Scandal and Bad Reasons

I was a little surprised when I read Rod Dreher's recent explanation of his conversion away from Catholicism to the Orthodox Church. Dreher, of "Crunchy Con" fame, appears to attribute the motivation for his move principally to his assessment of the nature of the molestation charges being made against certain Roman Catholic priests, and to discovering the dishonesty of many members of the clergy. After reading his post several times, I couldn't help but come away thinking "Now there is some dreadfully bad reasoning for you." He says what all of us would say, of course:
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.
It is, perhaps, not entirely surprising that someone might start off with a true premise, such as this one, and draw a spectacularly bad inference from it, namely that it is a good idea to leave the Church--people draw lousy inferences all the time. It is more surprising when someone who should know better draws such an inference, but even spectacularly intelligent people can draw a spectacularly bad inference, and here is a case of it.

One must feel strong sympathy for Dreher's sense of being "broken" by all he learned. He describes in rather painful detail the psychological and emotional pain he and his family have been through as they pondered their situation, and only the hardest of the hard hearted would ignore that and insist that he should be ashamed of himself. There is even an element of his story that ought to move every Catholic:
Over time, we got to know the people of the parish. 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.
Although I would not leave the True Church in a bajillion years, I have to confess to having a great deal of sympathy for this line of thought. One rather striking difference between the Orthodox and the Catholic lies precisely here: the Orthodox communities are small and parochial, and everyone is on the same page because they are all taken from the same book; when James Joyce referred to Catholicism as "Here comes everybody" he wasn't kidding. It's rather amazing just how everybodyish the whole thing is sometimes--sometimes a little too everybodyish for me, in fact. But it is the truth, and the truth matters more than my own personal comfort zone.

But Dreher is talking about more than just a personal comfort zone. He's talking about a major crisis in his faith. That is one reason why it is a little disappointing to find him saying things like this:
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.
Talk about your wishful thinking. True, lots of other people can't believe it either, but to begin questioning how an ecumenical council arrives at its dogmatic teachings is the doorstep to heterodoxy, not orthodoxy. Granted, the Orthodox Churches don't recognize the validity of all of the Ecumenical Councils, but you can bet your bottom dollar they wouldn't tolerate judging the dogmatic pronouncements of the ones they do accept on the basis of personal, private judgments about the manner in which the dogmata were arrived at! Is Dreher going to become a student of ancient history now, and look through everything that can be known about Nicea, Chalcedon, Constantinople, and all the other Councils accepted by the Orthodox, and decide for himself which ones came up with dogmata in a legitimate way and which ones didn't? Will he discover that the doctrine of the Trinity was forced through by a suspicious vote? Will he discover that physical force was brought into play in the debates over monothelitism? Perhaps he will found his own church someday that all of the other purists can come to.

This may sound unfair, of course, and it would be if Dreher had simply given his own personal reasons for leaving and left it at that. But he couldn't do that. Precisely because he is an intelligent person, he knew that Catholicism is right, and he needed an intellectual justification for doing what he was doing, and the only possible way to get that justification would be to call into question the teachings of the Church. In short, he made a conscious decision to become a functional protestant, while wishing nonetheless to continue enjoying the fruits of the genuine Sacraments.
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."
Again, I have a great deal of sympathy for this. I wish the guy well, because I know perfectly well that I myself have had doubts and struggles, even times when I was tempted to leave the Church not merely for Orthodoxy but for abject atheism, and looking back I can only say to myself, over and over again, thank you, Lord, for not burdening me beyond what I could bear. Because I escaped that noose by such a narrow thread, I cannot stand in judgment of people like Rod Dreher, no matter how fatuous I find their reasoning. Judge Never, Forgive Ever. May God go with him.

I hope he doesn't find any dishonest priests in his new parish. Where will he go then?

Update: Be sure to check out the Pontificator's Trackback and Mike Liccione's post on this topic.


Very well said. Like you, I feel that the only alternative to Catholicism is atheism and in the times when I have doubted my faith, it wasn't just a doubt in the Church but in all religion. It was in fact my realizing just how stark the choice in front of me was when I have considered abandoning the Church that brought me to my senses and allowed me to soldier on, despite my doubts.

I fear that Mr. Dreher never really grasped the immensity of what the Church teaches about herself and thus avoided having to wrestle with precisely what it entails. If so, when the day comes that he finds Orthodoxy no less peopled by sinners than any other religion, the temptation to abandon all faith may prove irresistible. I am grateful that I am not in his shoes.
Paul Cat said…
With Rod's Logic, he should also turn his back on School Education, Organized Athletics, and Extracurricular activities, because all have leaders in positions who take advantage of those who participate in those activities.
Paul Halsall said…
I would be an Orthodox. But the problem is they are just as bad as Catholics. On the good side, they do sing better; however on the bad side pews are in short supplies for three hour services.
I've never egged Dreher on in this and have said all along that running away from the gay-priest atrocities and cover-up to something else with 'valid sacraments' isn't good enough. I think we agree on that. That said, 'as long as it's a Wal-Mart' and 'I've got my catechism to keep me warm' don't cut it either, one of Dreher's other points. We don't want 'imagination church', or non-Anglo mainline Protestantism at St Novus in AmChurch, a 'head religion' with all the warmth of Scientology. (Conservative Novus Ordo: PCA Presbyterians with a Pope and Marian devotions tacked onto a mainline Protestant Sunday service.) Some of us Catholics (not necessarily RC) want a real, yes, 'community' that is, yes, 'crunchy' as Dreher describes his experience with loveable Archbishop Dmitri (I've never read a bad word about him) and the OCA Diocese of the South.

The recent online rubbishing of Dreher makes the mainstream RC church look even less appealing. Do the com-box harpies really think they're doing their church a favour, in some cases literally blithering filth about some guy they don't really know? Then again in the end I think the writers don't really care about church and think it's all about them somehow, like Dreher knows them and did it to hurt them. (Projection much?)

The hurt, disappointment and even some anger from Roman Catholics are understandable. 'I'm sorry you did it; hope you come back; I'll pray for you' are OK but that's not most of what I see.

If you are convinced by faith and study, such as the study of history, that the Pope is the immediate, direct head of the whole church on earth and has been since day one, by divine mandate and not just as part of a man-made ranking among bishops, and that being in the church is defined by being under him, then bound by conscience you should be a Roman Catholic.

But believing something other than that doesn't necessarily mean one hates or rejects Western Catholicism, believes it is graceless, doesn't admire and use its practices, completely dismisses the papacy nor refuses to pray and work for reunion.

Let alone that one is all the crap that Dreher has been accused of.
Vitae Scrutator said…

I think if you have a look at what Fr. Kimel writes at Pontifications (see trackback above) you'll have a pretty good idea as to what thoughtful Catholics think about what Dreher has done.

I agree that recriminations and what-not are not only uncalled for, but useless in the extreme. The question is precisely that pinpointed by Fr. Kimel in the quotation from Newman's Grammar of Assent.
Anonymous said…
Leaving Roman Catholicism for any other reason than believing it has left Catholicism is wrong. I left the Latin Church not because of it's scandals (God knows wherever two or more are gathered a scandal will erupt) but rather because I came to the conclusion that Rome left genuine Catholicism when it broke communion with the Catholic East.

Both the historic record and the consistent testimony of the Catholic fathers support this assertion.

If anyone is interested in examining this bold statement I would make available a book I had published by St. John of Kronstadt Press that will give a fair introduction to this premise.

Simply e-mail me with a request and a mailing address and it's your free of charge.

Kevin Kirwan

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