The Stakes In The Catholic Crisis
Readers, this e-mail came in on Sunday. I share it with you with the permission of the author, though I’ve edited it slightly to obscure his location, to protect his privacy:
My name is [deleted] and I live in [deleted]. I am 27 years old. I was brought up as an Evangelical. After a few years of wandering and post-graduation from college, I converted to Roman Catholicism in 2016.
No one (and I do mean NO ONE) in my family is Catholic let alone church goers, or even religious. But I, all of my life, I have been on a deep, relentless search for God. In my early twenties I would say I was “searching” for truth, now in my late twenties I would say that search has shifted to a pursuit of peace. Peace in a world of Trump and abuse scandals and the failure to recognize and repent.
After my conversion things began to go a little left. I watched the movie Spotlight with Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton. One word: devastated. How, I wondered, how is it that I went through the entire RCIA process and this was never brought up or mentioned? I was hurt and angry. I knew that the 2002 abuse scandals were terrible but I had no idea they were this terrible.
The shift away had begun, but I am a fighter so I would keep on fighting. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt sometimes for a very long time. I went on a pilgrimage sponsored by my local seminary for men who were interested in exploring a possible vocation. On that trip, I discovered Saints and people who were extremely devout. The men with me on the Pilgrimage were dyed-in-the-wool Catholics from the cradle. I was a convert. They were fascinated. I thought, perhaps, I wanted to be a priest after the high of the Pilgrimage. But I was told by the priest accompanying the Pilgrimage and by the Bishop, no, no you don’t. You are new to the faith, we need to see if you will actually stick around. That’s odd, you’d think they’d be excited and jump at the chance, I thought.
When we came back to the U.S. I decided to do Spiritual Direction with a Jesuit priest. At first it was good. Then things began to turn. I am, by nature, a scrupulous person. Even in my childhood as an Evangelical, scrupulosity followed me but now it was amped up to overdrive. What counted as mortal sin? Sins against chastity, sins against charity, sins against the self all these things will damn you to an eternity of hell if died un-confessed. After about a year (in May of last year) I discontinued my meetings with the priest. Fr. K was a good man, kind and didn’t focus as hard as I did on the scrupulosity but the conservative voices in my ears (the young men from the seminary I had done the Pilgrimage with) and the more conservative priests in the Archdiocese were buzzing and my head was full of voices.
I stopped going to Mass because the cycle was too much, I was driving myself crazy. Confession once a week, sometimes more than that. I wasn’t praying, wasn’t reading God’s word, started living a thoroughly secular life. Afraid of hell. And then one day I had a conversation with one of the young seminarian men who I was on the trip with. He told me point blank I was going to hell because I had missed Mass that Sunday. I remember just sitting in disbelief. What? What did he just say? God was going to condemn me because I missed church? He’s sitting in glory with his divine clipboard and pen checking my church attendance?
I was in disbelief at his arrogance and the “high-and-mighty” attitude he had but here we were; yet for some reason I did not give up on Catholicism. I kept thinking there is something good here… isn’t there?
Last summer I watched The Keepers on Netflix. I was deeply bothered again. What in the hell is going on? I remember saying. I watched it all the way through. Twice. I went to the priest who had initiated me into the Catholic Church. I needed to talk to him about the things I saw in The Keepers and in Spotlight. In light of what has happened recently, what happened between he and I in his office puts chills down my skin. “It’s all Hollywood.” He told me. “Those things,” he hissed “don’t happen anymore.” The level and air of defensiveness was incredible. What are you hiding? I thought.
“I need to set you up with a friend of mine. He is a young man about your age at [the local seminary] and he is staying with me this summer at the rectory.” I agreed, naively to this arrangement. Perhaps, I thought, Fr. Y was right, perhaps it is all Hollywood and I am making things worse that aren’t really that bad after all. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
The young man, we’ll call him Dean for the sake of this email, was about my age, middle twenties. Very handsome guy, very smart. I thought at the time (and of course I have no evidence for my theory) that he was being groomed by someone. He could recite answers from the Catholic textbook. He told me I was wrong about my suspicions, again, that these things don’t happen anymore. We spent sometime together but not much that summer and when he returned to his seminary studies in the fall he discarded me and we did not speak again.
I thought I would try a different kind of Catholic church in my search for truth. Perhaps I ought to swing away from the conservatives and be like Dorothy Day and try a more “liberal” approach to Catholicism. We have a Jesuit church here, and I remembered the kindness of Fr. K and decided to go there. What I uncovered there, again, in light of recent events, is bone chilling. There were several actively gay couples at the Jesuit church, even one of the assistant priests was actively gay. Hidden, quiet, but there. I remember thinking, my God, does the bishop know you are here? I am sure he does.
I become friends with a gay couple who attended that church. The level of filth and sin I encountered there I had a hard time comprehending. The couple who at first were nice to me eventually tried to seduce me into their realm of darkness. I wanted absolutely no part in that. I had zero tolerance for that. I wanted truth and peace, not propositions to sin. I left the Jesuit church with zero intentions of returning. I have not been back since.
These are snapshots of what has brought me to the present day. I have left out certain things, like the breaking of one of my closest Catholic friendships or how all the conservative Catholics I knew deserted me at some point or another. When the news broke about McCarrick and Pennsylvania it did not surprise me. I have seen this corruption. It is everywhere. It is here in my city whether people want to believe it or not.
On the Wednesday the news of the scandal broke last month I decided to go to Mass for the first time in months. It was the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. A Holy Day of Obligation. I wanted to hear personally from the rector of the Cathedral addressing this breaking news in his homily, on this day above all others. He did not show. His assistant priest did not show. Instead an elderly priest in his late eighties hobbled out from behind a door and began a Mass that was terrible. I left at the communion since I couldn’t take it anyway because of my mortal sins which keep me from the table. I would have rather had my nails pulled out by the root then sit through that Mass again. There were only about seven of us who attended that Mass, moved to a side chapel off of the main Cathedral. The holiest part of the whole thing was the homeless man I sat next to who reeked of urine. Perhaps the godliest thing presented to my senses that evening.
What surprises me the most is seeing once again, the lack of recognition and repentance. A good example of this, Fr. Mike Schmitz of YouTube fame has put out twovideos in the last two weeks about the “new” scandal and he treats it like little sins. Minute, tiny things that have happened. “It’s no time to leave the church now!” he expresses, like Bishop Barron “Now is the time to fight!” I wish I could believe them but I just don’t. These aren’t little sins, guys. These are the stories of people who were destroyed. Like the young man so brutally raped he had his spine broken. These are not little sins and I am not fighting for men who destroy lives.
Last week I went to confession for the first time in months. I don’t know why. The benefit of the doubt in me. The one last chance. The priest was around my age, 27-30. Gave me the same sentiments as Fr. Mike and Bishop Barron but added, if Judas caused a scandal and people followed Judas will you also follow Judas and leave the church? A weak argument. A scare-tactic argument. This isn’t about Judas. This is about victims who you refuse to acknowledge and sins so grievous that you close your eyes to, yet somehow you justify yourselves over and over again and yet refuse justice to those who are crying out for it.
I don’t want to go back to confession, or Mass, or exposition of the Holy Eucharist. Even if they clean it all up, defrock them all, change the church. I don’t want to go back. Burn after burn after burn. They take no responsibility and do not care. I am waiting for more “Pennsylvania reports” from around the country.
I have not seen the videos to which he refers in this letter, so I don’t know at all if I would agree with his characterization of them. The young man who wrote this letter is a reader of this blog, and could use your prayers, and advice. I sent this text to a solid young Catholic priest I know, who was headed out for a week-long spiritual retreat when he received it. He wrote back to say that he had printed out this e-mail, and would be praying all week for its author. He added:
There are only two ways out of this: atheism or holiness.
By which he means this crisis is so acute that either one loses faith, or becomes purified by this trial by fire.
The author of this e-mail tells me in a follow-up e-mail that he has not lost faith in Christ, but is still searching. I share his e-mail with you not to discourage anybody, but because it puts a human face on the crisis. This is not merely a story of senior churchmen fighting, a clash of ideological foes within the Catholic Church, a great strategic game, or some petty thing that we argue over in the comments boxes of a blog. This is a story about all those things, at some level, but above all, it’s a story about frail human beings whose names will never appear in the newspaper, struggling over the fate of their eternal souls.
These are the stakes. Pray for this young man, and those like him. If you can offer any words of comfort or advice, please do. If you only want to tear him down, keep your own counsel.
UPDATE: For readers who don’t look at the comments thread, several people who have watched the videos by Bishop Barron and Father Schmitz dispute the way the reader above characterizes them. These readers say that the bishop and the priest take the scandal a lot more seriously than the young man above indicates. FYI.
UPDATE.2: An astonishing comment by reader Axxr:
Funny, I feel the opposite as your correspondent. And I shouldn’t.
I’ve had a strange few years after leaving academics and the life of a professor. After a life on the far left, I’ve become, somehow, very conservative, disillusioned with “progress” and “justice.”
More to the point, I’ve felt pulled in the direction of Catholicism. Which is inappropriate, because I still don’t believe and I’m not sure that I ever will. Yet I attend mass semi-regularly, quiet in the back. I can’t stop reading the texts and histories of Christianity. I’ve asked several times whether I can convert and just be the atheist Catholic in the parish. Why? I don’t understand it myself.
And after this latest scandal, I feel double the pull, as if there’s a war on and I’m drawn to go and enlist. Whether I believe or not, I feel as though Catholicism must be saved, as though its continued critical mass (no pun intended) is the last, invisible, unacknowledged line of defense against something historic and terrible—and people who are willing to stand up against the current culture and who continue to believe in the anachronistic notion of integrity must go and man the pews and hold territory, hold the line, for everyone.
I’m rather confused myself, I suppose. I’m told it’s not quite appropriate that I try to convert to Catholicism as an atheist. And because I still believe in integrity, even if I don’t always perfectly practice it, I can’t bring myself to lie just to join.
But the pull is strong and getting stronger the more damage is done. And I’ll continue to attend mass to occupy space, to be some part of an important reality that can’t be allowed to fade.
What happens to the world if the worse things get, the more good people flee or simply concede, rather than fight? Nothing good, I think. My kids have to live in this world and in this country. It needs to not be a world or a country in which the values of Christianity have been, according to common wisdom, entirely discredited as nonsense that only the superstitious and repressed believe in any longer.
Meanwhile, I find myself trying very hard to believe, pushing hard on the “In” door while others are pushing to get out.