Mr Dreher was forced by events on the web outside of his control to make this announcement earlier than he wanted to. He has written a sort of apologia for his decision that was posted on Beliefnet called Orthodoxy and Me. It is a faithful, well-written explanation for his decision, written from the heart and with great honesty and sensitivity. Unlike some traditionalists who consider him an “apostate” for taking this step, I wish him and his family well. I hold the Eastern Orthodox Church in the highest esteem, and I have no axe to grind with them, so my comments in the remainder of this post should not be seen as an attack on them. While I don’t have a problem with Mr. Dreher’s decision, and although I sympathize with a lot of what he went through, I do have a problem with what I consider to be some parting shots that he took, although I don’t think he consciously meant to do so:
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…
…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." …
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.
So far, there isn’t much that any Catholic could disagree with here. Having several children of my own, and living in the Boston area, which became the epicenter of this crisis (although I am not convinced that the prevalence of abuse necessarily exists here), I can empathize with him entirely. In what follows, however, is where I start to take exception:
…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.
Now, I do think that there are plenty of things for liberals to answer for. I’ll concede to the traditionalists this much - For the last forty years or so, the liberals in the American Church have pretty much had a free hand at doing catechesis the way they’d like to, and they’ve bolloxed it up completely. In popular imagination, and in some degree of reality, the 55-year-old woman with a DRE certificate who’s addicted to the enneagram and who’s tried to teach Henri Nouwen spirituality to 7th graders has made a real hash of things. You can’t teach Henri Nouwen spirituality to kids without having gone over the basics of the Faith. You just can’t do it. It doesn’t work. I’ve seen it tried over and over again.
While I do think that the liberal wing of the Church needs to be held accountable for this, I think it is grossly unfair to lay the responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis upon them. If Mr. Dreher respects the opinion of Father Tom Doyle on the matter of clerical sexual abuse, as he appears to do, he should realize the the crisis is not the fault of liberalism or modernism. It is the fault of clericalism, which spans both sides of the liberal/conservative divide. He should see this himself in the paragraphs where he outlines his sense of betrayal in what he had percieved to be an “orthodox parish”, due to the two-faced machinations of the pastor. Fr. Tom Doyle is very much involved with the progressive organization Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) and sees them as a prophetic and necessary lay movement. They are among the very few people who have been helping the actual victims of abuse and staying after bishops to hold them accountable and make sure they stay true to their promises. These VOTF people are anathema to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the rest of the neo-con set that Mr. Dreher had been running with since he entered the Catholic Church. Who are the real “orthodox Catholics” who’ve done a better job of interiorizing the Gospel?
As for the supposedly heterodox priest who allegedly “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”, I also thank God that we are not like those nasty fundamentalist Christians, who stress their narrow, elitist orthodoxy over orthopraxis. I’m wondering if that quote was picked up quite correctly, but I’ll take Mr. Dreher at his word. The Church is the Universal Sacrament of Salvation. While there are indeed non-Christians who might be saved, anyone who is saved is saved by Jesus Christ (look up Karl Rahner’s views on The Anonymous Christian).
After this shot at “AmChurch”, Mr. Dreher then says:
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.
After all of his struggles to find an “orthodox parish”, growing weary in the polarized arguments over culture-war issues, despairing how to raise his children in the Catholic faith, and gritting his teeth and white-knuckling it out in unorthodox AmChurch parishes, he folds up like a cardboard suitacase the first time he took a look at what happened at Vatican I? Come on.
Instead of decrying the sturm and drang of the culture war issues inside the Church, does he have any appreciation at all for the struggles that Catholics go though who did not enter the Church in 1993 – who are Catholic to the very fiber of their being but who struggle mightily with matters of conscience and authority and intellect… Who respect the heirarchy, but struggle with how much authority rests in the bishops and pope, and how much in the sensus fidelium? For Catholics who couldn’t possibly see any alternative to being in a Church other than the one they are in, and who STAY, hanging on by their fingernails with great difficutly and suffering despite being told by the “orthodox Catholics” that they are Cafeteria Catholic heretics who should just leave?
He just can’t accept papal infallibility. Well, gee, thanks... It’s something the rest of us never struggle with, eh?
But what I noticed during all this Sturm und Drang over doctrine was this: we were happy 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.
Good advice for all of us, no matter what faith tradition we come from.
… 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.
Good approach and humility. Eastern Orthodoxy is a beautiful faith, but I think that he will find out like other converts to EO like Frank Schaefer, that there are plenty of people going through the motions, that some of that “uniformity in belief” is just sleepwalking, and that ethnicity is a bigger issue than he thinks it is now.
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.
Unfair. Does anyone in our ring of correspondents, or in the wider ring of Catholic blogdom, feel like we aren’t interested in knowing more about the Faith, or that we are running away from it?