A Catholic reader e-mails:

I learned that the ecumenical service held around Thanksgiving at my parish had an open communion. That the priest actually asked and encouraged anyone and everyone to share in the Eucharist. And plans to do this more often in the future.

I know from some perspectives this isn’t a big deal. But it was literally like someone punched me in the gut. I was sick. I was on the verge of tears the entire Mass.

I lost friends over converting to the Catholic Church. A lot of them. While I can’t prove it, I am certain my conversion cost me a job I loved. Everyone at work treated me differently after I started attending the local Catholic church, despite always treating ever with kindness, respect, and camaraderie regardless of their faith or sexual orientation.

I lost a lot for believing in the Eucharist. Not just the time I spent in RCIA or the mental labor of learning a new theology, liturgy, and vocabulary. I lost people I loved, people I had been good friends with for years, for whom this was a bridge too far. From the friends who didn’t abandon me I have to overlook slights in order to preserve the relationship.

There are so many Catholic priests who hate the church. Who are embarrassed to be priests. Who remove their collars at the first opportunity and go out of their way to be more inclusive of Methodists than of the Catholics in the next parish. Who turn their parishes into silos, and treat the other parishes around them like the enemy. Who subvert the faith but defend the institution.

And then they blame the loss in parishioners and income on the abuse scandal. If there was no scandal they would have no excuse. And the scandal makes them more embarrassed and angry at the church, and so they subvert the faith more.

I’m heartbroken not because I’m greedy and arrogant and want to keep things away from non-Catholics, but because if the Eucharist is what we say it is then it deserves respect. It deserves to be recognized, sacrificed for, and reverenced. It isn’t a party favor.

I’m told the open communion was well-received. I can tell you it will not lead to any conversions or new parishioners. Why would you make any effort to receive something given so carelessly and freely? Doesn’t it just serve to prove that even Catholics don’t believe in transubstantiation?

I love the idea that we are One Body. I’d love it if the parishes supported each other and held joint events. I don’t want division. I don’t want retreat. Being an “other” is a stressful and unpleasant way to live. Being Catholic is different enough without being a conservative Catholic, or a Ben Op Catholic, or Orthodox.

But here I am trying to decide if I will leave my parish, and if it would do any good to explain to my priest why I am leaving. And where do I go? There is a parish faithful to the Magisterium I’ve visited, whose priest and deacon are not afraid to say that premarital sex is wrong, and the priest proudly wears a cassock so there is no mistake in his vocation. But to be truly active in that parish means moving. Moving is such a BenOp thing to do. It feels drastic. True, it would make my commute shorter, but I’ve been happy to make the drive because I like my parish and my town. Liked.

In a way, Orthodoxy is a simpler choice. Or at least it looks that way at this point in time, and that’s far too simplistic a view to be true.

Right now I just feel I got pushed out of relationships and a job by my love for the Catholic Church, and now that very parish I gave my heart to is pushing me out. It hurts really bad. I know I have to leave. I had liked we were middle-of-the-road, and my elderly priest being a bit of a rebel was kind of funny and endearing. And I’ve left Mass angry before and questioned whether I should “bloom where I’m planted.” I don’t want to be one of those “rigid young people.” I want enough room in my Catholicism for some give and take, but the Eucharist isn’t about a preference for a form. It’s the cornerstone.

Why isn’t the Catholic Church satisfied with just being Catholic?

That’s a question that is impossible to answer. But boy, is it a good one. It’s one that occurred to me often over my years as a Catholic. In an e-mail back to this reader, I said that I found it fairly easy to suffer for the Catholic Church, but very difficult to suffer from the Catholic Church. Though things are changing fast, for now, for faithful orthodox Catholics, there is much more of the latter.

(For the record, Orthodox priests are zealous about guarding the communion chalice. If you are visiting a parish where you are not known, it is a good idea to communicate to the priest in advance who you are, and that you have had a recent confession. Otherwise, he is likely not to commune you — this, not out of any hostility, but out of care for your soul.)

Over the weekend, I posted a couple of things (here and the follow-up here) in which Matthew Schmitz (a traditionalist Catholic and a convert) and I had a friendly exchange about Catholic triumphalism. I should clarify that I do not consider it to be “triumphalist” for a Catholic, or anybody else, to believe that their church or religious tradition is more correct about eternal truths than others. This is perfectly normal. Triumphalism, at least as I see it, is more like a mode of believing in one’s faith. A way that involves pride and self-satisfaction. I know how this goes, because I used to be that kind of Catholic. Not all Catholics are triumphalists, but I sure was. It was a long, hard fall from the top of the triumphal arch.

Contemporary Catholic talk about how leaving Catholicism is abandoning the “highest” and the “best” does not reckon with the awful fact that the experience of this reader is the experience of Catholicism for very many people. Or worse.

I texted over the weekend with a European friend with whom I had not been in touch for a couple of decades. Over the course of our conversation, I revealed to him that since we had last been in touch, I had left Catholicism. He said he had too. It turns out that a kid he had once been an altar boy with told him that Father had molested him back then. My friend said it was “just dumb luck” that he wasn’t attacked also. He has learned, as have we all, that rapey Father was not unusual, and that bishops have known about dirty priests like him for a long time, and done little or nothing about it. My friend couldn’t take any of it seriously after that. He told me that he misses certain things, but that he is not going to take his young sons into the Church, as he regards the Catholic priesthood as “a refuge for homosexuals and child molesters.”

I appreciate that this friend does not equate homosexuals with child molesters. The two are not the same thing. But he is not wrong at all to intuit that a secretive clerical culture in which priests do not feel obliged to live by their vows of sexual discipline creates an environment in which the sexual assault of minors becomes more likely.

Now, you can regard that European man as a fool if you like, but the fact is that the Catholic faith, which has been faithfully handed down in his family from time immemorial, stops with his generation, and may never again be known among his line. You might, from atop the triumphalist arch, look down in scorn and pity on this young father, and fault him for a lack of faith, and for turning his back on the incomparable intellectual legacy of Roman Catholicism. But the plain fact is, when this Millennial husband and father from a cultured Catholic family looks at the Catholic Church, the main thing he sees is the priest who raped his fellow altar boy, and a clerical culture that seems more interested in facilitating homosexual culture than in pursuing holiness. He told me that he finds it impossible to take spiritual and moral advice from such men, and from celibates.

He and his family don’t attend another church. They don’t go to church at all. Rome’s loss is no one’s gain. It’s just loss all around.

Again, it’s easy to pick out the faults in his decision-making here, but my old friend shares with the reader  who wrote me this thing: the shattering experience of a Catholic Church that did not want to be the Catholic Church — indeed, one that sometimes seems to hate what the Catholic Church stands for.

What is one supposed to make of this? The US Catholic Church is, reeling from a deep and longstanding scandal in which thousands of children and minors — over 80 percent of them males — were sexually assaulted by priests. The slow uncovering of this scandal has also revealed that a significant number of Catholic priests are gay and unchaste. Even such a strongly liberal Catholic as the late Richard Sipe, who knew more about the sexual behavior of US Catholic priests than anybody else, warned that clandestine networks of gay priests within Catholic institutions, especially seminaries, were a significant factor in perpetuating abuse. I wrote this back in 2002 for National Review. Excerpt:

The raw numbers are less important, though, if homosexual priests occupy positions of influence in the vast Catholic bureaucracy; and there seems little doubt that this is the case in the American Church. Lest this be dismissed as right-wing paranoia, it bears noting that psychotherapist Sipe is no conservative — indeed, he is disliked by many on the Catholic Right for his vigorous dissent from Church teaching on sexual morality — yet he is convinced that the sexual abuse of minors is facilitated by a secret, powerful network of gay priests. Sipe has a great deal of clinical and research experience in this field; he has reviewed thousands of case histories of sexually active priests and abuse victims. He is convinced of the existence of what the Rev. Andrew Greeley, the left-wing clerical gadfly, has called a “lavender Mafia.”

“This is a system. This is a whole community. You have many good people covering it up,” Sipe says. “There is a network of power. A lot of seminary rectors and teachers are part of it, and they move to chancery-office positions, and on to bishoprics. It’s part of the ladder of success. It breaks your heart to see the people who suffer because of this.”

In his new book, Goodbye! Good Men, Michael S. Rose documents in shocking detail how pervasive militant homosexuality is in many seminaries, how much gay sex is taking place among seminarians and priest-professors, and how gay power cliques exclude and punish heterosexuals who oppose them. “It’s not just a few guys in a few seminaries that have an ax to grind. It is a pattern,” says Rose. “The protective network [of homosexual priests] begins in the seminaries.”

The stories related in Rose’s book will strike many as incredible, but they track closely with the stories that priests have told me about open gay sex and gay politicking in seminaries. The current scandal is opening Catholic eyes: As one ex-seminarian says, “People thought I was crazy when I told them what it was like there, so I finally quit talking about it. They’re starting to see now that I wasn’t.”

I wrote that in 2002. Here we are 16 years later, and we know so much more know. We also know that a gay man, Theodore McCarrick, rose to the heights of power within the Catholic Church despite his sexual taste for seminarians being a more or less open secret within elite Catholic ranks. We have seen a high-ranking former Church diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, write openly about the McCarrick cover-up at the highest levels of the Church, and about homosexual corruption in the Curia — and name names. Pope Francis refuses to answer him. Perhaps Team Francis hopes it will all go away. Damon Linker, who just formally left the Catholic Church over all this, is right:

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To repeat the plaintive question from my reader: Why isn’t the Catholic Church satisfied with just being Catholic? To which we might add: Why is the Catholic hierarchy satisfied with such spiritual and moral mediocrity, and even corruption?

Given that effects of the abuse scandal is tearing the US Catholic Church apart, how does this kind of thing happen, in a major parish of the New York Archdiocese?:

At the Out at St. Paul Book Club, the topic of discussion will be Jamie O’Neill’s novel “At Swim, Two Boys.” O’Neill is a gay Irish author who was raised a Roman Catholic. Leaving home at age 17, according to O’Neill, he didn’t get along well with his father. As a young man, O’Neill began a relationship with British TV presenter Russell Harty who was 27 years his senior. Published in 2001, “At Swim, Two Boys” is considered by some as a landmark book in LGBT literature and remains O’Neill’s most acclaimed work. Along with another famous novel about a boy’s so-called sexual awakening, André Aciman’s 2007 “Call Me By Your Name,” O’Neill’s book contains instances of homosexual grooming.

The book tells the story of two very different 16-year old boys, Jim and Doyler. With the backdrop of political and social upheaval in early 20th century Ireland, these two wayward and abused young men begin a friendship that eventually results in homosexual sex. While Jim is naive and shy, Doyler is more outgoing. Jim attends a Catholic school where one of his teachers is a religious named “Brother Polycarp.” According to one reviewer, “Jim is too innocent to realise how he is being groomed by Brother Polycarp.” In the meantime, the more streetwise Doyler meets an older gay man who pays the teenage boy for sex.

In the book, swimming is used as an allegory for the developing sexual relationship between the two main characters; but especially for Jim who doesn’t know how to swim. But in the book’s most disturbing storyline, the older man who earlier assaulted Doyler, becomes a sort of mentor and begins to teach Jim how to swim. While a reviewer at the New York Times briefly mentioned “the ticklish business of celebrating under-age lovers and a grown man’s entanglement with them both,” the book is alarming for its rather benevolent view of sex between boys and men.

Celebrity pro-gay Jesuit Father James Martin, a favorite of Pope Francis’s, has praised the Out At St. Paul ministry as “one of the most dynamic Catholic LGBT ministries in the country, and probably the world.” The reader above writes of priests who “subvert the faith but defend the institution.” There you go.

To be sure, open communion is even more subversive of the Catholic faith than defying and denying its teachings on sexuality.  The Eucharist, as the convert above writes, “is the cornerstone.” But it’s all of a piece. Sympathetic outside observers of Catholicism, in whose number I count myself, can only look on with dismay, even horror, as the institutional church dismantles itself, in part by turning on the priests and lay people within it who actually want to follow their Lord as faithful Roman Catholics. Even Pope Francis would not give a clear defense of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, leaving the impression that Protestants should feel at liberty to receive communion in a Catholic Church, if their conscience permits them to.

I know more about the personal back story of the reader whose e-mail I quote above than I can share with you all. This reader’s story ought to be in a book somewhere, given where the reader has come from on the faith journey, and what this reader has suffered for the sake of following Jesus Christ as a Roman Catholic. It genuinely grieves me that the reader is suffering like this, at the hands of a Catholic priest who plainly does not want to be Catholic. I hope the reader leaves for a better parish. The reader told me in a follow-up e-mail that it has been a shock as a convert to get inside the Catholic Church, and to discover how many of those within — especially in the clerical leadership — are actively trying to tear down normative Catholicism.

Maybe sharing the reader’s story, and the story of my European Catholic friend who has fallen away, will strengthen those Catholics in positions of power and influence who are leading the resistance. There has to be a better answer to these people — those holding on despite everything, and those who have recently let go — than a triumphalist pep talk. In the midst of this crisis, triumphalism is a point of view that can only be sustained from a position atop the arch, high above the messy crowd, where ordinary people are having to live with priests betraying the Eucharist and their calling, and, in the case of parents, having to figure out how to raise faithful Catholic children within an institution whose leadership class cannot be trusted to uphold and proclaim the magisterial Catholic faith.