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Let’s Clear the Air

The past week has really been a wild ride.

Last Tuesday, feeling I desperately needed to get some things off my chest, I published “Against Crippled Religion” at my tiny little Substack page, where I have been doing my more personal writing. I shared it a bunch of places and even linked to it from here, but I did not expect it to go viral. (It currently stands at 37,729 pageviews and counting, which is pretty ridiculous for a Substack that had only 400 subscribers when I wrote it.) I followed up last Thursday with “An Epidemic of Brokenness,” which also garnered a lot of interest. (If you haven’t read them, most of what follows won’t make sense.)

I can say without hesitation that in all my years of writing, I’ve never gotten so many comments, messages, and emails of support, never heard so many people say “me too” or that I had given voice to their own interior struggle. I sensed that it was important to speak up about my own battle, but I had no idea just how much deep pain I was tapping into. And it was from people across the Catholic spectrum, not just those within my relatively small traditionalist niche.

Thank you if you are one of those who reached out. You have opened my eyes to how deeply we have all been affected by the crisis in the Church – a crisis which resides largely within the clergy. (Don’t get me wrong – I’ve heard from a lot of priests who are feeling it too.)

I spent most of the past week replying to as many comments as I could. I spent a fair bit of time batting away critics too.

And then yesterday, I put all of that aside and went to the hospital with my wife, where our eighth child — our fifth son — was born. Meet Elijah Daniel Skojec, our late, surprise addition to our clan. He is perfect in the way that only a newborn can be, and holding him reduced me to tears of gratitude:

A lot of things are being put into perspective, but the dust is far from settled. All I know is that I have a brand new reason to keep striving, and he is precious to me.

So Let’s Clear the Air

I want to touch briefly on why I wrote the pieces I did. Since I didn’t write them here, but they have an effect here, this is where I want to address them.

But let me first clear up some confusion: I have not left the Catholic Church, nor have I stated my intention to do so. I merely said that I’m done being abused by the same Church I’ve spent my life fighting for. That I want to re-evaluate my beliefs with fresh eyes. I’m in the process of figuring out what that means for myself and my family. It could mean that we go Eastern Catholic, where there’s a lot more focus on mysticism than legalism, a lot less focus on the pope, and a lot of great people. It could mean that we go to a healthy TLM community where we can actually feel we belong. It could mean something else. I just know something needs to change, and I’m in the process of evaluating options.

I also said I’m done with traditionalism as an ideology and culture; I did not say I reject the Church’s traditional liturgy, sacraments, etc. I have been arguing far too persuasively for far too long that much of the post-conciliar Church represents a diminution of worship and teaching to simply go back to the Novus Ordo Catholicism of my youth. I still think an authentic, integrated embrace of Traditional worship, etc., is the healthiest (and most inevitable) future available for Roman Catholicism. My complaint is with the negative, purity spiraling, snarky, judgmental, toxic kind of traditionalism that is so popular in some sectors, and seems to be making a comeback even among the younger generations who are drawn to tradition. But I’m also aware that many good people with far more balanced views are finding their way to tradition every day, and they are bringing a more positive ethos to the situation. I’ve had the good pleasure to meet a number of them.

A lot of folks got distracted from my larger point about the problems in the clerical culture of the Church as well, because I spent time (perhaps more than I should have) talking about the anger I felt for being unjustly refused sacraments for my children — Baptism, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation — by my FSSP pastor. It’s hard not to focus on it, because it’s very upsetting, no matter which side of it you come down on. I only brought it up because for me, it was the last straw.

Lots of people who don’t know the intimate details of that situation decided to weigh in, to gossip, to attempt to judge, and so on. I’ve watched this stuff go on for days. It needs to be put to rest.

The long version of the story is tedious. I considered publishing all of the correspondence, since almost everything is in writing, but it’s at a level of detail nobody needs. I sent three emails to my pastor and two to his superior. Their replies, when I got them, were insufficient. But I didn’t just go public without attempting to get a reasonable answer through proper channels first.

The short version, for those still asking me to explain, is that after requesting in March (and multiple times thereafter) arrangements for sacraments scheduled for our forthcoming newborn and our 8-year-old, and getting no answers outside of a vague request for a meeting to “touch base” communicated through a secretary who could get no other information from the pastor, my wife received the following email last Friday:

Hi Jamie,

It’s unfortunate we could not schedule a meeting for Liam’s sacraments.   We will have to wait until next year for his sacraments.  I would highly suggest that you join the CCD program next year.  I would like to see both you and Steve at mass more often before giving the kids their sacraments.  I want to make sure that they are receiving a good Catholic upbringing. [emphasis added]

I found this incredibly insulting. There was never a conversation. There was never, despite repeated requests, an explanation of why a meeting was being requested, during the work/school day, when we live 50 minutes away and have a lot going on. We asked for that information – just as you would with anyone who requests a meeting you’re not expecting. We asked for a call to clear things up. We inquired about a zoom meeting, or an in-person meeting with just one of us. We got nothing from Father until that email, which came just days before the parish’s First Communion and Confirmation (they’re done together in this diocese) were scheduled. And the diocese only does confirmation every two years, so it was a big window being missed. If we leave the state, which we’ve been discussing, our son won’t be confirmed until he’s a teen. These graces being needlessly delayed may cause who knows how much more difficulty in a world where we need all we can get.

So why was I not “at Mass more often”? We observed the COVID dispensation early last year because we are the primary caregivers of my 88-year-old father in law who now lives with us full time. I also have comorbidities that had me sufficiently concerned to keep my distance throughout the past summer when even our pastor came down with COVID, as did some other friends who attend. During that time away, I came to realize that my own anger and frustration with the Church and with God over so much that is happening now and had happened previously in my life was deeper than I thought, making my relationship with the Church extremely difficult, and that I needed to work some things out before going back. I’ve been working through a lot of stuff I’ve never dealt with from my childhood, and this rose to the top.

When you’re in a bad relationship, sometimes you need some distance from the other person to figure things out. When you’re in a bad relationship with the Church, you’re not allowed to have that distance. Your Sunday obligation keeps you in a suffocating embrace, like a spouse who demands affection in the middle of a fight. It doesn’t matter how angry you are, it doesn’t matter that you find yourself rage-pacing outside during every homily. It doesn’t matter how disgusted you feel, or that you recognize that you don’t have any right to receive Communion until you’ve finished wrestling with what is eating you. It doesn’t even matter that your overcrowded church leaves you and your children stuck watching Mass on a television in the parish hall week after week for years before “livestreaming” was the norm, and you know it’s bad for your kids. You have to keep coming. Because those are the rules.

But for a brief time, the dispensation changed that. And I decided to quietly make the most of that opportunity to keep my distance licitly, to keep working through my problems, rather than make a rapid return. I looked for the most spiritually nourishing things I could find to watch or listen to on my Sundays — things I hoped would help me to overcome my growing feeling that none of it makes sense anymore. As I continued this process, my wife and kids returned to Mass around February of this year, and were there most Sundays thereafter. They received Communion from the pastor’s own hand – a clear indicator that his concerns over their status as Catholics was hardly grave enough to warrant this subsequent denial.

We acted within the law, but we were penalized outside of it. As I instructed my pastor, Canon 868 §1/2 says that “there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason.” To my knowledge, there’s nothing similar about a child receiving First Communion or Confirmation, but if there is, it’s certainly not more strict than the requirement for baptism.

If you, dear reader, believe the hope my children will be brought up Catholic is altogether lacking, I’d be very curious how you arrived there. But more to the point, I’d like to know how a pastor who has never had a real conversation with me about any alleged concern could have reached such a strict conclusion unilaterally.

Placing needless impediments upon the grace conferred by the sacraments to young children is something I will never understand. You’ve got to be pretty damn sure you’re dealing with an apostate who will teach his children to hate the Church to deprive them of those graces. Otherwise, the only reaction a priest should have to a family wanting their kids to receive sacraments should be eagerness to make it happen.

If you disagree with that, let’s just agree to stop talking about it. Maybe you’re right – maybe my anger is clouding my judgment. Maybe my bad experiences have pushed me to a point where I’m not seeing clearly.

But having gone over it as many times as I have in the past 8 days, I don’t think I was wrong to demand better. Nor do I believe it was wrong for me to fight back against sacraments being held hostage using the only leverage I have – my public platform. Most laity don’t have that, and they get bullied into submission when a priest pulls rank. So many have told me of similar stories that even if you don’t believe my “side of the story,”  I am far from alone in my experience.

I’m done being bullied and bossed around. I know my faith, and I know where the limits of authority lie. This was an overreach. I want others to reach the same conclusion. You’re not wrong to set reasonable boundaries. You’re not wrong to say no when you’re being treated this way. And it was only after I published my frustration with all of it that an offer of some of the refused sacraments was finally extended – but with strings attached, a question about my sincerity, and still no apology.

That’s not a game I’m going to play anymore.

Now in fairness, I want to say this: there’s a good case to be made that my now former pastor is well-meaning, and that he even desires real holiness for himself and his parishioners. I actually think this is true. But it’s also true that he’s manifested an authoritarian paternalism in more than just this case. I’ve experienced it before now, and so have others I know. I hope he untangles himself from excessive legalism and clericalism and finds his way to true holiness, leading those who love and respect him along with him. I hope the parish continues to thrive, even if I can no longer see a way to be a part of that.

Whatever the case, it’s time to move on.

Struggling With Faith

I’ve been open about the fact that my faith has been challenged by all that’s going on in the Church. But the depth of my struggle has remained largely hidden beneath the surface, because I have a job to do here. And it really is a job. I don’t just get to walk away. It’s how I put food on my family’s table. It’s how I’ve made it so my wife doesn’t also have to work. And it’s been important to many of you for some time now.

For a couple of years, we could see evidence that 1P5 was making a real difference. We were changing the conversation. We were even putting the Vatican in a position where it felt like it had to respond at times to our little publication.

But then, in 2018, it felt like everything blew up. It was an absolute avalanche of disturbing news coming from within the Church, most of it from Rome. Here are some of the major Church stories from that year:

With all of that going on, it all started to become too much, and I was burning out fast. The dubia effort was in its last gasps, and the promised formal correction started to look like vaporware. It felt as though the faithful were enduring one hammer blow after another, each one seemingly more outrageous than the last. I tried to write about all that was happening with a sense of hope that God would put a stop to it all soon. Surely, I kept thinking, the pope would take a step too far, and God would at last assert His protection of the Church.

But I began to see that I was hoping in vain. Help wasn’t coming, and God doesn’t have to explain himself as to why. And every time I thought I saw a reason to be optimistic, it disappeared not long thereafter.

Looking back, I realize I was voicing how deeply overwhelmed I was becoming. I wrote nine pieces to this effect over the course of 2018, trying to end them all on hopeful notes. But I think I was actually saying out loud that I was drowning.

I noted that I felt that talking about the Church meant talking “about problems all the time.” That when I founded 1P5, I “could not have anticipated” how deep the darkness in the Church really was.

“Only holiness and positive developments are outliers now.” I wrote. “Bad stories are the norm; good stories are much harder to find.”

“The actual Catholic Church,” I continued, “the one that leads people to eternal salvation and nourished countless saints — is in what appears to be a devastating retreat.”

I saw at last that we were “totally on our own”:

Where is the formal correction that was promised? Where is something beyond the general, non-specific condemnation of doctrinal errors being propagated by Rome from even the best of our prelates? Who will stand for us against this tide?

No one. No one will. It is up to us.

I likened what was happening to the feeling before a thunderstorm rolls in:

It’s not entirely clear to me what I should say. In my entire lifetime as a Catholic, I don’t think I’ve ever seen or felt anything like this. There is a groundswell building in the Catholic world, like the beginning of a scream that starts deep in the gut and begins forcing its way upward. It is a feeling of countless voices beginning to rise in pure, unmitigated outrage.

I compared what was happening to a fictional battle in which the only way to reach the optimal conclusion was to let the villain destroy everything first. But my exhaustion was growing palpable:

The well of anger from the lay faithful, though deep, is not inexhaustible. Even if it were possible, it is unhealthy to sustain a state of rage, day in and day out, for as long as this will take.

I noted that “It will appear to a great many of us, at some point or another, that the Church’s promises must surely be lies, that the gates of Hell have prevailed, and that our hope has been misplaced all along.”

And finally:

“I don’t know how much more I can take of this. Internally screaming isn’t doing it for me anymore.”

This comment, shared with me yesterday on social media, summed up the way so many Catholics – myself included – are feeling these days. Day after day, headline after headline, accusation after accusation from Christ’s own vicar that the faithful are on the side of the “Great Accuser” and are far too “rigid” and don’t even have the “Spirit of God.”

We feel abused. Beaten. Exhausted. Defeated.

We look at the mess, piling up higher and deeper with staggering speed, and wonder how in the world God is going to sort it all out. When people ask us what we think is going to happen next, our most common answer is “I don’t know.” We have no idea what to expect. Like a cliffhanger at the end of a television show, we cannot fathom a good ending to the arc of the story with things the way they are.

We are, in many respects, like a boxer on the ropes: not out for the count, not quite able to stay on our feet, somewhere between accepting that we’re beaten and stubbornly getting our hands up for another round.

I think what finally did me in was the canonization of Paul VI – the very man who arguably did the most damage, single-handedly, that any pope has ever done to the Church. “If that man is a saint,” I thought, “then the word has no meaning.”

To make matters worse, many theologians kept insisting that canonizations were infallible. If that was the case, despite a few arguments to the contrary, then I was in a position where I felt forced to accept something on Church authority that seemed impossible and untrue — an infallible act of gaslighting.

I was staggered, dazed, wounded, and unable to see straight. And I tried to keep fighting through it. But at what cost?

Quo Vadis?

The crushing weight of the ecclesial crisis dovetailed with some family crises to deliver the knockout blow. By late last summer, I was at an all-time low point. I realized that everything was coming apart. A moment of grace — an act of unwarranted forgiveness that may have been a true miracle — set my feet back on the right path. But it became clear that I had to rebuild both my faith and my relationships from the ground up.

I’m struggling as much or more now than ever, even though I am encouraged by the solidarity I’ve experienced. I’m not merely reacting to scandal with emotion, but to intellectual challenges I can’t yet resolve. Most notably, Infallibility and Indefectibility appear to me to be concepts stretched to their conceptual limits. If these were somehow proven false, the ramifications would be enormous. But despite my suspicions, I have not worked my way to conclusions I can be confident about.

I’m also wrestling with God for a number of reasons. These, too, are in large part personal, and not things I wish to air out in public. I’m certainly not in a hurry to give scandal. I only want not to turn a blind eye to the very real problems that are causing people to doubt — and I now know, after receiving so many emails, that lots of folks never thought they’d be feeling this way. As one commenter who used to be employed in diocesan faith formation put it:

“You are not alone. Three years ago, had you told me that I’d have one foot out of the Catholic Church, I would have said you’re smoking crack.”

I certainly identify with that.

I do not hold myself up as an example. I would never dare tell you how to be a good Catholic when I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I am aware that anger and childhood trauma relating to authority and paternal love and faith as a mechanism of guilt-based control all play a role in my angst. These things must be untangled for me to proceed unhindered.

And yet my work here remains. I don’t like to walk away from a fight this important. I still want to publish articles for you from Dan Millette and Mary Hansen and Peter Kwasniewski and Deacon Toner and others who offer insight, education, encouragement, and hope. Where appropriate, I will keep offering you my own honest, striving, struggling commentary. I still know more about the peculiarities of the ecclesiastical wars than any other topic, and that doesn’t just go away because of my difficulties. Some have reminded me I still have a contribution to make here.

But if I’ve become too radioactive for you, I understand. A few folks have cancelled their recurring donations over the past week. A couple have sent angry emails. If that’s how you feel, let’s part ways. But know this: I wasn’t built to play the grifter game. I could say what people want to hear regardless of my interior landscape, and take that to the bank. I hear other sensationalist traditional apostolates are in a rather good financial position with all the outrage they’re selling. One thing is for sure: this pope may be bad for souls, but he’s great for business if you’re in the right niche.

For my part, I’d rather have this all fall apart and have to start over than sit here pretending I’m something I’m not. So this is my message to you: if I’ve given you reason to leave, I understand. If I’ve made you second guess your support, I get it. I would never ask you to support something unless you believed it was the right thing to do.

This remains the way I put food on my family’s table, so if you’d like to support us with your donations despite it all, we could use them. Last month we came up pretty short again. Conversely, if you feel more inclined to support us by subscribing to my Substack, The Skojec File, that’s even better. It’s where my search for answers will gain most of its traction going forward, I suspect. It’s less constrained, and draws a somewhat different audience. It will hopefully be an important part of my future work.

Having spent countless hours replying to folks lately, and with a new baby in the house, I’m exhausted. So I’m also going to be closing down comments at 1P5 for the time being. We no longer have volunteer moderators — it’s a difficult and often thankless job — and I don’t have the time or the emotional energy to do it all myself. Only paid subscribers can comment at The Skojec File, and that’s been a breath of fresh air. It’s a nominal fee, it seems to keep the trolls out, and it feels like we’re actually building a community of like minds. If I knew the best way to set that up here, I’d have implemented it already, but I don’t.

So there you have it. If you want to respond to this, you can do so via email. I’m at steve at onepeterfive dot com. Please note that my inbox is still taking a pounding, so I won’t be able to get to every email, especially the very long ones.

Thanks for hearing me out. Thanks to those of you who have been supporters of this website for so long. I’m sorry if in my own personal failings I’ve let you down. I humbly request your prayers for myself and my family, as well as for my former parish, its pastor, and parishioners.

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