On Defending Debt Collection Lawsuits – Part 2

Note: Please read On Defending Debt Collection Lawsuits – Part 1 first. Otherwise, some of this post won’t make no sense.

A lot has been written on the debt-collection/buying industry over the past decade. John Oliver even did a hilarious monologue on it which culminated in him buying tens of thousands of dollars for medical debt for pennies on the dollar before discharging it. To be clear, I want to make a few clarifications.

“Debt collector” generally refers to any entity that collects another party’s debt, whether it owns the debt or not. Often people refer to them as “collection agencies.” These are the folks who send out collection (“dunning”) letters, call your cell phone at all hours, and offer preposterous “one-time deals” to resolve a debt. Some, such as myself, also classify law firms which primarily collect debts, either through the usual tactics or via lawsuits, under this header as well. While many of the attorneys who work for these firms see themselves as genuine lawyers who do real legal work, the reality is that they are low-paid paper pushers with limited litigation experience. Many of the ones with talent look to get out of these firms ASAP.

“Debt buyer” generally refers to any entity that buys up pools of debt from an original creditor. Synchrony and Comenity, for example, are banks that provide retail credit cards for, say, Best Buy. When people hit hard times and decide that their priority is food rather than paying off their 4K TV, the accounts the creditors hold go into default. Rather than expend too much time and energy on these accounts, many of which are for relatively low dollar amounts, these creditors sell off pools of these debts to a debt buyer like Midland Funding. The information that Midland or other buyers receive about the accounts ranges from “adequate” to “piss poor.” In some instances, a buyer receives nothing but a spreadsheet with names, addresses, perhaps a partial social security or account number, and an amount. While this may not seem like enough information to meaningfully collect on allegedly default accounts, think again. The limited information supplied to debt buyers, much of it containing errors galore, serves as the basis for almost all debt-collection lawsuits.

No matter who holds the debt, be it an original creditor or buyer, at some point these entities have to decide whether to let an account go or turn to their brethren, the debt-collection law firm, for assistance. All states have a statute of limitations on when debt-collection actions can be brought, regardless of the legal theory employed. The most basic cause of action for these suits is breach of contract since, supposedly, the creditor and debtor formed a contractual relationship at some point in the past. In Michigan, the statute of limitations for such suits is six years from the last transaction. For a credit card, that means either the last time the card was used or when the last payment was made. Given the poor record keeping and incomplete information that is transmitted from creditors to debt buyers to debt-collection lawyers, it should surprise nobody that lawsuits are filed after the statue of limitations has expired. That is a no-no, for which some remedies exist (more on that later).

Other legal theories are typically employed as well, such as unjust enrichment and account stated. The “benefit” of these theories, at least in the mind of collection attorneys, is that they typically have lower evidentiary standards than a contract action. Although I believe this view is contestable, it is widely presumed in Michigan that a creditor or debt collector sending a “statement of account” (whatever that means) to an alleged debtor is sufficient for establishing a cause of action against them unless they specifically object to the statement. By pleading this cause, a collection attorney can do an end-run around any contractual agreement between the original creditor and debtor. This may not seem like much at first blush, but more than a few credit contracts contain provisions that can assist a defendant in court. Certain agreements contain so-called notice provisions that state that if either party intends to bring an action against the other, prior written notice must be given. Unsurprisingly, such notice is often not given or there is no record of it. In that instance, the lawsuit itself is premature and ought to be dismissed. If dismissal is not an option, then the defendant has a valid defense, and potential counterclaim, against the creditor for breaching the credit agreement. These and other provision, many of which are unknown to collection lawyers, go by the wayside when account stated is pursued.

As for unjust enrichment and other theories that fall under the umbrella of “implied” rather than “express” contract, longstanding Michigan case law holds that they cannot stand if an express contract, that is a written contract, exists between the parties. That does not stop attorneys from pleading such causes nor courts from granting collectors victory based upon them. Account stated, which I mentioned above, is recognized by the Michigan Supreme Court as a form of implied contract, yet courts routinely ignore that as well.

Without getting too far into the weeds, Michigan has rules of pleading that are often ignored in debt-collection suits. While these rules are rather low level (Michigan is a “notice pleading” state, meaning a party only must be put on general notice of what is being alleged), debt collectors find ways to violate them all the time. Without variance, debt-collection firms will use internally generated forms that are nothing but fill-in-the-blank complaints where the basic information from the spreadsheets mentioned above are punched into the document by assistants or paralegals. These documents are rarely reviewed by an actual attorney. When I have pointed out manifest, even ridiculous, errors on these pleadings, such as not identifying how many parties there are; using correct pronouns; and getting the name of the court and judge wrong, the collection attorney’s response is to shove off blame on their assistants. Rarely have I seen judges admonish them for this.

This is only the tip of the iceberg for how debt-collection lawsuits run. In the next part, I will get into the process of a debt-collection suit, including the manner in which many alleged debtors are served. That is often where the real trouble starts.

On Defending Debt Collection Lawsuits – Part 1

Note: This is Part 1 of a series of posts on the nature of debt collection in court, specifically Michigan courts. This installment contains basic background information on the Michigan court system, which is not substantially different than the systems of other states. As someone who routinely defends people in debt-collection suits, I make no pretense to neutrality. Usury, which is at the heart of almost all debt-collection suits, is a sin; I am no friend of it. And for reasons which should become clear over these posts, I am no friend of deep problems in the legal system that have turned too many courts in handmaidens of the debt-collection industry.

Defending debtors or, rather, alleged debtors in court is a largely thankless job. This conclusion, though reached largely from my experience as an attorney in Michigan, seems to be shared by other lawyers I have spoken with across the country. The ones with the brightest outlooks tend to be legal-aid lawyers who have a modest salary to fall back on along with a cloak of legitimacy in the eyes of the judiciary. After all, they are “pro bono attorneys” trying to help “the little guy” on their way to “more legitimate” legal work in other fields. Whether this perception is accurate or not is neither here nor there; it tends to be the way of things. For the rest of us, of which there are relatively few scattered across America’s legal landscape, the perception is that we are pariahs, troublemakers, legal obscurantists, etc. because we have the temerity to provide what all persons ought to be entitled to, namely a proper defense under the law. Part of that defense, indeed a large part of it, entails holding debt-collecting plaintiffs accountable under procedural and substantive rules intended, at the very least, to prevent precisely what goes on in courts across the country: the bulk filing of under-researched, cookie-cutter complaints that are often unsupported by credible evidence.

In the Michigan legal system, there are effectively two trial courts: district and circuit. The latter, created by the state’s constitution, handle high-level matters such as felonies and civil suits above $25,000.00. District courts, which were created 50 years ago by statute, are adjunct tribunals charged with handling misdemeanors, landlord/tenant proceedings, and sub-$25k civil suits. They are sometimes characterized as “neighborhood courts” intended to be closer to the people than their beefier circuit brethren. Every Michigan county, save for some rural ones, has one circuit court and any number of district courts. My county, for instance, has four (or five—depending on how you want to count) district courts. There is sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that at least some of these district courts are underfunded, understaffed, and undermotivated to serve as anything more than a clearinghouse for unimportant cases.

Of course, any person who has been on the business end of a district court proceeding is unlikely to find their legal matter “unimportant.” A low-level misdemeanor, pled to under prosecutorial pressure, can blight a person’s record for years, leaving them unable to find gainful employment or subject to probationary conditions which, without further assistance, they may very well fail. Landlord/tenant proceedings, too, can have a traumatic impact. An eviction record is a surefire guarantee that future housing will be difficult to find, particularly if one is looking to live in a safe, clean, and stable complex. As for general civil suits, outside of the rare low-stakes business dispute or a jilted lover seeking to get back that “interest free loan” she gave to her cheating boyfriend, the overwhelming majority which clog Michigan district courts are filed by debt collectors.

Now, before getting any further, let me note that not all debt-collection suits are created equal. An initial line can be drawn between those brought by original creditors (say, for example, Bank of America) or debt buyers like Midland Funding, LVNV, or, in the case of student loans, unholy artifices like National Collegiate Student Loan Trust. Almost all of the debts in question are consumer debts: medical debt, credit card debt, student loan debt, and so forth. What these suits share in common is that they are almost universally brought by a handful of debt-collection mills (law firms) that file cookie-cutter complaints en masse in district courts with little to no evidentiary support. While an attorney’s name will appear on these documents, few if any were ever prepared or even reviewed by an attorney. And even if an attorney’s eyes saw them before they moved out the door, the chances are high that the reviewing lawyer is an entry-level associate with limited litigation experience.

Why, you may ask, would any law firm, even a debt mill, behave so recklessly as to file legal documents that likely cannot withstand modest scrutiny? Because they can. Although precise statistics for Michigan are lacking, national estimates point to approximately 75% of all debt-collection suits ending in default. What that means is that after a person is served (or not—more on that later) with a debt-collection suit, they have 21-28 days to file an answer and affirmative defenses. (The time to respond depends on the manner of service.) Answers in and of themselves are not very remarkable: a person either admits, denies, or states they do not have sufficient information to respond to each allegation made against them in the complaint. Defenses, on the other hand, are trickier since certain ones have to be raised immediately or they are deemed waived. For example, if a court lacks personal jurisdiction over a defendant, Michigan law requires that to be raised at the outset or it is waived. The same is true for the statute of limitations. Since most debt-collection suits are rooted, albeit loosely, in contract law, a plaintiff has six years to bring it. And no, just because a plaintiff has blown the limitations period does not mean they won’t try to use the courts to collect.

Should a defendant not answer a suit within the requisite period of time, the debt-collecting plaintiff can file for a default judgment for the full amount it is seeking, plus costs, interest, and statutory attorney fees. It may come as no surprise that the math on these defaults can get a little fuzzy. With no meaningful opposition or oversight, it is not uncommon to find excessive interest tacked on to these judgments or costs inserted that have no basis in reality. Once that default judgment is acquired, the debt-collecting plaintiff is free to use a variety of mechanisms to collect, including garnishing a defendant’s wages, tax returns, and bank accounts or subpoenaing the defendant to appear in court and, under oath, provide all of their financial information to the collector’s attorney. Even if these default judgments are attained illicitly, inaccurately, or the individual subject to them has valid defenses at law, they are difficult to unwind.

If you have read this far, please note I will flesh a number of issues raised here in future installments. There is a lot to be said on how the debt-buying/collecting industry functions, particularly how pools of debt are sold (and resold) between entities for pennies on the dollar before winding up as the bases for most collection suits. When this business practice intersects with the legal realm, serious evidentiary issues are raised before they are, lamentably, ignored by far too many courts. All is not gloom and doom, however. I plan to highlight ways in which some judicial actors have pushed for reform and how a few judges have developed measured approaches to ensure that alleged debtors are not trampled over in their courtrooms.

Unrequired Impressions on an Ecclesiastical Standoff

Nota Bene: What follows is off-the-cuff, unrefined, and unapologetically impressionistic. If you feel the need to get angry over anything below or tell me I am full of it, all I have to say is, “Tranquilo.”

I have, for the past few years, been effectively “retired” from web-logging. There is too much going on in my life to keep up with it and besides, “Catholic blogging” (for lack of a better term) has descended into grifterism. Gone are the halcyon days of the 00s-10s when both Catholic and Orthodox bloggers wrote serious pieces (and sometimes not-so-serious pieces) that both challenged each other’s particular stances while exhibiting genuine self-criticism. Sure, some folks were better at it than others, but almost all of them have moved on. Indeed, some have even left their previous confessions for new communions or, in one notable instance, abandoned Christianity altogether. Such is life. Although I am aware of several Catholic and Orthodox blogs that still exhibit a genuine desire to probe “things ecclesiastical” in a charitable, exacting, and critical manner or, in the alternative, present interesting tidbits of history, spirituality, and theology, I think the “glory days” are gone, or maybe just on hold.

All of that aside, the reason I have (temporarily) returned to this blog is because several people asked me to weigh-in on the recent “Mexican standoff” featuring Steve Skojec (1 Peter Five), Rod Dreher (American Conservative), and Edward Feser (academic and writer). I am not going to rehearse in depth their various arguments; you can find their writings easily enough. The short and the long of it is that Skojec, who has fancied himself a champion of traditional Catholicism for a number of years, has been undergoing a somewhat understandable, though sideways, “spiritual crisis” concerning the state of contemporary Catholicism. Having had a couple of those myself over the years, I cannot blame him. Nor do I blame Skojec for being public about it. It seems he is looking for reassurance, though it also seems he may be looking for it in all the wrong places. The online Catholic world of today is not the online Catholic (or, for that matter, Orthodox) world of a decade or two ago. Despite rabid disagreements, folks on both sides of the divide used to be fairly well-meaning, even if their advice failed to hit the mark. Today, online Catholicism in particularly is a terrain littered with hucksters, grifters, and triumphalists looking to advance various agendas to an unprecedented degree. Skojec seems to have left himself vulnerable to their machinations.

Of course, “agendaism” is not unique to Catholics. Consider Dreher: A former Catholic who went through a very public “spiritual crisis” that apparently brought him to Eastern Orthodoxy back in the mid-00s. Realizing that there was not enough public scandal in his own communion to keep-up the clicks, he has spent an inordinate amount of his post-Catholic career harping on Catholicism while also drawing from (plagiarizing?) Catholic thought in order to bolster his pop dystopian screeds. And so, it comes as little surprise that Dreher immediately piggybacked on Skojec’s crisis to retell, for the umpteenth time, his own. Concomitantly, Dreher has invited Skojec to look to Orthodoxy because, according to Dreher, it has all of these bells and whistles that Catholicism lacks. This is where Feser enters the fray. Regardless of what one thinks of Feser’s Thomas-heavy Catholic theology, he is correct that the Catholic tradition, broadly understood, is not lacking in the riches of the East. However, those riches are too often buried under the rubble of modernity, if not marginalized in favor of an attenuated Latinism that has become depressingly normative over the centuries.

All that said, the reason I was asked to comment on this is because it is something of a public record (though perhaps an increasingly obscure point of personal history) that I spent seven years in the Eastern Orthodox Church after returning to Christianity in my 20s before returning to the Catholic fold in 2011. Members of my extended family remain Eastern Orthodox and indeed my brother will likely be ordained to the diaconate in the coming year. I was married in the Orthodox Church and three of my four children received the sacraments of initiation there. Canonically, I have been and remain Greek Catholic, though I maintain strong ties to traditional Latin Catholicism. While I did experience some hostility toward Orthodoxy in the years after I left, all of that has abated. My “spiritual crisis,” if you will, did not become clear to me until years later. It was not a “crisis about Orthodoxy” so much as a crisis in myself, one that invited me to issue public condemnations of my prior confession in return for inordinate public support offered by Catholics who had been looking to get some digs in on their estranged Eastern brethren. I hope that is water under the bridge now. I have apologized for it. And if my apologies were not sufficient, please know I am issuing them again.

Returning to the main point, I cannot stress enough that the grass is not greener, regardless of where you sit on the East/West divide. (Oh, and before I continue, let me make note that “the East” is not monolithic, but since Oriental Orthodoxy is rarely contemplated as an escape route for Catholics and Orthodox, I am leaving it to the side here.) American Orthodoxy is a backwater. That is not an insult; it is empirical reality. Though most American Orthodox jurisdictions inflate their numbers, the truth is there are likely as many Orthodox in the United States as there are Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago. For some that is a bug, but for others it is a feature. American Orthodoxy does present itself as an enclave at times, historically ethnic but today increasingly ideological, that resists penetration from some unspecified horror known as “the West.” It often comes across as self-consciously exotic, even if many converts have infused it with bland, sometimes even pernicious, American religiosity. To put it another way, American Orthodoxy is a confederation of churches full of saints and sinners; devotion and destitution; liturgy and lies; holiness and hate; coherency and contradictions; etc. That is, it is not all that different from American Catholicism.

I would, of course, be remiss if I failed to mention that Orthodoxy does have certain advantages on average over Catholicism. The liturgy is pretty, if you are into that sort of thing. Most Orthodox clerics, though typically lacking the training and sophistication of Catholic priests, are disinclined to preach heresy on Sunday or put their own “spin” on the Gospel to make it “relevant.” At the same time, due to a certain insularity imposed by circumstance more than intent, Orthodox priests unwittingly perpetuate any number of harmful myths that only serve to exacerbate Catholic/Orthodox tensions. Even those “learned Orthodox” out there who have penned books claiming to “expose the errors” of Catholicism routinely miss the mark, and sometimes laughably so. As a Catholic turned Orthodox turned Catholic, I cannot tell you how mortifying it was for me to listen to Orthodox priests speak raw nonsense about the Catholic Church, including such disturbing delights as: Catholics believe everything the pope says is infallible; Catholics worship Mary; Transubstantiation is a scientific explanation of the Eucharist; Catholics can buy their way out of hell; Catholics reject theosis; Catholics reject icons; etc. Oh the list goes on and on and on…

None of this is to say that the Catholic Church is without its highs and lows. I doubt I need to repeat them here. As a Greek Catholic, I am painfully aware that in America especially, we are the redheaded stepchildren of Catholicism. (Hey, if we weren’t, there would be no Orthodox Church in America.) Because Catholicism is so much larger than Orthodoxy in America, its sins are magnified exponentially. Clergy sex abuse, financial scandals, doctrinal departures, politicization of the Faith, and so on and so forth, exist in both communions; it is typically the Catholic Church’s gross failures that draw widespread public attention. Nothing is more painful to a Catholic who has departed the “faith of his fathers” for Orthodoxy to come face to face with Orthodoxy’s moral failings. This is why, I suspect, individuals like Dreher have more than once turned a blind eye to them; it disrupts the narrative of “pure holiness” or “purer holiness” to find that sinners prowl about all of Christianity seeking the ruin of souls.

At the close of business, it is not for me to say where Skojec or any other Catholic experiencing some sort of crisis should go. I was admonished by a good friend yesterday for reading the whole affair cynically, and so I’ll try not to. Feser has given Skojec (and others) some fine advice and Dreher, ever the opportunist, is just doing what he does to make money (click, click, click). It makes little sense to me that a Catholic distressed over decentralization (synodality), birth control, divorce-and-remarriage, doctrinal imprecision, and the erosion of legality would embrace a communion that has no problem with any of those things. To accept Orthodoxy is to accept a very messy ecclesiology, at least by idealized Latin lights. Spiritually speaking, solace can be found with a prayer rope just as easily as it can be had with a rosary. St. Seraphim of Sarov taught many beautiful things, but so, too, did St. Francis of Assisi. As the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann observed, for the duration of the Church, there have always been more lukewarm Christians than otherwise. Fervency is fleeting, no matter which church doorstep one darkens.

The Stupidest Day

Many folks of mixed will are still busy opining on what transpired at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. I, only half-jokingly, referred to that entire 24-hour period as “the stupidest day in American history.” A friend of mine, Kevin, replied, “The stupidest day so far.”

I have not, admittedly, digested the full range of photos, videos, and first-hand accounts of what transpired in Washington, D.C. two days ago. No matter how convincing (or damning) a particular clip or anecdote may be, there are always those who will say that the entire debacle needs to be placed in its “proper context.” For instance, there are more than a few voices on social media saying what occurred “wasn’t that bad” compared to, say, the French Revolution or the storming of this-or-that government/royal building in the Middle East. Maybe, just maybe, what happened wasn’t “that bad” when compared to the wave of protests that rocked most of the United States during the summer months of 2020. Certainly, those protests, which are commonly (though perhaps not accurately) referred to in the collective as “Black Lives Matter protests,” resulted in more property damage than what occurred in D.C. The human toll was higher, too. Still, I am unconvinced that even those out-of-control escapades carried the same symbolic purchase that storming the Capitol and interrupting an active session of Congress did.

When flipping through the news channels on Wednesday, I heard words like “insurrection,” “sedition,” and “rebellion” spewed casually by a range of anchors, pundits, and everyday folks on the street. The two learned hosts of a law podcast I listen to ran through a host of U.S. statutes criminalizing such behavior while speculating which could be applied to not only those who breached the Capitol building, but President Donald Trump and his cohorts as well. At the same time, there were other voices, mainly from what might broadly be called the Right, which downplayed the whole affair. These were not, I should say, the voices of pure hacks who labeled the intrusion, violence, and destruction as a “false flag” operation staged by a consortium of “deep state” agents and Antifa. These voices were of those who, despite all the evidence, believe they cannot wholly abandon the spectacle of the last four years without sacrificing a piece of their political souls. These voices admit that something disruptive was afoot the other day, but at the close of business it really did not matter. The United States is still standing! The transition of power will occur! What is there to worry about, really?

Then there are those such as me who are left to wonder what this all means not just for the future of any particular political ideology in America, but the ways and means of the country itself. It is raw silliness to presume that Trump’s exit from the White House will reset the political field to where it was 10-20 years ago. “Trumpism,” meaning simply an admixture of the politics of resentment with fear mongering, posturing, and buffoonery, is here to stay for the immediate future. It could, I suppose, fade away in the coming years just as the so-called “Tea Party” movement faded. I doubt it. Already there are those at the local and national level looking to repeat what Trump did, namely turn politics into a pretty plaything for their own personal service while heaping the hopeless masses with unfulfillable promises. Why certain types of persons, specifically certain types of Catholics, find these promises so personally warming when the good Lord Jesus Christ has promised eternal life is a question worth considering, but I will leave that for another day.

Against Thanksgiving

Some people won’t like this, but I find no reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Yes, yes, I know, according to Dale Ahlquist over at Catholic World Report, today is allegedly a “Catholic holiday” because the Patuxet Indian Squanto, who converted to Catholicism after being sold as a slave in Spain, arranged a harvest feast with the Plymouth invaders. From there Thanksgiving was born (or so they say). I imagine more than a few Catholics stormed the Bastille, too, but I see no reason why any should celebrate its commemoration. (I do think Catholics should celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, but I’ll save that matter for another time.) Thanksgiving has also become a day when Catholics (and other Christians) celebrate America’s “proud legacy” of religious freedom despite the fact that no such legacy actually exists. It took Catholics centuries to find pockets of toleration in America and once they thought they found it, what happened? Secularization set in and now bishops, priests, and laity alike gladly surrender to the Zeitgeist in order to prove they are “good citizens.”

An Antiochian Orthodox priest I was once acquainted with was told he had to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving. Vexed at the idea that he would be inadvertently celebrating a bunch of heretics killing indigenous people and stealing their land, he flipped his parish to the Julian Calendar for one day only so the Thanksgiving Thursday would align with the feast of St. Gregory Palamas. This year’s Julian Calendar feast is of another great saint, John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople. St. John pulled no punches during his lifetime, which in no small part explains why he reposed in exile. He admonished the wealthy of his day to first donate to the poor before buying a golden chalice or other ecclesial ornaments for the church. What, I wonder, would the Golden Mouth have to say to contemporary Christians who gorge themselves on sumptuous meals before passing out drunk in front a football game when thousands upon thousands of Native Americans wallow in squalor on barren reservations “furnished” to them by the Government of the United States?

As for religious freedom, is it not time for us to cease genuflecting before that stripped altar? What toleration is left in this country for authentic Christianity is quickly fading. In a generation or less it won’t exist at all. And then what shall we have to be thankful for? What celebrating will occur then? Hopefully the only celebrations that truly matter: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or the Divine Liturgy. Instead of being thankful that we live in a country which legally slaughters babies, denies workers their just wages, and refuses to pay true reparations to the original inhabitants of this land, we can instead give thanks to God for Christ’s salvific death on the Cross and the hope of Eternal Life. Perhaps then we can take what meager material wealth we have left and spend it on bread for the homeless instead of beer for ourselves. Or maybe in lieu of griping about our “loved ones” and rolling our eyes at our in-laws, we can spend that time in prayer, asking our Lord to spare this country the wrath it deserves for its innumerable offenses against its only true head, Christ our King and Redeemer.

A Thought on Integralism and Symphonia for Sunday

It has been nearly two years since Rod Dreher infected American religious discourse with The Benedict Option, an under-theorized mishmash of derivative ideas and conclusions meant to finance its author’s extravagant trips to foreign dinner tables. By spawning a litany of lesser-known “Options” in magazine articles and web-logs, Dreher managed to unwittingly play into liberalism’s hands. Liberalism is not concerned with the “right life” or the “best life” per se, but rather with the “right” or “best life” the individual defines for himself. And so the “Benedict Option” (whatever it means) becomes a choice among many, a mere possibility whose goodness is measured by the number of adherents rather than the substance of its claims. Luckily none of the other proposed “Options” ever gained much traction, perhaps because there is nothing more intellectually loathsome than to be a derivative idea of a derivative idea that, in and of itself, is not particularly impressive.

One other related consequence of Dreher’s drivel is the reduction of all things political to “Options” in the minds of contemporary American Christians, particularly Catholics. Take, for instance, the integralist revival inspired in no small part by The Josias and the earlier writings of its contributors. Both friends and foes of integralism have a tendency to treat it as an “Option,” a political posture that is worth adopting — at least in word — on a visceral basis alone. Integralism “sounds cool” to a certain type of 20/30-something Catholic disillusioned with American politics and its two main parties. Integralism seems “edgy,” and the willingness of integralists to callback to supposed “golden ages” in the distant past or more questionable eras of religious-political union in the last century has a polarizing effect that too many of these otherwise well-meaning Catholics revel in. This is contrary to one of if not the most central tenant of integralism, namely that integralists are doing nothing more or less than holding to the Catholic Church’s indefectible teachings. Integralists do not advance new doctrines or novel theological speculation; they merely adhere to the proper ordering of the spiritual and temporal powers.

On its face, that’s incredibly less “sexy” (or shocking) than saying that one longs for the days of the Inquisition or proudly hangs portrait’s of Franco and Salazar in their “study” (ok, fine, parents’ basement). By promoting a caricature of integralism, one that is more fit to be a Right Wing Death Squad t-shirt design than a topic of serious discussion, these unwitting integralists feed integralist’s critics with ample ammunition to gun-down the integralist thesis (or, rather, a certain degraded idea of the integralist thesis). That is unhelpful. For until the time comes that integralism, properly understood, is taken as neither a novelty nor a romantic hope, it will not only fail to gain traction in the wider Catholic Church, but few if any will begin the heavy lifting required to operationalize integralism in a socio-political environment beset by liberalism. To put it another way, for as long as integralism remains mired in useless discussions centered on some of its adherents’ silly social-media excesses and poor rhetorical choices, it will always have the appearance of an idea, of an “Option,” that can be freely chosen (or not) without serious intellectual and moral consequences. If that is all integralism truly is, then we need it not at all.

None of this is to say that integralism is beyond criticism or that integralists cannot disagree among themselves. One challenge to integralism that remains more hypothetical than realized at this stage is the Eastern Orthodox concept of symphonia. Leaving to the side for the moment any criticism of “symphonia in practice” as opposed to “symphonia as proposed,” symphonia does away with the hierarchical structure of the spiritual and temporal powers intrinsic to integralism in favor of an integrated model of ecclesiastical and secular authority. Under symphonia, temporal power is not directly subordinate to the spiritual, but rather interwoven with it. In the Byzantine, and later Russian Tsarist, iterations of symphonia, the emperor is vested with a coordinate role in protecting and promoting the true religion alongside the Church hierarchy (specifically the patriarch). Some argue that this is necessary insofar as the Christian East knows nothing of a central ecclesiastical authority figure in the way Western Christendom does with the papacy. While the bishops may, in theory, all be equal successors to the Apostles, it is the temporal ruler, the emperor, who binds them together and calls them forth with the dogmatic unity of the Church is threatened. Integralism, by symphonia’s lights, goes too far in subordinating the temporal power to the spiritual while also claiming indirect temporal authority to the spiritual power. This hierarchical structure makes the temporal the handmaid of the spiritual, an arrangement that is both theologically unsound and practical untenable.

Integralist adherents, mainly Latin Catholics, may wish to dismiss symphonia’s claims on the thin ground that it belongs to the Christian East, specifically the Eastern Orthodox, and therefore has no say in the doctrinal structure of the Catholic Church. Maybe. However, does not the Christian East no less than the Christian West belong by right to the Catholic Church, that is, the one Universal Church of Christ? Is it so clear at this stage that integralism has vanquished symphonia? Or do both models have room to exist within One Church? There is no space to answer those or a myriad of other questions here. Rather, they are brought up only to suggest that even if integralism should be conceptualized not as an “Option” but rather part and parcel of the Church’s historic social doctrine, then can it stand alone when an equally ancient and arguably more successful model (at least for a time) in symphonia is also available? For those inclined to dismiss symphonia out of hand, remember that without it there would be no Nicene Creed.

A Tiny Postscript to Yesterday’s Post

I confess I was both surprised and heartened by the positive reactions to yesterday’s post. Having not blogged regularly for approximately two years now, it is impossible to predict if anything posted will ever get read. In scanning Twitter, I noticed a few comments concerning the reaction of certain online traditional Catholic males toward fellow Catholic females who, apparently, lost their virginity prior to marriage. (I write “apparently” because I am not sure how these Catholic men know who is or is not a virgin unless these ladies are advertising it.) This led me down a social-media rabbit hole where I found, much to my chagrin, a great deal of “commentary” (loosely defined) on why a “touched” woman is unfit to be a true traditional Catholic wife.

Let me be clear: “touched” is a euphemism of my own design. The adjectives I encountered in my visits to the four corners of online trad-dom included, but were hardly limited to, “corrupt,” “spoiled,” “unclean,” and “immoral.” Not surprisingly, I found scant commentary on traditional Catholic males who lived “Augustinian” lifestyles prior to finding the Latin Mass and even less on what is likely a far more pervasive problem among that demographic, namely pornography. On what basis, I wonder, is a female who has engaged in a monogamous sexual relationship outside of marriage more dirty or foul than the male who makes not-infrequent visits to PornHub to peruse videos that would make Caligula blush? Say whatever you want about Christianity replacing the “Old Law”; traditional Catholicism has its own deeply engrained notions of “ritual purity” that happen to be targeted toward a single sex.

This is not to say that the “slut shaming” traditional Catholic male community found online approaches the matter on the basis of either authority or reason. Their negative reactions to non-virgin Catholic females is almost entirely visceral. These women are “forbidden fruit,” objects of both desire and derision. These attract attention, wittingly or not, because they offer the idea of access to something these males have never had, and yet most of these ladies are now committed to “withholding” said access until marriage. And so the traditional Catholic males, by and large, do not know what to do with that information. Why should they “pay” for something that was otherwise given away “for free”? Compound this sideways view of things with those general feelings of inadequacy so many inadequately socialized males committed to a religious minority are often encumbered with and what you have is a recipe for fruitless resentment.

Since I am disinclined from dispensing advice and find moralizing tedious, let me say that regardless of what gets spewed online, my sense is that at the close of business a lot of the online Catholic rhetoric is not reflective of the on-the-ground reality. There are far more traditional Catholic men than women, and converts-to-tradition are overwhelmingly male. To the extent these men want wives, they are going to have to expand their horizons beyond the Mary Margarets, Catherine Annes, and Ann Catherine Margaret Marys of their imaginations. I do not mean that men should pursue morally casual women (or vice versa). No one in their right mind wants to be wedded to someone who snatches an extra 100 when passing “Go” in Monopoly or believes the infield fly rule extends to the outfield during postseason baseball games.

What is “Convertitis” in Latin?

A traditional Catholic friend and writer recently lamented in private about the cabal of young-ish covert-to-traditionalism types who feel compelled to pontificate on “things [traditional] Catholic” on web-logs, online publications, and social media. He feels – rightly so – that these folks ought to put a lid on it, at least for the time being. I cannot say I disagree with him. Having been a convert myself at one time (to Eastern Orthodoxy) and young blogger (I started when I was 23), I understand the temptation to share every thought and feeling that springs forth from my being. I also get that with conversion comes a great deal of misplaced zealotry. Converts to traditional Catholicism (who may or may not have been nominal Catholics beforehand) revel in throwing stones at the so-called “Novus Ordo Church” while also taking potshots at other Christian confessions they deem “heretical” and/or “schismatic.” Converts to Orthodoxy are similar, though they typically spend their time going on about the supposed “laxity” of cradle Orthodox while ripping on Catholicism. (For those unaware, a vast majority of converts to Eastern Orthodoxy are former Protestants, most of whom cannot let go of their deep-rooted anti-Roman biases.)

Speaking for myself, there is very little that I wrote during my time as an Eastern Orthodox Christian that I stand by today. (Thank Heavens my old web-logs are but digital dust.) It was not until after I returned to Catholicism in 2011 that I finally gained some perspective on my Orthodox days. Here in 2019, it seems that too much time has passed for me to give that period a fair accounting. That is one reason why I now opt to tread lightly around Orthodoxy, qualifying my criticisms when warranted and doing my best to apply a hermeneutic of charity to the Orthodox despite the fact many (if not most) refuse to apply the same toward Catholicism (especially Greek Catholicism).

As for the current batch of neophyte traditional Catholic commentators, they are mostly harmless despite being unoriginal, unimaginative, and uninspiring. Any person of sound mind who has read the works of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Michael Davies knows all they need to of the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church. What more is there to say? God bless those who have something constructive to offer, but they are few and far between, and most have a decade or more of post-graduate life experience behind them. I cannot see for the life of me what benefit accrues to a single soul to read another digital screed against the “revisionist-homosexualist-relativist-ecumenist” mafia that apparently controls the Catholic Church. And no, neither I nor anyone else should be privy to what this-or-that traditional Catholic is “giving up” for Lent. I assure you: not only is it trite, but no serious ascetic will be impressed. (On this point I must mention that the normative fasting practices for the Eastern Orthodox Church are exponentially more demanding than anything a Latin Catholic blogger has thought up.)

I could offer up some words of caution, but no one is going to listen. If they did, I might say something to the effect of, “Be careful what you write today; it will come back to bite you tomorrow.” Or, to put it another way, “What future law firm/hospital/accounting office/fast food restaurant that you plan on applying to is going to be impressed that Googling your name instantly yields a dozen blog posts and 1,000 Tweets about how the Jews control the United Nations?” Should the Catholic Church begin healing her many wounds, particularly the ongoing sex-abuse scandal, I assure you it will not be because you blogged about it. In fact, I can super-super, double-dog guarantee that ecclesiastical healing will not come about because you ripped your local pastor a new one on the Internet for some minor infraction of the 1962 Missale Romanums’s rubrics or you shot off 15 paragraphs about how the Divine Mercy Chaplet is a fraud.

Rather than write, let me suggest you read. While I concede that some of Archbishop Lefebvre’s works are rather dry, Michael Davies’s are not. After you finish his corpus, expand your horizons a bit and take a walk on the Eastern side. Pick up Fr. Aidan Nichols’s Rome and the Eastern Churches; it will cure you of the delusion that “to be Catholic” is “to be Latin.” While you are at it, get ahold of Fr. Robert Taft’s magisterial study, The Liturgy of the Hours East and West. It ought to dispel any notion that the “Roman liturgical crisis” began a mere 50 years ago. And for Heaven’s sake, acquaint yourself with the Church’s authentic social magisterium, both through the original papal encyclicals (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Quas Primas, etc.) and secondary works like Fr. Cahill’s The Framework of a Christian State. By the time you finish all of that while pursuing additional works that come to light during the course of your studies, you should be old enough to realize you should not blog or write anything on the Internet.

 I hope to get there someday myself.