The Map Is Not The Territory
I apologize for not blogging more this week. I’m at a conference in Warsaw, and very busy. There are several news stories I want to mention, but it seems to me that the most interesting thing I can say in this space in my limited time today is a report on a conversation I had yesterday around a table with a couple of Catholics here.
I had on my mind all day the Catholic traditionalist Steve Skojec’s cri de coeur about the Church, which I blogged about here. It has caused quite a stir on the Internet (Steve’s piece); for the sake of fairness, I should point out that a couple of people in Steve’s (now former) parish wrote to say that he unjustly mischaracterized and maligned the priest. One of those people — in my comments section — suggested that I blogged about the Skojec essay for the sake of hurting traditionalist Catholics. That’s a classic defensive move (“you’re just paying attention to that because you hate people like us”), but of course it’s not true. I had to deal with it for years when I, as a faithful Catholic, kept drawing attention to the sexual abuse of children, and the lies on top of lies that the Catholic hierarchy told to avoid taking responsibility for what the institution did, and failed to do. Many Catholics engaged in vicious ad hominem attacks on me for aiding and abetting the enemies of the Church by shining a light into that particular darkness. The truth is, they were protecting themselves from having to take an honest look at the condition of the Church, and holding her ministers to account. Actual Catholic victims and their advocates were at times treated far worse, because their existence, and their unwillingness to be silent about what had been done to them, stood to falsify the story a lot of people wanted and needed to believe.
This is very human. It’s not just a Catholic thing, not by a long shot.
Failing to tell the truth, and failing to face the truth, is ultimately more harmful than the opposite. Here’s a little story about my own church, the Orthodox Church, and the Russian system of which it was a part. I tell this in Live Not By Lies, so forgive me if it’s something you already know.
A couple of years ago, when I was in Moscow researching the book, I had spent the two previous days conducting harrowing interviews with former Soviet dissidents, including prison survivors. I was having dinner one night with a Russian Orthodox family, all anticommunists, in their apartment. I said at the table that I don’t know how anybody in Russia ever believed what the Bolsheviks had to offer.
“You don’t?” said the father at the end of the table. “Let me tell you a story.” He then took me on a tour of four hundred years of Russian history, leading up to the 1917 Revolution. It was a tale of brutality and exploitation of the poor, at the hands of the wealthy and the powerful — and the deep complicity of the Russian Orthodox Church with this cruel system. At the end of his narrative, he said (I paraphrase): “I’m not saying the Bolsheviks were right. But I am saying that they didn’t come from nowhere, and that you should understand why those who welcomed them were willing to believe that they offered hope.”
I was chastened. I understood better what the Orthodox priest Father Arseny meant when, imprisoned unjustly in the gulag, he told his fellow prisoners, who were discussing who was responsible for the catastrophe of the Revolution coming to Russia, that the Orthodox Church is. Strictly speaking, that’s not true, or not wholly true, but Father Arseny was performing a very Orthodox act there: searching one’s own conscience for one’s role in a sin, acknowledging it, and repenting.
Side note, but related: yesterday in Warsaw, I was talking to a Polish friend over beer. We were talking about what educated people don’t get about why ordinary people support governments that are flawed or even corrupt. I mentioned that my father, a working-class man, used to tell me thank God for Gov. Huey P. Long of Louisiana. Huey was famously corrupt, but as my dad said, if it had not been for Huey, hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class Louisianians would not have had roads, schoolbooks, and other basics that had been denied them by a ruling class that didn’t care. Huey was a semi-socialist demagogue who stole. But people loved him, because he more than shared the wealth with those who had nothing.
I told my friend that the cleaning lady in my Budapest apartment speaks poor English, but said to me recently, in this paraphrase from her pidgin English: “My husband left me years ago with two kids. We had nothing. I had to work my fingers to the bone to keep our heads above water, until Fidesz [the ruling party] was elected in 2010. Only two people ever helped me: God, and Viktor Orban.”
My Polish friend said you can find millions of people all over Poland, especially outside the major cities, who say the same thing about the ruling Law And Justice Party, which is despised by many educated, cosmopolitan Poles. The Pole went on to tell a story from his grandmother, who was a nurse when the Communists took over in the postwar period. His is a strongly anticommunist family, but his grandmother said this in grudging respect to the Communists. In the early 1950s, the Communists sent her, other nurses, and several doctors in vans out to the countryside to visit villages. They arrived in one village, and everyone was hiding in their houses, terrified of them. They didn’t know what the people from the government were there for. The head doctor went to find the village priest, and told him that they were there to give medical care to the residents. The priest called everyone out, and told them that these were doctors and nurses here to help them. That convinced everyone to participate.
My friend’s grandmother said these peasants were all in pretty poor health, and had never before seen a doctor. It was shocking for her, as a Warsaw resident, to see all this poverty and need. When the people saw that the doctors and nurses were there to help them, many of them wept openly. None of them had money to pay (no payment was required), but they sent the doctors and nurses away with fresh eggs, butter, and live chickens and turkeys.
He told this story for the same reason his grandmother told it: because it’s important to remember that people’s lives can be very hard, and the border between good and evil doesn’t usually pass in a straight line.
Why do I bring that up here? Because my usual stance is to reject the reasons people give for rejecting Christianity. I think in most cases, people reject it because they want to do what they want to do, and Christianity tells them that they can’t. That was my own stance for years, though I rationalized my unwillingness to submit by making it intellectually respectable. This is not how everybody is, of course, but it’s how I was, and it’s how a lot of people are.
But I have also lived the other side of that, as I wrote in yesterday’s piece. I know what’s it’s like to lose the ability even to will oneself to believe. I toggle all the time between trying to figure out when people are lying to themselves about their relationship to things of God, and when they are genuinely hurting, and can’t see clearly. Quite often both are true at the same time. Point is, I have learned over the years to be more merciful, because life is hard. Sometimes, though, true mercy requires honesty about the real state of things within one’s soul. And at other times, true mercy requires honesty about the state of the world in which a soul finds itself searching.
Many years ago, a Catholic friend of mine in Austin, Texas, told me about a friend of his, a gay man who had left the faith. The gay man had been sexually abused by his priest as a boy. To this day, said my Catholic friend, the gay man begins to gag involuntarily whenever he passes by a Catholic Church. On the Day of Judgment, I trust that Our Lord will be more merciful to that poor man than to the priest who did that to him, and drove him from the Church.
Anyway, I found myself early yesterday evening sitting at a table with a couple of Catholics, one a Pole and the other a Hungarian. The Hungarian mentioned that he had looked in on a couple of churches earlier in the day — the Hungarian is here for the same conference I am — and had been encouraged to see a few people praying. The Pole said that this is actually bad news, because until relatively recently, you would have seen many more people there. I asked the Pole about the state of the Catholic Church in this country, bringing up what I learned during my last visit here, about how church affiliation among younger Poles is in dramatic decline (as is Church affiliation overall in Poland).
I mentioned to my companions last night that the late Father Wlodzimierz Zatorski, a highly esteemed Benedictine (who died last year of Covid), had affirmed to me that the young Catholics telling me that Poland could become Ireland in a decade, regarding Catholic collapse, were on to something. I had asked the Benedictine, while visiting famed Tyniec Abbey, what the main problem is. He said, “the vainglory of the bishops.”
I asked the Pole last night to explain what the late priest-monk meant. The Pole, who is in his twenties, told me that among his circle of friends here in Warsaw, he is the only one who still goes to mass. Two years ago when I first met this man, that was not the case. He went on to explain that many Poles are deeply offended by how openly political many of the clergy are, especially the bishops. He said the exposure of sexual abuse scandals in the clergy devastated many people. The harshness of the bishops’ language against gays and lesbians has put a lot of people off, even as stories about priests and bishops having secret gay lives have come to light. Too many bishops and priests, he said, rest on pious cliches and sentimental appeals to the legacy of Pope St. John Paul II, instead of bringing the Gospel to deal meaningfully with the problems and challenges of contemporary life. Overall, my Polish interlocutor said that the country’s Catholics have come to see that there is a large gap between what the Church claims to be, and what its clergy is — and that outrages people. The fact, he went on, that many in the Polish clergy, especially bishops, are so caught up in clericalism, only makes it harder for the bishops and clergy to grasp their role, and to repent.
I hated to hear that, of course. The Hungarian at the table seemed to as well, saying that the life of the Church in Poland is so much healthier and more vibrant than in his own country that it’s dismaying to hear of these problems. I pointed out that when I was in Russia a couple of years ago doing book research, I too was dismayed to hear the same kinds of complaints about clericalism, and clerics involved in politics, from Russian Orthodox laypersons to whom I spoke.
Let me be clear about something: a lot of people are angry at the Church (by which I mean here the various Christian churches) because it will not, and cannot, be what they want it to be. It cannot, for example, affirm homosexuality as morally good, or morally neutral. Some churches do, but this is in absolute contradiction to Scripture and authoritative tradition. Nor can it affirm heterosexual sex outside of marriage as good. There are other things. If the Church is going to have to suffer for being faithful to the truth, then that is one of its glories.
But the world is not wrong to fault us in the Church for our hypocrisies. The world is not wrong to call us, indirectly, to repentance. I say “us” because the faults are not just in the clergy. It doesn’t bother me anymore, because I know that it comes from a place of fear, but I have for years gotten flack from conservative Catholics who say that I should have stuck with the Catholic Church despite everything because hey, pobody’s nerfect. (I exaggerate, but not by much.) I think these are people who have never had to speak to the father of one of the five suicides of Father Larson’s victims — Father Larson, who was known to the Diocese of Wichita to be a predator, but moved around anyway. They have never had to sit quietly with the story of a young man lost to the faith, and unable to pass by a Catholic church without gagging, because when he was an altar boy his priest forced him to take the clerical penis into his mouth. You do that kind of thing for four years, and you see how much tolerance you have for the lies, and what it does to your ability to believe in what churchmen say.
The thing is, those people do have something of a point. The truth of a proposition does not depend on the moral character of the person espousing the proposition. Two plus two equals four, even if the person saying so is a Nazi or a pederast. But religious truths, as Kierkegaard discerned quite well, are the kinds of truths that can only be approached subjectively. You cannot demonstrate the existence of God as you can the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But the inability to prove the existence of God does not disprove it. There are some truths that can only be grasped and appropriated subjectively. “God exists” is a truth along the lines of “Mother loves me.” The Second Law of Thermodynamics can be proved objectively, but nobody lives or dies for the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People do live and die over truths like “Mother loves me.”
God exists, Christ is Risen, and the _____ Church is the ordinary way of salvation intended by God — all of these are truths that can be supported through the use of logical argument, but in the end, they are truths that for acceptance depend on the authority of those who proclaim and live those truths. (To be precise, I think it’s easier to defend ecclesiological claims through logical argumentation, but let’s leave that aside.) Personal authority is not the only factor. For example, I would never have considered Catholicism, and might never have considered Christianity at all, if I had not been awestruck by my experience of the Chartres cathedral when I was 17 years old. I felt very strongly that the men who built that temple had an experience of God that testified in a way that spoke to me with overwhelming subjectivity of the reality of Christ. Does beauty prove Christ? No. Any visitor to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul cannot help but be profoundly moved by the beauty of that mosque built to the glory of Allah. But the fact of Chartres awakened me to the sense that there is something that exists beyond my own limited awareness, and that I needed to search further.
In the years that followed, meeting particular Catholics, men and women who gave their lives in commitment to the ideas proclaimed by the Catholic Church, I was drawn in by their witness. I think very few Christians of any confession are converted by apologetic argument. For most of us, apologetics help by explaining and enlarging on the primary experiences we have had of God — in personal prayer or a private experience of the numinous, or in the sense of the divine and the transcendent made manifest in beauty, or by the heroic goodness of people who serve Christ.
It would be much easier for us Christians to make our case to an unbelieving world if we were all saints. We have to try, seriously try, to be saints! That is the calling of every Christian, of every confession. But few of us reach that goal in this life. We go to the next life depending on the mercy of God, by uniting ourselves to the death and resurrection of Christ. Still, the world will not come to us if they don’t first see virtue in us — not just the virtues of compassion and mercy, but also the virtues of courage and honesty.
As I wrote earlier, at the end of my time in the Catholic Church (though I didn’t see it coming then), I had become the sort of Catholic who was utterly consumed by anger and fear at the Church. Various people said to me, as they had done in the past, that all I needed to do was to find a Traditional Latin Mass parish, and all would be well. But I had visited these parishes at various times in my life as a Catholic, because I was the sort of Catholic who was primed to embrace Traditionalism. Though I knew some trads who were exemplary Catholics, mostly my experience was one of an ethos of bitterness and brittleness, and an overwhelming preoccupation with grievance and policing the boundaries for purity. The Christianity I observed in those parishes was not life-giving. Understand that I am not dismissing all Catholic traditionalists; I am only telling you what I saw over the years as I turned to them. For an outside inquirer, before I could consider the truth claims of Traditionalists, I had to first see its fruits, in the presence of those who dedicated their lives to this creed.
I have heard over the years from people who have come to visit Orthodox parishes, and been overwhelmed by the beauty of what they saw, and the feeling they had among the Orthodox. By the way, this was my own experience in 2006: the warm hospitality of the congregation of St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas was a big factor in our moving to Orthodoxy. You wouldn’t think something like hospitality would be such a big deal, but in 13 years of being a Catholic, I had never seen that in a parish. My wife, who grew up a Texas Baptist, said this was, for her, like coming home. Prior to this, I had not realized how, well, Protestant I was as a Catholic, in the sense of approaching the faith as if it were just me, God, the sacraments, and the Magisterium. But I have also heard from others who made their first visit to an Orthodox parish in one that was very closed and ethnic; they felt alien, and never went back. I’ve been to a parish like that in the Northeast.
My point is simply this: that a number of things that are non-propositional prepare us to receive the faith. We are not disembodied brains. If I speak in church Latin, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of beautiful liturgy, and a church festooned with gorgeous icons, and can fathom the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, and if I have a congregation with a faith that can fill the pews and the nave every Sunday, but do not have love, I am nothing as a Christian. If I fast faithfully, and keep the holy days and the commandments, no matter how hard, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
And if I am expert at picking out all the faults in the Church, and diagnosing the ways it falls short of the glory of God, but I don’t have love, then I am a fraud, and I will sooner or later find myself shattered. If I am spiteful towards those who have lost their faith because of the sins and failings within the Church, I had better pray especially hard that I never be put to the test. If I treat the faith like a series of logical propositions, a social club, or a test of tribal loyalty, I am in more spiritual trouble than I realize.
Like I said, I’ve never met Steve Skojec, but I’ve told him privately that God had to shatter me in order to break my intellectualism, so I could really know Jesus. It is extremely painful. But it’s the only thing that would have begun my healing. Steve Skojec is undergoing a severe mercy. Maybe you are too. I had to fall out of love with the Church to fall in love with Jesus. It’s not an either-or, to be clear, but it is a matter of rightly ordering our loves. I had to discover the difference between the map and the territory, and boy, did that hurt like hell. But I had been living in a lie.
UPDATE: A couple of you pointed to this blog comment by the Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, criticizing Skojec and me. I’ll let Steve speak for himself, but I want to respond briefly to his criticism of me:
I do, however, question Dreher’s judgment, which is manifestly bad, and not an example for Skojec or anyone else to follow. By his own admission, Dreher’s decision to leave the Church was driven by emotion rather than reason. From what I can tell, he does not even claim to have any response to the arguments that once convinced him of the truth of Catholicism. He talks instead about how his heart was broken by the evil done by the abusers, the hypocrisy and corruption of the hierarchy, and the self-deception of well-meaning fellow Catholics. He talks about coming to see that his own commitment to Catholicism had been marred by pride and self-righteousness. He tells us that to be a good Christian it is not enough to have good arguments and to follow the letter of the law. He tells us that in the days before he left the Church he had become so filled with anger that it “blinded [him] to the good and holy things in the Catholic Church,” and that leaving for Orthodoxy provided a kind of release that led to a healthier spirituality.
Well, that’s all fair enough. The trouble is that it simply does not in any way entail that the claims the Catholic Church makes are false, and Dreher knows it. Again, he offers no counter-arguments in response to the arguments he once took to be compelling. He also admits that exactly the same maladies that he saw when he was still a Catholic can afflict, and have afflicted, every other movement, organization, and church, including Eastern Orthodoxy. Hence he essentially acknowledges that he has no rational basis whatsoever for what he did, but was led by an emotional response to his own personal situation.
Like all people who act contrary to reason, Dreher tries to rationalize his doing so, with clichés about how we are creatures of emotion and not just intellect, how following rules and producing tidy arguments is not enough, etc. Of course, this is all muddleheaded. Dreher himself would not be impressed by this sort of rhetoric if it were offered by someone who disagreed with him. For example, Dreher is a Christian, and one who embraces the traditional theological and moral teachings of the faith. If someone rejected all of that on the basis of some bad experience or emotional crisis, and went on about how we are creatures of emotion, how rules are not enough, etc., Dreher would not take this to be a good reason to doubt the truth of Christianity. He would say that he feels for such a person and does not judge him, but that ultimately such a person is simply mistaken. What he does not seem to realize is that the same thing can be said about him. Like someone who understandably but wrongly rejects Christianity because of painful personal experiences, Dreher has understandably but wrongly rejected Catholicism because of his own painful personal experiences.
No doubt Dreher thinks there is more to it than that, but he explicitly declines to offer any rational grounds for thinking that there is more to it than that. And when you start out by eschewing reason, you have by definition lost the argument. Dreher would regard such a judgment as too coldly logical, but of course, that is precisely to double down on the mistake rather than to show that it is not a mistake. Human beings are by nature rational creatures. Yes, we are more than that, but the point is that we are not less than that. Accordingly, though a sound worldview ought to satisfy our emotions, if it cannot also pass the test of rational justification, then of necessity it floats free from objective reality. Dreher knows this, and rightly condemns subjectivism when he sees it in Critical Race Theory, transgender extremism, and other malign ideologies and movements. He just doesn’t see it in himself. This cognitive dissonance is why, despite eschewing reason, Dreher has for years been going on at length trying to justify his eschewal of reason, and therefore succeeds only in tying himself in knots.
I don’t say this to condemn Dreher, who seems to be a good guy and whose writing I have enjoyed and profited from over the years. But it must be said when he is trying to lead others into making the same mistake he made.
Though it must seem like it to longtime readers, I don’t tell the entire story of why and how I left Catholicism every time I write about it (and the only reason I bring it up on occasion is because stories like Skojec’s are so much like mine, which left me with questions about how we know what we know, that I probably will never answer to my own satisfaction.
I didn’t think it worth bringing up again how, in 2005, I pored over books making arguments both for and against papal infallibility, and not being able to reach a conclusion that felt solid. I definitely was far less confident of it than before I started reading, but I didn’t think the case against it was a slam-dunk either. I didn’t think it worth elaborating that the reason we turned to Orthodoxy and not to any form of Protestantism was because we were still Catholic enough to believe that only the Orthodox had valid sacraments (a position I still hold; I don’t deny that Catholic sacraments are valid, though some Orthodox do). I have said in the past (in writings that Feser might have missed) that for whatever set of reasons, I was incapable of believing that my salvation depended on remaining in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Of course Feser would say that’s muddle-headed. He’s a philosopher! I had never imagined being in a situation like that, where I couldn’t believe that something was true because it hurt too much for it to be.
But even that’s not exactly right. There are moral claims I live by that make my life more difficult, even painful at times. I can’t abandon those claims because it’s hard to live by them. This, by the way, is what kept me Catholic for a while after I went down the dark hole of the scandal. By 2005, I had reached a point in which I was spiritually dying inside because I was keeping faith with Catholicism. I was losing Jesus, and all the logical arguments were not helping me hold on to him. Maybe Feser is a stronger Catholic than I ever was, and arguments could have kept him grounded. They weren’t enough for me at that point in the crisis. Plus, after mass one day, my wife came up to me — I remember exactly where I was sitting in our living room, and the quality of light that day — and, crying, said, “I feel like for the first time in my life, I’m losing Jesus.” Her too! This woman, raised Evangelical, who by her own choice abandoned the Protestantism of her youth when she married Catholic me. Now I was watching her cry, expressing fear that her faith was being dragged out of her by this endless crisis.
I had to act. As I have written, the breakthrough for me came when I realized that the Orthodox were right: the point of the entire Christian life is theosis. The sacraments of the Church were given to us to help us on the path to theosis. The Church leads us on that road, but the Church is not the destination! Was I becoming more Christ-like through my Catholic life? No, not even remotely. Mass was an occasion of anger and despair. Everything about my Catholic life was. There was no spiritual compensation for any of this. I was far down a hole, and saw no way of getting out — and I was dragging my family down with me. As I have written here before, I thought about far into the future, after my death, telling God that I had lived as an angry, broken, fearful, spite-filled man, and my children were no longer Christian because the faith brought such unhappiness into their family’s life … but I stayed Catholic, Lord. This made no sense at all to me.
When we started going to the Orthodox Church, I quickly realized that Orthodoxy — real, lived Orthodoxy — was what I thought Catholicism was going to be from the inside. I learned how to pray the Jesus Prayer on the prayer rope, and my spiritual life began to turn around. In the end, when I made the decision to become Orthodox, I told Christ in prayer that if I was making a mistake by leaving Catholicism, that I would trust in His mercy, because the reason I was leaving was to know Him, and not to lose Him.
Feser faults me for not offering a rational case for becoming Orthodox. Well, I’m not an apologist. You can find plenty of those arguments online. I tell my story. I am pretty certain that if I had remained Catholic under those conditions back then, I would not today be a Christian of any sort. That’s how serious the crisis was. That’s what moved me so much about Skojec’s latest. Here is a man who is on the verge of losing Jesus. If he has to leave the Catholic Church to hold onto, or to discover Jesus, then he should do it. In my case, the combination of the Catholic Church’s brokenness and my own brokenness created and unbridgeable chasm between myself and the Catholic Church. I didn’t love it anymore. I was coming to hate it as nothing but a source of torment. No philosophical arguments from learned men like Ed Feser could have kept me inside. It was destroying me spiritually. This was a very bad time for me, and like an animal caught in a trap, I would have chewed my leg off to escape. Perhaps Ed Feser has never suffered a dark night of the soul like that. I hope he never does.