Steve Skojec Has Had Enough
Some background: Skojec is a prolific writer and the founder of One Peter Five, a popular traditionalist Catholic website (by “traditionalist,” I mean conservative Catholics who are skeptical of the Second Vatican Council, and who worship in the Tridentine (Latin) Mass. He was for years a lay member, or at least affiliate, of the cultish Legionaries of Christ religious order, which left him badly shaken. He details that experience in the essay. Steve, whom I know a bit from correspondence, has been struggling epically with the Catholic Church over its failures to be what it says it is. He has also — this is in the essay too — been struggling more recently with fellow traditionalists; I’ll quote him below as to the reason.
He finally hit a breaking point when his priest, who sounds like a stone-cold legalist, denied his children the sacraments. That’s what prompted this essay. Let me quote generously from it — but don’t for a second think that just these quotes do justice to the cry from the heart that is this piece. Steve begins with this quote from Jordan Peterson; emphases in Steve’s original:
[T]he consequences of having your rational intellect divorced in some way from your being—divorced enough so that it actually questions the utility of your being. It’s not a good thing.
It’s really not a good thing because it manifests itself not only in individual psychopathologies, but also in social psychopathologies. That’s this proclivity of people to get tangled up in ideologies, and I really do think of them as crippled religions. That’s the right way to think about them. They’re like religion that’s missing an arm and a leg but can still hobble along. It provides a certain amount of security and group identity, but it’s warped and twisted and demented and bent, and it’s a parasite on something underlying that’s rich and true.
I think it’s very important that we sort out this problem. I think that there isn’t anything more important that needs to be done than that. I’ve thought that for a long, long time, probably since the early ‘80s when I started looking at the role that belief systems played in regulating psychological and social health. You can tell that they do that because of how upset people get if you challenge their belief systems. Why the hell do they care, exactly? What difference does it make if all of your ideological axioms are 100 percent correct?
People get unbelievably upset when you poke them in the axioms, so to speak, and it is not by any stretch of the imagination obvious why. There’s a fundamental truth that they’re standing on. It’s like they’re on a raft in the middle of the ocean. You’re starting to pull out the logs, and they’re afraid they’re going to fall in and drown. Drown in what? What are the logs protecting them from? Why are they so afraid to move beyond the confines of the ideological system? These are not obvious things. I’ve been trying to puzzle that out for a very long time.
Steve goes on to describe a certain kind of Catholicism as a “crippled religion.” More:
As I sit down to write this, I’m so unbelievably angry.
I’m angry because I’ve spent my life trapped within various ideological subsets of Catholicism that subvert autonomy, critical thinking, and reason itself.
I’m angry because I can’t take another second of clericalism — and by that I mean, “I’m a member of the ordained clergy, so you can never speak a negative word about me and I get to order you around and do whatever I want to you because of my God-given authority.”
I’m angry because I bought into this stuff like my eternal life depended on it for most of the past 40 years, and it did damage to me over and over again. It was used to manipulate me, it was used to make me feel guilty, it was used to make me fall in line, it was used to capitalize on my fear of offending God, and ultimately, of eternal punishment. It, along with some other issues stemming from my childhood, made me afraid. And perpetual fear often manifests as chronic anxiety and constant anger. The anger I’m talking about isn’t the righteous sort I’ll be discussing today, but the sort of aimless, destructive rage that seeks to inflict our inner pain on others, or helps us to overpower our fear of others being angry with us. Think of the child who is so afraid to express his feelings to his parents that he can only do it when he’s so angry that he’s screaming. Multiply that times a lifetime.
The relentless presence of those emotions in my life, seemingly without connection to any immediate cause, hurt me psychologically, damaged my health, and worst of all, caused me to treat people I love very poorly. Inexcusably so. I lashed out at them. I have existed in a constant state of pain avoidance for as long as I can remember, and that makes you incredibly selfish. It’s a miracle that I have received so much forgiveness. I didn’t deserve it, but I am grateful.
I’m angry because this isn’t just an abstract conversation for me at this moment. It’s concrete. I was spiritually abused as a young man by priests in the Church, and I suddenly find that it’s happening again, when I thought it was far behind me. My young, inexperienced, and frankly arrogant pastor has overstepped his canonical authority and denied sacraments to my children — a Baptism for my soon-to-be born son, and a First Holy Communion for my 8-year old. Why? Because my family hasn’t been physically present at our parish enough during COVID for his liking, even though there’s a dispensation in place. His reasoning, reached entirely without a second of consultation with me, is that he’s not sure my children are getting a “good Catholic upbringing.” He has never so much as once reached out to myself or my wife to express this alleged concern, and had to be chased for months to get an answer about sacraments in the first place. He knows nothing of our observance at home, or why we’re not there. He’s merely taken it upon himself to issue declarations, based solely on his own rash judgment.
If Steve’s account of what happened here is accurate — and I have no reason to believe it isn’t — then it really is outrageous. But it’s exactly the kind of thing one would expect from a certain kind of ultra-legalistic cleric. People like me (religious conservatives) tend to focus on the distortions and errors of loosey-goosey liberal clerics, but you can find the same kind of thing on the theological Right, and it can be just as destructive, as the Skojec essay testifies.
I’m angry because this isn’t some “modernist” priest, but a priest of the FSSP, an order I have promoted for many years. People love to tell you, “Just find a TLM community if you want to escape the madness in the Church!” But that’s a lie, as many people have found out in various ways.
TLM = Traditional Latin Mass. What he says here is really interesting, given that he is a traditionalist. When I was a Catholic at the end of his rope over the abuse scandal (but also from some of the general moral and theological corruption that infuriates Steve), I heard this a lot. I did visit a handful of these communities. I’m glad they exist, and I support them in principle, but I also saw a deeply off-putting toxicity there. Here’s Steve, in what I think is the most insightful part of the essay. He’s talking about the refuge he found 17 years ago in Catholic traditionalism:
It was historical. It was reverent. It was liturgically and theologically sound. I started reading, and not only did I become compelled, I got angry. I saw what had been stolen from us. Saw the bad actors swoop in and change everything. Saw how the problem went right up to the papacy, and how the faithful had been incredibly damaged by what followed.
And so, finding solace at last, I’ve spent the past 17 years of my life as an apologist for traditionalist Catholicism — the most recent seven of which have been devoted to founding and running 1P5, which was, for a couple of years at least, the most-read traditionalist Catholic website in the world.
I thought I had, at long last, found my place.
But during that time, I have gradually come to realize that if the post-conciliar Church I grew up in isn’t really Catholicism, traditionalism isn’t either. Instead, it is an ideological mask more identifiably in the shape of true Catholicism. It is, in some respects, a long-running Live Action Roleplay — a LARP — in which participants act out what they think Catholicism looked like in “the good old days” while perpetually running down any kind of Catholicism (or Catholic who practices it) that isn’t traditionalism. But it is essentially an affectation; an attempt to reconstruct and live within a historical context that no longer exists. Traditional Catholicism does exist, in the sense that all history exists. The Traditional Catholic liturgy exists not just historically, but even now. But traditionalism, as a “movement,” as an ideological oxbow lake, is a novelty. It’s not a historical reality, because it is merely a reaction to a modern innovation.
Let me try to explain it another way: no matter how many old movies you have in your DVD collection or how often you watch them, you can’t go back to the time and cultural context that forged them. Any attempt in the present to make something like Casablanca or The Manchurian Candidate or [insert your favorite here] will essentially fall short. It will be a reproduction that apes the signature characteristics — dress, décor, modes of speech, vehicles, and so on — of another time. Similary, a Civil War re-enactor’s club may help keep the memory of that history alive, but it doesn’t make that history present. At the end of the day, the actors put away their muzzle loaders, change back into their normal clothes and drive home to their modern dwellings with electricity, indoor plumbing, and internet.
Without a present-day Church that not only allows but actually lives the traditional Catholic ethos, traditionalism remains akin to that DVD collector or civil war re-enactor: a recreation out of place and time needing to justify its own existence in the present as a nostalgic aberration. It no longer has a context that gives it a place at the heart of the Church, which is the only place it could ever truly belong. It cannot exist as a “preferential option” and be still what it once was: essential.
And so traditionalism, though it retains real treasures from the past that enliven the faithful today, becomes predominately ideological. A version of Catholicism that remains in constant tension with and sometimes open rebellion against the only institution that can give it life: the very Catholic Church that discarded it.
It’s paradigmatic crippled religion. And that is a problem.
This is deep. It helped me to understand what I found so unattractive about Catholic traditionalism, even as I affirmed it as a viable alternative. I had always thought it was just the pockets of bitter reactionary factionalism that were everywhere. I was sensitive to this because reactionary bitterness is a constant temptation of mine, given my character. I saw people — not everybody, and not even most people, but enough to give me pause — who seemed to thrive on anger and spite towards Catholics who weren’t trads. I realized, I think, though it never came to mind as a fully formed thought, that I was looking at my future self if I gave myself over to my darkest impulses.
What I mean is that back then, my inner life was focused heavily on the Catholic Church, and what was wrong with it. I really did think that I was being a faithful Catholic by constantly diagnosing her problems, and talking about them endlessly with my like-minded Catholic friends. Looking back at it, I don’t think we were wrong about a single thing. Where we erred — or at least where I erred — was in thinking that because I thought about the Church all the time, and really wanted her to be better, that I was a good Catholic.
Bitter traditionalism would have been the end game for me, on the path I was following. I was not a trad, but I was plenty bitter — because there is plenty to be bitter about! Read Skojec. But here’s the thing: you can’t build a spiritual life on that — or rather, you can, but if you do you will become deformed and toxic. Understand that I’m not talking about the Catholic trads who live ordinary lives of piety and reverence, and who don’t get caught up in the controversies. I’m here in Warsaw this week to mark the founding of a new Catholic traditionalist university. The fact that they invited a schismatic like me to talk here indicates that they aren’t the kind of people I’m talking about in this essay, or, I think, that Skojec is talking about. My guess is that they invited me here because they recognize in Orthodox me a brother in Christ who understands the critical importance of founding institutions like this in these post-Christian days, and of building ties of solidarity across confessional lines. In other words, they are not obsessive puritanical factionalists (who you can also find in Orthodoxy, if you look).
Anyway, Skojec’s piece brought to mind Jaroslav Pelikan’s great lines:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
There you go. Skojec’s essay made me realize that traditionalism is parasitic on corrupted modern Catholicism, which lives rent-free in their heads. To be fair, the brokenness of the Catholic Church today is so thorough and so deep that it’s hard for it not to focus on it all the time. The mistake I made, which I did not fully understand until I had lost my ability to believe as a Catholic, was that I had mistaken the Church for Christ himself. Instead of seeing the Church as a sign that pointed to Christ, I thought the Church — the institutional church — was the thing itself. It is important that I emphasize that this was my own fault; the error was mine. But it would be dishonest if I didn’t say that there are many in the Church, especially on the Catholic Right, which was my home for the 13 years I was a Catholic, who encourage that way of thinking.
When I was told last week that my young children would be denied sacraments for totally unjust reasons, something inside me finally snapped. I have fought for this absurdly broken, self-contradictory, overly-bloated, irretrievably corrupt religion since I was old enough to know how to think. I studiously avoided the hedonistic pleasures of youth enjoyed by my peers. I devoted my life to spreading and defending its teachings. I have been driven to the brink of leaving on multiple occasions, only to swallow my pride, stomp on my doubts and come back again, ready for another beating.
Worst of all, I have allowed myself to be cowed by the message of the Church when it presents itself in the language of an abuser: “You don’t like how I treat you? Well tough shit. You have nowhere else to go. You think you can find salvation somewhere else? Ha! You’ll go to hell without me. You have no choice but to stay here and do whatever I tell you. You’ll put up with whatever I do to you, and if you complain it will only make you look like a fool. A deserter. An ingrate. You’re stuck with me whether you like it or not. You can never leave!”
Some of you may have endured much worse abuse than I have. I have little doubt you’ve heard this insidious voice as well.
Yes, I did. It was what kept me Catholic for the last two years of my life as a Catholic. It was the only thing I was holding on to after discovering that a priest my family and I were going close to, and to whom I had referred a friend who wanted to convert to Catholicism, was a liar, a manipulator, and an accused molester.Something broke in me then. I lost the ability to trust the institution, at all. I subsequently found out that the pastor of the consciously conservative parish where we met Father Chris had known all about the accusations against him back in Pennsylvania, but because he didn’t believe them, let Father Chris into parish ministry off the books, and did not tell his bishop! This was after the 2002 Dallas Charter that supposedly made that kind of thing possible. We learned that rules mean nothing if you have churchmen who don’t feel bound by them. After I exposed Father Chris publicly, a layman involved in leadership in that parish rebuked me, saying that the parish council had known the truth about Father Chris when he showed up asking to help out in ministry, but they had not told the congregation that they (the parish council) had welcomed a formally accused molester into their midst because it wasn’t any of their business. This is how I learned that the problem is not just with the clergy, but with the laity too.
The day came when I woke up and realized I no longer believed that my salvation depended on being in communion with these people. In other words, I no longer believed the things I had to believe in order to put up with the lies upon lies, the corruption, and the danger to my children. I no longer wanted to be pushed around by these creeps. The important thing, the thing that I struggle to get Catholic conservatives to understand, is that this was not the result of logical deliberation. I woke up one day, finally, to find that I couldn’t believe it anymore. This was desolating. I had always believed that my faith would be untouchable if I placed it inside a fortress of dogma and syllogism. It wasn’t true. All the syllogisms that kept me Catholic might still be true, but I could no more perceive that possibility after a certain point than I could perceive the claims for the Mormon church, or Zen Buddhism, as true. More to the point, I could not perceive them as true for the same reason someone whose palms have been badly scarred and blistered from holding on the the red-hot handle of a cast-iron skillet over a flame can pick the skillet up again. This is why I tell people — Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants — to never, ever believe that your faith is unshakable, and to never, ever believe that an intellectual conversion is sufficient.
My heart goes out to Steve Skojec so much because like him, I had built an identity around my Catholicism (though his Catholic identity is far, far deeper and broader than mine ever was, for reasons that are clear to readers of his essay). Steve writes in his piece:
I’m angry because I feel as though we’ve all been abandoned and left to the wolves, and it’s incredibly frustrating to watch as people turn to this increasingly uncritical tribalism to feel safe, or conspiracy theories to “explain” things, or even in some cases an explicit desire for the end of the world so that the madness will finally cease.
I’m angry because my entire identity, my entire life, has been inextricably intertwined with Catholicism, and as all of this collides and comes apart, I feel as though that identity is being flayed from me, one strip of flesh at a time.
I’m angry — but perhaps even more sad — because I have begged God to help me find my way through all this mess, to do the right thing, and to hold on to my faith, but I get no perceptible answer, and I don’t know where to go from here.
The Toxic Trad thing to do is to turn on a fellow Catholic who says that, and to treat them as heretic scum. But I read that essay and thought, “That poor brother in Christ, I know what that feels like.” If you are the kind of Catholic whose response is to hate on Steve Skojec for that piece, then you are part of the problem, and you will be held responsible by God for it.
Steve goes on:
A good friend of mine who has also been struggling with the faith said to me yesterday:
I hate to say this, because it risks sounding trite, but I don’t think you have ever really been Catholic.
And peeling off this false thing, made of false things, is the first step to finding out who you really are.
I actually am discovering that I do believe in God, and all that, and I think He’s trying to fix you.
Maybe He is. I hope so, because I cared about all of this so much I made it my whole life. I put it before family and friends. I was so invested, I thought it was my dream job. I risked everything I had, in a material sense, to rush to the defense of the Church when I thought she was at her darkest hour.
And I lost everything I had anyway — in a spiritual sense. Which was not at all what I expected.
I look at photos and videos of myself when I started in 2014, versus photos now. I looked like a kid then. But now, I’ve gained a lot of weight. My beard has turned white. I’ve lost a lot of hair. My face looks so much older. My voice has deepened. I suddenly have high blood pressure. I’m unbelievably tired and stressed out all the time. I’ve lost my sense of meaning and purpose.
And I’m left standing here holding the broken pieces of myself, older and more brittle and less resilient and unable to put myself together again to take yet another beating.
I’m done with crippled religion. Crippled religion will ruin you.
Read the whole thing. It is one of the most powerful pieces of spiritual writing that I’ve read in a long time. And I am certain that in it, Steve Skojec doesn’t just speak for burned-out Catholics, but for all people broken by ideological religion. He is offering a solidarity of the shattered.
The way out God offered to me when I was more or less in Steve’s place was in Orthodox Christianity. My wife and I back then could not go back to Protestantism. Cardinal Newman once said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” That’s not strictly true; if it were, all Protestant church historians and other Protestant intellectuals would all be Catholic or Orthodox. But for us, it was true, in the sense that we had learned so much about church history, especially the early church, that we simply could not affirm what Protestants affirm. But we could not be Catholic either, because we could not tolerate the spiritual abuse any longer, the debilitating fear (for our children), and the corrosive anger.
From a Catholic point of view, the Orthodox churches are in schism, but still have valid priestly orders and (therefore) sacraments. My wife and I took our little kids and started going to the Orthodox cathedral in our city, not intending to become Orthodox, but simply wanting to be in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist (though we couldn’t receive) without being savaged by a swarm of doubts and spite, like a swarm of biting flies. The liturgical worship was extraordinarily beautiful — something I had long been craving as a Catholic, even when I went to the Traditional Latin Mass, but never found — and it was a wonderful experience to step into a church that didn’t feel like a combat zone. Eventually we knew we had to become Orthodox.
As I’ve said in this space many times, I became Orthodox in the way that Orthodoxy regards second marriages: as a penitent. As angry as I was at the Catholic Church for the things that drove me out of it, I tried to focus on the things I did wrong myself — chief among them, making an idol of the institutional Catholic Church, and an ideology of Catholicism. I had to make a clear vow to myself not to do the same in Orthodoxy. Fortunately, it’s harder to do in Orthodoxy, because — and this is something I could not have perceived from the outside — Orthodoxy is much less a set of doctrines and much more a way of life. I’m still not exactly sure how Orthodoxy pulls this off, and knowing my own weaknesses, I have refused to dissect it to find the answer, but the stability of the tradition is something within which I could rest, and pursue my salvation. In Orthodoxy I found the spiritual and intellectual depth I had in Catholicism, with an incomparable liturgical beauty, and the focus on individual salvation that I believe is one of the best parts of Evangelicalism. Orthodoxy is not an individualistic form of Christianity, to be sure, but the Orthodox do hold front to mind the principle that the conversion of individual hearts is the main thing. The goal of each and every one of us is not to have all our legal papers in order to make it through passport control in Paradise. It is theosis — to become so filled with the Holy Spirit that we are changed, made like God. (Theosis, by the way, is the model that the late medieval Catholic poet Dante Alighieri presents in his Divine Comedy. It was once much more present in Catholicism than it is today.)
When I realized that theosis was the thing, not being legally correct, and when I realized that because of my own brokenness, and because of the Catholic Church’s brokenness in this time and place, I was trapped in a dark wood as a Catholic, and could not reach theosis — then I made the decision to become Orthodox. But let me repeat this so you hear me clearly: when I became Orthodox, I knew that I could not allow myself to be the kind of Orthodox that I was a Catholic. I could not put the Church on a pedestal. I also knew that the kind of triumphalism I indulged in as a Catholic — We’re the oldest church and the smartest church and the best church, so everybody needs to join us! — could not be part of my Orthodox life. You can find Orthodox people who engage in it, especially converts and ethnonationalist types, but I could not let myself be one of them. I had also been the kind of Catholic who, less obnoxiously, tried to lead people to the Catholic Church. By losing my Catholic faith so publicly, I knew too that I had lost what authority I had to try to convince people to become Orthodox. So I never have.
This bothers some Orthodox Christians, who wish I would be more engaged in apologetics. Sorry, I can’t. God was very generous to me as a Catholic burnout, giving me a second chance in Orthodoxy. He showed me my own severe weaknesses and flaws, and I know that my job is to focus on my own repentance, not to get into the arena and mix it up in apologetics. If that’s your calling, may God bless your efforts. It’s not mine. And, I can’t get heavily involved in Church controversies. I tried that a few years after I became Orthodox, and got myself into a mess. Not going to do any of that again if I can help it. It’s not at all that I think the Orthodox churches are free of corruption. Wherever you have people, there you will have corruption. It’s that I know that I am spiritually not strong enough to confront corruption in the Church without risking my salvation.
In Dante’s Purgatorio, the pilgrim Dante learns on the terrace of Wrath (where the sin of anger is purged) that anger is like a hot fire that produces blinding smoke. That is precisely what happened to me as a Catholic facing the abuse scandal, which was just the most appalling facet of a many-sided scandal. I think the things I confronted and called out ought to have made any honest soul furious. But my anger eventually mastered me, and blinded me to the good and holy things in the Catholic Church. In a way it was a fortunate fall, because I am grateful to be Orthodox. But my conversion was messy, was that of a man being swallowed by quicksand grabbing a rope at the last second, and being pulled to safety. I firmly believe that if my children make it to heaven after they die, it will be in part because their father and mother took them out of the Catholic Church (our youngest was baptized Orthodox, I should say), because had we stayed, they would have experienced Catholicism as the thing of God that made Mom and Dad anxious and angry all the time.
Leaving Catholicism was an occasion of sorrow for me, in part because I loved, and do love, Pope Benedict XVI, and I did not want to be separated from him, but mostly because I had loved Catholicism. It was where I first met Jesus. I felt when I became Orthodox in 2006 that I had accepted exile from my home country as the only way to save my life. In time, the joy of Orthodoxy overtook my grief over losing Catholicism, and not feeling responsible anymore to fight for abuse victims in the Catholic Church, I was able to regain love for the good things of Catholicism. When I write about, say, the Monks of Norcia, I do so with true admiration and affection, considering them brothers in Christ who have a lot to teach all of us Christians. But I am firmly Orthodox, and I thank God for what He has given me in Orthodoxy.
There is no escape anywhere from modernity and its disorders. Not in Orthodoxy, or in any other church. This cross must be borne by all of us Christians. It is easier in America not to see the problems within Orthodoxy, because we are such a small church, poor and powerless. This is not the case in Russia and Greece, for example, and I imagine there are Steve Skojecs within the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. Whether you are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, the point is to allow God to throw down the idol of the institutional church. Be careful, though: the institutional church is not irrelevant! (This is an ecclesiological point that might not seem true to Protestants). It is only that being a member of the Church is not an end in itself; the Church exists to proclaim the Way, the Truth, and the Life, not to be God’s bureaucracy, or, like the Communist Party, the guardian of an ideology. It took me a long time within Orthodoxy to understand that, and I don’t know if I can explain it intellectually — again, I cut off the thoughts that lead me to deep analysis of these ecclesial things — but I have seen it. I think it’s why clericalism is far, far less of an issue in Orthodoxy than in Catholicism. But then, I imagine Russians and Greeks have plenty of stories… .
I have been in touch with Steve Skojec over the years to offer prayer and support as I’ve read in his work about his suffering. I have never tried to convert him to Orthodoxy; it is hateful to me to consider taking advantage of a man who is in pain, to proselytize him. I told him then, and I say publicly, that Jesus is the only thing that matters — that his ability to find ultimate unity with Christ, in theosis, is what salvation means. I believe more than ever, and say for the first time publicly or privately, that that suffering man needs to find Christ in Orthodoxy. But whether he remains a Catholic, or whatever path he takes, he remains a brother in Christ who has carried a terrible cross, and who needs mercy, not judgment. My own spiritual life — my walk with Christ — did not become real until God allowed me and my idolatry of Church to become broken. There is life after being shattered. My solidarity with Steve, whom I’ve never met in person, is the solidarity of the shattered.
UPDATE: I have heard from someone in Steve Skojec’s parish who, as it turns out, I know. This person says that the portrait of the parish priest painted in Skojec’s column (and repeated by me here) is very, very far from the mark. The person does not want to say anything else publicly, because the person doesn’t want to make a bad situation worse. The person only wants readers to know that the priest is a good and holy man who, in the correspondent’s view, has been badly mischaracterized.