fbpx
Home/Rod Dreher/Seminarian: ‘I Want To Get Away’

Seminarian: ‘I Want To Get Away’

Nazarethman/GettyImages

This is heavy:

I’m trying to describe my experience in the seminary, dejection at the state of the Church, and my latest decision to try to leave. There is something good in these developments, but I don’t know how to express it best. Here’s what I wrote:
In the Church, truth and falsehood, good and evil have been replaced by liberal and conservative. I live in fear of being branded with the scarlet letter “C”. I have to weigh every word and action, and measure out the amount of hostility I attract to myself. All the while we hear constant rhetoric about diversity, inclusivity, and dialogue. They are the intolerant tolerant ones. All are welcome, but some are more welcome than others.
I feel like I am being gaslit by the psychologizing of religion. The implication is that sexual deviancy is caused by sexual repression. Those who advocate for obeying the commandments are blamed for people disobeying the commandments. Could there be a connection between those who are advocating for a more liberal sexual morality and those engaging in immoral sexual activity? I don’t know, I don’t feel safe asking the question, or speaking the obvious answer. Prick their consciences and they will attack.
I don’t feel good about the future of the Church. These cases of sexual abuse we are reading about happened before the age of internet pornography. I feel like chastity is discouraged in my formation program. We aren’t allowed to talk about sexual morality anymore. I don’t trust the men around me. The sexual scandals of the future are going to become much worse than the sexual scandals of the past. I used to believe the Church as restoring herself after a dark period, but I no longer have that hope.
I am currently in seminary, and I don’t want to represent the Church publicly. I’m sitting through courses on the sacraments of initiation, and I don’t want to welcome people into the Church. I wanted to be Catholic, and I was naive enough to believe the Church would support me. I wouldn’t recommend the Church to anyone. If you hope to believe and practice the Catholic faith, you will be beaten down by the Church.
After recent weeks, of news about Pope Francis endorsing civil unions for gay couples, of
seminary professors regularly contradicting the doctrines of the faith, of great dejection about the moral corruption of the Church occasioned by the McCarrick Report, and of listening to priests repeating ad nauseum talking points from the liberal Catholic media, one evening something switched in my mind, in a different way: I have to leave.
The feeling was simple, but difficult to describe. All I want is God, and I’ve travelled far enough down the road of my vocation that I am not interested in anything else. I want to be Catholic, but I have to get away from the Church. I want to believe and practice the Catholic faith, but I have to get away from these abusive Churchmen. I have to leave: the seminary, the Church, the World. I have to leave.
I remember, maybe inaccurately, reading you compare your feelings about leaving the Church to an animal chewing its leg off to escape a bear trap. My relief felt like deciding to leave an abusive relationship. I found some consolation in this interview between Joseph Sciambra and Steve Skojec. Their description (from 1h10min to 1h15min) of the low morale among the priesthood and psychological abuse through the seminary process mirrors my experience.
We have been so abused by the Church, sexually of course, but also spiritually, morally, liturgically, psychologically, etc. I’ve learned to survive by keeping my head down and my mouth shut. My heart is filled with resentment. I just wanted to be Catholic, but I am not welcome in the Church. The Church is not what she should be, and I hate what she is. My heart is filled with bitterness, and I don’t want to live like this anymore.
I’ve tried to leave the seminary several times, hoping to find a more supportive faith community, but my plans and attempts haven’t worked out. I am going to try, once again, to join a more cloistered and traditional monastery. I need some place where I can practice the faith, away from the world, and away from the Church. I don’t know what I will do if this latest attempt doesn’t work out, maybe become a homeless person, then I could maybe practice the faith in peace, maybe continue in seminary with my head down, my mouth shut, and my heart drowning in resentment. I don’t know.
You’ve often defended yourself against the criticism that the Benedict Option is advocating running for the hills. I want to run for the hills. I want to flee the world, and the Church. I want to get away.
Please pray for me, that God may provide a way.
First, let me ask you all to pray for this man. He is in torment. I know his real name, and I googled him. He’s at a large US seminary, which I will not identify to protect him.
Second, what counsel would you have for him? What words of encouragement? If you’re write something nasty to this man, I will not approve your comment. If you are a priest or religious, and would like to send a private letter for me to forward to him, please write me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com.
If you are currently a seminarian, I welcome you to write with your own experiences, good, bad, or mixed. And not just Catholic seminarians. Are you struggling with your vocation? Or do you find seminary to be uplifting? What will your church be like, based on what you’re experiencing there. What got you through hard times?
UPDATE: This came in from a reader. It shows that God can bring good out of a terrible situation. The reader has given me permission to share it without identification:
In 2007, I entered a Lutheran seminary, in preparation for ministry.  Youth group and Christian summer camp and campus ministry and Lutheran volunteering programs had been my life so far, and seminary seemed an obvious choice to me and to everyone who knew me.
And it is a factor that cannot be ignored — the mainline denominations are declining and are so anxious about survival, any candidate with a pulse, and especially candidates with no obvious “problems” (anything that might make a congregation nervous), are placed on well-greased tracks rather than any serious discernment process.  A people-pleaser like me knew what was necessary.  Even though I had a tickle of trepidation and would have been grateful for genuine barriers and exercises to explore vocation.  In later years I learned there are more of these discernment processes available, alas, I presented as so confident of my vocation that no one offered them!
At this time, I was full-steam-ahead leftist and thought you should know it, at-the-ready to weaponize all of Jesus’ most compassionate words at anyone not as far to the left as myself.  I did not see this at the time, but I must have been insufferable to those with other perspectives, or an ounce of life experience!
My seminary was known to be one of the most “liberal” in our denomination, and we students were by and large very proud of that, and saw ourselves as a generation of leaders who were going to help our church get with the times.  Of course, we were, to a person, also terrified of being sent to somewhere like South Dakota, where we would suffer like prophets for the sake of love winning, surely.  We spoke (amongst ourselves, and sometimes in class) so condescendingly of the backwards people we were sure to find out in our future congregations — we knew they were out there, as our church had been tying itself in knots for 20+ years over homosexuality, and we knew we were on the right side of history, so it must be those benighted laypeople holding the church back.
I knew of just a few students who were conservative, or just perceived as conservative.  I didn’t really know how to relate to them, and never got curious, and this is a grave failing on my part.
So my seminary experience is not like your featured seminarian’s, in that I was his opposite, back then.
What changed?  I graduated, interviewed and was called and ordained to serve a small congregation in a small town outside a major US city, and the bubble abruptly burst.  A harsh mercy.
The bubble was one I had been in since late in high school, strengthened in college, and deeply reinforced in seminary.  A bubble of SJW values, of uncritical acceptance that the left is morally superior, and for those of us who are also religious, a bubble that believes, and I mean BELIEVES, that this is Jesus’s way.
The members of my congregation were lovely and particular persons, and they just didn’t fit in the narratives I used to explain the world and the church!
There was the former cop, who is still one of the most noble men I’ve ever met, who taught me my narratives about law-and-order, about actual police, and even about human nature (we had conveniently ignored humanity’s fallenness in seminary) were misguided.
There was the large and ever-growing family (I baptized their 2 youngest) who attested in their very presence, that life is a gift from God, and worth every seeming-sacrifice to welcome and cherish.  This was such a challenge to my perspective — I who donated to Planned Parenthood and belonged to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice!
And, I hate to put a fine point on it, but the persons and families who shared my politics, had generally more chaotic lives.  Divorces, “troubled” teens, etc.  Hell, my life was chaotic and I made terrible personal choices, repeatedly.
Of course, #notALL and all that.  But where the rubber hit the road, in real life trying to follow Jesus, the flesh-and-blood “conservative” people before me were absolutely shattering my expectations of them and along with that, the sense that I knew a damn thing.  Harsh mercy.  I am so, so grateful for them.
It was during these years of ministry that I found your blog.  I was challenged at first by your Benedict Option diagnosis of the churches in the west, but I could not honestly contradict you.  I grew heartsick and weary, finally seeing that my actions as a pastor had been building the MTD religion, not genuine Christianity.  (Even though I could see plain as day that they are not the same thing!)
I want to also say, at this point, my heartsickness was deepest because from the very start of this journey, my sense of trepidation about this vocation was the Voice of Truth all along.  Deep down, I knew the way of Jesus was beyond our political stances, and that aligning churches with party platforms always distorts the faith.  I quit making leftist political jabs in my sermons.  I adjusted the aim of my teaching, no longer arguing and trying to demonstrate how the gospel leads straight to progressive causes, but how it leads straight to repentance.
Although this change of heart went over well (of course!) in the congregation, and I was more honestly and truly connected with people, it led to deep internal tension for me, with my denomination overall.  As I mentioned above, the institution is desperate for survival, and the ELCA, like many mainline church bodies, has leaned into progressive politics.
I started to fight gagging, at annual gatherings and clergy trainings, as every trendy cause was held up as salvation from decline (we must decolonize, we must become anti-racist (and this was in the Obama years)), meanwhile if one were to suggest that faithfully preaching and teaching the faith was enough, and that the church’s cultural heyday was simply over, let’s focus on discipleship, woooo boy, prepare to be patted on the head and no longer trusted by your colleagues.
I got to a point where I had to get out.  I hate that I didn’t have the spine to stay, and to guide my congregation towards a Ben-Op way of being, despite the institution’s drift.  I lost heart, knowing that a majority of the congregation were indeed good people but they wanted MTD, and I hadn’t challenged that enough.  I lost heart and I really needed a pastor myself, and yet I could not think of one colleague who would understand my soul sickness, much less my perspective that our church was going down a barren path.
At this point in my story, I begin to think I can understand the seminarian’s situation.  I do not know what he should do, and I will pray for him.
I am “envious” of him, that he is clear-sighted about his crisis as a seminarian.  I wish my turmoil and change of heart had not involved (mis)guiding a congregation – I know God can use and redeem my time and any influence I had among them, but I was just such a weak leader and unfaithful on so many counts, and the people of God need and deserve so much better.  I am brought to tears of repentance whenever I think about my “ministry” very deeply.  I am weeping right now.
I guess if I have anything like advice, it would be to follow conscience.  To leave can be an act of faithfulness and obedience to God.  A community of like-minded Catholics might be closer than he thinks, or at least the solace of no longer upholding a dying imperium.  As Merton wrote, “the desert itself moves everywhere,” so you might find an ascetic life blossoming in any job that supports you and a studio apartment for a cell.  To stay may also be faithful, to speak truthfully and (likely) suffer for it, professionally or personally.  I don’t know, but I do care and will not forget you.
I resigned in the spring of 2016.  I couldn’t bear to be in church for quite some time; every service I attended, I was either overly judgmental of how they were doing it, or castigating myself that I hadn’t been like them.  I tried many kinds of churches, but mostly stayed away.  I nearly despaired that any church anywhere would just “give me Jesus.”
Rod, your writing of course remained important to me, and I eventually looked around for any Orthodox congregation near me.  I had to see if they were everything they are cracked up to be, and there has been no disappointment.  There is of course much to say here, but this is getting long.  I was a catechumen for nearly a year, and was baptized Orthodox in February of this year (right before stay-at-home orders and massive disruption!).
Tears. God is so faithful.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles