Living By Noble Lies
The traditionalist Catholic writer Steve Skojec (though I don’t know that he would accept the adjective “traditionalist” anymore) recently sold his trad commentary site One Peter Five, and is now doing powerful writing at his Substack newsletter, The Skojec Files. Here’s a long, challenging, and actually kind of brilliant essay he wrote, sparked by controversy over the depiction of the Blessed Carlo Acutis, a contemporary Italian teenager who died of leukemia, and who is on a fast track to sainthood.
Skojec explains that there’s an argument between Catholics over whether it’s right to depict the glorified Acutis as he was in real life — sneakers and jeans — or in a glorified manner, as he is presumed to be in heaven. He writes:
I think it’s actually quite normal to see this disparity of reaction. But that’s because I think it points to a deeper sort of unraveling of the Catholic mythos. This demythologizing of the Church, I think, is due not to a “Modernist campaign” to dumb religion down — although there may be some of that mixed in — but rather to a massive shift in perception.
And then Skojec explains what he means. He says that it is impossible to fairly compare the Catholic Church’s situation today with any other era in the past, not because the Church is different, but because living in the Information Age radically changes us. No one in history ever had to deal with the amount of information that we do. He writes:
One of the biggest issues with politics and religion in 2021 is that we know everything our leaders thinking and doing and saying almost instantaneously. Applied to Catholicism, this has been devastating. The Church has always been scandal-plagued, but we didn’t have our noses rubbed in it every day. And while some will use this reality as a means of diminishing the present suffering of a scandal-fatigued faithful — “Oh, don’t sweat it. It’s been bad like this before. Just look at history!” — this is cold comfort. It’s hard to imagine that the faithful would have weathered around the clock news of the papal pornocracy any better than we are.
He’s right about that. The reason the Catholic sex abuse scandal story exploded in 2002, and not before, was because of one big reason: the existence of the Internet. The entire world was able to learn at the same time what the Boston Globe reporters were finding. When the Boston judge in the Geoghan case refused the routine request of Church lawyers to seal evidence presented in the trial, and instead put them in the public realm, everyone could see the hellacious lies and abuse that cardinals and their minions had been perpetrating for decades. There was the evidence, sometimes in their own handwriting. This sparked reporters in other parts of the country, even the world, to do reporting that they would almost certainly not have done had they not learned in detail what happened in Boston — and if that detailed accounting had not given them a pathway to discovering how the phenomenon played out in their own dioceses.
And still, the Church managed to keep a lot of secrets. You well know the story about how many people knew that Cardinal Ted McCarrick was a lecher and abuser, and that the Vatican knew about it too, but still tolerated and promoted him. They all knew it, but the public didn’t know it, because the Church and its collaborators — including compliant liberal media who didn’t want to pursue allegations that made a gay cardinal look like what he was: a predator — kept that information from the public. It didn’t work forever, because it couldn’t work forever. In this information environment, everything that is hidden will eventually be revealed.
I’ve written about this phenomenon in this space before — that is, about how the Information Age makes it very hard for institutions to maintain authority. My wife was telling me last night that she is much less susceptible to conspiracy theorizing about institutions and Covid response because of her experience as an administrator in a small Christian school. She said that anybody who has administered an organization knows that any number of things can go wrong, not because people are conspiring to deceive the public and do bad things, but because life is complex, people are fallible, decisions have to be made in real time, and it’s impossible to know everything. This is not an excuse for wrongdoing, obviously, but it is a caution against jumping to conclusions.
Anyway, whether poor governance by an institution is because of deliberation or accident, it is difficult for a poorly governed institution to maintain the confidence of the people it governs, once they know the facts. This is universally true. Skojec says it is especially true for the Catholic Church, because of the claims the Catholic Church makes about itself. More Skojec:
I suspect very strongly that we read Church history with a 100-proof gloss, and it’s very much intended to preserve an image of a pristine Church, divinely protected and untainted by error, despite her weathering of many storms. It’s a romanticized vision of what Catholicism really is, was, and has been. A romanticism that leads to claims like this:
Vatican I clearly teaches that “the See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error according to the divine promise of our Lord and Savior made to the prince of his disciples” (Denz.-H 3070; cf. Lk 22:32). This means that Christ and the Holy Spirit will insure that “in the Apostolic See” the Catholic religion will “always be preserved immaculate and sacred doctrine honored” (Denz.-H 3066; cf. the formula of Pope Hormisdas; Denz.-H 363–365).
Can anyone today look at Rome and honestly say that the See of St. Peter “remains untainted by any error”? Of course not. Can anyone claim, with a straight face, that in the Apostolic See, the faith has been “preserved immaculate and sacred doctrine honored”? Please.
Skojec goes on to quote Pope St. Pius X, an anti-modernist, who declared that the Catholic Church cannot change its teachings. He goes on:
The Pian vision of the Church is essentially one trapped in amber, a fossil of praxis and belief that moves forward physically in time, but with total unblemished integrity and continuity. It not only never fundamentally changes — it is impossible for it to do so.
I think that for Catholicism to be what it claims to be — the one true religion necessary for salvation, divinely founded by Jesus Christ, entrusted to St. Peter and his successors, and protected from error by the Holy Spirit — the Pian understanding is the only workable one. Evolution of dogma is an impossibility for a Church that claims such origins, safeguards, and the possession of eternal, immutable truths.
But reality, now that we have so much more access to see the theological sausage being made, is proving quite challenging to this view. The old, unflappable Church has long since been eclipsed. Doctrines are seemingly overturned without consequence. Traditionalists are holding onto a memory, an echo of that thing that once was, hoping that it will be so again. Thus, every new deviation from what was perceived as the ideal stings like a slap in the face to folks desperately trying to hold the line before even that memory is lost.
This is why the papal motu proprio last month, restricting the old Latin Mass and reversing Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, was such an act of cruelty and a traumatic event. It’s an unsubtle reminder to those who love the Church’s traditions and choose to believe that she is truly the “perfect society” have, in actuality, zero power to preserve or protect her. They are left, therefore, with no choice but to obey papal innovations and be crushed, or to rebel against them, and thereby become the very opposite of what they espouse. Obedience to everything but sin is what the tradition recommends; rebellion against an unjust but not immoral order is anything but traditional.
It was especially interesting to me to read Skojec, a man I’ve been following for years, consider that those non-trads who believe that there is something valuable in depicting the beatified young Acutis as he was in life might have a point. This is not the Steve Skojec of old. Something is changing within him.
What’s changing in him is something that is going to come for all of us, if it hasn’t already. It came for me back in 2005, and dissolved my ability to believe as a Catholic. I stagger onward, following the path towards God through Orthodoxy, but dramatically weakened in my ability to believe in an institution. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that the Orthodox Church is what she claims to be. I believe with all my heart, soul, and mind that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and all the other things proclaimed by the Orthodox Church. It is true that the Orthodox Church does not make the same strong claims that the Catholic Church does, but as I have admitted many times in this space, my faith is not strong enough to endure a close and constant examination of the failures of the priests and the bishops. Is that intellectual cowardice? Yes, probably. But I have had personally, or have heard credibly, of too many mystical experiences of Jesus Christ to deny Him. Knowing my own weakness, and the anticlericalism that emerged within me from the betrayal of the near-total trust I had in the Catholic hierarchy, I choose both to stay away from examining the inner workings of the Orthodox institutional church, and to keep the institutions and its clergy at arm’s length. This is not a judgment on the integrity of individual priests or bishops; it’s a judgment on my own damaged soul.
If I’m going to keep my eyes on Jesus, I have to look past the Bride of Christ. The problem is that there is no doing away with the Bride of Christ, which is the Biblical term for the Church. The Church gave us the Bible, for one. The Church gives us the Eucharist. Protestantism is, to my mind, unsupportable. So where does that leave us? This is something I think about a lot. It is part of my struggle of faith. I am not the first Christian to have struggled like this. Yet the Church endures. She still produces saints. And anyway, even the most radical Protestants will not find a sinless church. They’ll end with just them and Jesus out in the woods on Sunday morning. If there is no Bride of Christ, there will ultimately be no children of God. This is a difficult mystery for us in the age of total information. Among the most important Christians to listen to today are those who have taken the full measure of the iniquity and corruption of the institutional churches, and come through with their faith intact.
As Skojec points out, we have only just begun to live in this total information environment. We have no idea how its constant churn is going to change us, and our institutions, and the way we relate to our institutions. Not just the churches — the government, the schools, the banks, the military, all of them. Now that I’m back in Louisiana, I find myself completely overwhelmed with information about Covid and the Covid response. I went from a local and national environment — Budapest, Hungary — where the government took a firm hand in dealing with Covid, and where everyone complied with government mandates, to one that’s chaotic, information-dense, and full of rage.
Last night my wife was in a Circle K convenience store, and a young man, in his early 20s, nastily defied the older women clerks who kept asking him to put on a mask, which state law now requires. He refused, repeatedly. My wife said the young man was really arrogant, and she felt bad for the clerks, who were only doing their job. These kinds of exchanges, I hear, are happening everywhere. I live in a part of the US where people are normally quite courteous and respectful in the public square. To see this happening indicates a fundamental breakdown of who we are.
Honest to God, I don’t know what to believe about Covid, vaccines, or any of it. I’m quite confused. I know that vaccines (I am vaccinated) are making a huge difference. I had qualms about taking the vaccine, but I am immunocompromised, and reckoned that the risk of remaining unvaccinated was greater than the risk of taking the vaccine. But I have friends who are intelligent and not crazy, whose concerns about the vaccines I can’t sweep away.
And it is certainly true that our governmental and health authorities have not covered themselves with glory in their management of information around Covid. Last weekend at the festival in Esztergom, I explained to my Hungarian interlocutor that when we saw last summer health authorities saying that it was okay to cast aside their warnings against public gatherings, for the sake of attending George Floyd protests, that instantly discredited them in the eyes of many of us. These things really do matter. At the same time public health authorities are giving warnings about Covid, and liberals are demanding that we TRUST THE SCIENCE, we are seeing things like the American Medical Association say that we should do away with “male” and “female” on birth certificates, because sex doesn’t exist. Now, it is perfectly possible that medical authorities could be telling the truth about how to deal with Covid, and be completely bonkers and politicized about sex and gender. But normal people see how quickly doctors are falling for the trendy ideologization of medicine, and wonder how much they can be trusted on anything.
Similarly, it is entirely possible that school systems are correct to mandate masks for students coming back to school in the time of the Delta variant. But when many school systems are also mandating teaching of radical neoracist ideologies based on Critical Race Theory, normal people can’t be faulted for doubting the judgment of those authorities.
I could cite examples all day. The point is this: authority is not the same thing as power. An institution that has squandered its authority has nothing left but power. And if it doesn’t have power to coerce others — as in today’s churches — what does it have? If it does have the power to coerce others, including those who don’t accept its authority, it risks being or becoming a tyranny.
You could say that the total information environment is good in that it compels institutions to become more honest and competent. Maybe. But humans are not machines. We are going to fail. If we live in a society where people regard all human failure as malicious, and freak out completely in the face of it, we aren’t going to make it. It’s going to be some form of a war of all against all. You can see it starting.
The unsettling (to put it mildly) question that Skojec’s essay raises goes beyond the Catholic Church. It is this: What if the truth is that in order to have civilization, we have to lie to ourselves, collectively and elaborately? What if it always has done, and we’re just now able to fully appreciate that? If that’s what it requires, then how do we do that? I keep hearing in my mind the voice of Caiaphas justifying the execution of an innocent man, Jesus Christ: “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
Is it better for us that there be one noble lie for the people than that the whole nation perish? Isn’t that what we’re talking about? But how can a good man live by a lie, knowing it’s a lie?
UPDATE: A reader writes:
In re your piece today (“living by noble lies”), and especially the last two paragraphs, remember Girard. This is what his whole mature thought is about. If you haven’t read “Battling to the End,” his final book, this is the main thrust of it. Noble lies are precisely what make civilization possible. Especially the noble lie about “foundational murders” or sacrifices. Remember the Lord’s words about building the tombs of the prophets, hiding their bones, etc. What is that hiding of bones except a great collective lie, i.e. that we haven’t murdered the prophets? Per Girard, the two things that make culture possible are violence and lying. Those are the key ingredients of the sacrificial mechanism. Is it a coincidence that the two things that characterize Satan, according to our Lord, are that he is 1) a liar and the father of lies, and 2) a murderer from the beginning?The proclamation of the Gospel is the exposure of this mechanism. But the sacrificial mechanism is precisely what made culture possible! So the trouble is, once it is exposed to be a lie, it loses its constructive power. Culture falls apart. Unless people become disciples of Jesus – in Girardian terms, shift the focus of their mimetic desire onto him. (The cross is thus, for Girard, anti-sacrificial, and the Eucharist is an unbloody sacrifice.) But that obviously isn’t happening. Not in the West anyway. But we can’t go back to sacrifice, because it has been definitively exposed as a lie and has lost its power. So, since we’re not going to turn to the Lord and be saved, we have the dissolution of our culture to endure – and the frantic effort somehow to get the impotent sacrificial mechanism going again, the frantic search for more victims. There is no other way (if Girard is right, as I believe he is). It’s some comfort that the Lord himself foresaw and foretold this, viz. the multiplication of “lawlessness” during the “time of the Gentiles,” which ends with cataclysmic violence and the immiseration of many. But he who endures to the end, not allowing his “love to grow cold,” will be saved.If you haven’t read “Battling to the End,” I highly recommend it. It’s not easy to understand, especially for Americans, as we have been largely isolated from the effects of the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath, but your recent saturation in European culture will help.