Damon Linker Leaves Catholicism
I read this new column by my friend Damon Linker with a heavy heart. He has decided to leave the Catholic Church, and explains why. Excerpts:
But there is also the beautiful — in the sense of seemliness, order, and proportion, but also elevation, nobility, and exaltation. My friend Rod Dreher writes movingly about how he was originally drawn toward Christianity by a visit as a young man to Chartres Cathedral in France, one of the most stunning religious structures ever built. Standing before and within this astonishing monument to God, Dreher for the first time felt the presence of the divine in the world and in his life. For him, the building was a powerful testament to the truth of the Christian message.
The singular importance of beauty or nobility to the most profound moral and religious experience was noted centuries before Christ in the dialogues of Plato, where the character of Socrates frequently asks his interlocutors searching questions about elevation. What do we admire? What acts stir us and move us to tears? Often it is those acts involving self-sacrifice, devotion to something loftier, something purportedly higher. In the secular sphere, this is something John McCain understood very well: By serving something higher than ourselves, and by devoting ourselves to it selflessly, we elevate ourselves, lifting ourselves up in the direction of eternity. (In McCain’s vision of fervent American patriotism, this something was an ideal vision of the United States.)
When I converted to the Catholic Church 18 years ago, I did so in large part because I was deeply moved by the act of self-sacrifice that the church places at its heart. God sacrifices his beloved son, and his son freely accepts that sacrifice, out of self-giving love for humanity. Out of that breathtakingly beautiful gesture, the church built a new civilization founded on a message of forgiveness of sins, of care for the poor, of beatitude, of salvation and eternal life for all.
Of course the history of the church is filled with imperfection, of violence, of all-too-human sin and corruption. But monuments to the church’s message were everywhere to behold: art and architecture, an intellectual tradition, a comprehensive moral and eschatological vision of all things from first to last, a politics founded on a belief in the equal dignity of all. If I didn’t really believe in all of the theological precepts taught by the church, at least I wanted to — because I considered them beautiful, and because I wanted to be a part of the beauty, to elevate myself by assimilating myself to it.
That impulse seems very far away from me now. It began to fade in the church scandals that broke less than two years after I entered the church. The crisis deepened by working for a devout priest who responded to the scandals by circling the wagons against the secular press and its impertinent reporters looking to harm the church with their pesky attachment to uncovering the truth.
He explains that the Pennsylvania scandals, and now the Vigano revelations, have broken him. Damon lasted a lot longer than I did.
Damon and I first met in the spring of 2002, when he was editor of First Things, and I was a writer at National Review. He had been reading the critical things I was writing for National Review Online about the abuse scandal, which broke in late January out of Boston, and wanted to talk. Over our lunch, he told me what a difficult time he was having working for Father Richard John Neuhaus. Like me, Damon was the father of young children. He was struggling to deal with the fact that for Neuhaus, the scandal was all about, well, circling the wagons against the secular press. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I too felt the lashing of Neuhaus’s tongue that spring over my reporting. Devout Catholics, as I was back then, were not supposed to hurt the Church by writing about her sins publicly. Damon was having to deal with that attitude daily in the office from his boss, and it was tearing him down. He thought about his family, and how they were invisible to Father Neuhaus. The only thing that mattered was the Church.
Damon eventually left First Things, and had a famous falling-out with Neuhaus and his former colleagues, memorialized in this 2006 book. Many on the Catholic Right considered it an act of grotesque betrayal of a man — Father Neuhaus — who had done much to help Damon Linker’s career. I can understand that judgment. But I had also come to know Damon well enough by that time to know that he was motivated by a burning desire to seek the truth. I can’t say that I knew his conscience, and what motivated him to write that particular book, and in any case I disagreed with most of his premises and conclusions. What I can say is that despite my criticism of the book’s substance, I never took it as a cheap act of revenge against Father Neuhaus, though clearly there was a great deal of personal anguish behind its writing.
Thinking about all that in light of his column today, I see in his 2006 book a working-out of personal anguish over the collapse of his personal commitment to Catholicism under the weight of the scandal. As you know, it was happening to me too, at the same time. The difference is that I left, but Damon stayed. He was distant for a time from the institution, but he did not leave it. In light of his column today, announcing his exit from Catholicism, I can better understand the nature of his anguish in 2006, and today. He was (is) a shattered idealist, as I was. We both wanted this Church we had fallen in love with to be better.
Now, you can fault us both for having made an idol of the Catholic Church, and having failed to be realists about human sin. I can’t speak for Damon, but I have written in this space many times about my own responsibility in the personal drama of losing my faith. I did in fact make an idol of the Church, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought I was just being a loyal son of the Church. And though I didn’t work for him, and only met him a couple of times, I admired Father Neuhaus more than any other American Catholic, and considered him to be a spiritual father figure to me. The years 2002-2006 were personally excruciating, because I had to learn that so much of my faith had been misplaced. It felt like the deepest kind of betrayal.
I’ve known people over the years who have lost their faith in one form of Christianity, and have moved to another. It’s interesting to consider, but the Protestants I’ve known who became Catholic were not angry at the church they left behind. They’re been simply grateful to have embraced what they consider to be a more truthful, richer form of the Christian faith. The ex-Catholics I’ve known tend to be angry. In all honesty, I haven’t known many ex-Catholics who were Protestant or Orthodox. Almost all of the ex-Catholics I know ceased to practice any form of the Christian faith. It hadn’t occurred to me until this morning, but I think that’s interesting. Why might they leave Christianity entirely, instead of just become Episcopalian or Southern Baptist?
The answer, I believe, is that Catholicism is such a totalizing faith. That’s not a criticism at all. There’s a good book that came out in the ’80s, titled Once A Catholic. It was a collection of interviews with Catholics — some of whom had left the Church — reflecting on their lives and childhoods as believers. It was a mixed bag — some were thrilled by their faith, others mourned its loss, and some, as I recall, were angry — but it was compelling reading. I first encountered the book as I was thinking about converting to Catholicism. It was both daunting and alluring. Could I really give myself over to a religion that would get so deep into my bones that even if I left it, it would haunt me for the rest of my life? Then again, if it is true, why wouldn’t I want to do that?
Well, I did give myself over to it, and I can tell you, having practiced it diligently for 13 years, and having been away from it for 12, it does haunt me. I describe having lost the ability to believe in it anymore as like leaving a bad marriage. I wanted so bad for this “marriage” to work, but I realized one day that my bride didn’t love me, that she loved herself, and was going to do whatever she wanted to do, and to hell with me and the kids. Staying in this marriage meant putting up with her abusiveness. I couldn’t do it anymore. I broke. To switch the metaphor, it was like having to hold on to a hot iron skillet with bare hands. Eventually the pain was too great, and I had to let go.
God was good to me and my family. We found a happy home in Orthodox Christianity — another totalizing form of Christianity (again, this is a compliment), one that placed great value on worshiping with the body, and on beauty. We only ever considered Orthodoxy after Catholicism became non-tenable because, for theological reasons, Orthodoxy was our only option (Catholic theology holds Orthodox religious orders to be valid, and its sacraments real and efficacious). Looking back, Orthodoxy was also the only option for us because it was the only thing that could fill the Catholic-sized hole in our hearts, because it was religion as a way of life. Within Orthodoxy, God has given me a richer spiritual life than I had before — but part of that is because having had my intellectual and spiritual pride as a Catholic shattered, I was more open to receiving healing grace.
Please understand that I say this not to convince anybody to leave Catholicism! I’m simply reflecting on how the religion stays with you, even when you can no longer stay with it. By the grace of God I regained my love for all that is good and holy and beautiful in Catholicism after I no longer felt responsible for fighting the bishops and the corruption within. Some of my personal heroes are the Catholic monks of Norcia, and the Catholic layman Marco Sermarini — I honor them with my book, The Benedict Option — all of whom embody in my eyes the best of what it means not only to be a Catholic, but to be a Christian. Believe it or not, one reason I write so often about this current Catholic scandal is that I want the Catholic Church to be healthy and holy. I may not be part of it anymore, but if she is sick unto death, then that affects the entire Body of Christ. If I had no Christian faith at all, I would still want the Church to be healthy, because as that scintillating atheist Camille Paglia has said in the past, the Church is a pillar of our civilization. No church, and we descend into barbarism.
Back to the Linker column. He began by talking about the beauty that brought him into the Catholic Church. For me, it started with pure aesthetics as a theophany, a showing-forth of God. For Damon, it was the moral beauty of Catholicism. I hadn’t thought about it until Damon’s column this morning, but one reason my own faith was not as strong as it needed to be was because of the banality, the ugliness of contemporary Catholic architecture and worship. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, because it seems so shallow, but there it is. I remember back in 2002, Julie and I and our toddler visited our friends the Mathewes-Greens at their Orthodox parish in suburban Baltimore. We stayed for the first 30 minutes of the Divine Liturgy then, as Catholics, motored a short distance away for the mass. The difference between the glorious worship at the Orthodox parish, and the flat, ugly, modernist mess at the Catholic one, was so stark that Julie and I couldn’t look at each other on the way back to the car. I had tears in my eyes.
By then, we were six months into the Catholic scandal, and I was fighting like mad to hold on to my faith. Contrasting the one with the other was a surprising source of pain. Why did it have to be that way? It didn’t. I bolstered myself with a reminder that the ugliness of this suburban ’70s parish, with a retiring priest whose final sermon was about how much he was going to enjoy living in Florida, and its cheesy hymns, and bare walls — how none of that mattered, ultimately, because the Catholic Church was the repository of Truth, and however beautiful and rich the liturgy was at the Orthodox parish down the road, that parish was lacking because it wasn’t Roman.
The day came, three or four years later, when I no longer believed that. Naturally a faithful Catholic would say I was wrong, and that I should have done what I did in Baltimore back in ’02, and reminded myself that beauty is not the same thing as truth, and ugliness is not the same thing as a lie. At some point, though, you might snap. Here’s why and how Damon Linker snapped:
The world can be a dangerous place. My kids could be abused and violated anywhere. I’m not a helicopter parent out to protect them from any and all risk. But to wade through the toxic sludge of the grand jury report; to follow the story of Theodore McCarrick’s loathsome character and career; to confront the allegations piled up in Viganò’s memo — it is to come face to face with monstrous, grotesque ugliness. It is to see the Catholic Church as a repulsive institution — or at least one permeated by repulsive human beings who reward one another for repulsive acts, all the while deigning to lecture the world about its sin.
Let me be clear: I would a thousand times rather be part of a parish that meets in an ugly building, but which is led by a holy priest, and has a congregation dedicated to pursuing holiness, than to meet in a glorious Gothic cathedral that is an arched-and-flying-buttressed sepulcher.
Still, Damon perceives something fundamental: a tectonic unity among the three transcendentals: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. It is rare that all three exist in perfect harmony in any manifestation in this mortal world. For me, as a young man, Beauty led to what I saw as the fullest embodiment of God’s Truth in this world: the Roman Catholic Church, into which I entered communion. For Damon, it was Goodness that led him to communion with that Truth. In my case, the aesthetic ugliness of much of contemporary Catholic aesthetics certainly did not break my faith, but it weakened it in the face of the horrific moral ugliness of sexual abuse and episcopal corruption, which broke the bonds permanently. For Damon, the moral ugliness cracked the bonds.
This is something that is hard for intellectuals to appreciate, I find. They are often so given over to appreciation of logic and doctrine that they lack awareness of how severe failures in Beauty and Goodness make it difficult, even impossible, for people to perceive Truth within the Church.
All of which is to say that whatever form that healing and rebuilding takes within Catholicism from the disaster of the last 50 years, it will require not just moral and spiritual regeneration, but aesthetic regeneration too. People will not take you seriously as a proclaimer of Truth if their aesthetic and moral senses tell them otherwise.
I want to note this one response to Linker’s loss of faith, from a prominent Traditionalist Catholic blog:
It is extremely sad: each and every act of apostasy is very sad.
But it is our experience, and this article makes the same point, that a convert who leaves is a convert who never really gave his heart unconditionally. https://t.co/QaSg8W9JeU
— Rorate Caeli (@RorateCaeli) August 29, 2018
You never were a real Catholic if you’re a weakling who can’t tough it out, they say. Well, if that’s true, then I’m as guilty as Damon is. However, when people ask me why I didn’t try life among the Trads instead of leaving for Orthodoxy, the answer is right here in this tweet. Some of the best Catholic friends I have, and those I most admire, are Trads, but my general experience with Trads is that too often an intense bitterness, a hardness of heart, and barely-banked anger prevails among them. Our Lord told of the Good Shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 sheep to go after the one who is lost. Far too many Trads would deride that lost sheep a weakling and a quitter.
But he lets slip something that suggests that he had had an uneasy relationship with the Church the whole of those 18 years.
Toward the end of his statement, he says this: “If I didn’t really believe in all of the theological precepts taught by the church, at least I wanted to.”
There are some people–notably at the Traditionalist end of things–who claim that any convert who abandons Catholicism never really converted in the first place. Usually that’s a kneejerk reaction, something said without knowledge of the person or situation.
That’s what was said about Linker today at Rorate Caeli’s Twitter feed: “But it is our experience, and this article makes the same point, that a convert who leaves is a convert who never really gave his heart unconditionally.”
In my experience, that often isn’t true, and so in the normal course of things Rorate Caeli’s comment would be undeserved and ungenerous, yet it looks like it probably is true in Linker’s case.
He entered the Church expecting to find beauty at various levels, and he was disappointed. He found neither aesthetic nor moral beauty, and in the scandal he found immense moral ugliness.
Now he’s left, without saying that he had entered the Church convinced that the Catholic Church was true in all its teachings. The best he can do is to say that he wanted those teachings to be true.
It reminds me of something Linker’s one-time boss said. When asked why he had converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism, Neuhaus said he became a Catholic because the Reformation no longer was necessary.
That was more a political than a doctrinal attitude. In fact, the Reformation never was necessary, though much needed to be reformed back then. As it turned out, the Reformation didn’t reform what needed to be reformed. Instead, it reformulated Christian beliefs and fashioning a new religion, Protestantism.
Neuhaus was wrong in his fundamental motive (or excuse). There never was a need for the Reformation. That historical event was one of history’s greatest tragedies and disasters.
So I see a similarity between Linker’s attitude and Neuhaus’s: not a complete congruence, but a similarity. Neither one seems to have become Catholic because he was convinced the faith was irresistibly true and that he couldn’t escape that truth. They came in largely for other reasons, whether quasi-political or aesthetic. At least in Linker’s case, that ended up not being enough.
For what it’s worth, in my own case, I really did believe the truths. That’s probably why my loss of faith was so excruciating for me.