Further Remarks on (Neo-)Integralist Pathologies

By way of follow up on my post from the other week, “Distributism vs. (Neo-)Integralism: Some Remarks,” I want to make mention of a handful of pathologies evident in the integralist or, rather, neo-integralist outlook. This list, which is admittedly impressionistic, is hardly exhaustive. Moreover, I am going to bypass drawing distinctions between integralism, which I still have some faith in as a spiritual-intellectual project, and neo-integralism, which is the dominant (and distorted) contemporary iteration of that “tradition of thought.” Although integralism is a Catholic tradition at its core, its influence and connections are detectable outside of strictly Catholic circles.

Victor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, is an integralist hero despite being a member of the Calvinist Hungarian Reformed Church. The charlatan pseudo-journalist Rod Dreher, who has made a living off appropriating Catholic intellectual currents while simultaneously crapping on the Catholic Church, is ostensibly an Eastern Orthodox Christian; his political idol, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is allegedly one, too. Dreher once locked horns with integralists online, but he has found common cause with them as of late due to his recent divorce (from reality). Various online pockets of far-right miscreants, the sort who thought storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was “cool” until the FBI got involved, express integralist sympathies at times even if they are not invested in smells n’ bells Catholicism.

Integralism’s primary pathology is an obsession with power. While integralists pay lip service to power being exercised in accordance with divine and natural law, few (if any) integralists are prepared to incorporate thick conceptions of either into their work. The closest they come is so-called “common good constitutionalism” which appears plastic enough to ordain a plethora of political arrangements without regard to right. Banal examples of common good constitutionalism in practice, such as having elemental rules of the road rather than chaos on the highways, does little to assuage skeptics’ fears that this integralist offshoot desires only basic background rules that allow a society to “flourish.” Such a conception of law is little different than the classical liberal legal order suggested by libertarian scholar Richard Epstein, whose Simple Rules for a Complex World is at least honest in its aims.

Why integralists are reticent to “fill in the blanks” on common-good constitutionalism or any other political-legal concept they promote is because it is important to them that it align with the wishes of a concrete (and at least mildly sympathetic) political authority. Integralists mortgaged their credibility during the Trump Administration by overtly or covertly embracing the “neo-Constantinian” justification for supporting a borderline madman unfit for office. Some in the integralist camp really believed that with a second Trump victory would come positions of power for themselves; the disappointment over his uncontestable defeat was bitter.

Another integralist pathology is tribalism. With their guru Adrian Vermeule leading from behind, integralists quickly circled their wagons online to ensure no “false thinking” weaved its way into their ranks. When brown-shirted thuggery on social media fails to work, integralists quickly dispatch their heads into the sand lest they acknowledge serious challenges to their sideways outlook. At times integralists will decry the downfall of academic freedom (or, really, their place at the discussion table since “academic freedom,” like “free speech,” is a sullied principle in their eyes), but they have a limited interest in real scholarly engagement. Even fellow Catholics who question the integralist project, particularly in light of post-Vatican II Church teaching, are often ignored or shouted down. And though integralism felt compelled in the early stages of its reemergence to connect deeply with Catholic social thought, few if any integralists bother these days.

All of this points to a third pathology in integralist thought, namely its irreconcilable endorsement of hyper ultramontanism with an empty anti-liberalism. Nary a word is mentioned concerning the sea change that occurred in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, particularly with respect to the relationship between church and state. For integralism to be coherent, the 19th and early 20th century socio-political encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Pius XI, and to a lesser extent Pius XII need to be in play. Yet integralists routinely reject what is called the “hermeneutic of rupture” approach to Vatican II in practice, though I know of no serious hermeneutical theory advanced by an integralists on this matter. Whether he considers himself an integralist or not, Thomas Pink surely comes the closest with his detailed analysis of Dignitatis Humanae and whether it represents a policy rather than a doctrinal change. Even if Pink’s assessment is correct, that does not paper over the fact that most integralists are wary to wade into hermeneutical waters lest their comedic fealty to whoever happens to be the pope is questioned.

There can be no serious doubt that Pope Francis is not an integralist, yet the ultramontane integralists rabidly defend him in their usual thuggish manner. The papacy, like Catholicism itself, has instrumental value for integralists. It represents a seat of seemingly unlimited power, one that has the benefit of lying beyond human convention. It is a “model” of sorts for them, albeit a poor one. Cast in a Schmittian light (such as what the former Nazi penned in Roman Catholicism and Political Form), the papacy is uninfected structurally with liberalism. (No words of comfort are offered on whether papal policies can be infected with liberalism.) This is perhaps why integralists are not bothered by papal blessings for liturgical deforms and doctrinal distortions; if they come from the top, they must be defended as good.

Look How They Love One Another

During several of the many revisions/enhancements/reconsiderations of his philosophy of history, Eric Voegelin drew attention to the uncertainty of life and its effect on the human soul. Life is hard—a banal observation until you start unpacking what that means. Materially speaking, life is exponentially easier today than it was 100 years ago. At the spiritual level, life may be as difficult as it has ever been. Never before have human beings been inundated with so much pneumatic trash. Keeping in mind the plethora of competing religions, sects, denominations, ideologies, and “reasoned” denials of all that once made us three-dimensional persons which work to assail Apostolic Christianity (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, etc.), it is little wonder that pseudo-intellectuals, grifters, and charlatans prowl about the Internet seeking the ruin of souls (and their money). So-called “defenders of the faith” fall over themselves to convince you not only of the reality of existential threats to “true religion,” but that they possess the means to combat them.

All of this is very performative, of course. Some are better at it than others. Unsurprisingly, many of these individuals and the cyber-enterprises they created in their basements turn on each other regularly. Looking for a second at the microcosm that is traditional Catholicism, it rarely resembles a callback to a “better time.” Rather it appears as bellum omnium contra omnes. Principled disagreements, of which they are legitimately many, are an afterthought in the race to accuse this-or-that person or group of being schismatic, heretical, sowing discontent, disobedient, capitulating, selling out, and so on and so forth.

Many wants to believe that the story of Christianity is mostly neat, linear, and without the sort of massive upheavals that are pervasive today. Sticking with Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council represents just such an upheaval or, perhaps, the gateway to numerous upheavals, both foreseen and unforeseen. Bishop Bernard Fellay, the former Superior General of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), observed repeatedly that when it came to the Council, both the “far left” (liberal Catholics) and “far right” (sedevacantist Catholics) shared a common belief that Vatican II changed things. Moreover, in defending the Council, conservatives (including those who were once referred to as neo-Catholics) joined the liberals in believing the Council is good because it came from the Church. Sedevacantists and some other extreme traditionalists, on the other hand, believe that because the Council is bad, it cannot have come from the Church. Those Catholics stuck in the proverbial middle are left with a mystery, an uncertainty if you will, that is nearly impossible to reason through. Faith is essential, but it is now in short supply. Is it any wonder then that unqualified self-promoters have a fresh opportunity to step into the fray to “make sense” of this dilemma?

This “making sense,” as noted, often means pointing fingers. The SSPX, as the veteran voice of resistance to the modernist pathologies that have invaded the Church, is routinely subjected to fierce criticism. Liberals believe the Society is in outright schism. Conservatives tend to agree with this position, though their tone has softened in light of recent circumstances, including a growing recognition that John Paul II, the pontiff that the Society so “egregiously disobeyed,” may not have been all he was cracked up to be. Traditional Catholics vary. Some, wanting to be seen as obedient and refusing to act in any way that forfeited their ultramontane bona fides, kept the SSPX at arm’s length or denounced the fraternity altogether for the usual litany of tired, unconvincing reasons. Others view the Society as “competition,” which explains why certain individuals and their enterprises expended a disproportionate amount of energy denouncing it.

Although it is not my place to defend the SSPX, especially since it has done an incredible job explaining its positions through books, periodicals, videos, and podcasts, I mention it only because it is a frequent topic of conversation among those who purport to “explain” the Catholic Church’s current circumstances while trying to square the circle by offering a worldly “solution.” Any soul familiar with the history of Catholicism over the past century ought to know that the SSPX is hardly alone in taking extraordinary action to preserve the Faith and minister to the faithful. The saintly patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Joyf Slipyj, fortified the UGCC against the brutal persecution of Soviet Russia and the political machinations of the Vatican. Given that few comprehend history well, it is not surprising that Patriarch Josyf’s heroic witness for the Church commonly goes unnoticed.

Besides, understanding others as they understand themselves, and through the lens of charity, rarely draws clicks.

The 7/27/22 Post

I made passing mention the other week of Catholic (and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox) social media being haunted by professional grifters, that is, those who blend armchair theology and unctuous spirituality outrage porn. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, grifting became so out of control that the charlatans turned on each other. Traditional Catholics chided far-right conservative Catholics for being weak which, in turn, prompted the latter to accuse the former of being crypto-sedevacantists. QAnon-style conspiracy theories spilled the banks of national politics while far too many of my co-religionists set aside prayer, the Bible, and common sense to hang their souls on the words of an episcopus vagans. It does not look like the crazy train plans to slow down anytime in 2022.

Meanwhile, over in the (neo-)integralist universe, the march for authoritarianism-for-authoritarianism’s sake continues. Gone are the days when this “movement” (if it can be called that) possessed spiritual roots; now it is the equivalent of a warped role-playing game where sorcery is secondary to a rarely mitigated lust for the last dregs of power. Confused over what it is they even stand for these days, it is not hard to find integralists fawning over China; making plans to relocate to Hungary; and praising Vladimir Putin’s murderous intentions toward Ukraine because somehow that beleaguered land has become the battleground for a clash of civilizations. It is meet and right that the integralists are increasingly viewed as cosplay jokesters who have worn out their welcome at the discussion table. They cannot demand to be taken seriously when they flee from criticism and opt for personal smears over intellectual engagement.

As for the Orthodox, well…it is a mixed bag. With a radically smaller audience than their estranged Catholic brethren, grifting cannot pay the bills. Orthodox blog-dom, like Catholic blog-dom, is radically less interesting today than it was 10-20 years ago. The loudest Anglophone Orthodox voices that I have come across online lack theological sophistication. These folks learned their history from YouTube videos and their understanding of anything not culled from one-sided polemics is minimal at best. Some of these lads (and yes, they are almost exclusively lads) are well-meaning; they want to have something—anything—to say that draws clicks. Unfortunately, the markets for lamenting over the Fourth Crusade or talking nonsense about the oft invoked yet poorly understood energies/essence distinction collapsed long ago.

Some might say I am complaining and complaining needlessly at that. Perhaps my approach to Christian social media should be the same as my approach to professional wrestling: Watch what I like and shut up. I confess that I have no grand solution to any of this foolishness. The best proposal I can draw up is for everyone to sit down, be quiet, and watch Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. It is my current litmus test for the soul. I dare say that any person who spends approximately 90 minutes with this one-inch animated creature should renounce their professional guile while gaining a genuine appreciation for the wonders which surround us daily. Will it work? Doubtful…but I still have hope.

The Worst of Times?

Handwringing is never in short supply on Catholic social media, especially traditional Catholic social media. (Who would have ever thought such a thing could exist?) The latest impetus for despair is the set of restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass (TLM) imposed by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Other anti-TLM moves, such as Cardinal Blase Cupich showing the Institute of Christ the King the door in Chicago, are contributing to the consternation. And while one former Catholic college professor has intimated that I am not taking the situation as seriously as I ought (perhaps because I do not believe Eastern Catholic churches should become TLM hubs), I remain disinclined from screaming, “The sky is falling!” We are not living in the end times. We are not even living in the worst of times, at least as far as the traditional Roman liturgy is concerned. Those who enjoy rending their garments often lack perspective. Until at least Pope John Paul II’s 1988 document Ecclesia Dei and, really, not until Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007, the TLM was unavailable to a hyper-majority of Catholics. Indeed, the 1970s and 80s were the “wild West” of traditional Catholicism with random with typically aging clergy doing what they could to say the old Mass across the country. Few had time for liturgical minutiae. Arcane rubrical debates could not be front and center for the simple fact that clergy and the communities they ministered to had to get by with what they had—and it was not a lot.

Recently I had the privilege to do editorial work on a new book, The Story of Fr. George Kathrein. Kathrein, a native of Austria and Redemptorist, experienced the 1970s liturgical reform firsthand. Despite resistance from his superiors and fellow Redemptorists, Fr. Kathrein pressed ahead, offering the TLM and other sacraments according to the traditional Roman Rite to flocks of Catholics. And while he was never officially a member of the Society of Saint Pius X, Kathrein maintained ties with the fraternity while working to aid the most abandoned souls in the Catholic Church. Even as the years slowed him down, Fr. Kathrein never lost sight of his mission, nor did he fret for the Church’s future. Years before the strictures on the TLM were loosened, this Redemptorist and numerous other clerics forged ahead, laying the groundwork for the contemporary traditional Catholic movement.

How many untold stories are still out there? As time takes its course, more and more will be lost to history. Now more than ever, traditional Catholics need to hear and read about the “bad old days.” Perspective is key. Unfortunately, there is a temptation for not just traditional Catholics but all people to “outsource” their problems, to hope that someone else will come along to clean things up and set the room back in order. When Summorum dropped, Catholics accustomed to hyper-papal centrality and top-down ecclesiastical structuring, thought the good times were here to stay. Ah, but what one pope giveth, another pope taketh—and there ain’t nuttin’ you can do ‘bout it.

Or is there? Without committing to the thesis that 2022 is 1972 or 1982 redux, it would behoove traditional Catholics to take a close look at the years following the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae to assess how (relatively) bad they really have it (or not). What lessons can be distilled from that era and applied today? And though I am under no illusion that priests read this web-log, surely there are some throughout the country’s dioceses who will not allow the shifting and arbitrary decrees of misguided hierarchs to impede their duty to save souls. The highest law of the Church cannot be abrogated.

On a Modest Liturgical Proposal

The other day, a traditional Catholic writer whose work I have followed with interest for many years began posting a “proposal” of sorts on social media that roughly went like this: Due to the ongoing crackdowns on the traditional Latin Mass (TLM) by bishops hellbent on applying Traditiones Custodoes (Pope Francis’s motu proprio that put to bed his predecessor’s tradition-friendly edict Summorum Pontificum), perhaps Eastern Catholic parishes should open their doors for this liturgy to be celebrated within their walls. There were a few other peripheral suggestions mixed in as well, but I’ll leave those to the side for now.

Without delving into the canonical conundrums such a “solution” may raise, it is important to note first that Catholic churches “sharing space” is not an innovation. A number of Eastern Catholic communities located outside of their ancestral lands have relied on Roman parishes for material support, including worship space. As a youth, for instance, I was an altar server for a Melkite Greek-Catholic priest on an Air Force base in New Jersey. We were compelled to make do with the “ecumenical” layout of the base’s main chapel. Is it optimal? No. It is, however, far better than nothing. And so, it is at least conceivable that, under needful conditions, a TLM could be served in an Eastern parish, especially where there is no other established Roman community nearby.

That situation is a bit different, though, from the one the aforementioned writer is proposing. His interest, as far as I can tell, is for Eastern churches to open their doors to the TLM where the local Latin ordinary has either forbidden or radically restricted the celebration of the TLM within his diocese. This instrumental approach to the Eastern churches, even if well-intentioned, should not stand for at least two powerful reasons. First and foremost, it sets the stage for tensions between the Latin ordinary and the ruling Eastern hierarch, which does nobody a lick of good. Imagine if a Latin Catholic bishop opened one or more of his parishes to local Eastern Catholics who were disgruntled with their rightful bishop, perhaps because they do not like celebrating the liturgy in the vernacular or prefer to retain certain traditions that have faded out over time (e.g., the use of Latin devotions in Eastern parishes). The howling would be deafening.

Second, such a situation hardly fosters unity among traditional Roman and Eastern Catholics. Rather, the latter’s parishes become escape hatches for the former, with the former apparently not participating in the life of the community. That is not Catholic. It probably does not need to be said that Eastern Catholics have and continue to find themselves alienated by their Western brethren when they fail to conform to Latin norms in (and sometimes outside of) Latin environs. Why should a special exception be extended in the opposite direction? And what does it say when Roman Catholics want to use a Eastern parish for their liturgy but not “sully” themselves in communal and liturgical prayer at Eastern services?

None of this is to say that Eastern Catholic churches should slam their doors on Roman Catholics. Every Catholic, regardless of rite or ecclesial affiliation, has the right to worship at any Catholic liturgy. Granted, some people get bent out of shape about this, but let that be their problem. Although the traditional Roman Rite was a bit of a mystery to me growing up and remained so for many years of my adulthood, I have come to embrace it as a beautiful, spiritually enriching, and reverent expression of the Church’s unwavering devotion to God. Any Eastern Catholic, regardless of their sui iuris church, who has not experienced the TLM should run, not walk, to the next one that is available in their area.

At the same time, I hope that Roman Catholics will seek out Eastern liturgies where available and approach them with the same respect they hold for their own rite. Chauvinism is a stupid vice. The good work of eradicating it will not be advanced by turning Eastern parishes into liturgical rental units. The problem will only be exacerbated.

The Ecclesiastical Politics of Inevitability and Eternity

In his latest book, The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder contrasts what he calls “the politics of inevitability” with “the politics of eternity.” In Snyder’s words, the former is “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” This form of politics is acutely known in both the United States and Europe, albeit with different nuances and emphases. The politics of eternity, which in Snyder’s opinion lie at the heart of Vladmir Putin’s Russia, “places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past.”

Transplanted to an ecclesiastical context, I wonder if it isn’t too much to say that the Catholic Church, with its internalization of liberal premises during the last century embraces the politics of inevitability while the Eastern Orthodox Church, a large segment of which is beholden to Putinism, labors under the politics of eternity. Eastern Orthodoxy’s narrative of victimhood, which is often applied as readily against Muslims as it is Catholics, has become one of its distinguishing features in the last century or so. The Orthodox, and the nations in which they hold denominational control, have no particular responsibility for native corruption, material scarcity, and social disorder; “the Latins” in 1204, “the Turks” in 1453, the “Uniates” in [insert every year here] have entered into a pan-national, trans-historical conspiracy to erode the integrity of God’s one Holy and Apostolic Church and those secular powers duty-bound to protect it.

As for the politics of inevitability, it has been commonplace—at least up until the reign of Pope Francis—for Catholics to turn a blind eye to the problems in the Church and society on the belief that they will work themselves out. Because Christ promised to St. Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church was to be built and “the gates of hell will not prevail,” everything from a decades-long sex scandal to a banalized liturgy to a collapse in sound catechesis are interpreted as mere bumps on the road to a Church just as accustomed to speaking human rights-jargon as it is preaching the Gospel. The Catholic Church, now tasked with being the world’s largest NGO, is present to cheer on and support the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, freedom of conscience, economic flourishing, and so on and so forth. Just as sure as Christians once believed Christ will come again, the Catholic Church instills an intramundane eschatology among its faithful where the light of liberalism will finally illumine all.

Francis’s pontificate has not overshadowed the Catholic politics of inevitability, at least not wholly. While certain conservatives in the Church may be having buyer’s remorse over Francis’s election and are starting to wonder if the new ultramontanism that swept the Church during John Paul II’s reign was a good idea or not, by and large they believe that better is around the corner. The next pope, perhaps a prelate from “Holy Africa,” shall come to power and correct the errors and the Franciscan papacy. It’s not that Francis is a “bad pope” (for there can be no such thing!) or a “heretic” (what’s that?); it’s just that his “style,” his “charisma,” and his “lack of sophistication” concerning theology and doctrine have sown confusion—the sort that can still be disposed of quite easily and without any significant harm being inflicted to the Mystical Body of Christ.

The politics of eternity, the only politics the Eastern Orthodox seem willing to embrace on a mass scale, may keep their communion ostensibly safe from theological, spiritual, or intellectual trends that could upset their comfortable calcification, but at what cost to the Great Commission? With the exception of some minor incursions into the geographic west (Europe and America), the vast expanses of the world constitute a hostile “other” that threatens Orthodoxy’s wellbeing. For Orthodoxy, now is the time for its particular churches to rally together under the protectorate of a single, state-backed ecclesiastical juggernaut (namely the Russian Orthodox Church) rather than tolerate new assertions of autocephaly. The Ukrainian question, for instance, is about more than the historic rights of the Ukrainian Church; it is about the soul of Orthodoxy itself, including its willingness to accept being true to itself while no longer denying its position as both an heir of and contributor to what may still be called “Western Civilization.”

Should the Orthodox ever break free of their politics of eternity, it is doubtful they will immediately submit to the politics of inevitability. Orthodox history, which is inextricably bound up with the history of Mediterranean, Slavic, and Arab peoples, harbors a harsh realism deep in its bosom; nothing is truly inevitable except the Second Coming and nothing is more impossible than the return of Byzantium. Can Orthodoxy overcome this tension in its character if it ever gets past the politics of eternity? Yes, it can, and the likelihood of it doing so appears, at least at this moment, equal to the chances of Catholicism shifting away from inevitability to what one Cistercian monk called “the politics of nostalgia.”

Looking for Antiques Near Sedevacantists

I am not a professional antique hunter; in fact, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it entails other than walking into stores, looking around, and waiting for something to catch my eye. More often than not, this results in a series of failed endeavors where some anxious owner of a small town shop puts his hopes of making a sale on me and I inevitably disappoint. If more of these enterprises sold bottled water or cigarettes, I would at least provide them a courtesy purchase. Instead, I typically find myself hoping another customer enters the premises so I can bolt for the door, walk briskly down the sidewalk to the car, and never look back. Similar scenarios involving yours truly have been played out at used booksellers, record stores, and comic book shops across the land.

Today’s tale, which went down with nothing in the way of either a successful purchase or the need to make a hasty exit (the shop owner paid me no mind), took place in the two-star town of Middleville, Michigan, a 30-minute drive south of Grand Rapids surrounded by farms, bars, and gas stations. The downtown area has benefitted from a bit of investment in recent years, though it’s nothing to write home about. Approximately 500 feet from the business district, on good old Main St., sits an old Protestant church building with a weatherworn sign out front reading: “Most Holy Rosary Church – Catholic Latin Mass – Sunday 6pm.”

Knowing immediately that this was no diocesan church, I repaired to my phone and after a bit of searching confirmed my suspicions that it was a sedevacantist chapel—one that happens to be run by the CMRI (Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen). Other than the American flag flying distastefully over the structure, there was nothing especially remarkable about it. I couldn’t see in the windows; but at least lightning didn’t strike me down as I walked around the property wondering if its ever visited outside the normal operating hours. Truth be told, I had hoped the front doors would fly open, with either a cleric or—more likely—sacristan there to inquire about my business. In the few minutes I was nosing about, I had even come up with a few form answers, my hope being to engage a real-life sedevacantist in everyday chitchat. Realizing that was not coming to pass, I hitched my horses to the wagon and moved down the road.

West Michigan, as most should know, is a deeply conservative region of the Midwest. Both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America have their headquarters here, and for decades Grand Rapids and Holland were dominated by a Dutch Calvinist ethos. While that ethos has retracted in recent years, particularly in Grand Rapids, the area remains a conservative hub with neoconservatives, Tea Partiers, and old-guard movement conservatives uneasily occupying the political landscape together, self-assured that the political Left will never amount to anything more than a blip on the radar. Grand Rapids’s Easttown neighborhood may fly rainbow flags and boast lawns littered with anti-Trump and “Black Lives Matter” signs, but the ideologies they represent will never be politically relevant.

Catholicism in the region is, at best, a mixed bag. The “spirit of Vatican II” hit the diocese of Grand Rapids like a hurricane, leveling orthodoxy, liturgy, and good taste without compunction. The surrounding dioceses didn’t fare much better. Today, only a couple of “official” safe havens remain for those with a conservative-to-traditional sensibility. And so it came as little surprise that sedevacantists have set-up shop on the distant outskirts of the distant outskirts of town, though without much self-promotion or fanfare. Apparently to be with the sedevacantists requires special election, not advertising; a certain form of degraded Calvinism, as usual, gets the last say around these parts.

Had I come across one of the sede faithful who attend Most Holy Rosary, what might have happened? What would have offended them more? That I recognize Francis as the Pope of Rome or that I am a Greco-Catholic? Maybe they would have gone on to me about the horrors of married priests, the failure of “Uniates” to become “full Catholics” by adopting the Roman Rite, or the use of the vernacular in a large swathe of Eastern Catholic worship. Perhaps they would have thought of me as an “Eastern Orthodox schismatic.” On the other hand, maybe they would have been courteous, hospitable, and inviting. Could it be that they would have looked into the eyes of this poor sinner and felt a genuinely (albeit misplaced) longing to save my soul, to bring me closer to Christ, not for their own glory but the greater glory of God? I have met a Calvinist or two with similar hopes for my soul; it’s still possible I’ll come across a sedevacantist who wants the best for me, too.

Some Thoughts on The Keepers

Less is being made of the new Netflix murder-drama spectacle The Keepers than I had anticipated. After the rousing success of Making a Murderer and, prior to that, the podcast Serial, I had assumed that The Keepers would become the talk around the water cooler at thousands of offices across the country. Apparently not. That is not to say that there hasn’t been some discussion of the miniseries’ contents. The graphic depictions of sexual abuse on teenage girls at a Baltimore Catholic school in the 1960s are as difficult to overlook as they are to stomach. Personally, following the grotesque revelations made in episodes 2 and 3, I had to hit pause on the show lest I find myself overtaken by irrational anticlericalism. Yes, I am well aware that the abuse accounts contained in the series are a gross exception, not the general rule, but acknowledging that fact does not relieve the burning sense of betrayal all Catholics should feel when presented with evidence of priests who violate all standards of decency and care in pursuit of their vile desires.

Like any expose of the Catholic Church, there are points where The Keepers tries to exaggerate the extent of secrecy, malfeasance, and general vice within the Church. There are, naturally, stories of people losing (or, rather, abandoning) their faith because of the abuse that went on, and the “hero” of the story—Sister Catherine Cesnik, who was murdered because she was apparently prepared to expose the abuse scandal in 1969—was a “hip” nun who had been granted permission to live outside of the cloister sans habit prior to her death. (It is hard to not shake the feeling that if she had remained living with her order rather than a mid-grade apartment complex, she might still be alive.)

Beyond the tales of abuse, corruption, and cover-ups galore, The Keepers provides an indirect, but interesting, snapshot of Catholic life during the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. While the image of Catholicism as it appeared in decades prior is still present, there is a noticeable shift in attitude among some of those interviewed about what it meant to be Catholic. For instance, one interviewee, an ex-Jesuit priest, had at one point proposed marriage to Sister Catherine just prior to his ordination and before she was to take her final vows. He was unashamed in his recollection that he had grown to love her; and though she apparently talked him into fulfilling his vocation, it didn’t “take” as they say. Like so many priests and religious after Vatican II and the laicization of the Church, he opted to abandon his calling, perhaps no longer seeing any “value” to it.

As the series proceeds, it’s hard not to notice the shift in aesthetics and tone that are presented over the decades. Well-adorned temples that had been standing for more than a century give way to barns decked out with modernist statuary surrounding priests vested in horse blankets presiding over an emaciated rite. One of the abuse victims, up until her grueling trial of attempting to get the Diocese of Baltimore to take action against the priest who repeatedly raped her, boasted of her involvement in the Church, complete with serving as an “Extraordinary Minister” of the Eucharist. Now, however, the unconsecrated fingers that once held the Body of Christ have been washed of all dealings with the Catholic Church. There was, in her mind, nothing left for the Church to give in exchange for everything some of its priests had taken from her decades ago.

In addition to the abuse accounts themselves, nothing is more chilling in the series than the descriptions of how these perverted clerics used the confessional to their advantage. Without compunction, these priests excommunicated themselves by violating the sacred seal of Confession in order to manipulate their victims into submitting to their carnal desires. While the abuses detailed in The Keepers are undoubtedly excessive, they do call to mind the more general problem of how clerics can use confession to inflict psychic and emotional harm on others, all in the name of being their “spiritual fathers.” Rather than dispensing God’s infinite mercy, they seek to aggrandize themselves by micro-managing the souls entrusted to their care, often leading them not to virtue but to emotional confusion and spiritual despair.

It is difficult for me to recommend The Keepers to everyone. Those who have suffered some form of abuse, regardless of the source, will find the graphic depictions contained in the miniseries difficult to stomach. Those already inclined to blame the Catholic Church for so many of the evils in this world will probably find the series to be little more than a confirmation of all of their prejudices. Even faithful Catholics might be so put off by what unfolds during the documentary that they may begin to question their place in the Church generally. Heaven forbid. However, despite its flaws and occasional biases, The Keepers should remind us that the Church is both a divine and very human institution. It is not, by virtue of its divine establishment, immune from satanic machinations and the corroding power of sin. Its history is one riddled with crises, both moral and doctrinal. While it may be difficult to acknowledge that, particularly in a day and age when “religion” is believed to be either outdated or representative of little more than easygoing sentimentality for the “spiritual,” there’s no good reason to look away from that reality, either.

Monday Mumbling

A Catholic writer who runs a fairly well-trafficked Latin traditionalist website recently tried to rebuke me on social media for inordinately focusing on “things Eastern” vis-à-vis the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church when, so the argument goes, Pope Francis is systematically destroying the Latin Church (which, as we all know, is the dominant form of Catholicism today). This came in response to my rhetorical question over whether or not the same traditional Catholics who are upset over Francis’s recent intervention into the affairs of the Knights of Malta would holler as loudly if the Pope moved to impose clerical celibacy on the Eastern Catholic churches. Clerical celibacy, mind you, was just an example; I could just as easily used azymes. My point was not to discuss the issue of clerical celibacy but to highlight a certain myopia which exists within the Catholic Church (particularly among traditionalists) when it comes to the Christian East, particularly Eastern Catholics who, for centuries, have had to endure incessant incursions into their proper autonomy from Rome for largely indefensible reasons. Why are these incursions—which still transpire today—acceptable but the one against Malta not?

As a Greek Catholic, I have no love for what Pope Francis is doing to the Latin Church; but I believe in consistency. If it is beyond the pale for the Ordinary of Rome to meddle with longstanding constructs of sovereignty, to say nothing of traditional disciplines and norms of the Latin Church, then why should the East ever be fair game for any interference from the West? Granted, most traditional Latin Catholics don’t think on such things, just as they don’t pray the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary either.

Now, before people start jumping down my throat claiming that I am unfairly picking on Latin Catholics, let me remind everyone reading that I am equally critical of Eastern myopia, particularly when that myopia leads to emptyheaded triumphalism. This is not an exclusively Eastern Orthodox phenomenon, mind you. Plenty of Eastern Catholics—cradle or otherwise—love reveling in the apparent differences (read: deficiencies) found within Latin Catholicism compared to the allegedly “pure East.” For some of those coming from the Byzantine tradition in particular, anything which is not “Byzantine” immediately becomes suspect, if not presumptively aberrant or heretical. Such folks also rejoice at finding instances where the Latin West broke with some (allegedly) “unbroken” tradition from the first millennium, but howl in agony when a Latin notes the many instances where the Byzantines did the same. Undoubtedly the most contentious example of this breaking involves the Eastern Orthodox condoning the practice of second (and even third) marriages when the first spouse is still living—a rather late development that emerged from the conflation of Byzantine (Roman) civil and ecclesiastical law. Make mention of this inconvenient historical truth as a Greek Catholic and be prepared to be called a “Latinizer.”

At some point one has to realize this is all very silly (if not terribly sad). There is no form of triumphalism on this earth that is in any way, shape, or form defensible. Moreover, in a day and age where mankind’s historical horizon stretches to unprecedented lengths, the ignorance which certain bands of Apostolic Christians cling to for dear life are as lamentable as they are perverse. The Church neither began in 1563 nor ended in 1054. Our Lord Jesus Christ had 12 Apostles, not one. No one thought until recent centuries that pious devotions ranging from Novenas to Akathists should displace the Divine Office. Oh, and by the way, “thought” is not a late-medieval Scholastic innovation, either.