Beavis And The Catholic Priest
My pal Michael Brendan Dougherty, a Traditionalist Catholic, lets fly this morning in National Review Online against the Second Vatican Council. Excerpts:
Years ago, during a very brief meeting at New York University with the eminent English conservative Roger Scruton, I shared with him — an Anglican by tradition — my reservations about the Second Vatican Council and my interest in the old liturgy. He had no reservation in his analysis. He said more or less that the Catholic Church had “joined in the spirit of self-hatred and suicide” that pervaded the West in the 1960s.
The church has thus proceeded from slogan to slogan, as if theological reflection or — more ominously — the development of doctrine were mere rumination on the latest sets of buzzwords, usually coming from bishops or the pope. The people of God in transit, the listening church, the new evangelization, the field hospital. The synodal church. Catholics used to be known by their distinctive devotional life — prayers to the saints, rosaries, abstaining from meat on Fridays. Now, devoted Catholics spend their time reading papal encyclicals and mastering this pseudo-theological jargon.
Blah blah blah. Can we ever talk about God, sin, redemption, Our Lord and Our Lady? Heaven and hell? Oddly, it was Mike Judge who managed to capture and satirize the post–Vatican II church. Beavis turns to the crucifix and says, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
I had never seen that clip from Beavis and Butt-head. It's terrific. Watch:
Beavis sees Christ on the crucifix in church, tells him, "I want to do whatever it takes," then encounters the priest, an ecclesial bureaucrat who talks exactly like MBD says. This priest is not a liberal, nor a conservative (apparently); he's just totally caught up in the System, and can only talk about encountering the living Christ in terms of procedures and documents. As MBD describes what happens next:
Beavis then does what most American Catholics do; he leaves.
I sent that clip to a Latin mass Catholic friend with whom I spent a long time on the phone last night. He's struggling with a spiritual issue, and told me that his traditionalist priest had been no help. The priest told him to look up in this or that authoritative theological manual the answer to his question. My friend knew what the Church teaches, but he didn't understand it, and it troubled him. But for this legalistic priest, simply knowing what the ecclesiastical law (so to speak) says is enough. It brought to mind this passage from Dante's Paradiso, canto 9, where the pilgrim Dante meets Folquet of Marseille in heaven. Folquet, a troubadour whose verse was admired by Dante, and who later became a bishop, tells Dante:
“Your city [Florence] – which owes its origin to Lucifer himself, whose useless envy brought such woe to the world, your city mints and circulates that evil coin which changes the church’s shepherds into wolves who destroy the fold and let the lambs run off in every direction. In the mean time, the Gospel and the writings of the Church Fathers gather dust while Canon Law is studied the most. The Pope and his Cardinals pay attention to nothing else, and they care nothing for Nazareth where the angel Gabriel made the great Annunciation. But mark my words, every place in Rome, including the Vatican, made sacred by the blood of martyrs who followed Saint Peter, will soon be cleansed from this adultery!"
Watching that brilliant satirical Beavis clip, and reflecting on how even a faithful priest failed to help my struggling friend (offering dry legalism instead), helped me to understand better why my own Catholic faith dried up. I knew this already, but I'm so far from that experience that I had forgotten some of it. What I'm about to say here applies to ALL CHRISTIANS, not just Catholics.
From 2002, when the abuse scandal first broke big, until 2006, when I formally abandoned Catholicism, I was living in a kind of hell. I was dealing with true stories of priests sodomizing children, those children growing up to commit suicide, families shattered, gay sex cabals within the priesthood and some monasteries, bishops turning a blind eye to all this, and sometimes siccing their lawyers on devastated families, and Rome's indifference (remember, I knew about Cardinal McCarrick in early 2002). It gnawed at my insides like a bear with a bone. The only thing -- the only thing -- I had to keep me Catholic in all this was repeating to myself that the sins of the clergy do not negate the truths of the Church.
It was bone-dry, legalistic, and intellectual. But it was all I had. I did not have a good and spiritually fruitful experience in parish life to fall back on. I lived in six different dioceses in my thirteen years as a Catholic, and my overwhelming experience was like what MBD discusses. I learned quickly that the difference between the church in the books I read, and the actual church in America today, was vast. I prayed, and I went to confession and mass regularly, but it was the desert. I knew that I was receiving the Eucharist, which is everything, but over time -- and when put to the trial of the scandal -- it all felt so hollow. Why? Because almost none of the clergy seemed to believe any of it. Most of the laity seemed to be going through the motions. I realized finally that for me, it was only the dry bones of theological principles that kept me Catholic. In the end, faced with the immensity of the satanic evil revealed in the scandal, that wasn't enough.
It was enough for some of my Catholic friends. But not for me. What has been so good for me in Orthodoxy is the emphasis on the experience of the Holy Spirit as a normal part of Orthodox piety. Of flow. You can find mediocre clergy and monks, sure -- we human beings are mediocre. But it's hard to find people who fall back on intellection alone as a bulwark against apostasy, because that simply is not how Orthodoxy works. When I am confronted by this or that scandal in Orthodoxy, it does not shake my faith, because the past sixteen years of living out the Orthodox faith has sedimented the truth of the Gospel in my bones.
(Incidentally, I am today in suburban Chicago at the Touchstone conference. This morning I joined a couple at breakfast, conferees who are Lutherans. They told me that they once had considered Orthodoxy, because they were drawing close to a monastery in Massachusetts, but ran the other way when it came out that the monastery was a nest of gay sex.) There is no way to escape corruption in any church. We are all going to have to deal with it. Dry intellection won't be enough for most of us, nor will the happy-clappy bromides that so many pastors and parish leaders provide, and that -- to be fair -- so many American Christians expect.)
Michael Brendan Dougherty asks:
Can we ever talk about God, sin, redemption, Our Lord and Our Lady? Heaven and hell?
See, this is where I have great fault. I've mentioned this in this space before, but I have to do so again. During my Catholic days, I thought I was a fervent and faithful Catholic because I engaged all the time with fellow conservative Catholics in talking about the problems with the Church. Internal Church politics, and the position of the Catholic Church vis-a-vis American politics and culture -- this was my favorite thing to talk about, and also beloved of many of my Catholic friends. One night, after hosting a dinner party of all fellow Catholics, at which us men had held forth until after midnight griping about the problems in the Church, my wife saw off our final guest, then turned to me and said, "We need a lot less Peter in this house, and a lot more Jesus."
What she meant was that her husband and his friends were spending way too much time talking about the Church, and not enough time talking about the One to which the Church pointed: Christ. She was absolutely right, but that did not change me one bit. And you see what happened next.
It's not wrong, necessarily, to talk about one's church and its internal struggles, and its encounter with the world. In fact, you have to talk about it! But it's a matter of priority, of emphasis. Standing outside the Catholic Church now, watching all this ridiculous "synodality" process, looks to me like playing euchre on the decks of the Titanic. When people are struggling with questions of life and death, or the life and death of their souls, and the souls of their families, these b.s. "synodality" events are insulting. But then again, no matter what your church -- and I'm talking to my fellow Orthodox as well as to my Protestant brothers and sisters -- if we are not talking about the primary experience of the Gospel, and about suffering, and the real things that Christians endure now, we are going to be washed away in the flood now upon us. It's like Father Cassian, the founding prior of the Norcia monastery, said to me in 2015: any Christian family that wants to survive what is soon to come will have to do some version of the Benedict Option. He meant that all of us will have to get very serious about our faith, very disciplined, and build strong, resilient communities of believers. Nothing else will work. Not synodality, not some gimmicky new evangelism program, not keeping your head down and going to liturgy and pretending that all will be well if we just keep doing what we have always done.
This is a crisis. This is a grave crisis, the worst spiritual crisis for the West since the collapse of the Roman Empire. And we are not ready. You can listen to me warn you, but if you end up responding as I did to my wife's warning back in the early 2000s, it's going to go poorly for you, and the fault for that will be mostly your own. Trust me, I've lived it, and having been guilty of it once, I can't let it happen to me again. Being part of a small-o orthodox confession, going to church faithfully, saying your prayers, keeping the fasts and the feasts -- all of that is necessary, but it is not sufficient. There is no substitute for encountering the living God, every day. I just came from a conference of conservative Lutheran pastors, where at least two people I talked to were brought nearly to tears talking about their struggles with their transgender children. Being faithful, conservative Christians did not spare them this trial.
One more thing. I posted most of this to Rod Dreher's Diary, my subscription-only Substack, where I talk about spiritual things that I don't feel comfortable getting into in detail on this secular blog. I repost it here, because it is key to the point MBD is making about the Second Vatican Council and the decadence in the Catholic Church, and the point I'm trying to make about the kind of spirituality we are going to need to survive what's here, and what's coming:
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I mentioned to you earlier that I am at a pastor’s conference. Yesterday I gave a talk in which I mentioned my upcoming book, and the topic of Christian re-enchantment. Later, I got to talking with an older pastor who told me about how his faith has been deepened at times by encounters with radical evil. Why? Because they remind him that the true battle we all fight is spiritual at its core. I finally asked him if I could record our talk for my book. He agreed as long as I didn’t identify him, for his safety. I have his name and verified that he is who he told me he is, and does what he said he does.
The pastor is a longtime chaplain for law enforcement agencies, at various levels, including state, local, and national. He was at Ground Zero serving in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack. A combat veteran of Vietnam and an ordained minister for decades, because of his training and experience, he is sometimes called in to minister to law enforcement officers who are dealing with especially traumatic cases. I am going to call him “Chap,” for “chaplain,” in this account. The message of his story is that there is evil afoot in this world so vile and uncontrollable that the only defense against it is a strong faith in God. Here’s the transcript of our conversation:
You were telling me something about one part of the country where you serve, how calm and beautiful it is, but how that’s on the surface. Can you tell me more?
We get so accustomed to seeing the physical beauty around us that we forget that underneath that beauty, evil is still there. In my years of serving as chaplain for various law enforcement agencies, I’ve seen that the men and women who serve there live in that dark world that many of us never get to see. There have been many times in the last thirty some-odd years that I’ve served that I’ve seen this become real in my life as a minister.
One situation in particular comes to mind. There was a bank robbery in the Midwest. As a chaplain, I was called to those kinds of events where there was a lot of violence, bloodshed, and killing — the worst sides of life that affect law enforcement who have to deal with it head-on. At this bank, a group of men came to the bank with the intention of robbing it. They took over the bank and easily overcame the guard. They put him in a corner, and started collecting money from the tellers. You could see in the security camera tapes the eyes of the tellers, watching these young men come in and violently take over their lives with guns in their faces.
I heard the story from the agents sent there to investigate the crime scene. They were absorbed in the aftermath. As the robbers went from teller to teller sticking guns in tellers’ faces demanding cash, one of the robbers confronted a teller who was trying to unlock her drawer, and was panicking. She looked up at him, and he made some comment like, “Why are you looking at me?” He had a gun six inches from her face. He shot her dead.
Over the next ten minutes or so, each person in that office was killed — mostly by that same guy, but one other of the gang took part as well. Five people were murdered that morning. The scene was beyond description. And they left. By then, law enforcement had been notified. The search was underway. The gang didn’t realize that the car they stole to get away was equipped with Lojack, an electronic chip that helps police find stolen cars. After a day, they found this crew of murderers in a motel, reveling over what they had done. Finally the police arrested them.
Here is the part where evil really comes in. I was out there with my team about 72 hours after it all happened, to help the officers deal with what they had seen. It has been proven that early intervention can help mitigate the effects of PTSD for soldiers, firefighters, and police officers who have to face down trauma. One of the agents wanted to talk to me privately. He confessed to me that he was a strong Catholic, but the urges that he had when apprehending this gang to execute them on the spot, due to the nature of their crime, overwhelmed him to the point where he felt guilty for wanting to take a life. He had to talk about it.
He told me that as he interrogated the ringleader, the man who had started this carnage, the guy had been flippant from the moment they arrested him. He was not remorseful. He was nothing but terrible. In the interrogation, he stopped, leaned forwards towards the agent, and said to him, calmly, “You can put me away” — and then he pointed his finger at the agent’s head — “but I will always be in your head, and I will never leave it.” Then he just sat back. The agent said he just recoiled into his seat, not knowing what to do with that.
He told me, “Chaplain, at that moment, I felt like I was sitting there face to face with the devil. That he was talking to me directly, and putting a curse on me. I’m trying to deal with this. I can’t sleep.”
The agent went through a whole litany of things that were affecting him. We talked for a long time. I’m happy to say that after a while, this agent, who had not only been exposed to that horrific crime scene, but had been directly confronted by demonic evil, was able, with God’s help, to endure. But there was a battle going on inside of him.
Earlier today we were talking about this battle going on in our world in which sexual perversion is becoming more and more explicit. You were telling me how that there’s so much more that goes on unseen in this world, but that law enforcement knows about, and chaplains like you who minister to law enforcement know about. Could you talk about that?
It’s a terrible, dark area that is lying underneath all the good you see in the world. We’re talking about sick perversions, bestiality, mutilations, terrible cult-type worship that revolves around sexual perversion. It’s even in beautiful places where you wouldn’t think that anything like that could exist. The people I’ve worked with as chaplain, they are men and women who spend their entire professional lives delving as deep into depravity as you can get on the Internet. It takes them to places that I can’t even begin to talk about, that are beyond anything you would ever think humanly possible, that a human being would do to another. Involving all ages, both sexes.
It’s horrific. And yet, it’s so easily accessible through easy portals where lonely people can connect with these evil ones, only to find that they get sucked down a rabbit hole of destruction and horror. There are men and women out there who are trying to protect us, who have to deal with it, and they themselves are being traumatized by exposure to such evil things. They can’t get this stuff out of their heads. It becomes a part of them — especially things involving perversions with children. Many officers and agents who have children can’t stop imagining their own children being sucked into these kinds of things. It’s terrifying even to let your child leave the house.
People like me try to be there to put our arms around them and let them talk about it, but not allowing ourselves to see what they actually live with ten, twelve, sixteen hours a day looking at the most horrific things. They see the evil of the devil and his minions destroying the lives of people. It’s everywhere, from the rural areas to the cities. No place is safe from it. It’s far more serious than we want to think.
What has that led you to conclude about the spiritual nature of the battle we’re all in?
God tells us in His Word that we are engaged with forces that far exceed our capacity to understand, and that there is an absolute necessity to depend on the Holy Spirit working actively in our hearts and minds to help us fight the battle. There is a spiritual war going on for the hearts and minds of people. And yes, it does reach the depths of evil that passes our understanding. Satan is constantly trying to enter through cracks and flaws that we might have, to manifest his power and his hatred and his ability to tear us away from the only thing that will save us, Our Lord and Savior Jesus. We have to try to bring Christ’s spiritual power and presence to bear against it, to somehow help us all get through it.
We are in a war. In some parts of the world, it’s even deeper than what we see here, but all humanity shares this common enemy. He’s evil. He doesn’t care what he does, or how he does it. He doesn’t take any sides. He just wants to destroy, and to separate people by force from the only hope they have, which is God. When you start to become a part of that war at the law enforcement level, and start talking about it with people outside of that world, they look at you like you must be exaggerating. I can tell you, this is real, and it’s deeper than you can easily comprehend.
How does faith help agents and others on the front lines? How about those who don’t have faith? How do they deal with it?
For those who don’t have faith, we try to convey to them somehow the hope that we believers have, the power that God gives to us — not because we’re worthy — to help defend us against the kinds of things that leave us feeling defenseless. That hope in Christ where when he said, “I will be with you always,” he means it. Even if we have to go down, he’s there with us in the trenches. He’s not leaving us. Our faith is never perfect, but when you can give witness to that, to express to someone who feels like they’re about to fall into the abyss, that hey man, the Lord is here, that is powerful. You do what you can to show to those suffering people that wherever you go, Christ will be able to help you with those memories, with those images of the things that you saw, to help you deal with them, and place them in a place where they are no longer a threat. Christ can help you put Satan out of the picture, and put you back on the path away from the abyss, and to realize that we are all in this together, and that He is with us always.
I remember right after 9/11, days after, I was standing in the pit, in the rubble, which was still smoldering, and still hot. I prayed, “God, what do you want me to do in this place.” You could feel the presence of evil there. I saw a firefighter, a young man kneeling there, resting, at the foot of an eight-story pile of rubble. He had a firefighter’s pike in his hand, and he was kneeling. I walked up to him, wearing a jacket that identified me as a chaplain. Without even looking at me, the man said, “I should have been here.” I just stood there.
He said, “My whole company is in there. I called in sick. I should have been there.”
He said, “I’m not leaving here till I find somebody.”
He reached around my leg, and he just held my leg. I just put my hand on his shoulder. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think of a prayer. I just squeezed his shoulder. He grabbed me so hard around the knees. At that moment, I felt the presence of Christ.
Even today. [Chap’s voice cracks]
He stood up, and without looking at me, said, “I’ve got to go back.” And I never saw him again.
Good was there. Times when you’d stand there with the stench, and the horror of it all, hardly being able to breathe … . One day I was standing there right at the foot of a pile of rubble, and I looked up, and the sky had turned blue, and a cool breeze blew, and I felt the presence of Christ amid such evil. I knew that while we were there experiencing the worst things anybody would ever have to see, Jesus was there, and he was taking people, and holding people, and comforting people. Then a moment later, everything got hazy and smoky and smelly again, but for that brief moment, I felt Christ. Despite what we could see, he was there trying to overcome the evil that was trying to destroy us.
There are some people who would hear that, and say, “Jesus, you were there in the suffering, but why didn’t you stop the hijackers?
There are no good answers. But I go back to Christ, in his suffering, in his death, hanging on the Cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why? Because of me. So I would never have to experience that, even in horrific death. He will never leave me. He made that promise to us in his blood. He was the victor, for me. So that we can face the evils of the world, when God doesn’t intervene.
Plenty of times God does intervene. He does say, “Stop!”, and evil doesn’t play out to the bitter end. But other times He doesn’t. From what I’ve seen, I can say that the world is a terrible place. We live in sin. But He is there with us. It’s hard to understand, but I believe that. He died for us.
We have to tell people that we are in warfare, right now. In our country, we certainly don’t have the level of persecution that many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world have, but here, we’re starting to see it more and more. On the near horizon, there are probably things ahead that we can’t bear to think about. I’m not trying to be defeatist, but having read the end of the story in the Bible, I know that things are going to get worse. This world is not going to save itself, despite what leaders tell us, that all we have to do is hold hands and sing kum-ba-ya, and it’ll all be fine. We’re not destined to go that way. God has told us how it’s going to be, and that in the end, there will be complete victory. But there is warfare now, and like any soldier, we have to be prepared for combat at all times.
I’m sure for those people in the bank, they weren’t thinking about dying horrifically that day. Or the little girl kidnapped by a pervert in Missouri, and for a day and a half, sexually abused, and ultimately buried alive — that that was going to happen to her when she went out into the cul de sac by her front yard. She didn’t know she was going to be snatched by a man in a pick-up truck. It can happen at any time. The battle at some times can be subtle, and at some times it can be direct, just like in real combat. You never sleep too far from your rifle, because the war is always there.
You were involved in the case of that little girl?
Yes. Yes, and what made it doubly difficult was the agents that I served with, most of them had young girls the same age. And when they encountered the killer later on along the railroad track, with a broken knee, and the grave not too far away, the man was flippant about what he had done to the little girl, and how he relished what he did. Without exception, those officers who apprehended him had to be restrained from summarily executing that man on the spot, by the tracks. They struggled with that. And then later when he was in jail, he complained that his television set didn’t have pornography on it that he could watch, throwing his waste on the jailers because they weren’t serving him.
How do you deal with it yourself? You help remove the burden from these men, but who removes the burden from you?
My wife of all these years has been the greatest source of my strength. We’ve shared things — sometimes not in the depth of detail that I would share easily, but she knows the things that I have seen and heard and been exposed to. There was a friend down South I talked to all the time when I was stationed at Ground Zero, a retired firefighter who had seen some things. Just sharing with men who know what it’s like to deal with horror up close. Pastors have been encouraging. The people in my congregations have been encouraging. But I have to say the greatest source of all has been my wife. Nobody can carry these things alone.
Nobody can carry these things alone. No, they can't. Last night I stumbled into a file on my laptop where I kept correspondence from the previous decade of my collapsing marriage -- letters between me and a dear Christian friend, who accompanied me across that agonizing desert. I read some of them, and was astonished by the depths and the details of my pain, and my wife's pain. If not for Christ, I couldn't have carried that cross. If not for Christ in my beloved friend, who walked with me every step of the way, in correspondence, I could not have carried that cross. And if not for the Christ I met in prayer, in intense prayer, and not the Christ of the theories, I wouldn't have made it.
This is the real and gritty world. We all need a real and gritty faith to endure it, and not only to endure, but to prevail over it. There are no substitutes. If you are ready to do what it takes to embrace that kind of faith, please don't be satisfied with or discouraged by Pastor Blahblah, who talks in cliches or abstractions or the dialect of American Happy-Clappy. There are faithful Christians in ordained ministry, and in the laity, who get it. Seek them out. Pray for God to send them to you. It's more important than you realize.