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Catholic Triumphalism

Not the best strategy for trying to win back fallen-away Catholics

From time to time, I’ll run into a Catholic who, in a friendly way, will exhort me to return to the Catholic Church, from which I exited in 2006 when I lost my Catholic faith via the abuse scandal. In the past year and a half, I have had two dear Catholic friends make impassioned pleas to me to return to the Catholic Church. I have absolutely no doubt that they did so out of genuine love for me. There is no chance that I will do what they hope I will do, but I received their appeals as acts of love and friendship. They genuinely want what they believe is best for me.

I bring up their example to show that I do not automatically receive this kind of appeal as a hostile or disrespectful act. In fact, under certain conditions, as I indicate, it can be an act of love. More often than not, though, when Catholics who do not know me personally make this kind of appeal, it comes across as a manifestation of arrogance and triumphalism, e.g., If you knew what was good for you, fool, you would return to the One True Faith, which you abandoned so thoughtlessly. I never take them seriously, because it is clear that they are motivated by some kind of hard-shell tribalism, not care for my soul or any other.

This week, the Catholic writer Matthew Schmitz wrote a column in the Catholic Herald appealing to me and two other Catholic writers, Melinda Henneberger and Damon Linker, who left the Church over the scandal, to return to the bosom of Rome. Though we don’t really know each other, I consider Schmitz a friend, and therefore didn’t receive his appeal in the hostile manner I mentioned in the second paragraph above. On the other hand, it did miss the mark significantly, in ways I’ll explain below.

Schmitz begins by calling out Henneberger, Linker, and a third writer, Melinda Selmys, all of whom recently abandoned Catholicism over the scandal. He writes:

A Catholic is bound to view every act of apostasy or schism as spiritual suicide, a choice against life. This characterisation is borne out by three recent columns written by Catholics who have left the Church over the sex abuse scandals. None of the authors proposes any higher, truer teaching than the Catholic faith. None anticipates a happier tomorrow. Each column is, in its way, a cry of despair.


All of these writers are following a trail blazed by Rod Dreher, who left the Church after covering the abuse crisis in 2002. It is not an easy road, as Dreher has since observed. “The Protestants I’ve known who became Catholic were not angry at the church they left behind,” he writes. By contrast, “The ex-Catholics I’ve known tend to be angry.”

Their anger suggests the disappointment of high ideals. These ex-Catholic writers have not, to my knowledge, pulled their children out of primary schools, which according to some studies have higher rates of abuse than the Catholic Church. Nor have they announced that they no longer watch NBC since the Matt Lauer scandal. Dreher has acknowledged that the Orthodox Church, where he currently worships, is as prone to abuse as the Catholic Church – but he can tolerate in the one what he could not in the other.

This is true about me, but very misleading. It is not Schmitz’s responsibility to tell the whole complicated story of my loss of Catholic faith, and the modus vivendi I have found as an Orthodox Christian, even though I have detailed it all at length in this space. But my story undermines the point he’s trying to make here.

In brief, I have been clear that I do not expect the Orthodox Church — or any church — to be free from sin. Some angry Catholics have accused me over the years of leaving Rome under the false pretense that Orthodox is sin-free. I have never seen the slightest evidence that Orthodoxy has the same kind of problem with clerical sex abuse of children that Catholicism has — though for all I know, it may! But I doubt it, and I doubt it because I believe there are structures built into the Orthodox model of the priesthood that reduce the likelihood of that. I did not become Orthodox because I thought my children would be safer from clerical abusers within Orthodoxy, however.

More to the point, though, I have made clear that I can tolerate the prospect of abuse in Orthodoxy whereas I could not in Catholicism because I entered Orthodoxy with far lower expectations about the institution and the clergy than I had in Catholicism. I was naive about the Catholic institution, and saw in retrospect that I idolized it to a certain degree. Because I believed what the Catholic Church said about itself, I set myself up for a very big fall. Catholic friends who were not as idealistic about the Catholic Church as I was managed to come through the scandal fine.

Going forward into Orthodoxy, I made a vow to myself to be a lot more guarded about the way I regard the institutional church. I have tried to acknowledge, and take responsibility for, my own personal failures that led to losing my Catholic faith. I have tried to learn not only from my unwarranted idealism about the Catholic Church, but also my bad habit of overintellectualizing the faith, which also set me up for a fall. My ability to tolerate in Orthodoxy what I could not tolerate in Catholicism is not a compliment to the Catholic religion; rather, it is an acknowledgement that I had erred in my idealism, and my determination not to make the same mistake in Orthodoxy. It is, I think, the fruit of wisdom won at a very painful price.

More Schmitz:

This reflects a truth acknowledged by both Catholic and ex-Catholic alike. The Church proclaims a higher, more demanding teaching than any other religious assembly. Because Catholic aspirations are higher, Catholic sins are always more shocking. Corruptio optimi pessima – or as DH Lawrence put it, “The greater the love, the greater the trust, and the greater the peril, the greater the disaster.”

Wait … what? I trust that Schmitz doesn’t mean it this way, but this paragraph comes across as an extremely self-serving justification. For one thing, I dispute that Catholicism’s demands are higher or more demanding than the Orthodox Church’s. More importantly, though, where are the other churches who allow in their teaching for the sexual molestation of minors? There are none! The reason it was so shocking to find it in the Catholic is not because Catholics are on any exalted theological plane, but because the abuse was so systemic, because it was so widely known by bishops, and yet tolerated. Any church whose leadership recognized this problem within their clerical ranks, and who tolerated it so widely and for so long, would have brought about the same condemnation as the Catholic Church. It’s really self-flattering to say that the revulsion at the abuse scandal is a sign of the Catholic Church’s superior holiness.

[UPDATE: I understand that some people have misread a line in the above paragraph, thinking that I am saying that the Catholic Church permits sexual molestation of minors. I don’t believe that at all! My point is that no church permits that, so it’s misleading to claim, as I take Schmitz doing, that the Catholic Church asks something extraordinary of its clergy, which makes its failures more remarkable. To be clear: the Catholic Church does not permit the molestation of minors as part of its teaching … which means that it is on par with every other church. — RD]

If there’s a seed of truth in Schmitz’s claim, it’s that the Roman church maintains that it is an exclusive and authoritative means of salvation. The Catholic Church today does not say that any Christian who dies outside of Rome’s fellowship is damned, of course, but it does claim a unique mediating role. It’s too complicated to get into that here. I can’t speak for Linker et alia, but in my case, I could no longer believe that my eternal salvation depended on maintaining communion with the Roman see.

Schmitz once more:

This horror at the corruption of the best is the stance of the ex-Catholic. Despite the infamies that rightly enrage them, these ex-Catholics have not been able to shake a residual belief in the Catholic faith, a recognition of the nobility of the Catholic creed. If only because they retain this belief, I hope they will come back.

I don’t understand this point at all. Is he saying, “You know in your heart that Catholicism is true, so I hope you’ll come back”? That presumes a heck of a lot. But then, presuming that Catholics who left the Roman church over sex abuse did so because they believed that “the best” was spoiled by abuse is … problematic.

Again, I can only speak for myself, but for theological and historical reasons, the only churches that made a plausible claim on my belief were the Roman church, and the Orthodox churches. (Again, too complicated to argue about here.) It’s not a matter of seeking out “the best”, but the most truthful. I had never really considered Orthodoxy until my Roman Catholic faith had turned to dust. I retained enough of my residual Catholicism to believe that Orthodoxy was the only possible alternative. Indeed, Rome considers the Orthodox churches to be true churches, and their sacraments valid; they are only separated from Rome. In some sense, the Catholic Church does not consider me to be an apostate, only a schismatic.

I retain respect (and affection!) for the Roman Catholic Church not because it is in any sense “the best,” but because I believe that in its teachings, rites, and practices, it retains more of the truth than any other Western church. Plus, having spent so many years in the Catholic Church, I retain a natural affection for it. And, I know so many Catholics who are better Christians than I am, and they got that way because of what they have met in the Catholic Church.

Yet I do have a strong aversion to conceiving of comparative ecclesiology in terms of “best” and “worst”. I confess that this is how I thought about things for all the years I was a Catholic, and that I didn’t understand how messed up that was. I was saturated in Catholic triumphalism to a degree I hid from myself, until it was exposed by the scandal. To me, the superiority of Rome over the competition was obvious. It was almost embarrassing to think about those poor people who were smart enough to see this, but who still refused to submit to the Pope. I really did believe that … until I didn’t.

This is the thing: it is so very hard for some Catholic intellectuals to imagine that anybody could actually lose their faith — that having once believed that what the Catholic Church taught and said was true, that they no longer do. They have to assume that there is bad faith involved at some point. In fact, “bad faith” is not the same thing as losing faith entirely.

To me, it is profoundly unappealing to hear Catholics appeal to those who left Rome to return because in our heart of hearts, we know Rome is “better” than any other church. Come to the Orthodox Church and experience the Divine Liturgy, and you will know how much Catholics have to endure with the Novus Ordo to keep their faith in what they know to be true. Again, if you want to claim that the Roman church is more truthful than any other church, that’s a defensible claim (though not a plausible one to me). But better? Really?

It is true that no other Western church has produced the equivalent of an Aquinas, or a Chartres cathedral. But how many Aquinases and Chartreses are worth enduring a clerical class that systematically buggers boys and elevates dirty old men like the molester Ted McCarrick to the heights of spiritual authority within its ranks?

The triumphalism of some Catholic intellectuals is a burden on the Church’s witness in these post-scandal days.

UPDATE: A reader e-mails:

If the Catholic Church tended to produce a lot of petty little sinners, Schmitz would say, “See, that proves that we are the One True Church, none of our people are monsters, they cannot stray too far.” But since the Catholic Church is producing monsters, Schmitz says, “See, that proves that we are the One True Church, our sinners are worse than everyone else’s.”

I see the point. Schmitz’s claim seems non-falsifiable.

A Catholic friend who was once Evangelical texted to say that he doesn’t see Protestant saints who are anywhere close in holiness to Catholic saints. I’m not sure how to evaluate that claim. It could be that those who follow the Catholic way diligently become more refined in holiness than those who follow the Protestant way diligently. That makes some sense to me from an Orthodox point of view, given the accumulated wisdom of the Church in studying how humans behave.

On the other hand, churches that emerged from the Reformation deliberately denied, or at least minimized, the cult of the saints. Isn’t it the case that because of this, they would not have systematically recorded and analyzed the deeds of their great saints, and regarded them in the same way as Catholic and Orthodox churches? If there were a Southern Baptist Catherine of Siena, or a Pentecostal Seraphim of Sarov, how would we know? I’m asking seriously. Help me out, Protestant readers.

UPDATE.2: Hey everybody, Matthew Schmitz sent me a response, which I’ve posted in its entirety here. Let’s take this conversation to that new comments thread. I’m going to close this one down.

UPDATE.3: I understand that some people have misread a line in the above paragraph, thinking that I am saying that the Catholic Church permits sexual molestation of minors. I don’t believe that at all! My point is that no church permits that, so it’s misleading to claim, as I take Schmitz doing, that the Catholic Church asks something extraordinary of its clergy, which makes its failures more remarkable. To be clear: the Catholic Church does not permit the molestation of minors as part of its teaching … which means that it is on par with every other church.



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