An honest and heartfelt exchange with a friend who feels that I’ve changed

Joe Grabowski writes (echoing similar letters from other friends and acquaintances I’ve gotten):

I’m writing as an admirer, as a brother in Christ, as one like-minded to you even in so many of those issues which are left up to the prudential judgement of individual Catholics, and as – I hope – a friend. I am writing in a spirit of fraternal correction and out of genuine concern, and with no malicious intent.

I wondered how I might put this in the shortest and most frank way. I thought I might say, “You need to calm down,” or something along that order. But in the end, I realize I don’t know what you need; I’m not here to offer prescription, or even, as it were, diagnosis. Rather, to point out symptoms of something – whatever it may be – that maybe you can’t see. A story came to mind of this news anchor or somebody who was on TV at some point. And as I remember the story, somebody called in and told him “your throat seems to be getting swollen, you should get that checked.” And he did, and fortunately caught a growing tumor in its early stages. The point is, the thing had grown gradually enough that he, seeing himself in the mirror every day, didn’t see it. It took somebody a little removed to notice that he’d changed…

Well, you’ve changed.

I don’t think I need to tell you how much in sympathy I am with you on issues like the GOP’s moral inconsistency, with the conduct of the “culture wars,” with rhetoric pretending as Catholic discernment to lead people away from the guidance of the Magisterium on matters such as immigration, or war, or whatever else. I experience the same indignation and even rage you do about these things, I think.

However, I also believe – and you are, of course, free to disagree – that many of these issues have become matters of ideology. They’ve become systemic evils, and their roots run deep. And the upshot of that is that I believe a lot of people who fall into error in these matters are as much victims of circumstance and confused, poor souls as are, for example, the poor and disadvantaged that buy into the lies of Planned Parenthood.

The thing is – and forgive me that I must cut to the chase – I know many good people, genuinely good people, who are misled and mistaken and confused and sometimes seemingly invincibly ignorant, who have been hurt or offended by your increasingly ascerbic, inflammatory rhetoric and your painting with a broad brush. Frankly, I’ve been offended by it, too.

I could marshal a host of instances or case-in-point examples to my purpose here, but I don’t know that it would be particularly helpful.

I’ll take one example, though. I know people who intend to vote for Donald Trump. I think they’re wrong; I think they’re mistaken and misguided; I think they’re foolish even. But I also *know* them. And I know, therefore, that they aren’t bad; they aren’t evil; they aren’t even un-Christian; they aren’t racist, they aren’t xenophobic, they aren’t hawkish, they aren’t mean or greedy or even rude. They are, on the contrary, affable and generous and charitable and kind. They’re just confused; and, I think, they’re scared. They really do think that the nomination of Supreme Court Justice (for example) is a kind of “bottom line” in discernment. They’ve been poorly educated, I think, and they deserve to be corrected – but they don’t deserve to be maligned or stigmatized. They don’t deserve to be called names. They deserve charitable guidance, not snarky soundbites like “Trvly Trve Conservative” and all the rest.

It’s hurtful, it’s mean, it’s unproductive. And even for someone like me who substantially agrees with your *points*, that stuff simply becomes tiresome.

As I said, you’ve changed. You used to employ just enough of that sardonic edge to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. But now, at the risk of putting too fine a point, I think you’ve, well, gone too far.

I am offering all of this at the risk of our friendship; but I feel compelled. I offer it because I think you’re better than this. Not to sound too corny about it, but I think I could really put my sentiments thus, that I want the old Mark Shea back. The one who was an oasis of respite from the bitter feuding and internecine bullshit, a voice of sanity – and calm. And it’s that last point – the calm factor – that is the symptom I’ve seen in you. You’ve lost your calm.

But I don’t tell you to “calm down” simply – I don’t presume to prescribe. But I want to encourage you to examine where you might have lost it and what might underly the change. Are you happier than you were, say, five years ago? Maybe you are – and therefore maybe my point won’t land. But maybe you aren’t. And I know a lot has changed in the world since then, and all kind of external reasons could be to blame for that. But the Holy Spirit assures us joy and grace.

You have a gift for communicating truth to people; but I fear a lot of your communication of late has become graceless.

I hope this is taken in the spirit in which it is offered. I hope you’ll ask me to clarify, or challenge me on what you feel I might be missing. I hope you’ll forgive me any hurt this causes you, because I don’t intend any hurt, except maybe the medicinal hurt of tough love. I hope you’ll still find me a friend.

In any case, you’ll still be in my prayers, and enjoy my warm esteem.

God love you, Joe. Your note is well-taken. And you are perfectly right, of course. The last few years have been a huge trial for me–one that is not over. I write best when I’m writing for an audience that, though it may differ from me, has a genuine will to hear and understand the truth–to seek it together. When I first started writing, that was what I set out to do. I wrote because I loved watching the lights come on in people’s minds and hearts. And the people I wrote for described themselves as “faithful conservative Catholics”–what Peter Kreeft called “non-revisionist” Catholics. I took them at their word and assumed I had “come home”.

The past 15 years have been one long slow disillusionment which went into high gear with the election of Francis and the poisonous reaction of that whole subculture against him, now congealing into a mass of frightened, kill crazy racists running after the Golden Ass Trump. I’ve watched for *years* while the people who once were eager to hear the gospel have morphed into a people eager to battle the Church every time she says something they don’t like, who use the lamest sophistries to do it, and who consistently use the unborn as human shields and fig leaves for that project.

I am aware that many of them don’t realize they are repeating talking points they have been taught to parrot and I struggle, believe you me, to contain the frustration I feel when I hear the umpteenth iteration of “Police shootings don’t matter Because Abortion” or “Abortion is the *real* torture, not whatever happens to some Muslims” or “Unborn babies lives matter but Alton Sterling’s life had no value” (yes, a “prolife” guy said this to me the other day).

Times this by literally thousands of encounters. It grinds you down. You lose patience and you lose hope. These are the people you took to be the faithful remnant of the Church and it turns out they are consistently fighting the Church and regard the Magisterium as a threat–especially Francis. Meanwhile, I regard him as a gift and am heartsick at the warfare–open and naked, as well as subterranean and passive (like a tree burning at the roots)–that comes from one sector of the Church and one only: the people I trusted as “faithful Catholics”. It’s like a movie in which you discover the all-American family you were born into are Soviet spies. Extremely disorienting.

And the nomination of Trump has only kicked my frustration and stunned disbelief into higher gear. Not disbelief in the Faith, mind you. That is more solid than ever as I watch the Catholic Right lose its mind. But disbelief in the political subculture that has so deeply seduced conservative Catholics.

It has affected my writing, I know. I have felt more and more blocked and frustrated. More and more aware of how profoundly out of step I am with my peers. And no small part of that is due to the fact that there are deep mental and social “structures of sin”, as the Church calls them, that most on the right are completely unaware of. That’s why they see Francis as a threat and it is excruciatingly difficult for them to understand what he means on even the simplest points. His emphasis on income inequality is read through the lens of right-wing economic dogma, not through a prolife lens. They simply don’t get that our abortion rate is driven by poverty, which is the number one abortifacient in the US and the world. And so they habitually pit the unborn against this and keep demanding that we “keep the focus on abortion” when in fact they are keeping the focus on battling Francis’ advocacy for the poor and a living wage.

And that happens again and again. The biggest blind spot of that subculture is its perpetual habit of “keeping the focus on abortion” as, all the while, it in fact keeps the focus on fighting the Church on every right-wing culture of death talking point: unjust war, torture, gun violence, the death penalty, xenophobia, loathing even of celibate and chaste gays, war against the Church’s teaching on health care and the environment, and now excuses for the overt racism and misogyny of Donald Trump (see Reno’s recent piece in FT).

And as all that is going on, the message I get over and over about “bring back the old Mark Shea” sounds inexorably to me like “We really loved it back in the days that you told us how awesome it was that we converted and were God’s Special Chosen who (unlike those liberal CINOs) were truly faithful and righteous. Why don’t you tell us that anymore?”

That’s the bind I find myself in. I would love to be writing about the Faith again to an audience that feels like they want to hear about it. It was what made my work a joy back in the day. And, in fact, I am doing that still–but not with that subculture.

You know who my most intensely interested reader is in things Catholic? It’s a profane atheist leftist pro-abort feminist programmer living out in Brooklyn. She is sincerely eager to learn more. She’s reading Benedict and Chesterton earnestly and out of a real desire to understand. And the reason is that she was *stunned* to discover that there were Catholics who did not use the unborn as human shields for FOX News talking points. This was news to her, because she so rarely encounters it. It took her several months to really come to grips with the fact that there is such a thing as a Catholic Whole Life ethic.

Her experience is, alas, not a surprise to me since the normative position of “faithful Catholics” is rejection of the perfectly sensible Seamless Garment–which is to say, the actual real normative teaching of the Church. And the long term result of that disastrous commitment to battling the Church in the name of the unborn we now see in the nomination of Donald J. Trump.

So I find myself in the bizarre position of meeting Lefties who are genuinely interested in hearing what the Church has to say, all while having to explain to Righties that this does not make me ritually unclean for consorting with them in order to evangelize them. That too is a source of frustration since the goal is supposed to be evangelization, not maintaining ritual purity.  That conflict is, I believe, right at the heart of why Francis so offend what used to be a deeply evangelistic subculture in the Church.  They now seek a Fortress in which to remain safe from a world they fear while Francis has left the Fortress, flung open the door and is proclaim the joy of the gospel to the very people the subculture would pour boiling oil on before they let them into the Church.  It’s not merely that they think he evangelizes badly.  It that they want him to stop evangelizing lest riff raff get in and make life complicated.

Long and the short of it, I had a sort of breakthrough yesterday in which I realized that this has been the growing frustration as I wrote: I no longer felt as though I had an audience who wanted to hear the Church’s teaching in fullness. They wanted to hear me tell them they are awesome and righteous and the Remnant of the Faithful and they wanted to hear me tell them liberals and CINOs are the enemy, including Francis.

Meanwhile, my experience has increasingly been that the fields are white for harvest on the Left and that there are people, genuinely committed to the common good and (mark this) genuinely and legitimately *scandalized* by the hypocrisy and hostility to real goods by the now-thoroughly politicized Republican Rite Church. People of real good will, faithful to the gospel (or, if not baptized, open to the gospel), but who approach it from a very different perspective, often due to the accident of race or socio-economic class.

Some of them (like Mary Pezullo) have been beaten down from their previous easy identification with Republican Rite Catholicism by the grinding experience of humiliation and disdain (due to their poverty) from fellow Real Catholics. Others (particularly ardent prolife Catholics of color) have experienced the long slow disillusionment of watching “prolife” white conservative Catholics turn a blind eye to the oppression that they have to live with every day. In my own case, it was the quadruple punch of watching “faithful” Catholics go all in for unjust war, torture, adamant worship of the gun after Sandy Hook, and finally, the choice of Barabbas over Jesus when presented with the contrasting gospels of Donald Trump and Francis that convinced me I had to seek Jesus in a larger Catholic Church than the one presented me by “faithful conservative” Catholics.

I know my anger and frustration and confusion have shown in all this. It has been a constant subject of prayer and confession for me. And it is a source of grief for me as well. As I say, what I want to do is write about the Faith and see the lights come on in people. That’s why I’m corresponding with my Lefty atheist: cuz she wants to learn. And there are others who want to learn too. But alas, in the current hour, what I mostly find from my former audience is that they want to be told what their itching ears want to hear: that they are The Real Catholics. That liberals are CINOs. That their culture war enemies have nothing good to say or offer. And that they can ignore Francis and square the gospel with Right Wing Culture War dogmas.

I know a huge amount of that comes from fear and confusion too. And it’s this knowledge that keeps me able to hang on to pity and mercy when I run across people who tell me (and I quote) “There are a lot of lives that have no value” as they speak of their desire to snuff out minority lebens unwertesleben while hiding behind their Precious Feet pin. All they’ve ever known is 15 years of assurances that Limbaugh and FOX is the real Magisterium and they have had to try to cobble together a worldview from that and such shreds and patches of Catholic teaching as they could pick up from Wherever.

But at the same time, it’s hard because so much of what “conservative Catholics” now stand for is (to me) so transparently and obviously *wrong* (not just morally wrong, but factually and plainly wrong, like a bad math sum) that I become impatient at the mule-headed refusal to see the obvious. Just today, for instance, an adult person actually, seriously, wrote in response to Simcha Fisher’s remark that she appreciated Obama’s speech at the funeral for the Dallas police that he never listened to anything “Obama bin Laden” said.  When it was pointed out that Obama, you know, killed bin Laden, another adult person replied: “I don’t believe the big O “killed bin Laden”….he doesn’t like guns….. American Soldiers killed bin Laden…. though there is no evidence of the body but the governments promise….”

I’m fascinated by the proposition that killing bin Laden is good, therefore Obama could not have done it (because “he doesn’t like guns”), but honoring the troops is good, therefore they did it (apparently without Obama’s knowledge or approval) but troops acting without orders is bad, therefore Obama must have had a hand in it, therefore it probably never happened. The derangement caused by Obama hate is amazing.  Somehow the two greatest commandments for people who self-identify as “faithful conservative” Catholics have become “You shall hate Obama with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “You shall hate those who do not hate Obama as you hate Obama.”  Say even the smallest kind word about the man and you can sense that ten thousand pencils have quietly put your name down in ten thousand ledgers with a notation reading, “Vehemently suspect”.  It doesn’t matter that the reality is that Obama’s speech was perfectly reasonable and that he did, in fact, kill bin Laden and is not a Muslim terrorist.  You said something positive about Obama.  You want The Babies to die.

Again, Trump infectious capacity to induce complete denial of reality among his disciples is the archetype for this. This man is so visible-from-space vile he could be from Central Casting. It’s like watching a bad movie where the dumb young girl brings home the thug with the eyepatch and the scar and the tattoo and tells her parents that she is deeply in love while the thug is obviously casing the joint and planning to steal the family jewels. You’re thinking “Nobody could be *this* blind.” But the GOP (and lots “faithful Catholics”) plainly are.  All I can think of this:

So I don’t know what to do. And when I don’t know what to do, I try to return to my roots. So I’m carrying on my correspondence with people who want to hear what the Church teaches. In this case, it’s a lefty proabort from Brooklyn who is genuinely excited with Benedict and curious about GKC, of all things. And, of course, I wind up often obeying St. Flannery’s nostrum: “When people are deaf, you shout.”

None of this is to try to justify my sins of anger. They are real and I keep going back to the sacrament for them (just went again today). It’s more to say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” I don’t *like* myself very much these days. I wish I was a better man, but I’m just not. I keep praying for daylight and trusting that it will come. I think I got a piece of it yesterday and so will explore in that direction.

Meanwhile, thank you for your honest friendship. You are a good man and I hear the voice of love in what you say. That means a lot to me. Please pray for me and I will pray for you. God bless you, friend.

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