How is your spiritual life working these days? What’s your sense of the Church?
Is it crippled? Is it humming along? Are we flourishing?
Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.
It has been 8 months since I read my last TAN book. I haven’t been able to stream mass with any degree of regularity. I’m starting to have some doubts. And so I’ve grabbed for my device.
I have logged in to the internet.
I have seen things my friends warned me about.
I have met Atheists, Agnostics, New Agers, Evolutionary Biologists, and wild Mathematicians.
And I’m worried.
I am worried, because these guys actually make some sense. I was told amongst my tribe of conservative and traditional Catholics that “holy mother Church” is true, and in fact contains the fullness of truth.
I still actually believe that.
Yet, I have to confess further: it doesn’t feel all that true these last few years. In fact, it feels really broken and senseless. Confused and confusing, really.
Catholicism, circa 2020, here in the global north, is in a bad way. Click around on this site, and plenty of others, and you will see evidence, plain as day, that we are in trouble. By my reckoning, there are three basic (and sometimes overlapping) internal responses to the mess we find ourselves in. I hope to render a proper taxonomy of these modes in a coming piece. Each, on their own, chooses to focus on real elements that are in crisis: ill-conceived and poorly executed catechetics, the malfeasance of church operators, and liturgical abuses.
But none of them have “it.” None of the current responses prescribe a bold enough vision and strategy to move us forward. I am not proposing another argument about Church politics, or loggia-watching dish, or another encomium on another new “new evangelization.”
These are part of the broken response-systems that have become unconsciously automatic that largely dominate online Catholicism. They may as well be algorithms at this point. And all of our “Catholicising” has been online since March. Very online.
A deep and painful problem is that Catholicism in its current form does not speak in any meaningful way to us, nor especially to our children. Just look at the numbers here. And this tweet here captures the reality. Sadly, the church does not seem to be operating in any meaningful way for me, a middle-aged Gen X’er with a wife, a few kids, and a receding hairline. We are in a strange pattern of pretending, a kind of collective lie agreed upon.
After a youthful abandonment of my cradle-faith, I returned with a vengeance in my college years because I started to actually read things. Once I started reading, I began to realize just how much was kept from me (a product of 12 years of Catholic schooling) and just how much I didn’t know. Worse off, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This revelation was a huge upgrade to my sense-making apparatus. What the Church thought and taught was compelling and new to me. I had to eat a lot of crow. But I could no longer pretend that Christianity was for stupid, uncouth people. I needed to change.
Perhaps all life changes begin with a metaphoric death precipitated by a humiliation. What I read in the early and mid-90’s was staggeringly exciting and exhilarating. And I could look with great confidence and pride at the man in charge of the Catholic Church. He was still a dynamic and inspiring pontiff. He was a hero.
Yet, living off these fumes has proven difficult. The slow trickle of child sex abuse stories in the early 2000s, mostly hushed by a complicit Catholic media, hell bent on not airing “our dirty laundry,” began to grate on the outer edges of my consciousness. Like I always do, I dug in and began reading. I found that not only was the abuse rampant, but the cohort of leaders seemed more concerned with protecting the tribe’s brand than weeding out abusers. They, too, were bad actors.
My frame, which I had thought quite reasonable, no longer worked. I had a simple calculus: outlandish heterodox priests who had a penchant for clown masses were bad, while obviously holy and orthodox priests were good. “See, they wear cassocks.” There were many wolves in sheep’s clothing, however branded. My thought then was straightforward: solve the orthodoxy plan and you solve the abuse crisis. Unmask the wolves!
But the final blow to my way of thinking was the revelation that there were even wolves dressed as shepherds. Even “good bishops” had acted with a breadth of malfeasance that was staggering to behold. I could no longer make sense of the world. My software needed an upgrade, since it was demonstrably too simple, too low resolution, too dumb. But what to do? For a time I comforted myself with the “gates of hell” lie, and I say “lie” not because the Holy Spirit lies, but it is a lie because it does not mean what we pretend it means. Everything is not going to be alright. I am worried. About many things. Even though the gates of hell will not prevail.
And finally, two years ago, the Uncle Ted Affair nearly did me in.
I’m sure many of you went through something similar.
I have managed to hold on to my faith, and I continue to believe in the truths our Church professes. I believe in Jesus, and I believe that he instituted the Church on the three “do you love me’s” directed to the arch-denier Peter. I buy it all.
What does it mean to be convinced of the truths of the faith but completely flummoxed by the institution’s insanity, its debauchery, its insularity, its corruption, its mendacity, its fecklessness, its uselessness? How does one believe in the Church, but see no visible signs of institutional sanctity?
Those mechanisms and para-institutions that once shined a light seem equally broken. They have left mother Church ineffectual and compromised, and anyone inside is either unable or unwilling to chart a path out. How did we get here? Our Church’s inability to make sense is a natural byproduct of what she has had to do to guard the gift of her foundation. You must create “walls” of right-belief. The history of Church is the history of sorting out the details—think of Paul’s fight with Peter about the law, or Nicea, or the crisis of Arianism. This clarification process can inadvertently lead to a kind of stalled out insularity. This insularity hinders her ability to speak to people outside the walls, and now, sadly, inside too.
And here I am again, humiliated by the implosion of my once-beloved faith.
I honestly don’t remember the last time I’ve been proud of my Church, proud of my faith, proud of my fathers. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been able to say I’m proud to be Catholic.
Why? Because my Church is a wreck. My Church makes no sense.
We are at an existential crisis in both formal and lay Catholicism. We can go into the threads that weave a genealogy of decline and decay, plenty of time to sort out and apportion blame, but in essence, the Church as we experience it is totally broken. It doesn’t make sense, nor does it help us make sense of the world.
We can’t talk about any of this because of all the various forces that govern speech. Twitter sock-puppets (sorry Grover), commbox heroes, pearl-clutching purity police, guardians of access, the bottleneck of resources, and the ever-present threat of being labeled a “grifter” preclude our ability to have a real discussion.
We need to talk.
We need to go outside our normie-world mechanisms of sense-making. Catholic education is largely in shambles, committed to orthodoxies far afield of anything recognizably faithful. Catholic media, certainly of the mainstream type, is not free or able to tell the truth, especially if they count on the largesse of the local ordinary. And if they do not, they remain dependent upon the precarious and mercurial gig-economy.
Few independent outlets have enough “eff you money” (as Joe Rogan calls it) to chase down and highlight the truth wherever it leads. Our Church had cancel culture way before it became a thing in the world at large. Saying or printing the wrong thing can very well lead not just to rash judgment from fellow Catholics, but to a loss of funding, and thus, a loss of an apostolate.
What is to be done?
We need a software upgrade. Ours is old, buggy, inept. It is a scandal.
Mind you, I’m not a Modernist, nor am I retro-traditionalist. Those that would prescribe poring over the Summa (again) are not serious about the crisis we find ourselves in. What worked in the 17th century, say, is not likely up to the task in the 21st. Being steeped in the tradition is certainly important, and our heritage is certainly rich, but it will not suffice for our purposes.
In a recent 1P5 piece Brendan Buckley argues that we needed to seek out tradition in our current crisis. I am sympathetic, but only to a point. Merely seeking out tradition is not a method. Though I agree that we must cleave to our tradition, in order for us to develop a successful strategy to weather the coming storms and raise our families and not lose them, we will need to be more creative.
We must look to what some brave truth tellers in the culture are proclaiming and chewing on and theorizing, EVEN those that are not in our tribe. We cannot afford to ignore whole swaths of intellectual theorizing because most of the participants are not members of our tribe, or they are atheists, or they like Jung or Nietzsche too much, or some such tripe.
This kind of tribalism is a failing strategy.
I suggest to you that we need to go off the reservation. The so-called Intellectual Dark Web, a group of renegade public intellectuals and media personalities, are decidedly NOT Catholic. But I believe they, among others, offer us a way to re-frame our sense-making apparatus. Fair warning: some of them are atheists, some of them are profane, none of them go to the church (NO or TLM) but they are genuine good faith discussion leaders who are deeply engaged in the pursuit of truth. Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris (yes, that Sam Harris), Eric Weinstein, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, James Lindsey, Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Jon Haidt – all of these figures are having consequential public conversations about what is going on in the world. They see deep problems, too. They have offered me a new way of seeing old things, of making sense of the world, increasing the resolution of how I see things, and, believe it or not, illuminating the faith that I love. They have reach and influence, and if we allow ourselves to listen, if we can adopt some degree of elasticity in our mental capacities, we may just learn something from them and help us plot the way out of our sclerosis.
But why should we listen to a bunch of outsiders? Tradition.
I would humbly submit St. Thomas as our model here. We need to imitate him. And by this, I do not, again, mean that we should read the Summa more. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon, of course. But instead, let us look to him as a model of intellectual conduct. Do we have any record of Thomas scoffing at a thinker or a source because it was “pagan” or “Jewish” or “wrong”? Of course we don’t. Thomas read widely and generously. He sought to weave together all things new into a synthesis that would render the faith reasonable and compelling. He helped the Church upgrade the software, so to speak, so that she could see and adopt the truth wherever it could be found. I like to think of him as following in the traditions of the early church fathers like Saint Justin Martyr. I’m paraphrasing here, but Justin basically held a simple view: if it is true, it is Christian. Period. I propose that we take this proposition to heart, and climb out of our self-imposed bunkers to take in the situation from another perspective, in the hopes that it will help us to better understand our own. I propose that we engage in an expansion of our tribal, gated, and largely moribund sense-making.
What we are doing isn’t working. We are not winning the war for the culture. We are not even winning the war for the soul of the Church. Meanwhile, civilization is, to borrow a line from Yeats, slouching towards Gomorrah. These days, that slouch is looking more and more like a sprint.
Something needs to give. We need to learn how to see again. It is my hope that for those willing to explore ideas from thinkers who are not exactly safe – men and women who will never survive the endless Catholic purity spiral – we may find a view of our unflattering state that will help us mend the wounds.
I will be returning to these topics in future essays, and I hope that for those with the courage (or perhaps just the exasperation) to try something different, we can find a way to make things work again.
Born in New Orleans, Kale has been wayfaring for much thereafter: Baton Rouge to New Hampshire, to Baton Rouge, to Los Angeles, and now Rhode Island. He lives with his wife and three children, two dogs, three ducks, and five chickens in Rhode Island. He earned his BA in literature from Thomas More College and an MA in English from Louisiana State University. He wrote briefly for a regional golf magazine, worked in Hollywood, and has been teaching great books in Rhode Island for over a decade. Kale is passionate about teaching stories, listening to music and podcasts, watching football, and playing golf. He has struggled to kick his Twitter habit since April of 2009. He remains unsuccessful. Due to a wicked gluten intolerance, he mostly longs to eat bread again…and beer.