings, they spoke the language and declared the message of Scripture. These economically poor and educationally uncouth believers possessed no cultural standing or political power; indeed, polite society had passed them by on the other side. Yet she makes them the focus of her fiction, not in scorn but sympathy. Their fierce and sweated Faith enabled them to feel “the hand of God and its descent,” she confessed. “We have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”

Ralph C. Wood

Ralph C. Wood

Flannery O’Connor was far too troubled by the horrors that Southern whites have visited on Southern blacks ever to identify Jesus as the central figure of Southern history. Even so, the radically flawed Christians of her region prompted one of O’Connor’s most celebrated sayings: “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”Advocates of our “antireligious religion” of secular autonomy are not thus haunted. They do not fear the terrible descending hand of God. They do not walk, like Jacob, with a divinely inflicted limp. O’Connor’s characters, by contrast, are terribly afflicted, fearful, haunted. When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is filled with freaks, O’Connor famously replied that Bible-drenched Southerners are still able to recognize a freak when they see one. They take the measure of themselves and others by the plumb line described by the prophet Amos. Its true Vertical exposes all deviations, whether left or right, religious or secular.

I love that I live in a place where you can be standing in line at the drugstore a wizened old country woman will tell you that the world is under divine judgment, and to be ready, because the coming of the Lord draws near. I love it not in the trite way of people who find that kind of thing endearingly eccentric. I love it because people here — not everybody, but more people than you might think — take that sort of thing seriously. Maybe we aren’t in the Last Days, and maybe the Lord will tarry for some time yet. But the fact that the old black woman is thinking about it, and wanted to let strangers in line at the drugstore know that Judgment Day is coming — well, there’s a moral and spiritual realism there that I find bracing and comforting.

Our priest, a white man from Washington state, took his liturgical vestments in to the dry cleaners to have them cleaned. The black woman behind the counter had never seen religious garments so elaborate before. The two talked about the Old Testament, and the ritual clothing the priests of the Hebrews wore. Just a casual conversation between strangers in a small town in the Deep South.

You young people need to be watching. That old drugstore prophetess might be wrong on her timetable, but she knows things the rest of us do not.

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