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The Life And Death Of Paul Mankowski

Paul Mankowski, SJ, in a talk given in February

I want to tell you something about a good priest who died suddenly last week. He was a Jesuit named Paul Mankowski. I had known him for twenty years, and even though I shared my deepest pains with him over the course of our friendship, I never met him. He died suddenly in Chicago last week, of a heart attack [Note: A friend of his writes to say that actually he had an aneurysm — RD]. A light went out in this world when Father Paul died, but I firmly believe that we all gained a powerful intercessor in Paradise.

I will turn to someone who knew Father Paul very well, the Catholic journalist Philip Lawler, who shares his remembrances. This should give you a hint of what an extraordinary man Father Paul was. Excerpts:

That he was a prodigious intellect is beyond dispute. He earned advanced degrees at Harvard and Oxford. He was fluent in multiple languages. He advised Vatican prelates, and more than once I detected a familiar style of prose in an official document from the Holy See. He taught Biblical languages at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He maintained a lively correspondence with philosophers and political leaders. And if you have read The Tragedy of Macdeth, which he wrote just for fun under a pseudonym, you know that you are not dealing with an ordinary mind.

Macdeth was Father Paul’s 1994 spoof of the Bill and Hillary Clinton saga, told as Shakespearean drama. When I read it in The American Spectator, I thought it brilliant satire. Who did this? My friend John Podhoretz said, “A Jesuit priest named Paul Mankowski. He’s insanely smart.” Indeed. Look at this excerpt (for you youngsters, Socks was the Clinton White House cat, and NOW is the National Organization for Women, which used to be a thing):

I defy you to read the whole thing without roaring with laughter, and staring gape-mouthed at the page in wonderment that someone actually wrote something so genius.

You’d think someone with that kind of wit and verbal felicity would have been raised in Waugh Manor. Nope. Says Phil Lawler:

Born into a middle-class family, Paul worked in steel mills to help pay his college tuition, and never abandoned his blue-collar approach to work. He was unimpressed with academic colleagues who, he chuckled in wonderment, “wouldn’t even know how to change a shock absorber.” Then again he was also unimpressed with his own academic achievements, and congenitally incapable of self-promotion.

As a young man Paul Mankowski developed a deep admiration for the Society of Jesus. He noticed, in his readings of history, that the Jesuits always turned up in crucial battles, defending the Catholic faith “where the fighting was fiercest.” Determined to do the same, he joined the Jesuits after graduating from the University of Chicago. He did not foresee that in our days the fiercest fighting would take place inside the Church and inside the Society of Jesus, and that—at least during his lifetime—he would be on the losing side.

The thing about Father Paul is that he was solidly orthodox in his Catholicism. His mind was playful, but about the faith, he did not play. If there was any more incisive critic of the Jesuit order, and of the contemporary Catholic Church, I don’t know of him. It’s a cliche to say that someone doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but it was invented for Paul Mankowski. Except he did suffer them with at least some gladness, in that he made fun of them, often as “Diogenes” — Uncle Di — the pseudonymous columnist at Catholic World Report, which Phil Lawler edited. Here’s Phil:

“Diogenes” was not universally popular. Father Mankowski had a special gift for satire, and—appropriately for a man who had been a boxer in student days—never pulled his punches. Perhaps at times he went too far, and as his editor I should have toned down his posts. But as it happens I too am a former boxer. Certainly Diogenes was often acerbic. At times his work was also hilariously funny, and Catholic Culture readers learned not to take a sip of hot coffee before reading “Off the Record.” Maybe it wasn’t always as charitable as it should have been. But it sure was fun.

The Jesuits were onto Paul, and silenced him, for the most part. He was obedient. I once asked a mutual friend why Father Mankowski didn’t just leave the Jesuits. The friend said, “Just because your mama is a whore doesn’t mean you don’t love her.” I don’t know if that line came from Mankowski or not, but it might have. The truth was — and this is something he told me when we finally talked about it — that Paul Mankowski felt called to serve God as a priest of the Catholic Church in the Society of Jesus, and that was a vocation he was never going to abandon. All the suffering the Society dumped on him, he endured. You can well imagine what that was like by reading his review of James Martin, SJ’s 2017 book on affirming LGBT Catholics. In the English-speaking world, at least, Father Martin is the best-known Jesuit besides Pope Francis, and celebrated for his LGBT advocacy. Here’s the first paragraph of Father Mankowski’s review:

Is sodomy a sin? Perplexed readers of Fr. James Martin, S.J.’s latest book will want to put the question to him, if only to understand why he felt it important to write at all.

Boom! And there it is. He focused laser-like on the flaw at the heart of the book and of Father Martin’s project: the pretense that it is possible to reconcile homosexual practice with Catholic Christianity.

I urge you to read this long Mankowski talk from 2003, in which he lays out “what went wrong” in the Catholic Church, regarding the scandal. This is the topic that brought Father Paul and me first into contact. I have known many wise and brave men who have helped me to understand what was at the heart of this dark phenomenon, but none like Father Paul. He was a cleric who despised clericalism. He wrote then, in part:

What we read in those files [bishops’ documents released in court proceedings] was shocking, true, but to most of us it was shocking in its sense of déja vu. In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the housewife who complained that Father skipped the Creed at mass and the housewife who complained that Father groped her son had remarkably similar experiences of being made to feel that they themselves were somehow in the wrong; that they had impugned the honor of virtuous men; that their complaints were an unwelcome interruption of more important business; that the true situation was fully known to the chancery and completely under control; that the wider and more complete knowledge of higher ecclesiastics justified their apparent inaction; that to criticize the curate was to criticize the pastor was to criticize the regional vicar was to criticize the bishop; that to publicize one’s dissatisfaction was to give scandal and would positively harm discreet efforts at remedying the ills; that one’s duty was to maintain silence and trust that those officially charged with the pertinent responsibilities would execute them in their own time; that delayed correction of problems was sometimes necessary for the universal good of the Church.


What I’ve put before you are two scenarios in which complaints of abuses are brought to those in authority and in which they seem to vanish — the complaints, I mean, not the abuses. One hoped that something was being done behind the scenes, of course, but whatever happened always remained behind the scenes. As the weeks went by without observable changes in the abuse and without feedback from the bureaucracy, one was torn between two contradictory surmises: that one’s complaint had been passed upstairs to so high a level that even the bishop (or superior) was forbidden to discuss it; alternatively, that once one’s silence had been secured and the problem of unwelcome publicity was past, nothing whatsoever was being done.

Now the remarkable thing about The Crisis is how fully it confirmed the second suspicion. In thousands and thousands of pages of records one scarcely, if ever, is edified by a pleasant surprise, by discovering that a bishop’s or superior’s concern for the victim or for the Faith was greater than that known to the public, that the engines of justice were geared up and running at full throttle, but in a manner invisible to those outside the circle of discretion. Didn’t happen.

I think this goes far to explain the fact that when the scandals broke it was the conservative Catholics who were the first and the most vociferous in calling for episcopal resignations, and only later did the left-liberals manage to find their voices. Part of our outrage concerned the staggering insouciance of bishops toward the abuse itself; but part, I would argue, was the exasperation attendant on the realization that, for the same reasons, all our efforts in the culture wars on behalf of Catholic positions had gone up in the same bureaucratic smoke.

I take issue, then, with commentators who refer to the Crisis as an ecclesial “meltdown” or “the Church’s 9-11” or who use some similarly cataclysmic metaphor. Whatever there was to melt down had already done so for years, and that across the board, not just in priestly misconduct. Therefore, in addressing the question, “what went wrong, and why?” I need to try explain not simply the sex-abuse scandals but the larger ecclesial failure as well, weaknesses that existed even before the Second Vatican Council.

About the pre-Vatican II church:

Not only was the reality of priestly character in good shape, but the reputation of Catholic clergymen was likewise high. This brought with it several problems. First, being an honorable station in society, the clerical life provided high grass in which many villains and disturbed individuals could seek cover. I would estimate that between 50 and 60 percent of the men who entered religious life with me in the mid-70s were homosexuals who had no particular interest in the Church, but who were using the celibacy requirement of the priesthood as a way of camouflaging the real reason for the fact that they would never marry. It should be noted in this connection that the military has its own smaller but irreducible share of crypto-gays, as do roughnecks on offshore drilling rigs and merchant mariners (“I never got married because I move around so much it wouldn’t be fair on the girl…”). Perhaps a certain percentage of homosexuals in these professions can never be eliminated. I further believe that the most convincing explanation of the disproportionately high number of pedophiles in the priesthood is not the famous Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers Theory, but its reverse, proposed to me by a correctional officer at a Canadian prison. He suggested that, in years past, Catholic men who recognized the pederastic tendency in themselves and hated it would try to put it to death by entering a seminary or a monastery, where they naively believed the sexual dimension of life simply disappeared. It doesn’t disappear, and many of these men, by the time they found out they were wrong, had already become addicted. This suggestion has the advantage of accounting for the fact that most priests who are true pedophiles appear to be men in their 60s and older, and belong to a generation of Catholics with, on the one hand, a strong sense of sexual mortal sin and, on the other, strong convictions about the asceticism and sexual integrity of priestly life. To homosexuals and pedophiles I would add a third group, those I call “tames” — men who are incapable of facing the normally unpleasant situations presented by adulthood and who find refuge, and indeed success, in a system that rewards concern for appearance, distaste for conflict, and fondness for the advantageous lie. In sum, the social prestige and high reputation that attached to the post-WW2 priesthood made it attractive to men of low character and provided them with excellent cover.

I have to add one more thing from this extraordinary essay. Father Paul, as he often did in private conversation, blamed a culture of deep corruption among the bishops. He says in the essay that they are an old boys club, always protecting each other. But there is something darker with many of them:

A third answer to “What went wrong?” concerns a factor that is at once a result of earlier failures and a cause of many subsequent ones: I mean sexual blackmail. Most of the men who are bishops and superiors today were in the seminary or graduate school in the 1960s and 1970s. In most countries of the Western world these places were in a kind of disciplinary free-fall for ten or fifteen years. A very high percentage of churchmen who are now in positions of authority were sexually compromised during that period. Perhaps they had a homosexual encounter with a fellow seminarian; perhaps they had a brief heterosexual affair with a fellow theology student. Provided they did not cause grave scandal, such men were frequently promoted, according to their talents and ambition. Many are competent administrators, but they have a time-bomb in their past, and they have very little appetite for reform measures of any sort — even doctrinal reforms — and they have zero appetite for reform proposals that entail cleaning up sexual mischief. In some cases perhaps, there is out-and-out blackmail, where a bishop moves to discipline a priest and priest threatens to report the bishop’s homosexual affair in the seminary to the Nuncio or to the press, and so the bishop backs off. More often I suspect the blackmail is indirect. No overt threat is made by anyone, but the responsible ecclesiastic is troubled by the ghost of his past and has no stomach for taking a hard line. Even if personally uneasy with homosexuality, he will not impede the admission and promotion of gays. He will almost always treat sexuality in psychological terms, as a matter of human maturation, and is chary of the language of morality and asceticism. He will act only when it is impossible not to act, as when a case of a priest’s or seminarian’s sexual misconduct is known to the police or the media. He will characteristically require of the offender no discipline but will send him to counseling, usually for as brief a period as possible, and will restore him to the best position that diocesan procedures and public opinion will allow him to.

Note: sexual blackmail operates far beyond the arena of sexual misconduct. When your Aunt Margaret complains about the pro-abortion teachers at the Catholic high school, or the Sisters of St. Jude worshiping the Eight Winds, or Father’s home-made eucharistic prayer, and nothing is done, it is eminently likely that the bishop’s reluctance to intervene stems from the consciousness that he is living on borrowed time. In short, many bishops and superiors, lacking integrity, lack moral courage. Lacking moral courage, they can never be reformers, can never uproot a problem, but can only plead for tolerance and healing and reconciliation. I am here sketching only the best-case scenario, where the bishop’s adventures were brief, without issue, and twenty years in his past. In cases where the man continues his sexual exploits as a bishop, he is of course wholly compromised and the blackmail proportionately disastrous.

OK, for those who won’t read the whole thing, this conclusion:

Let me sum up. I believe the sexual abuse crisis represents no isolated phenomenon and no new failure, but rather illustrates a state of slowly worsening clerical and episcopal corruption with its roots well back into the 1940s. Its principal tributaries include a critical mass of morally depraved and psychologically defective clergymen who entered the service of Church seeking emoluments and advantages unrelated to her spiritual mission, in addition to leaders constitutionally unsuited to the exercise of the virtues of truthfulness and fortitude. The old-fashioned vices of lust, pride, and sloth have erected an administrative apparatus effective at transmitting the consolations of the Faith but powerless at correction and problem-solving. The result is a situation unamenable to reform, wherein the leaders continue to project an upbeat and positive message of ecclesial well-being to an overwhelmingly good-willed laity, a message which both speaker and hearer find more gratifying than convincing. I believe that the Crisis will deepen, though undramatically, in the foreseeable future; I believe that the policies suggested to remedy the situation will help only tangentially, and that the whole idea of an administrative programmatic approach — a “software solution,” if I may put it that way — is an example of the disease for which it purports to be the cure. I believe that reform will come, though in a future generation, and that the reformers whom God raises up will spill their blood in imitation of Christ. In short, to pilfer a line of Wilfrid Sheed, I find absolutely no grounds for optimism, and I have every reason for hope.

Please do read the whole thing. He wrote it 17 years ago; I doubt it has ever been bested.

I find absolutely no grounds for optimism, and I have every reason for hope. That last line was the essence of Paul Mankowski’s ministry. No one — and I mean no one — in the Catholic Church was more capable of the blackest, funniest humor about the various crises besetting the Church. But there was Paul, in the heart of it, soldiering on. Someone told me that when Paul was living in Rome, he would spend his Christmas vacations serving at a Romanian orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity. A New York priest friend who visited Paul in Rome in those days reported back to me that his room was absolutely Spartan: just a simple bed, a crucifix, and books. I was not surprised to see this in Phil Lawler’s tribute:

Once when I visited Rome, and asked him to recommend a good restaurant, he couldn’t. Is there another priest who, after a few years in Rome, cannot tell a friend where to get a spectacular dinner?

Paul Mankowski had every right to be embittered by the life in the Church, and the maliciousness with which his Jesuit superiors often treated him. I never once heard him complain — indeed, if it hadn’t been for our mutual friends telling me what was really going on, I would not have known. I asked how it was possible that the Jesuits wouldn’t be so proud of this man. Learning the answer to that was an education in how the contemporary Church really works.

Paul’s was a hard charity, the kind that endures. He never once reproached me for leaving the Catholic Church, though it must have pained him. Perhaps because he knew better than most how hard it is to carry the burden of remaining Catholic once you have seen things you can’t unsee. I have found myself in the week since his death asking him for his prayers, as I sometimes asked for them when he was here with us in the flesh. I would sometimes ask him for more than that. In going through our e-mail correspondence from over the years, I found a letter from him from some time back, when I was suffering an excruciating burden. It was a family thing, something that I felt particularly during the holidays; I notice that my letter was dated December 23 of that year. I asked him what I should do about it. In his response, he said that indeed, there seems no clear way out of it, but to endure. He wrote:

You write of this situation as the cross God has given you to bear. It may be. I have never yet met anyone who thought that God gave him the right cross to bear (including myself); everyone looks around with a certain wistful envy at others and says to himself, “Now THAT is the kind of cross I could carry with equanimity, courage, even joy.”  But of course what makes a cross a cross is that it kills the one who carries it; it puts to death that part of the disciple that God knows must die for salvation to work.  It feels awkward to end with pious Christmas wishes, but it is worth remembering that the purpose of the Incarnation was to save what was lost.

That was the kind of man we lost when Paul Mankowski died. And that is the kind of advocate we have gained in heaven. Of that I am certain. Requiescat in pace.

Looking for a photo of him with which to illustrate this post, I came across this video of a Mankowski talk from earlier this year. I will listen to the whole thing today. I played a few seconds of it; after twenty years of letters, this was the first time I’ve ever heard his voice:

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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