Full disclosure: I am a Protestant, and as such I am on the outside looking in on the past week’s stir in Catholic/ex-Catholic circles over the public spiritual wrestling of trad Catholic apologist Steve Skojec. While Steve hasn’t exited the faith or the Church, his raw outpouring has generated a wide range of responses. It’s a very long, very angry blog, weaving together specific grievances about Skojec’s current priest with his past history of getting burned in trad Catholic circles, including the cultish Legionaries of Christ. The final straw for him has been his priest’s choice to withhold the sacraments of baptism and communion from Skojec’s children, on what he regards as a frivolous basis.
Rod Dreher at The American Conservative was immediately and naturally sympathetic to Skojec’s cri de coeur, although he updated his initial piece with a counter-word from a mutual at Steve’s parish. By this person’s account, Steve isn’t giving a true picture of events and has mispresented their priest. Obviously, neither Rod nor I nor anyone else can speak to the actual facts of that matter on the ground. What is clear is that Skojec is undergoing a crisis of faith, whatever the mix of outer and self-inflicted causes for it.
Hoping to be of help, Dreher used the opportunity to share out of his own painful experience as a former bitter Catholic con:
Skojec’s essay made me realize that traditionalism is parasitic on corrupted modern Catholicism, which lives rent-free in their heads. To be fair, the brokenness of the Catholic Church today is so thorough and so deep that it’s hard for it not to focus on it all the time. The mistake I made, which I did not fully understand until I had lost my ability to believe as a Catholic, was that I had mistaken the Church for Christ himself. Instead of seeing the Church as a sign that pointed to Christ, I thought the Church — the institutional church — was the thing itself. It is important that I emphasize that this was my own fault; the error was mine. But it would be dishonest if I didn’t say that there are many in the Church, especially on the Catholic Right, which was my home for the 13 years I was a Catholic, who encourage that way of thinking.
Indeed, no less than Fr. Richard Neuhaus explicitly used Simon Peter’s “Where else shall we go?” line in reference to the Church in the wake of abuse bombshells, which played a pivotal role in driving Dreher out.
But “all-or-nothing-ism” isn’t unique to Catholicism. In some circles, specific interpretations like Young Earth creationism or the inerrancy of Scripture are given the exact same weight as core doctrines like the affirmation of Christ’s divinity, miraculous ministry, atonement and resurrection. Young evangelicals are taught that if they pull on a single thread like YEC, it will bring the whole inevitably crashing down. This is not to be confused with the significance of, e.g., a real Adam and Eve, which one can affirm without affirming the entire YEC frame. Indeed, while I’m not myself a fundamentalist, I’ve often found myself sticking up for fundamentalists when they raise reasonable concerns that are arrogantly dismissed by the guild. At the same time, as someone deeply concerned with the ongoing problem of deconversion, I recognize that for many young people in particular, the journey can begin with the sort of “all-or-nothing-ism” that Dreher encountered in its Catholic incarnation.
Skojec writes, “I have begged God to help me find my way through all this mess, to do the right thing, and to hold on to my faith, but I get no perceptible answer, and I don’t know where to go from here.” Dreher replies, “The Toxic Trad thing to do is to turn on a fellow Catholic who says that, and to treat them as heretic scum. But I read that essay and thought, ‘That poor brother in Christ, I know what that feels like.’” For Dreher, Orthodoxy provided the open window through which he was able to escape without losing Jesus. He’s not alone in this. Trad Catholic blogger Joseph Sciambra has been quietly signaling his own transition into Orthodoxy in the past year, broken and discouraged by the pervasive corruption even in the trad circles where he’d thought he would find a haven of rest after leaving the gay lifestyle. In a comment under Dreher’s followup piece, he writes, “Spent 20 years of my life in Latin Mass communities; like anywhere else – met wonderful people and some awful ones too. But finding shelter at the TLM is like moving to a ‘red’ state – if the USA begins to collapse, everyone will go down with it – unless individual states decide to breakaway. So goes Roman Catholicism. For a time, the TLM kept me in the Church – until I realized: different Mass, different priests, same old corrupt hierarchy.”
Dreher writes in that followup that his philosophy of deconversion has shifted over the years. In the past, he has typically tended to believe that the sorts of intellectual reasons people give are generally a cover for something deeper and more personal. But he doesn’t want to render this verdict in an uncompassionate way:
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.
He gives as an example a gay friend of a friend who was abused by a priest and now can’t so much as walk past a Catholic church without a gag reflex. Dreher believes God will be more merciful to him than to his molester on Judgment Day. All the intellectual arguments for Catholicism in the world feel beside the point in such a case. They don’t touch the fundamental, primal reality that this man can’t go back.
Conversely, Dreher makes the positive point that people may be initially drawn to the Church by factors besides the purely intellectual:
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.
“I think very few Christians of any confession are converted by apologetic argument,” Dreher goes on. The proper role of apologetics, in his opinion, is “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.”
Now, I might be able to provide more data than Dreher can of people for whom intellectual arguments for or against Christianity did in fact play a major causative role in their conversion/deconversion. I might also raise the concern that many people struggle to generate the sorts of “primary experiences” he points to, and that in fact the unsuccessful attempt to force such experiences can be itself a profound discouragement. People who struggle with autism disorders, for example, are not neurologically wired to feel a sense of emotional closeness with the intangible or the abstract. Pure logical reasoning can thus for them be a comfort and a lifeline when no other kind of connection can be made. Still, having said all that, I also have no problem acknowledging Dreher’s simple psycho-sociological point: that “a number of things that are non-propositional prepare us to receive the faith.” Further, I recognize and appreciate his care in not claiming that the beauty of Chartres in and of itself constitutes an indefeasible argument for Christianity—it simply provides a clue to the Something beyond.
That aside shows that Dreher is not simply writing as someone who thinks in emotional versus rational terms, which trad Catholic philosopher Ed Feser accuses him of in this response blog. Feser is not wholly unsympathetic, but he bluntly takes aim at Dreher’s “manifestly bad” judgment and labels him “muddleheaded.” Dreher’s guidance to Skojec is “contrary to reason,” Feser objects, because it makes no attempt to challenge Skojec on the propositional truth claims of Catholicism aside from personal factors. Presumably, if someone were considering an exit not just from Catholicism but from the whole Christian faith, Dreher would point to the many good reasons for continuing to accept the Christian truth claims. Feser concludes by anticipating the accusation that this is all too “bloodless and impersonal” by making it personal: To abandon the Church, he asserts, is tantamount to abandoning one’s mother when she is being assaulted on the street. It is a breaking of ties, an abandoning of loyalty. It is a betrayal.
Dreher replies to this comment in an Update to his second post. He first points out the obvious, which is that in fact there is more than one sort of reason to be skeptical of Catholicism, including intellectual reason, which Dreher also had even though he doesn’t take every opportunity to unpack it all. Even a fellow Catholic should be able to acknowledge that the case for papal infallibility or primacy is not on the same level as the case for pure theism, or even for Christianity writ large. (Dreher in fact says he didn’t think the case against primacy was “a slam-dunk” either.)
Moreover, since Feser apparently does still recognize Dreher as a fellow Christian, he should be more alive to the danger Dreher raises, that the man who is taught to build all his hope on the rock of one Church is at great risk of abandoning all churches. “I’m losing Jesus,” Dreher quotes his wife as tearfully saying when they were going through their crisis as a couple. If it takes falling out of love with the Church to stay in love with Jesus, it is far better that one stay in love with Jesus.
As someone with a background in philosophy and apologetics myself, I understand where Feser is coming from. He and Dreher simply have different lanes as writers—Feser in the analytical tradition, Dreher in the first-person confessional tradition. As such, they are inevitably going to highlight different things in their work. It’s understandable that Feser should be concerned to preserve a rigorous framework for justification of propositional truth claims. But the disanalogies between a Catholic deconversion and a full Christian deconversion are too significant for his specific argument to carry the force he seems to think it does. Moreover, arguments from abuse and hypocrisy in the Church weigh more heavily in a Catholic context where so much rides on the authority of the Magisterium and ultimately the pope himself. The fact that Francis himself has played an enabling role from the very top is a direct blow to the edifice of Catholic thought, not merely to the emotional confidence of faithful Catholics. And if Feser thinks that analogizing the Church to an earthly mother being mugged in the street is going to provide emotional support to such Catholics, he is gravely mistaken. I don’t doubt his sincerity. I just doubt his understanding of basic human psychology.
Now more than ever, it is important for Christians of all stripes to cultivate a thoughtful ecumenism that allows for inter-denominational movement within the bounds of little “o” orthodox Christianity. This does not mean we should stop talking about differences. (Indeed, as this very episode shows, our differences may matter a great deal.) But for my part, I will freely say that if a Protestant friend told me for him it was a choice between losing Jesus or joining the Catholic church, I would be grateful he had found a way to hold onto Jesus, even as I stood by my reasons for not affirming Catholicism. Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, if we insist on a binary choice between “Stay [X]” or “Become atheist,” where there are other little ‘o’ orthodox options Y and Z, we need to be prepared that a lot of people are going to take door two. That needn’t lead us to abandon our particular reasons for choosing X, but it should give us a sense of perspective. That kind of perspective is what Dreher is attempting to bring to the table here. It is not “muddleheaded” for him to do so. It is practical, perceptive and wise.
Whatever Skojec’s situation and whatever his trajectory, I hope it leads him to the doors of some church or other. It may not look like mine, but it’s better than no church at all.