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Do not abandon your Mother

When a Catholic leaves the Church because he is scandalized by heresy, sexual abuse, and the like, this is like fleeing the scene when one’s mother is being attacked, lest one suffer harm oneself.

In Catholic theology, the Church is not to be identified with a mere aggregate of her members, not even those members who happen to hold ecclesiastical office at any particular moment.  She is an institution which existed before any of her current membership did and will continue to exist when they are gone.  But more than that, she is a corporate person, who can be said to think and to will, and to have rights and duties and other personal characteristics.  Even more specifically, she is a person of a feminine nature, the Bride of Christ and the Holy Mother of the faithful, nourishing them through sacrament and doctrine in a way analogous to a human mother’s nourishing of her children.

For this reason, the character of the Church is not to be looked for in a snapshot of the members who exist in any particular generation, but rather in the attributes that persist through time.  In particular, her doctrine – the “mind of the Church” – is not to be found in the body of theological opinions that happen to prevail among laymen, theologians, priests, or bishops at some period of history.  Rather, it is to be found in the formal teaching of the Magisterium over time, both extraordinary (official definitive decrees of councils, popes, and the like) and ordinary (the consistent and constantly reiterated teaching of centuries which, simply by virtue of this consistency and reiteration, is authoritative even when not conveyed in conciliar decrees, ex cathedra statements, and the like).  Similarly, the holiness of the Church’s character is not necessarily to be found in the moral attributes that prevail among the membership or clergy of a particular generation.  Rather, it is to be found in her consistent tendency for two millennia to produce saints.

If a man suffers for weeks from a broken arm or a persistent flu, we don’t for that reason judge him to be generally of poor health.  Nor do we do so even if such conditions recur from time to time.  Someone of generally good health can suffer bouts of illness.  And in the same way, the Church’s indefectibility and holiness are not undermined by the fact that in some generations she is especially afflicted with members and leaders who are foolish, wicked, or otherwise fail their Mother and her divine Spouse.  The Church, as it is said, thinks in centuries.  And that is the scale at which she must be understood.

Naturally, the skeptic will have all sorts of questions, but getting into the details about what sorts of errors are compatible with the Church’s claim to infallibility is not what this post is about.  I have addressed such matters elsewhere (see the links below). This post is primarily addressed to those who agree with, or at least sympathize with, the claims the Catholic Church makes about herself, but who are scandalized by the moral and theological crisis she is currently suffering through.  And it is occasioned by Rod Dreher’s recent comments on Catholic traditionalist writer Steve Skojec’s cri de coeur about the state of the Church.

Dreher famously left the Catholic Church for Eastern Orthodoxy some years ago, after covering the clergy sexual abuse scandal as a journalist, and having understandably been appalled both by the evil perpetrated by the abusers and by the failure of the hierarchy properly to respond to it.  Skojec is appalled by this abuse as well, and also by the heterodoxy that has in recent years not only gone unchecked by the highest authorities in the Church, but been positively aided and abetted by some of them.  But he also bemoans the insularity, self-righteousness, ineffectiveness, and susceptibility to crackpot political ideas that he sees among too many of his fellow traditionalists.  And his article was occasioned by outrage at some shabby treatment he says his family has been subjected to at his traditionalist parish.  Skojec stops short of saying that he is going to leave the Church, but Dreher suggests that Skojec should consider following his own lead and switching to Eastern Orthodoxy.

I know nothing about the people Skojec accuses of spiritual abuse, and thus have no comment on the fairness of his charges or on his personal situation, other than to say that he is obviously suffering and I feel bad for him and wish him well.  And while traditionalist Catholics are in general unfairly maligned, it is of course true that there are crackpots and insular and self-righteous people among them (as there are within any group) and that the political and ecclesiastical crises of recent years have exacerbated this.  I also do not question Dreher’s sincerity, and it is clear to anyone who has read his work over the years that he suffered greatly from what he uncovered while reporting on the sexual abuse scandal.

Dreher’s dramatics

I do, however, question Dreher’s judgment, which is manifestly bad, and not an example for Skojec or anyone else to follow.  By his own admission, Dreher’s decision to leave the Church was driven by emotion rather than reason.  From what I can tell, he does not even claim to have any response to the arguments that once convinced him of the truth of Catholicism.  He talks instead about how his heart was broken by the evil done by the abusers, the hypocrisy and corruption of the hierarchy, and the self-deception of well-meaning fellow Catholics.  He talks about coming to see that his own commitment to Catholicism had been marred by pride and self-righteousness.  He tells us that to be a good Christian it is not enough to have good arguments and to follow the letter of the law.  He tells us that in the days before he left the Church he had become so filled with anger that it “blinded [him] to the good and holy things in the Catholic Church,” and that leaving for Orthodoxy provided a kind of release that led to a healthier spirituality.

Well, that’s all fair enough.  The trouble is that it simply does not in any way entail that the claims the Catholic Church makes are false, and Dreher knows it.  Again, he offers no counter-arguments in response to the arguments he once took to be compelling.  He also admits that exactly the same maladies that he saw when he was still a Catholic can afflict, and have afflicted, every other movement, organization, and church, including Eastern Orthodoxy.  Hence he essentially acknowledges that he has no rational basis whatsoever for what he did, but was led by an emotional response to his own personal situation.

Like all people who act contrary to reason, Dreher tries to rationalize his doing so, with clichés about how we are creatures of emotion and not just intellect, how following rules and producing tidy arguments is not enough, etc.  Of course, this is all muddleheaded.  Dreher himself would not be impressed by this sort of rhetoric if it were offered by someone who disagreed with him.  For example, Dreher is a Christian, and one who embraces the traditional theological and moral teachings of the faith.  If someone rejected all of that on the basis of some bad experience or emotional crisis, and went on about how we are creatures of emotion, how rules are not enough, etc., Dreher would not take this to be a good reason to doubt the truth of Christianity.  He would say that he feels for such a person and does not judge him, but that ultimately such a person is simply mistaken.  What he does not seem to realize is that the same thing can be said about him.  Like someone who understandably but wrongly rejects Christianity because of painful personal experiences, Dreher has understandably but wrongly rejected Catholicism because of his own painful personal experiences.

No doubt Dreher thinks there is more to it than that, but he explicitly declines to offer any rational grounds for thinking that there is more to it than that.  And when you start out by eschewing reason, you have by definition lost the argument.  Dreher would regard such a judgment as too coldly logical, but of course, that is precisely to double down on the mistake rather than to show that it is not a mistake.  Human beings are by nature rational creatures.  Yes, we are more than that, but the point is that we are not less than that.  Accordingly, though a sound worldview ought to satisfy our emotions, if it cannot also pass the test of rational justification, then of necessity it floats free from objective reality.  Dreher knows this, and rightly condemns subjectivism when he sees it in Critical Race Theory, transgender extremism, and other malign ideologies and movements.  He just doesn’t see it in himself.  This cognitive dissonance is why, despite eschewing reason, Dreher has for years been going on at length trying to justify his eschewal of reason, and therefore succeeds only in tying himself in knots.

I don’t say this to condemn Dreher, who seems to be a good guy and whose writing I have enjoyed and profited from over the years.  But it must be said when he is trying to lead others into making the same mistake he made.

Providence’s timetable

It is easy for writers whose focus is on politics and current events to be too easily scandalized and impatient.  This is probably especially so of us Americans.  Our “shining city on a hill” idealism demands perfection in our institutions, leaders, and fellow citizens.  When we don’t get it, our “can do” mentality wants a solution to the problem and wants it now.  When satisfaction isn’t forthcoming, our “don’t tread on me” mentality threatens to throw the bums out when we can, and to pick up our marbles and go elsewhere when we cannot.

Well, this is simply not how divine providence works, as Scripture and Church history make clear.  Christ repeatedly warns us that we will face suffering, persecution, martyrdom, false teachers, and a degree of wickedness that will threaten to make our charity wax cold, and that this is part of the deal when we take up our cross and follow him.  Why are we surprised when it happens?  Do we suppose that he didn’t really mean it?

Skojec is scandalized by the fact that the confusion and heterodoxy fostered by Pope Francis’s many doctrinally problematic statements have not yet been remedied despite his having been in office for eight years.  This is quite ridiculous.  Eight years is nothing in terms of Church history.  The utter chaos introduced into the governance of the Church by Pope Stephen VI’s lunatic Cadaver Synod lasted for decades.  So did the chaos of the Great Western Schism.  Pope Honorius’s errors were not condemned until forty years after his death.  Further examples could easily be given.  Few people remember these events now, because things eventually worked themselves out so completely that they now look like blips.  If the world is still here centuries from now, Pope Francis’s chaotic reign will look the same way to Catholics of the future.

Then, of course, there is the martyrdom which the earliest Christians suffered for centuries, which Christians of recent decades have suffered under communism and Islamism, and which countless Christians have suffered in the centuries in between.  Needless to say, this is worse than being treated shabbily by self-righteous fellow Catholics or being disappointed by feckless bishops.

In no way do I mean to mock Skojec’s or Dreher’s evident pain.  On the contrary, I feel for them.  But pain can blind us to reason and to our duty.  And it can blind us to the fact that we do not suffer it alone, that Christ permits us to undergo it only because he suffered it himself.  We need to put suffering into perspective, to unite it to Christ’s suffering, and to accept it in a spirit of penance and solidarity with others who suffer, especially those who suffer worse.  We need to keep in mind that, in the Church at large, Christ will set things right in his own good time.  And we need to focus on the fact that in that part of the Church over which each of us does have control – namely, the state of our own souls – we need endure only for the four score and ten that is the most that most of us have.

It’s personal

Dreher, Skojec, and others scandalized by the state of the Church may still find this too bloodless and impersonal.  Fair enough.  I return, then, to the point with which I began, which is that the Church is a personal institution.  When a Catholic abandons her, it is not like quitting a political party, or cancelling a subscription, or deciding no longer to use a company’s products.  It is more like breaking off a relationship with another human being.

But in fact it is worse even than that.  When a Catholic leaves the Church because he is scandalized by heresy, sexual abuse, and the like, this is like fleeing the scene when one’s mother is being attacked, lest one suffer harm oneself.  It is to abandon Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ, to the heretics and perverts, rather than to aid her against them and to suffer with her while they assail her.

The matter couldn’t be less academic.  What is in question is no mere intellectual error.  It is a matter of personal loyalty or betrayal.  Or don’t we believe what Christ said about the nature of the Church for which he himself suffered and died?

(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on Dr. Feser’s blog on May 28, 2021. Rod Dreher responded to it here. Dr. Feser responded in this May 29th post.)


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About Dr. Edward Feser 17 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of Five Proofs of the Existence of God and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both published by Ignatius Press.

17 Comments

  1. Dr Feser correctly interprets a tendency to leave Catholicism for Eastern Rite stability, “Dreher has understandably but wrongly rejected Catholicism because of his own painful personal experiences”. Agreed the Church transcends its present occupants, nevertheless the multiplicity of views orthodox and heterodox of its constituency is the Body of Christ in time. Mary’s heritage is a Church of sinners that hopefully will be saved. And he [Feser] is correct on a vital issue, that we’re actually called to, expected to endure suffering the confusion, the terrible abuse, the bizarre utterances of Pope Francis. Steve Skojec expects resolution as I do. However, eminent canon lawyer, former Apostolic Signature Cardinal Raymond Burke realized after submitting the Dubia that canonically you can’t nail down heresy with Francis. Francis masterfully leaves whatever he says open to different interpretations. We know what he means, indicated by the deleterious ‘effects’ of his pontificate. Apparently during this crisis that affects all Catholic doctrine negatively leaving the perpetrator definitively not a heretic we are called as the Apostle says to complete what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. That is to be immersed as participants in the historical, ongoing suffering of Christ in the world. It’s that participation with the suffering Christ that matters, not the resolution. Christ will himself resolve all.

    • I think, Fr. Morello, that you mean “Eastern Orthodox”, as “Eastern Rite” refers to those 20+ churches in full communion with Rome. Anyhow, anyone who thinks they are going to find stability and ecclesial utopia in Eastern Orthodoxy are, sadly, deluding themselves. As hard as it might be for some Catholics to believe, the sort of chaos found within of the many Orthodox Churches (ie, Russian, Greek, Serbian, etc) is easily as bad, or even worse, than that found within the Catholic Church.

      • That’s a revelation regarding Eastern Orthodox. Thanks Carl. I wrongly assumed Dr Feser meant a Catholic Eastern Rite like the Maronite. Rereading, Feser did say as you allude that Dreher wrongly left Catholicism. Am I correct then regarding the Maronite Rite and other Catholic Eastern Rites like Maronite and Melkite as more stable? From experience they certainly seemed so.

  2. I would say to those who decide to separate from the Catholic Church this: “What precisely does the Catholic Church teach that you no longer believe?” If the answer is “Nothing”, then I would say this to you: The Catholic Church is not a club. The Catholic Church is not the Elks Club, the Rotary, or the Lion’s Club. We need your presence to witness to the Truth. Return to the True Fold.

  3. The Father , in generating The Son, sending forth The Spirit , thus blessing The Son as one who requits the Father’s Love, in the same measure …
    The Church as The Bride , blessed with the same ongoing outpouring of The Spirit in and through the Sacred Humanity of The Lord , blessing the children too to be able to requite that Love for the Most Holy Trinity and thus live true to the Image …

    the responsibility of those who are more blessed , to make reparations for those who are not doing same ..

    ‘ God allows trials to bring good come out of it ..’ AFIK , very traditional view point .
    May The Spirit undo the knots in all our lives that we be faithful to desire to love with His Love and in His Will , to help trust that The Church is ever serving the Queen in her battle against the dragon with its heads and crowns .

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSzZyotQRDw

  4. Should we be entirely convinced by Dr. Feser’s remark (?): “Skojec is scandalized by the fact that the confusion and heterodoxy fostered by Pope Francis’s many doctrinally problematic statements have not yet been remedied despite his having been in office for eight years. This is quite ridiculous. Eight years is nothing in terms of Church history.”

    “Ridiculous?” Were I as a mere layman to cause such worldwide scandal through such a pattern of uncorrected ambiguity, and worse, should my betrayal be revealed by a searching examination of conscience within a month or two, not centuries? And back when the Church was more intact, would a commitment to restitution be required of me as a condition of sacramental absolution if my moral obtuseness was so knowing and deliberate or habitual as to require conversion and this level of responsibility and response?

    The Church thinks in across the centuries, and the owners of the speeding Titanic thought in terms of a scheduled arrival time across the Atlantic. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Hamlet, Act I, scene iv [67]).

    But, hey, we the captive-audience passengers and victims of the past eight years, no less than of future centuries. . . who are we to judge?

  5. I sympathize with Steve Skojec as I have been subjected to spiritual abuse by a priest as well, which didn’t destroy my faith in Catholicism but prompted me to go to another Parish. I how resent people like Rod Dreher who are trying to coax Catholics to use this as an excuse to leave the Church, either for Easter Orthodoxy or (in the cases of many of the trolls commenting on this issue on Catholic sites) Evangelical Fundamentalism. As a convert from a Protestant (Dutch Reformed) background I can confirm that the same problems a lot of Catholics complain about in the Catholic Church -Clericalism, sexual abuse, corruption, spiritual abuse- are alive and well in Protestant denominations. In Apartheid South Africa, if you were a Dominee (Pastor) of the Dutch Reformed Church, you were basically deemed above the law and could get away with anything, be it financial or sexual (except opposing the regime or engaging in interracial sex). Today, a lot of Evangelical Mega-Pastors here in South Africa, as has been the case in the United States, are facing criminal charges from fraud to rape of children.

    The Church is part of the world, and sadly the problems of the world will be with it’s members. If you flee the Bride of Christ in the hopes of fleeing from such problems, then you are bound to be disappointed.

  6. Just speaking from my own experience with people who have left the Church, there’s almost always some other underlying cause for their departure in addition to the reasons they claim.
    Some reasons are easier to state than others.

  7. Added to Steve Skojec’s existential angst [highlighted by Søren Kierkegaard as a diffused anxiety] in Skojec’s case, as my own and others it’s quite specific rather than diffused. Eight years dismissed by Dr Feser as virtually inconsequential in comparison to preceding history, Honorius I doesn’t realistically hold water as suggested by Peter Beaulieu above. Never at any time in Church history has anyone pope or otherwise so severely diluted the entire corpus of Catholic doctrine. Pope Francis has achieved this and we seem helpless [except to suffer as the Apostle commends in identity with the sufferings of Christ]. Amoris Laetitia’s thesis of mitigation and primacy of conscience has disarmed presbyter and bishop regarding repentance. With doubt preeminent benefit of the doubt must be given to the unrepentant penitent. That is why starting with Maltese hierarchy Carte Blanche regarding communion was conceded to the laity. That’s now in practice elsewhere Sicily, Philippines, Germany and spreading. Who and what is Antichrist. Whether the pontiff is in good conscience that is God’s judgment [to his credit Francis has said he intends to upset the applecart to loosen things up for a more embracing Church, that the Holy Spirit will aright things. Nonetheless his consigliere Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ said he believes the changes are destined to be irreversible]. If we realistically consider the effects on the Church of this pontificate can we reasonably expect a reversal of so widespread irreligiosity, when homosexual behavior, adultery have been virtually canonized both civilly and ecclesially? If that isn’t cause for angst and dismay then what is? Certainly Christ remains with the faithful, but those numbers appear dwindling. The current reactionary outpuring by bishops Cordileone, Naumann, Aquila, Wall,Olmsted, Paprocki et al are a ray of hope.

    • Hello , not sure I’m in the right column but in reading Douglas Beaumont’s article and his appearance of the tv show about returning to the Catholic Church, I’m a little overwhelmed with his sharp tongue and smoldering anger at his former employer . It’s obvious Mr. Beaumont is highly intelligent and gifted , but his dislike for his former employer is very evident and takes away from his scholarship . It reminds me of a debate I attended between a Calvanist and Armenian . I asked my unsaved friend what he thought , he said they both lost . He didn’t want to join anything to do with the subject after sitting thru the heated debate . I had to agree with him – nobody won that night

  8. The Church is the family of God. She is founded on the New Covenant ratified in Christ’s Blood on the Cross. Covenants are the means by which kinship bonds are created. That is why Holy Matrimony is a covenant. Covenants are supposed to be permanent.
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    Our relationship with God is not one based on the emotions. It is based on the will. God gave us free will so that we would be free to love Him. In the “Our Father” we say “Thy Kingdom come. Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” In contemplative prayer the Prayer of Union centers on the conformity of wills. In the Hypostatic Union Christ’s human nature has a full human will. Christ’s prayers at Gethsemane were about the will.
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    The problem with the emotions is that they come and go. A faith based on emotions would be one of infatuation, a kind of spiritual puppy love. To me this probably explains people who say that they are spiritual and not religious. Such people go from one spiritual infatuation to another. It is the spiritual equivalent of the hookup, shack up culture.
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    One problem with the modern Church is that she wants to have her cake and eat it too. On one hand we talk about the Church entering into engagement with the modern world, and on the other hand we talk about the Church operating on long time horizons. In a world of a 24/7/365 news cycle the Church needs to have her act together. Church dissidents with access to the 24/7/365 media can be expected to exploit any power and teaching uncertainties left open by the Magisterium. We also need to remember that we live in a post-fall world. In the post-fall world Satan is the ruler of the world. When the Church opens her windows to the world this can be an entry point for the smoke, the spiritual smog, of Satan to enter into the Church. The Church appears to spend more time on matters of physical air quality than she does on matters of spiritual air quality, which is a major part of her primary mission. The Church needs to spend more time dealing with matters of spiritual pollution.

  9. When I’m asked how I can accept the shameful failings of the church I used to say, “I can’t”. My disappointment in the pope, my American bishops knows no bounds. I have drifted through decades of populist changes and moral scandals, an unlabeled Catholic until today. I accept the label DR Feser has pro-offered, I’m a “mere aggregate” wrapped up in a “corporate” body. Over the years I have changed how I participate and thus relate to being a Catholic.I have sought out cloistered monasteries and prayed in their chapels. To hear only their voices as they remain unseen, has shown me that a path based on purity exists. As I travel, the 7 am morning mass opens the door to my day. I try attend no matter how inconvenient it is.The worshipers are few, but sincere.
    I consider the people of San Isidro in Santa Fe. A parish of working people in a community of luxury seekers. A parish that has accomplished much already. They have built a small school for their children and now seek to build the church. I left my donation to their building fund knowing like the mustard seed,it will grow and blossom. Yesterday, at 7am mass, in St Patrick’s of North Platte Nebraska, I found the graduation pamphlet from their high school in the pew. Less than a dozen names in the class, in a parish that like too many others, has seen larger congregations. The class of 2022 is probably as small,yet the faith of the families remains as large as ever.
    I had to stop and reread the DR Fesers title,”Do not abandon your mother” as the article seemed to be a continuation of argument between 3 people and the reader is merely an attendee at the event. The examples I have given are “faithful” believers in a community. And that is where I believe the church exists, in the communities of believers, not in a jaded and self-serving hierarchy. Dr Feser’s article lured us in by tugging at our heart string and then like the hierarchy of our church, he buffeted us with dark clouds and ill winds. As storm clouds pass overhead, the faithful on the ground only pull their cloak of faith tighter and trudge on, knowing that the skies will clear and the sun will shine again.

    • It seems difficult to fault Dr. Feser for reporting and analysing a situation which he well understands. His caution to both Skojec and Dreher is well considered, sound, prudent, wise. What faithful Catholic hasn’t questioned the craziness of our Church hierarchy these days? When the hierarchy’s shenanigans, apostasies, and downright silliness lead one to feel ASHAMED of our Mother, it seems natural to want to walk away. That Feser cautions against that course is to his credit and his honor. The dark storm, ill winds are the tempest. While Jesus sleeps in the boat on Lake Tiberias, his disciples are rebelling, causing ruckus, and failing to understand that Jesus is with us and working through our angst. It is where we more readily find and know our misery which should lead us to seek his strength. Austin Ruse says we are privileged to live in such times. As both Ecclesiastes (and Dickens) attest, the times are both the worst and the best.

  10. Thanks you Dr Feser for an article that needed to be written. Dreher is no doubt a very decent soul but as a regular reader of his articles at American Conservative his thinking is too often frustratingly ‘circular’. Each individual or issue he focuses on is inevitably nearly always brought back around to provide an opportunity to reassert his own subjective assumption and frequently used to justify a particular position he is currently advancing. And as is well explained here, while a dogged critic of the bad fruits of the West’s current, all-dominant ‘pick-and-choose’ culture of radical individualism, he is ironically a perfect example of the very phenomenon himself. Needless to say, this effects the efficacy of otherwise well-intentioned attempts to constructively critique faith and culture and contribute to their proper renewal. If the Evil One can enter the seminaries and colleges, then surely it won’t be too hard for him to find his way through the door of your ‘intentional community’. ‘Rabbi, that I might see.’

  11. Thank you for a very helpful and timely article.
    I have been troubled in recent years by the proper definition of the “Magisterium.” I recall reading a few years back about a speech the Apostolic Nuncio gave to the U.S. Bishops telling them that they had had to follow “Pope Francis’ Magisterium.” My reaction at the time was “What?” “Say again.” “Each pope gets to have his own Magisterium?”
    Confusion also arises, for example, with the issue of capital punishment, opposition to which seems to now be an article of faith for Pope Francis and the US Bishops notwithstanding millennial Church teaching to the contrary. The Pope and the US Bishops are entitled to their own prudential political views but to assert those views as what the Church now teaches is highly problematic for those of us slow learners trying to understand the true Magisterium of the Church.

  12. The news from Canada is dark this week. I keep returning to 2002 and realized that we have been subjected to a confidence game. Gregory and McCarrick pulled it off and I fell for it. I won’t leave Holy Mother Church. I go to Confession, I attend Mass, I give what I can. But I want nothing to do with the institutional Church. I keep my contact with the parish to a minimum.

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