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Finding God in the ruins

Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a good post up at Get Religion about Tom Breen, an AP reporter who became a Roman Catholic while covering the abuse scandals in Los Angeles. How does that work? Here’s Breen, from an interview with Get Religion:

I quickly realized that I didn’t know anything about Catholicism, and so to avoid embarrassing myself and the paper I resolved to learn what I could. In addition to reading everything I could get my hands on, I started pitching stories on religious topics that had nothing to do with the abuse scandal, hoping to bring myself up to speed.

This continued after I moved to the Journal Inquirer, the paper in my hometown of Manchester, Conn. By now I had discovered that I was interested not just in Catholic stories, but in religion generally. It was not only a fascinating topic, but it was one that not many other reporters were interested in covering, so I could pursue stories without stepping on any toes. I also had tremendously knowledgeable editors who were hungry for religion news. One of them put it to me in a way I’ve always remembered: compare the amount of resources the press spends on covering primary elections, he told me, with the number of people who vote in primary elections. Now compare the resources spent on covering religion with the number of people who attend a weekly worship service.

So that’s how I became hooked on religion coverage. On kind of a parallel track, I eventually became a devout Catholic, going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and becoming a weekly churchgoer. Ironically, it was my work covering elements of the sex abuse scandal that led me to become an “official” Catholic; I learned all I could about the faith to make sure my stories were accurate, and my learning convinced me this was the truth.

A Mediabistro columnist who had covered the same story, reacting to this, said he couldn’t understand how such a thing was possible. Breen responded:

The coverage of the scandal was the motivation to learn more about Catholicism, and I really can’t overstate the extent of my ignorance at the time; I mean, I couldn’t even name all the sacraments, let alone explain them. So my desire to get up to speed wasn’t just a desire to learn about the context of the scandals, it was an effort to learn, basically, everything I could, from church history to theology to the formal name for that hat bishops wear. It was through that effort – which lasted for years, and took in everything from lots of reading to hanging around pilgrimage sites and talking to people – that I eventually decided Catholicism was for me.

As a journalist who lived through the slow, painful slipping away of his Catholic faith as a result of his abuse scandal coverage, I salute Tom Breen with total sincerity. Many people (especially some grudge-holding Catholic readers) expect me to harbor hostility toward Catholicism, but it’s not true. It sounds like Tom Breen’s journey was an authentic one, and though I don’t share his faith entirely, I find it deeply admirable that he could explore the ruins of the Church in Los Angeles and emerge with the hidden treasure of real faith.

The one big lesson I’ve learned from my own traumatic experience losing my Catholic faith is that one should never, ever,  ever look to the bishops, the clergy, and the institutional church as the fulfillment of Christianity. To be clear, I believe the office of the bishop and the institutional church are valid and necessary. Even though I am now Orthodox, I still believe that. What I’m saying is that the clergy, especially the bishops, ought to be the best examples of how to be Christian, they are usually just as mediocre as the rest of us — but if you expect them to be that much better, you will be badly disappointed. Robert Bellah says that the “proof” of a religion’s claims is the sort of person they produce. It really is the case that Catholicism, with its institutional culture, produces men like Cardinal Mahony, just as Orthodoxy produces its own share of rotten leaders out of the particulars of its institutional culture, as does Evangelicalism, etc. But Catholicism also produces its own kinds of saints — as does Orthodoxy, as does Evangelicalism. I wish I had not bought into the triumphalist convert enthusiasm when I became a Catholic. It conditioned my way of thinking so profoundly that, without realizing it, I laid the groundwork for my disillusionment, from which I could not recover (as a Catholic).

This is a mistake I was determined not to make when I became Orthodox. This is wisdom hard-won. If you can look at the very worst of a religious tradition, and still see the gold amid the dross, you are a blessed man. An Orthodox friend in Moscow told me that he has never had much regard for the hierarchy of the Church, who, in his view, are mired in corruption and mediocrity. He is faithful to his local parish and to the sacraments, and helps his community as he can. That is enough. It has to be. Triumphalism is a dead end.

I do not respect the view that affirms the truth and inherent goodness in a faith or a church by minimizing or airily dismissing the very deep problems within that church or tradition. So many times I’ve heard Catholics and Orthodox both, when talking about the scandals within these churches, quickly dismissing the deep and complex evils embedded within the lives of the two churches by making some easy reference to the wheat and the tares, or complaining that the media doesn’t see all the good things the church does, etc. That sort of thing. And it’s true! But these are statements that the people who make them typically haven’t earned the right to make, because they have never seriously looked at and thought about the kinds of things that exist within these churches (and all churches) that would lead someone to lose faith. Tom Breen has done that. That he could not only hold on to his faith, but actually find his faith by so doing, is a testament to the man’s character, and to the grace of God.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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