This points to the idea that, on another level, our present crisis is really one of consciousness. When faith suddenly “drops out,” an abscess forms in our self-perception. We find that faith isn’t so much something we “have,” but something that shapes and even creates the “I” we inhabit.
Losing faith doesn’t mean that the propositions of faith no longer make sense to us—that Jesus is the Son of God, or that Mary is the immaculate virgin mother of God. Losing faith means that these propositions no longer help to form our perspectives on other propositions: e.g., that belief in divine causes is more sane than reductive materialism, or that the Church is a culturally important, even indispensable institution.
This epistemological rupture is nothing new. Great thinkers have seen it coming for decades; it’s part of a global trend away from tradition and institutions in favor of modern isolationism and radical autonomy. Although, I think it’s safe to say, the present dimensions and scale could hardly have been predicted exactly.
On the other hand, replacing faith with something better invariably means to replace it with politics—either Church politics or secular politics. Politics can easily fill the abscess left by a loss of faith, since it also creates and shapes our “I” in powerful ways. For most of us, playing Church politics is far worse than secular politics, since it viciously misrepresents the degree to which faith, itself, is lacking. Politics as a replacement to faith is a type of motivated reasoning that is both naturally and emotionally unfulfilling.
I hope Haines will expand on the insights in this post, because I think he’s only touched briefly on something critically important, not just to Catholics, but to all believers. Yesterday I received a purplish e-mail of rebuke from a Rad Trad Catholic priest, a letter that was so over the top that I literally laughed out loud a couple of paragraphs in.
Turns out that priest, Richard Munkelt, published the letter in The Remnant, a Rad Trad biweekly. The editor, Michael J. Matt, writes, presumably with a straight face:
We are publishing it not because we have some personal animus against Mr. Dreher, who left the Church over the clerical scandals, but rather because we seek his return to the fold, while encouraging others not to follow the dangerous and misguided path he’s taken.
Oh brother. He seeks my return to the fold the way the Saudi Crown Prince sought Jamal Khashoggi’s fraternal return to Riyadh. I do urge you to read the whole thing. I had only read the introductory couple of paragraphs, burst out laughing, and sent a supercilious reply. I didn’t realize Munkelt was publishing his e-mail to me publicly. Here’s the reply I sent to him Tuesday night:
Pater, I must apologize, but I have not yet made it past the first paragraph of your welcome epistle. Overcome as I was by the evangelical joy — indeed giddiness! — that I have always associated with the name “Munkelt,” I had to drop everything to write you straightaway. In your abundant charity, please send me a photo of yourself so that I may gaze upon the face of charity, and perhaps be inspired to repent.
(I cribbed that last line from one of Robertson Davies’s letters to a similarly aggrieved reader.)
When a friend sent me the link to the Remnant version, I had to give the thing a read. Hoo boy. He takes himself seriously. It fully justifies the flippant reply. Munkelt’s epistle has a paradoxical effect: he seems to think that he was illuminating truth, when in fact his letter reads like an intelligent man deploying his intellectualism to build a fortress of syllogisms against the loss of faith. More on which in a second. But I can’t let a couple of things pass.
1) Catholic Moral Teaching? In the two articles in question, possibly the most astonishing statement you make is this: “More importantly, though, where are the other churches who allow in their teaching for the sexual molestation of minors?” [My emphasis.] In all my years of study in theology and in the history of the Church, this putative Catholic teaching permitting the molestation of minors has completely escaped me. To be frank, without a citation from an authoritative doctrinal source, and of course none can be found, your statement is not only evidence of your brazen malice, it is sinister.
He’s talking about this paragraph in a recent blog post of mine about “Catholic Triumphalism”, responding to something my friend Matthew Schmitz wrote:
This reflects a truth acknowledged by both Catholic and ex-Catholic alike. The Church proclaims a higher, more demanding teaching than any other religious assembly. Because Catholic aspirations are higher, Catholic sins are always more shocking. Corruptio optimi pessima – or as DH Lawrence put it, “The greater the love, the greater the trust, and the greater the peril, the greater the disaster.”
Wait … what? I trust that Schmitz doesn’t mean it this way, but this paragraph comes across as an extremely self-serving justification. For one thing, I dispute that Catholicism’s demands are higher or more demanding than the Orthodox Church’s. More importantly, though, where are the other churches who allow in their teaching for the sexual molestation of minors? There are none! The reason it was so shocking to find it in the Catholic is not because Catholics are on any exalted theological plane, but because the abuse was so systemic, because it was so widely known by bishops, and yet tolerated. Any church whose leadership recognized this problem within their clerical ranks, and who tolerated it so widely and for so long, would have brought about the same condemnation as the Catholic Church. It’s really self-flattering to say that the revulsion at the abuse scandal is a sign of the Catholic Church’s superior holiness.
A Catholic trad friend e-mailed me today upset about the quote Munkelt cited. I explained the context of the line, and why Munkelt has it completely wrong. I posted this update for the benefit of those who, misled by Munkelt, would draw the wrong conclusion:
[UPDATE: I understand that some people have misread a line in the above paragraph, thinking that I am saying that the Catholic Church permits sexual molestation of minors. I don’t believe that at all! My point is that no church permits that, so it’s misleading to claim, as I take Schmitz doing, that the Catholic Church asks something extraordinary of its clergy, which makes its failures more remarkable. To be clear: the Catholic Church does not permit the molestation of minors as part of its teaching … which means that it is on par with every other church. — RD]
Second, there’s this line:
And yours reek of self-justification for a horrendously ill-conceived defection. That is why, some years ago, I rejected your sordid effort to enlist me in your personal crusade against the Church.
Sordid, even! Golly. I was trying to recall what he was talking about, and searched my e-mail. On September 25, 2012, I sent Munkelt an e-mail asking if he would be willing to answer some questions about his time in the Society of St. John, a traditionalist order that turned out to be a homosexual cult. When Munkelt found out what was really going on with them, he did the right thing, and helped bring them down. Some conservative Catholics had come to me in 2012 with stories that people affiliated with the SSJ back in the early 2000s were trying to bring parts of it back. They asked me to write about it. I never did, but as part of my preliminary investigation, I wrote to Munkelt to ask him if I could talk to him about it.
My “sordid effort” to enlist Munkelt in my personal crusade was an interview request to talk about his SSJ days. He responded:
Nice to hear from you. Likewise I hope you are well. To be honest, I have no interest in revisiting the story of the SSJ. My testimony is a matter of record and that is where I will leave it.
Rather, I would much prefer to open a dialogue with you about a return to the fold of the Catholic Church.
And he went on from there to criticize the Orthodox Church. Fine by me — I’m not offended — but I wasn’t interested in talking to a Rad Trad priest about returning to the Catholic Church. That was the end of that. If that constitutes a “sordid effort” on my part in the padre’s imagination, I would suggest that Munkelt’s fiddleback chasuble is stitched way too tight.
Third, I want to respond to this:
“How many Aquinases and Chartreses are worth enduring a clerical class that systematically buggers boys and elevates dirty old men like the molester Ted McCarrick to the heights of spiritual authority within its ranks?” [Munkelt says, quoting me]
The context for that line of mine is the sentence that precedes it, which Munkelt did not quote:
Again, if you want to claim that the Roman church is more truthful than any other church, that’s a defensible claim (though not a plausible one to me). But better? Really?
The point I was trying to make is not that the Catholic Church is a false church — that’s a different argument — but that all its many glories may well appear as abstractions in the face of the horrific evil of child sex abuse and its toleration by the leaders of the institution. I was clearly not saying that “therefore, one should leave Catholicism,” but talking about how hollow Catholic triumphalism sounds to people who are living through this nightmare in their lives. Munkelt continues, commenting on that line of mine:
Having warned of yellow journalism, this amazingly vulgar hyperbole speaks for itself and for you, not least because a young person stands a far greater chance of being abused by a parent or foster parent than by a priest. Shall we speak of systematic parental abuse and get rid of parenthood? That said, unlike yourself, a Catholic knows by the eternal promises of Christ that the Church will overcome this sad but contingent present moment in its history. Thus all the Church’s magnificent cultural and saintly output, which is not contingent but of her very nature, makes the endurance of the tares amongst her wheat eminently worthwhile. St. Paul himself knew scandals, heresies, schisms, and preached perseverance.
Etc, etc. Again, Munkelt draws from a post of mine that was a response to what I believed to be an unwarranted expression of Catholic triumphalism from my friend Matthew Schmitz, who graciously sent me an answer, and gave me permission to post it, which I did, with my own commentary. Check those out if you like.
I’m not going to bother with the rest of the Munkelt letter, but I encourage you to read it all, especially for the heavy breathing in the final two paragraphs. It’s self-parody, though as a big fan of Ignatius Reilly, I cherish this kind of rhetoric. I only wish the Reverend had called me a Mongoloid.
It’s sobering to think about how poor Catholic souls who approach Munkelt for consolation and help dealing with the scandal’s challenge to their own faith must be browbeaten and shamed by this grim man. I wouldn’t say that Munkelt is playing “Church politics,” in Haines’s sense of the term, but the brittleness and gracelessness of his response is striking. I was poking fun at his dourness when I joked about associating “evangelical joy” with the name “Munkelt.” I met him only once or twice, I think, and I freely concede that he was courageous in standing up to the SSJ. But Munkelt does not strike one as a man overburdened with either tenderness of heart or lightness of spirit.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my sad duty to inform you that Father Richard Munkelt, PhD, has no Elvis in him.
His kind of rigidity and turgid intellectualism is one reason that as a Catholic, I never could consider myself a traditionalist, though I really did try. Not all traditionalists are like him, certainly — some of my closest friends are traditionalists, and I love and admire them greatly — but I found cranky Munkeltish traditionalism to be insufferable.
Trads are hard done by in the Catholic Church, especially under this papacy, but it is hard to see that this priest’s kind of traditionalism is about much more than mastering the arguments, arranging one’s hates just-so, and pulling the longest, most mulish face in the room.
They have found the One True Faith, and boy, are they pissed off about it! Nothing makes a Father Munkelt happier than the feeling that he’s told off a Freemason, a Modernist, or some other kind of heretic, and earned plaudits from his fellow dyspeptic sectaries on the pages of their newsletters. When you reach the end of Munkelt’s diatribe, you imagine a quiver of delight rippling across his sweaty brow, and his valve opening like the foghorn of a freighter.
A friend e-mails about the Munkelt epistle:
I especially liked this line: “I aver that the truth is, Orthodoxy is singularly unable to confront the moral anarchy of liberalism because of its crypto-fideism and appalling disdain of the venerable Theory of Natural Law.”
Surely these people are doing everything they can to ensure that no one converts to Catholicism?
Oh come now, everybody knows that delivering a tongue-lashing to the crypto-fideists and beating people over the head with the Summa until they are shamed into submitting to the Pope (and maybe even to Christ) is the tried and true way of evangelism.
We could have endless fun with this, but there’s something spiritually serious here. This formulation of Haines’s, about church politics — “viciously misrepresents the degree to which faith, itself, is lacking” — brings the Munkelt letter to mind.
To be clear, I have no intention of judging the quality of Munkelt’s personal faith. I’m talking about the mentality he and his eggers-on display. Haines is really onto something when he says a loss of faith does not necessarily imply a failure of logic. It can mean that one think, “So what?” That is, the one who loses his faith doesn’t care if Catholicism (or whichever faith he has lost) is internally coherent, and has produced magnificent systematic theology, as well as beautiful art, music and architecture. If he no longer has faith, all of that is in vain. It’s like this:
The error intellectuals make is thinking that faith is primarily an argument.
Consider this story from the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger Wednesday. Here’s how it starts:
A second priest has been identified as an informant against a fellow priest accused of scamming parishioners. Now, he’s being moved by the Catholic Diocese of Jackson from the Starkville parish he tried to protect.
Sunday morning, the Rev. Rusty Vincent announced he was being reassigned from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville. He will be moved to Vicksburg in January. A priest from Madison, the Rev. Jason Johnston, will take over pastoral duties at St. Joe.
In 2017, Vincent went to Bishop Joseph Kopacz with concerns over finances at St. Joe and the Rev. Lenin Vargas. Both priests were assigned to the church. Vargas served as the pastor while Vincent served as the associate pastor.
According to a federal affidavit, Vargas knowingly devised schemes to obtain money by means of false and fraudulent pretense, through the use of wire communications. Four confidential informants are listed in the affidavit. Two of those four have now been identified as fellow priests. Former St. Joe pastor, the Rev. John Bohn, now pastor of St. Richard Catholic Church in Jackson, was the other.
I wrote here in praise of Father John Bohn’s courage and wisdom in not trusting his bishop to handle the matter, and going instead to the feds. Father Lenin Vargas is (allegedly) HIV-positive and was sent by the bishops to a Canadian facility that treats sex addicts. Bishop Kopacz and the diocese knew the truth about Father Vargas, but kept it from the people of the parish, even as Vargas scammed them all.
Now the people of the parish are really upset because it appears that the bishop is punishing a priest who tried to protect them from Vargas:
“Kopacz’s decision to reassign Father Rusty in the coming weeks only illustrates his lack of understanding or care with regard to the needs of our parish,” LaFleur said. “One of the few things that is providing my family with hope at this time is knowing that three of the confidential informants were priests. The assurance that there are still members of the clergy who are willing to stand up for and protect their parishioners when our bishop is not, is worth fighting for. In Father Rusty our parish has a priest with our best interest at heart and someone willing to protect us from deceit and coverups.”
So, what if you are an ordinary Catholic in that parish. As an American Catholic, you have had to endure one damnable thing after another since at least 2002, when the scandal broke nationwide. You have had to listen to your bishops promise that this time, for real, they’re fixing the problem. This past summer, you had to suffer through the ghastly McCarrick revelations, which included discovering how widely known the dirty old man’s predations were in the upper echelon of the Church. And you will have read about Archbishop Vigano’s stunning accusations about corruption — including homosexual corruption — at the highest levels in the Roman Curia, even in circles surrounding the Pope.
On top of that, you learn that your pastor is allegedly an HIV-positive sex maniac as well as a con man, and that your bishop knew about it three years ago, but told none of you. You find out that the other parish priest in residence did his best to protect you all by going to the authorities quietly — and that the same bishop who deceived all of you is punishing that priest by transferring him out.
Maybe you are having a dire crisis of faith. You go to Father Richard Munkelt, PhD, for advice. He starts swinging the saber of parental abuse statistics, the Church’s “magnificent cultural and saintly output,” the “venerable Theory of Natural Law,” and snicker-snacking at the sinister and sordid enemies of the Church.
Does it work to keep you Catholic? Really?
I’ll let my book The Benedict Option, much of which is based on the holy example of the Monks of Norcia, and which has become a phenomenon among conservative and traditionalist European Catholics searching for a way to hold on to their faith through the present and future trials, testify to what I, a fallen-away Catholic, am doing to encourage and strengthen the Catholic Church. And I will put Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s extraordinarily generous praise of the book in Rome this fall — he is the longtime personal secretary of Pope Benedict XVI — up against Munkelt’s mutterings. Tens of thousands of Catholic book buyers — including the conservative Cardinal Archbishop of Genoa, who bought a copy for each of his priests, and who invited me to speak there — have a much better grasp on my high regard for the Catholic Church than does troubled Father Munkelt.
There’s one more thing. A year or two ago, the Monks of Norcia asked me to speak at an event for them in Dallas, as they were trying to raise money to rebuild their monastery. I told them it would be my great honor to do so. They offered me a fee. I refused it, and told them to apply it to the monastery project. They had done so much for me already; this was the least I could do for them. (They ended up sending me a case of Birra Nursia anyway.)
Before the speech, Father Richard Munkelt intervened to attempt to have me removed as a speaker at the fundraiser. A kind bishop, who may not want his name brought into this controversy, advised the monks to keep me on the schedule. I gave a talk about what God is doing for the world through the monks of Norcia, and how important they are to all of us. Despite the efforts of the Rev. Munkelt, we raised around $100,000 that night for the mission of the Norcia monks, and to rebuild their monastery destroyed by the earthquake.
On the other hand, the Reverend did delight a few fans in the comments section of his Remnant piece, and even got the moderator to compare me to Freemasons and Wiccans. Nope, nothing crackpot about those folks at all. Not a thing there viciously misrepresenting the degree to which faith, itself, is lacking.
I am not planning to return to Catholicism. My dear friends the Monks of Norcia, as well as Marco Sermarini, Giovanni Zennaro, and others have told me that they are praying for me to change my mind. I take their prayers as they intend it: as an act of love. If I ever were to come back to the Church of Rome, it would be because of their steadfast love, faith, and friendship. And it would be in spite of the Richard Munkelts of the Church, who do more harm to Catholicism’s witness than they can possibly grasp.
UPDATE: I removed from this post a critical comment about Munkelt once made to me by a trad who has long known him. On reflection, I have no way of knowing if what the trad claims Munkelt said were truly words he uttered, and so I withdraw the remark, and apologize for repeating it.