by Rod Dreher
Orthodoxy and Me
I apologize for this very long post, but it’s time to clear something up: yes, I am now a communicant of the Orthodox Church, and have been (along with my family) for a couple of months.
I did not intend to make this public until the end of this month, to honor a personal and professional obligation that, the violation of which stood to hurt some innocent people. This is why I’ve taken care since the day I entered Orthodoxy not to claim I am Catholic in writings here, and not to rise to the bait of certain people in the comboxes who have demanded that I declare myself.
Though I’ve wanted to get this out there, and not to deceive readers, I had an obligation to keep this to myself until month’s end, for an important reason I can’t really discuss. But now I am forced to reveal all early. Why? Because a certain malicious reader, a perfect stranger and petty little Catholic Prufrock named Jonathan Carpenter, who is unhealthily preoccupied with me nearly to the point of cyberstalking, troubled himself to write a letter to a priest at my parish asking about my ecclesial affiliation — and when he received his answer, undertook to publicize it.
So, here we are. I apologize to readers who feel deceived or betrayed.
That was not my intent; my intent was to honor a prior obligation, whose terms were soon to end anyway. I only now have to give you the long explanation two weeks early. What follows will be lengthy, but it will be all I intend to say about this matter. I know that the comboxes will be filled with discussion, much of it spiteful and vitriolic, and that there’s nothing I can do about that, except refuse to join it. But here is how I ended up where I am today.
Back in 2001, when I first started writing about the child sex-abuse scandal in the Church, Father Tom Doyle, the heroic priest who ruined his own career by speaking out for victims, warned me,
“If you keep going down this path, you are going to go to places darker than you can imagine.”
I thought I understood what he meant, but I didn’t. Even if I had, by then, I couldn’t have stopped. What brought me in touch with Fr. Doyle was my having stumbled upon a cell of clerical molesters at a Carmelite parish in the Bronx. They had preyed on a teenage immigrant boy who was troubled, and whose father was back in Nicaragua. His mother sent him to the priests for counseling, thinking that maybe being around some men of God would do the boy some good. The priests ended up molesting him. When the boy’s father arrived in the States and found out what had happened, he went to the Archdiocese of New York to tell them what happened. They offered to cut him a check if he’d sign a paper agreeing to let the Archdiocese’s attorneys handle the matter.
This man was merely a worker from a Third World country, newly arrived in New York, but he knew what was happening. He walked out and got himself and his son a lawyer.
And that’s how it began for me. At the time, as the father of a young boy, I couldn’t shake the thought What if this had happened to my family? Would we be treated this way by the Archdiocese? I began reading the literature about the scandal, most especially Jason Berry’s devastating “Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” a detailed account of the abuse and cover-up in a notorious situation in my native Louisiana (something I remember reading about from my childhood), that revealed the profound personal, familial and communal damage that Catholic authorities were prepared to see take place to protect themselves from the truth.
A few months later came 9/11, and shortly after that I left the New York Post and went to National Review. I hadn’t been at NR but for a couple of weeks when the John Geoghan trial got underway in Boston, and thus what Catholics would come to call simply The Scandal would break.
I began writing about it critically, both in the magazine and on NRO, the website. Word got back to me that Bill Bennett credited NR’s cover story on the stakes in this scandal for giving tacit permission for conservative, orthodox Catholics to discuss the matter, and to say in public about the bishops’ handling of the matter what they had mostly only been saying in private, but feared to voice because they didn’t want to be seen as disloyal. The flood of e-mail correspondence opened.
I heard from many, many people who identified themselves as faithful orthodox Catholics, but who wrote of the pain and suffering they had undergone because either they or a close family member had been molested by a priest, and their diocese had covered it up and even attacked them when they sought justice.
There was the monk who learned that there had been a molestation ring in his order, and when his superior suspected that he was going to go to the authorities, had him committed to a mental institution. His brother helped him escape, and was trying to persuade him to go public …. but couldn’t; the poor man, who had had a heart attack over the stress of all this, feared angering God for betraying his child-molesting brothers to the authorities.
There was the woman who, along with other women, had to clean Vaseline off the altar in her parish in the mornings after the priest there (who is now in jail after a child molestation conviction — I checked this out) had been doing God knows what the night before. She told me she went to the bishop with this news, and had reason to suspect he was being blackmailed by this priest.
The bishop now enjoys a reputation as being one of the more conservative prelates in the American church. The woman couldn’t be persuaded to go public, because she still works for the Church, and said she had children to support.
My in-box was filled with stories like these.
I began to understand what Tom Doyle’s warnings meant. Every day after work I’d head back home, feeling like a spiritual “walking wounded.” And then there was the day I talked to Horace Patterson. His son Eric had committed suicide after 15 years of depression. Not long before Eric died by his own hand, he’d confessed that he had been molested by Father Larson, their parish priest, as an altar boy. Horace later discovered that four other suicides of young men were traceable to Father Larson, who now sits in jail for sex crimes against children. Horace and his wife Janet were to learn later that their Kansas diocese knew that Father Larson had a thing for boys, but did nothing to stop him. On the phone with me in New York, Horace talked about having received the call at home one day that their boy Eric had blown his brains out. He talked of having to go sit on their front porch and wait for Janet to come home so he could tell her what had become of their son. He told me how watching her car pull in at the end of the long driveway, and head home, where this news awaited her, was one of the most excruciating moments of his life. As a relatively new father, this devastated me.
Even this morning, as I write this, it’s hard to recount the brokenness in that man’s voice without getting tears in my eyes.
What if that were me? I’d ask. And I’d look at my own little boy, and carry these things in my heart.
And then there were other blows. The prominent archbishop who told me I needed to quit criticizing the Church, and that if I didn’t trust the bishops to handle the matter, he didn’t understand why I was still Catholic. There was the prominent priest who yelled at me on the phone one day that if Bishop X. told me there was no scandal in his diocese, that should have been good enough for me to quit my investigation.
There was the lawyer for a top American archbishop who had heard I was looking into widespread allegations that he had sexually harrassed seminarians, and who phoned to see if I could be taken off the story (when I’d see this archbishop on TV later in the year proclaiming wounded innocence in the scandal — “If only we had known this was going on in the Church,” he’d say — I wanted to hurl). There was the Catholic therapist I saw briefly for help in dealing with my anger over the Scandal and over 9/11, who spent an entire session literally yelling at me about how I was going to go to hell for questioning the Pope’s handling of the scandal.
And I have only set down here the smallest bit of what I learned.
All this takes a toll. And yet, I kept going back to my catechism, and to the truth that none of this undermines the truth claims of the Catholic Church. The Eucharist is still the Eucharist, no matter how corrupt the clerics may be. That was a lifeline for me — that, and the comfort and friendship of dear Catholic friends, especially good and decent priests, who, aside from actual victims and their families, were probably suffering more from this scandal than anybody else.
As my dearest friend, Fr. Joe Wilson, has said many times, the Scandal does not exist in isolation. It is only a part of a many-headed beast.
The sex-abuse scandal can’t be easily separated from the wider crisis in the American Catholic Church, involving the corruption of the liturgy, of catechesis, and so forth. I’ve come to understand how important this point is, because if most other things had been more or less solid, I think I could have weathered the storm. But I found it impossible to find solid ground. As most readers know, we moved to Dallas in 2003, and had a difficult time establishing ourselves in a parish. Dallas has had more than its share of problems with abusive clerics, as most people know.
What I didn’t understand, nor anticipate, was how difficult it would be to find an orthodox parish here. We have lots of faithful Catholic friends here, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that most of them are doing what most (but not all) orthodox Catholics in this country do: grit their teeth and white-knuckle it out in their parishes, doing what they can to hang on. Without belaboring our boring saga of hunting for a parish here, we ended up in an orthodox parish in a nearby suburb, which had something rare in Catholic parishes: unity in belief. These were Catholics who really believed it, and did so joyfully. We thought we were home.
And then I discovered entirely by accident — indeed, in the process of helping bring a friend into the Church — that a priest at the parish was not supposed to be in ministry. He had been suspended by his diocese in Pennsylvania after formal abuse accusations had been leveled against him. The priest came back to his hometown, Dallas, and got other work — but was helping out on the weekends in this particular parish.
It turned out that the pastor knew all about his past, had concluded that he had been falsely accused, and put him into active ministry in the parish — without telling the parish, or even his bishop. Now, this priest might well be innocent — nothing has been proved against him — but that is not the point. The point is, and was, that he was not supposed to be in active ministry, yet the pastor and those closest to him chose to deceive the bishop and the parish about the matter.
The priest in question — orthodox and personally charismatic — lied to me in a manipulative way about how he had come to Dallas (he said the liberals in his old diocese had driven him out), and lied to my catechumen friend, who is a liberal, in the same manipulative way (he told her the conservatives had driven him out).
This was too much. When I told Julie what Father’s true background was, we were both shattered. I mean shattered. Given all that had come before, and given that we finally thought we could let our guard down, that we were among orthodox Catholics now, and we could trust them — well, something broke in us.
It would be months before we realized how broken. We returned to our old parish, and spent months going through the motions. It’s hard for me to express how spiritually depressed we were. The only strong emotion I felt about faith in those days was … anger and bitterness.
I got into the habit of routinely leaving during the homilies — in part because sometimes we would hear objective lies (like the time a deacon — and this is one of the most conservative parishes in Dallas — thanked God from the pulpit that we Catholics aren’t like those nasty fundamentalist Christians, who believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation), but mostly it was simply because I felt so weak and vulnerable in my faith that I just wanted to get through mass and to receive the Eucharist and go home without having to get mad all over again. I was in such a state that the usual AmChurch banalities that orthodox Catholics learn to endure early on had the effect of setting me off. It was a rotten way to live, and I began to despair over what kind of icon of Christ I was for my children.
I also despaired over raising children in the Catholic faith. Julie and I decided not to put our kids in the Sunday School program at the parish when she learned that the parish was allowing women who didn’t even go to mass to teach the faith to children, as part of their obligation to do parish service in exchange for reduced tuition at the parish school. This whole Sacrament Factory approach to living the Christian life left me ice-cold. I started to see my own faith and relationship to the Catholic Church as a purely mechanical thing. I’d go to fulfill my Sunday duty, receiving the Eucharist and then getting the heck out of there, wanting as little as possible to do with parish life.
One day, in tears, Julie and I confessed to each other that we were afraid we were losing our faith entirely. This is not a place either of us ever imagined being. To know that you have the responsibility to raise children as followers of Christ, to say nothing about having responsibility for your own eternal soul — well, to be in that position and to be so alienated from the Church you believe has the right to command your fidelity is a terrible thing.
After months, we finally made a decision: we would visit an Orthodox parish. As Catholics, we knew at least that the Sacraments there were valid. Though we couldn’t receive communion, we could at least be in the presence of the Eucharistic Christ, and worship liturgically with them, and draw close to God on Sunday morning, however imperfectly. I can hardly express the burden of guilt I felt when I crossed the threshold of St. Seraphim’s parish that morning.
But you know, it was a wonderful place. The liturgy was breathtakingly beautiful. The preaching orthodox. And the people — half of them Russian, most of the others converts — could hardly have been kinder and more welcoming.
As a new Episcopalian friend told me a couple of weeks ago after he visited St. Seraphim’s,
“There is life there.”
We kept going back, and finally got invited to dinner at the archbishop’s house. I feared it would be a stiff, formal affair. I was astonished to turn up at the address given, to find that it was the shabby little cottage behind the cathedral. We went in, and it was like being at a family reunion. Vladika’s house was jammed with parishioners celebrating a feast day with … a feast.
There was Archbishop Dmitri in the middle of it all, looking like a grandfatherly Gandalf. I had never in all my years as a Catholic been around people who felt that way about their bishop.
The whole thing was dizzying — the fellowship, the prayerfulness, the feeling of family. I hadn’t realized how starved I was for a church community. Julie, who grew up Evangelical, said this was what she had known all through her youth — and what she’d left to become Catholic. I remember thinking that night, given what we’d been experiencing in the liturgy, and now at this parish feast, This is what I thought Catholicism would be like when I came in. And I reflected that there’s really no reason at all Catholicism can’t be like this. It’s not like the Orthodox have some exclusive magic. But there you are.
Over time, we got to know the people of the pari sh. They became our friends. It was a new experience for me to be in a parish where you can be openly small-o orthodox, and the priest and the people support you in that.
In “Crunchy Cons,” the Orthodox convert (from RCism) Hugh O’Beirne says that Catholics new to the Orthodox Church may find it surprising that they don’t have to be on a “war footing” — meaning the culture wars don’t intrude into worship. People are on the same page, and if they’re not, they’re not out trying to get the Church to change her position on abortion, gay marriage, inclusive language, and all that.
As someone who more or less is on the front lines of the culture war every day in my job as a journalist, I found it a new and welcome experience to be able to go to church on Sunday and get built back up for the struggle ahead, instead of to find mass the most debilitating hour of the week.
Julie and I could see what was happening to us: we were falling in love with Orthodoxy. On several occasions, we stopped to check ourselves. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave this place, where we were back in touch with Christ, and learning to serve Him in community, to return to what we had experienced as a spiritual desert. I know this is not every Catholic’s experience, but this was ours.
I kept thinking about the older Catholics I know who are faithful, but whose children have been lost to the faith. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but knowing them as I do, I think it’s not an unreasonable thing to fear the effect of having no real parish support for orthodox Catholicism on raising Catholic children. As my kids have gotten older, I have been deeply impressed by the importance of community in supporting and reinforcing what parents teach. Most of my Catholic friends with kids are doing the best they can in a bad situation.
They are a lot stronger than I am. I had to admit that I needed help. I found the help I needed at St. Seraphim’s.
But there was the matter of truth. A decade ago, when my dear friend Terry Mattingly was trying to decide whether or not to go Catholic or Orthodox, I listened impatiently to his fears for raising his children as Christians in an American Catholic parish, without active support from the priest and the community, and possibly even outright attack (at the time, I was preparing for marriage while living in south Florida, and had learned that CCL instructors, who taught couples how to practice NFP in obedience to the Church, couldn’t even get a foot in the door in parish marriage instruction).
I kept saying to him, confidently, that none of that matters, that what matters is: Is the case for Catholicism true? And here I was a decade later, facing the same dilemma.
I had to admit that I had never seriously considered the case for Orthodoxy. Now I had to do that. And it was difficult poring through the arguments about papal primacy.
I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that I came to seriously doubt Rome’s claims. Reading the accounts of the First Vatican Council, and how they arrived at the dogma of papal infallibility, was a shock to me: I realized that I simply couldn’t believe the doctrine. And if that falls, it all falls. Of course I immediately set upon myself, doubting my thinking because doubting my motives. You’re just trying to talk yourself into something, I thought. And truth to tell, there was a lot of that, I’m sure.
But what I noticed during all this Sturm und Drang over doctrine was this: we were happy again as a family, and at peace. Julie said one day driving home from liturgy,
“Isn’t it great to look forward to going to church again?”
And it was. I was beginning to pray again, and beginning to climb out of the slough of religious despond. I began to think differently about Truth.
As Christians, Truth is a Person, not merely a proposition. Here I was beginning to live a more Christ-like life as a fellow traveler of Orthodoxy, and knowing that if I went back to full-fledged Catholicism, I would be returning to anger and despair. What does it mean to live in the Christian truth in that situation? How would I feel if I approached the Judgment Seat and said to God,
“I lived as a depressed and embittered man, lost my children to the Christian faith, and was a terrible witness to your goodness. But Lord, thanks to you, I never left Catholicism.”
It was not an abstract question for me. I wondered: is the point of our life on earth to become like Jesus, or is it to maintain formal affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church? I honestly don’t believe God will ask of me, in the day of judgment, “Were you an obedient Catholic? (Or Orthodox, or Presbyterian…)” He will ask me,
“Did you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind? Did you love your neighbor as yourself?”
I had made in my life till that point the fundamental error of conceiving of the Church as an end in itself, rather than a means to the end of becoming a saint in Christ.
I could see authentic holiness and goodness around me at St. Seraphim’s, and was encouraged and motivated by it. I couldn’t believe these people were going to hell because they weren’t Catholic (and in fact the Catholic Church doesn’t claim that they are, but the point I’m making is that Jesus so plainly lives in their lives, and that deeply impressed me). This parish was not full of ethnic pride, nor was it anti-Catholic. In fact, the pastor, Fr. John Anderson, had once been a Catholic, and was full of gratitude for his Catholic formation.
That made a difference to me, because if we came to Orthodoxy, I could not in good conscience turn into one of those people who bash whence the came. In fact, the further I moved from Catholicism, the more I was able to love it. I think it’s because I felt somehow released from feeling responsible for the Scandal. It’s important for me to say, though, that at no time in this journey did anybody at St. Seraphim’s speak ill of the Catholic Church (in fact, one new friend there, a Russian, once told me that there are too many sins and scandals in Orthodoxy for the Orthodox rigorists to spend their time carping about Rome).
They only bore joyful witness to what they had discovered in Orthodoxy. This made an impression on me.
Julie and I put off converting as long as we could, but we finally had to admit to ourselves that we loved these people, that we loved this faith, and we didn’t want to leave it. The only thing keeping me personally away from making the decision for Orthodoxy was love of my Catholic friends, whom I knew I would disappoint.
And, to be honest, I didn’t want to leave Rome because it is all I’ve ever known as an adult Christian. Some will doubt this, but for all the pain, I will always love the Catholic Church, and I sometimes get a little emotional thinking about that. And yet, staying there was killing me spiritually. Leaving was like chewing my own leg off to get out of a trap.
I have talked about how the Church itself failed me in all this. Let me confess how I failed myself.
The Amish example of forgiveness and detachment from anger recently made a powerful impression on me, because I can see so clearly how I allowed myself to become snared in it. The pursuit of justice is a wonderful and necessary thing, even a holy act. But I became so tormented over what had happened to those children at the hands of the Catholic clergy and hierarchy that I could see nothing else but pursuing justice. And my own pursuit of justice allowed me to turn wrath into an idol. I didn’t know I was doing this at the time. I came to believe that if I didn’t stop, or if I let up, that I would in some sense be failing the victims, that I would be helping the perpetrators get away with it. Again and again, I kept thinking What if this had happened to our family?
And over time, the anger, and my inability to master it and put it in its place, corroded the bonds that linked me to Catholicism. That is something that could happen to anybody, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox or what have you. Be warned.
What’s more, I had become the sort of Catholic who thought preoccupying himself with Church controversies and Church politics was the same thing as preoccupying himself with Christ. Me and my friends would go on for hours and hours about what was wrong with the Church, and everything we had to say was true. But if you keep on like that, it will have its effect. One night, some Catholic friends left after a long and vivid night of conversation, and Julie and I reflected that we had all spent the entire evening talking about the Church — but never mentioned Jesus. Julie said,
“We need less Peter around here, and more Jesus.”
Her point was that all this talk about the institutional Church was crowding out our devotion to the spiritual realities beneath the visible structure. And she was right. But I didn’t learn that until it was too late.
I can look back also and see that my own intellectual pride helped me build a weak foundation for my faith. When I converted to Catholicism in 1992 (I entered the Church formally in 1993), it was a sincere Christian conversion. But I also took on as my own all the cultural and intellectual trappings of the American Catholic right. I remember feeling so grateful for the privilege and gift of being Catholic, but there was a part of me that thought,
“Yay! I’m on the A-Team now, the New York Yankees of Christianity. I’m on Father Neuhaus’s team!”
A short time back, an intellectual friend who is a Protestant told me that he almost became a Catholic, and would have except for the place where he was working at the time was filled with conservative intellectual Catholics who wouldn’t shut up about the superiority of Catholicism. Their arrogance finally put him off the Church, and now he says he couldn’t imagine converting. I swallowed hard when he told me that, because I can only imagine how I must have come off to people like him in my prideful heyday.
Without quite realizing what was happening, I became a Professional Catholic, and got so caught up in identifying with the various controversies in the American church that I began to substitute that for an authentic spirituality.
This is nobody’s fault but my own. Part of that involved hero-worshipping Pope John Paul II, and despite having a healthy awareness of the sins and failings of various bishops, exaggerating the virtues of bishops my side deemed “orthodox.” Bernard Cardinal Law was just such a bishop. I count it as one of the most shameful acts of my life the moment when I rushed across a courtyard in Jerusalem to kneel and kiss Cardinal Law’s ring.
I don’t count it as a sin to kiss a cardinal’s ring; what was wrong was my motivation for doing so: I felt so much pride in showing myself to be an orthodox Catholic paying due homage to an orthodox archbishop in that public way.
Well, I was a fool, and I set myself up for a big fall. A few weeks back, I mentioned to Julie on the way to St. Seraphim’s one morning, “I’m now part of a small church that nobody’s heard of, with zero cultural influence in America, and in a tiny parish that’s materially poor. I think that’s just where I need to be.”
See, this is why you won’t see me ballyhoo my conversion to Orthodoxy as I did with my conversion to Catholicism. Partly it’s because I still consider myself to be among the spiritually walking wounded. I need to build myself up in Christ, and in ordinary Christian piety. I believe that God rescued me from a pit partly of my own making by showing me Orthodoxy, and through the witness of the people of St. Seraphim’s parish. I have to laugh when well-meaning people say,
“Well, Rod’s still looking for the perfect church, I wonder what’s going to become of him when he figures out that the Orthodox Church is screwed up too.”
Shoot, the Orthodox Church in America is neck-deep in a financial scandal at its pinnacle! Don’t they think I see that? I am perfectly aware that sexual sin and the temptation to cover it up or deny it exists in every human institution. I do not imagine that I have escaped that in Orthodoxy. I am incapable of being the kind of gung-ho Orthodox as I was a gung-ho Catholic. I’ve learned my lesson.
What I do have in Orthodoxy, though, is a second chance to get it right. To receive the Sacraments as an aid to theosis, and to learn to love the little platoon around me, building up the community and my own family. Had I started out this way as a Catholic, maybe it wouldn’t have come to this. But I did, and here I am, and God is merciful.
I don’t want in any way for this to come across as an apology for entering Orthodoxy. I am not ashamed of it, and indeed I am grateful for God having provided for me and my family, lost and drifting as we were. Still, I think my feelings must be like that of an exile who had to leave his native land, and who is grateful for his new country but who will never be able to forget whence he came — nor does he want to. I grieve having disappointed friends, and no doubt many of you, who have been so kind to me over the years with your prayers and encouragement.
I can’t expect you Catholics to endorse my move, but I hope at least you will pray for me and my family, and with me for the ultimate unity of Orthodoxy and Catholicism (by the way, I took as my patron saint in Orthodoxy Benedict of Nursia, who as a pre-schism saint is also revered by the Orthodox; I also chose him in part to honor Pope Benedict, whom I cherish).
I hope also that my own example will encourage others — Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant — to look seriously into their hearts, and detach themselves from both idolizing the Church in the place of Christ — this is partly what led to the Scandal, and partly what led me to put myself in a position where the Scandal destroyed my Catholicism.
And I hope my example helps people to deal swiftly with anger before it masters them.
As far as tradition goes, I have moved with my family to a church that I believe stands a much better chance of maintaining the historic Christian deposit of faith over time. To be more blunt, I have moved to a church that in my judgment within which I and my family and my descendants will be better able to withstand modernity.
Basically, though — and this is as blunt as I can be — I’m in a church where I can trust the spiritual headship of the clergy, and where most people want to know more about the faith, and how we can conform our lives to it, rather than wanting to run away from it or hide it so nobody has to be offended.
In the end, we all depend on the mercy of God to deliver us from our faults and errors. I have no intention of talking about this conversion further, either on the comboxes or this blog. (Nor, by the way, do I intend to avoid critical comments about any church; I am an opinion journalist.) I owe it to my family, and to my God, to avoid the nasty combox polemics that will inevitably follow this revelation.
I can’t keep any of you from saying whatever you will — and no doubt, the Jonathan Carpenters of the world will have their day. I’m a public person, so I have to put up with that. Still, those of you more charitably inclined, please just pray for me and my family, that we always live in truth, and do the right thing, and be found pleasing to God, the Father of us all.