The Deadly Power Of Ideology
I’m at a conference this weekend, with a bunch of academics. I spent a couple of rich hours tonight talking with old friends who teach at Christian colleges. I wish — do I ever wish! — that most of you could have been sitting in on this. These are professors who are on the front lines, and what they report ought to blast to smithereens the complacent piety of most older American Christians.
Pornography is destroying a generation. It really is. One of the profs told me that his female students can’t get dates. Young men aren’t interested in relationships. Those who do ask women out tell them at the outset that they (the women) have to be cool with their pornography habits. From what I gathered, we are dealing with a generation of males who are failing to become men. Slavery to sensory input from screens — porn and video games — is keeping them stuck at around age 14. These are young males who attend conservative Christian colleges. This is a problem so far beyond our usual categories that we can scarcely comprehend it.
We talked also about how wokeness is conquering even conservative Christian colleges. I like to think that I’m well informed about this stuff, but even I am shockable. I said to one Evangelical college prof, “Most Catholic colleges are already lost. I get the idea that a lot of conservative Evangelical colleges are headed in the same direction.”
Said this man, “Yes. We’re rushing in that direction.” Agreement all around the table.
I won’t give details, because I don’t want to risk outing these professors. But trust me, this is everywhere. Pronouns, gender ideology, all of it. Being at a Christian school, even one whose identity is conservative, is no guarantee of anything. I’m serious. One of the professors I talked to had recently seen the Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life, about the anti-Nazi Christian martyr Franz Jägerstätter, which I saw this week, and absolutely adored. He too was blown away by the power of this film. We talked about how it was that Franz was the only one in his Christian village who understood exactly who Hitler was, and what Nazism was, and found the vision to grasp that, and to resist — even paying with his own life.
All of us talked about how difficult it is to read the times, and to resist the pressure to conform. You may be certain that even people who consider themselves devout, as did surely the people of Franz’s village, succumb to ideology. A different professor told me that his college’s senior administrators are good people, and faithful people, but they are blind to the power and the nature of ideology. They want to believe the best about others, a disposition that leaves them completely vulnerable to the attacks on the Christian core of the institution.
We talked further about how pervasive this is in churches too. I mentioned the recent case I highlighted on this blog, about an Orthodox parish priest who published an essay stating his “strong conviction” that the Church ought to bless gay Orthodox committing to each other as couples, and keeping their sex lives within those committed partnerships. This caused a big uproar — I wrote about it here, here, and here — and ended up with his bishop correcting him, and causing him to retract what he wrote.
Since I wrote about this case, I have received some highly critical e-mails from fellow Orthodox Christians who know the priest, and who are upset with me for being too hard on him. I don’t believe at all that I was too hard on this priest. You publish a scandalous opinion about a vital issue in the life of the church in One of the critics, himself a priest, said that the priest I criticized really had gone too far, and was imprudent in publishing. But, he said, a lot of the rhetoric attacking the priest was alarmist and vicious — I got the sense he included my writing in this criticism — and that the laity ought to calm down and trust the hierarchy to handle it.
Surely this priest is correct about the overheated rhetoric you see from Very Online Orthodox. I don’t read Orthodox blogs, because I can’t stand that kind of talk. It never leads anywhere good. It’s real easy for Christians of all kinds to cut loose behind the veil of anonymity with rhetoric they would never say publicly under their own names.
That said, in the main, I strongly disagree with this priest. I think there is a fundamental, and critical, failure on the part of many good-hearted clergy and laity to understand the nature and the seriousness of the crisis. It is not only about LGBT issues, no question, but LGBT issues are the sharp tip of the spear. I strongly believe that there are plenty of decent, fair-minded people who simply do not understand the power of ideology, and what it’s doing to the faith.
Forgive me, but I need to digress here. It’s important.
The Orthodox Church in this country has lots of converts who found came to Orthodoxy after being burned out in churches that have surrendered to modernity in a number of ways, particularly on sexual teaching — and most especially on homosexuality. I wrote earlier in this space that I found Orthodoxy after I my Catholic faith had been shattered by covering the sexual abuse scandal within Catholicism. The unwillingness of bishops, and many priests, to deal honestly and forthrightly with sexual corruption — not just abuse, but sexual misconduct — among the clergy, and to confront the sexual disorder among the laity, was extremely discouraging to me. Eventually it led me to quit believing in the ecclesiological claims Catholicism made for itself. I didn’t come to Orthodoxy because it was orthodox on sexual morality — if that’s the only reason you go to a church, there are others you can go to that are less demanding in other ways, and certainly less alien to mainstream American life — but that was the catalyst that got me going on the journey into Orthodoxy. As painful as it was to lose my Catholic faith (and no kidding, it was the most painful experience of my life, and I say that as someone who has buried his sister and his father, and gone through a lot of suffering in other ways), I give thanks to God for it, because of the way He allowed me to be crushed, and to have my intellectual pride broken. Because of that shipwreck of my spiritual life, I found Christ in the Orthodox faith, and it changed me for the better.
When I became Orthodox, I did not come in with the idea that there was any church in which one could escape the brokenness and sinfulness of the world. I certainly did not come in thinking that the institutional Orthodox church would be without problems. One wound I will always carry with me is the inability to fully trust the episcopate to do the right thing. I’m not proud of that, nor am I ashamed of that. It’s just there. It’s wisdom, if wisdom it is, born of hard experience.
I came into the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) in 2006, a time when the church was beset by a long-term administrative crisis, mostly having to do with money, as I recall. The problems were clearly recognized, but the Synod (the bishops, together) was unable to reform itself. At the time, I remember telling other Orthodox that they were lucky that the Church’s problems had to do with money, not sex. But I came to see that the fact that the bishops could not or would not fix what was broken was taking a real toll on the laity. I won’t recount all that drama — a drama that I allowed myself to be drawn into, as an activist, taking a role I later regretted, for reasons that don’t bear discussing. The point I want to make here is simply that clericalism — the idea that the clergy knows better, and that the laity should behave with docility and trust — is present in all churches, and is destructive, whether or not that destruction takes the form of tolerating sexual corruption, financial corruption, or what have you.
Read this short piece by the Catholic priest Raymond de Souza, titled, “We used to believe the bishops told the truth. What happened?” Excerpt:
It is not hard to find priests – to say nothing of journalists – who are inclined not to believe anything their bishops say without corroboration. And bishops know it, which is why reviews of diocesan files are entrusted to law firms, or retired judges, or former law enforcement personnel.
Any data provided by a bishop is suspect without independent verification.
Because the Catholic bishops, and those who served them, lied. And they lied. And they kept lying. They lied to protect themselves, they lied to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church. They just lied. Many of them don’t know how not to lie. More de Souza:
In October, journalist Sandro Magister asked at a Vatican press conference about prostrations in regard to the “Pachamama” in the Vatican Gardens. Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, insisted that there were no “prostrations”, despite his own department providing video footage of same. His deputy at the press conference applauded his denial, giving the whole affair a rather Soviet feel. Magister promptly pointed out that Ruffini had “inexplicably denied” the direct evidence contained in the footage.
Not all bishops are liars, heaven knows, but in the Year of Our Lord 2020, you would have to be a stone-cold fool to trust what a bishop or the institution tells you at face value. This is a problem that has been most acute in the Catholic Church, but only the terminally naive think that it’s a problem limited to the Catholic Church. It’s how institutions work. The Orthodox hierarchy (and every church’s hierarchy) may be honest and upright and even holy, but they live and move and have their ministry in a world where people have become deeply mistrustful of authority, especially religious authority. It is not the fault of the good bishops and priests that this has happened, but they have to deal with it like everybody else. This is simply the reality of church life today. You do not get the benefit of the doubt as a clergyman.
To be clear, neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church are congregational polities. We are hierarchical churches, and always will be, and always should be. We believe that’s how Christ ordered the Church. The problem with clericalism is that it allows people, both clerics and laity who adhere to it, to think that the Church is the clergy, and that the laity are in some sense second-class citizens whose job it is to be quiet and let the clergy do what it wants to do. Obedience to lawful authority is what is required of us — I don’t question that — but it is no virtue to be silent when priests and hierarchs are failing to teach and uphold right belief and right practice. In fact, it’s a vice. We can err when we speak up hatefully, or in some other disordered way, but we also err if we fail to speak up at all.
I’m sorry to be so personal here, but this is something I learned the hard way, and I’m not about to yield on it.
There is a such thing as prudence. For example, like more than a few Orthodox, I am aware of a situation in which the pastor of a large Orthodox church is living in a scandalous sexual situation with another man, a cleric. Their bishop cannot possibly be in the dark about it. Churchmen who are much closer to the situation than I am have said to me that they can’t understand why the local bishop won’t act. Me neither — but that hot mess is not in my diocese, I have no direct knowledge of it, and to the best of my understanding, neither gay cleric has publicly advocated for something heretical. If I was in that congregation, or diocese, I would feel more obliged to find out the facts, and then act. But I don’t, so I don’t. Again, prudence is required for these things.
But prudence is not a synonym for quietism. Progressive priests and others who want to change the church in damaging ways count on the docility of conservative laity and conflict-averse bishops to get their agenda through. The churches today are being overwhelmed by ideology: gender ideology, the ideology of Niceness, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and so forth. The old ways of leading churches, and conducting church business, are as effective in the face of this ideological blitzkrieg as the Polish cavalry was in the face of the Wehrmacht. To switch the metaphor, we are being served poison, and being told by tone-policemen that it’s rude to complain too loudly about the meal.
As I said, lots of us converts in the Orthodox Church came out of churches broken by heretical teachings that were either promoted by bishops, priests, pastors and others in authority, or that went unchallenged by those in authority. Especially on homosexuality. We have seen with our own eyes what happens when heterodox activists, both clerical and lay, establish a beachhead within institutions of the Church — and we are not going to stay silent while the same thing happens to the Orthodox Church. There are cradle Orthodox who have watched this same thing happen to the Catholic Church, and to a number of Protestant churches, and who understand that if they’re going to protect the Orthodox faith, they cannot let the same thing happen here. We live in a time and place where defending Christian orthodoxy on this issue is increasingly unpopular. Still, we have to do it. As Kierkegaard said, Christ does not want admirers; he wants followers.
I had an e-mail exchange with a parishioner of the priest whose pro-gay coupling essay I criticized, who reprimanded me respectfully but harshly for writing about the case and, in his view, hurting the priest without having phoned him first and tried to talk it out. The parishioner said that I ought to have hosted a podcast or YouTube chat with the priest to talk about his opinion here. I reject this view. In fact, I don’t even comprehend what he’s saying. I had no intention of causing personal pain to this priest, heaven knows. But for one thing, I don’t believe that there is any fruitful dialogue to be had about his proposal (and in fact, “dialogue” is a wedge strategy for pro-LGBT activists, as we have seen for decades now in the experiences of other churches). For another, if someone publishes an essay in a newspaper or online, they are by that fact offering it up for public discussion, including critique. None of you readers owe me a phone call or e-mail to talk over this column or anything else I write before you critique it. That’s just not how it works. You do owe me the respect not to misrepresent my words intentionally, but beyond that, I have no right to expect you not to criticize my words if you believe that I am wrong. If I don’t agree, then I shouldn’t publish. We are grown men and women here, are we not?
A different reader, an Orthodox priest, wrote to say that we Western people in Orthodoxy are not very well practiced in dealing respectfully with authorities who disappoint. Oh, man, straight fire from me on that. Again, I fully agree with the priest that ugly, hateful rhetoric has no place in these debates. But if being very well practiced means mewling docility while priests and bishops allow the faith to be traduced in consequential ways, then bully for clumsy, rude barbarians.
It has taken the conservative Catholic laity a long time, and a lot of suffering, to wake up, but it’s starting to happen in some places, though the dissent has become so entrenched that many bishops don’t even try to discipline their flocks (for example, you will never see Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York say boo to Father James Martin, the pro-LGBT Jesuit activist). Is this what we want to see in American Orthodoxy? If not, then speak up without fear. Do it without being insulting, vicious, or cruel, and do it as charitably as you can manage — but by all means do it. It’s important. This is the future of our children, and their children, that we’re talking about. Managing for moral and theological decline is not an acceptable leadership strategy from the Church’s ruling class.
I have been critical in this space of some of George Weigel’s writing, but when he’s right, he’s right. In his most recent piece for First Things, Weigel writes:
Is there a single example, anywhere, of a local Church where a frantic effort to catch up with 21st-century secularism and its worship of the new trinity (Me, Myself, and I) has led to an evangelical renaissance—to a wave of conversions to Christ? Is there a single circumstance in which Catholicism’s uncritical embrace of “the times” has led to a rebirth of decency and nobility in culture? Or to a less polarized politics? If so, it’s a remarkably well-hidden accomplishment.
There is, however, evidence that the offer of friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ as the pathway to a more humane future gets traction.
Shortly after last October’s Great Pachamama Flap, I got a bracing e-mail from a missionary priest in West Africa. After expressing condolences for my “recent Roman penance” at the Amazonian Synod (which had featured a lot of politically-correct chatter about the ecological sensitivity of indigenous religions), my friend related an instructive story:
You’ll be happy to know that last year, when one of our villages invited me to come and help them destroy their idols and baptize their chief, we did not, before doing so, engage in any “dialogue with the spirits,” as was so highly praised in the [synod’s working document]. There was no Tiber to throw [the idols] in, so a sledgehammer and a fire had to suffice. Somehow the village managed to survive without such a dialogue, and in fact they have invited me back . . . to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the great event, and to bless a cross that will be set up in the village as a permanent reminder of their decision.Three weeks ago, the local archbishop wrote those same villagers, telling them of his “immense joy” that, the year before, they had “turned away from idols in order to turn resolutely to the Living and True God. . . . You have recognized in Jesus Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Open wide your hearts to him . . . and always conquer evil with good.”
The world is on fire. You might think that these new ideologies are the endearing product of warming hearts, but they are coming from the flames that are consuming the faith. We need fewer admirers — of the system, of the process, of sweetness and light — and more Franz Jägerstätters: Christians who know what the Truth is, and Whose they are, and who are not willing to succumb to the spirit of the age, or tolerate it in the Church. For if we lose the Church, where will we stand?
Last night I received an e-mail from a reader in Australia who lived in Czechoslovakia under communism, and had experience with the underground church there. He recalls:
I look forward to reading your book on the Slovak underground. It is a story that deserves to be told. There was a hunger for God when I was there which I attributed in no small part to the enormous disillusionment with communism. Disillusionment with materialism may take another couple of generations. The Church in those times offered people an alternative worldview. My young Catholic friends in the university, in particular, demonstrated great courage and faith.
This. This right here is what we need: what the underground church of Slovakia had. We don’t need a Christianity that merely baptizes the post-Christian status quo. To hell with that.