Breaking Communion – Reactions to Rod Dreher’s Eastward Turn

Earlier this month Rod (“CrunchyCon”) Dreher announced the news — disappointing but not entirely unexpected — that he and his family were now communicants at an Orthodox church (“Orthodoxy and Me” October 12, 2006).

I encountered “CrunchyCon” Rod Dreher only briefly in his sojourn on St. Blog’s parish — in the combox of Amy Welborn’s Open Book. I have yet to get around to reading the book for which is blog is named. As a journalist who covered the scandals in the Church and the resistance and obfuscation of the clergy, I think it is understandable how completely sickened, disillusioned and jaded one might become, having been exposed to that degree of corruption in the ranks of the clergy and heirarchy. As Dale Price reminds us, Rod’s former bishop is Charles Grahmann,

currently cooling his heels as he awaits the acceptance of his tended resignation offer. That would be the same bishop who is remarkably solicitous of gropers in the confessional and proved to be a noted enabler of pedophilic monster Rudy Kos.

and, later:

the sex abuse Scandal has been the most horrific of these. Starting with the hideousness of children being violated. But not stopping there. The Scandal revealed a deep rotting disease within American Catholicism that has only begun to be recognized, let alone treated.

Rod saw it up close and personal as a journalist covering the story for years. As much as I am loathe to quote him, Nietzsche’s insight cannot be denied: “And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” There is only so much horror one can stand, especially when the atrocities are committed by those who are supposed to bear the name of Jesus Christ.

If disillusionment and repulsion to the Catholic sex-abuse scandal and the ongoing corruption of the hierarchy was one reason for leaving, it was — however dominant — not the only reason. Dreher goes on to declare his intellectual rejection of the claims of the Church:

I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that I came to seriously doubt Rome’s claims. Reading the accounts of the First Vatican Council, and how they arrived at the dogma of papal infallibility, was a shock to me: I realized that I simply couldn’t believe the doctrine. And if that falls, it all falls.

And, in a further clarification :

I don’t deny that reason played a minor role in my conversion. It was primarily emotional and psychological — but I do deny that that minimizes matters. As I’ve said, a decade ago, I argued with a friend considering Orthodoxy and Catholicism that all that mattered was doctrinal truth. He said he worried about raising Christian kids in the mess that is US Catholic parish life. I dismissed those concerns, and said he should instead concentrate on the doctrinal arguments. Well, real life — and having kids of my own — showed me how brittle that position was, and is. Human beings are not machines. We all have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, between radical objectivity and radical subjectivity. I used to think that being a Christian was merely a matter of finding the most logical arguments, intellectually assenting to them and doing your best to live by them. It is far more complicated than that, and I found through the scandal my intellect humiliated.

Many an angry word has been exchanged by readers in response to Rod’s conversion. Yet, there are a few Catholic bloggers who have offered some very thoughtful and respectful reflections to Dreher’s rationale and consequent decision to break communion with the Church. It is to those that I’d like to turn . . .

  • Scandal and Bad Reasons, by Scott Carson The Examined Life October 14, 2006):

    Precisely because he is an intelligent person, he knew that Catholicism is right, and he needed an intellectual justification for doing what he was doing, and the only possible way to get that justification would be to call into question the teachings of the Church. In short, he made a conscious decision to become a functional protestant, while wishing nonetheless to continue enjoying the fruits of the genuine Sacraments.

  • When a Catholic leaves the Catholic Church, by Alvin Kimel. Pontifications. Kimel had penned two responses to Dreher when he had originally heard of his contemplation on leaving the Catholic Church: Ten thousand scandals do not make one doubt (Pontifications May 8, 2006), and Dare we entrust our children to the Catholic Church? May 11, 2006. Both are worth revisiting. In his latest essay, he extrapolates from Dreher’s experience the chief question:

    In light of Dreher’s departure from the Catholic Church, I only have one question: Was he in fact a Catholic? I do not have access to Dreher’s heart and soul, and I certainly do not condemn him for his decision. I regret that he has left the Catholic Church, and I grieve the sins of the Church that led him to renounce the divine authority of the Vicar of Christ. I pray that I may never be so tested.

    My interest at this point is purely theoretical. How are we to understand a person who enters into the communion of the Catholic Church and then departs from that communion?

  • Dreher Looks East, by DarwinCatholic. May 6, 2006 (responding earlier this year to Rod’s initial admission that he was contemplating Orthodoxy):

    By his own description, one of the reasons why Dreher is currently finding it so hard to be Catholic is that initially, after his conversion, he expected so very, very much of it. It’s tempting to think that Catholicism, or some little portion of it, is very near to perfect. And seeing as the institution Church is made up of humans, it clearly isn’t.

    Perhaps it’s easier to see this as both a cradle Catholic and a student of history, but it’s always seemed to me that the proof of God’s divine guidance is not that the Church is so sinless, but rather that she has remained wholly true to the deposit of faith despite being populated and occasionally run by some exceedingly sinful people.

  • In his own BeliefNet column, “Church of Sinners”, Mark Shea counters Rod’s apologia with a challenge:

    . . . I fear that the Orthodox communion will not, in the end, provide permanent sanctuary for Rod. For in the end, what Rod cites as unbearable in Catholicism is also true of Orthodoxy. For instance, he suddenly discovers that he cannot believe in Vatican I’s dogma of papal infallibility because of the ecclesiastical politicking that led to the formulation of that dogma. Nevertheless, he accepts as sacrosanct the dogmas of the first seven councils of the early church (Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and so forth)–all of which settled crucial issues of faith and doctrine concerning Christ’s divinity and humanity, and all of which are accepted by the Orthodox as well as Catholics. This betrays a historical naiveté that leaves him open to some unpleasant surprises when he learns how the sausage was made at those historic councils. Likewise, when Rod discovers the history of Orthodox sins that rival anything in the history of Catholic sins—such as a long habit of being in the pocket of the state to such a degree that many clergy and even some bishops in the Soviet Union were on the KGB payroll and routinely reported the contents of confessions to the Stalinist police–what will he do? When he discovers that the Orthodox have their own struggles with priestly abuse and episcopal cover-ups, how shall he find purity then? Will he content himself with the fact that his own particular parish is beyond reproach, so it doesn’t matter what happens in the larger Orthodox communion? If so, how is that different from the Protestant sectarianism he left when he became Catholic?

  • “The doxing of Rod Dreher” Sacramentum Vitae Oct. 14, 2006: Michael Liccione notes the ex post facto nature of Rod’s rejection of papal authority, but goes on to offer a stern warning to the clergy:

    . . . many Catholics who leave the Church do so either because the clergy haven’t formed them properly or because the clergy betray their trust. Dreher’s case is only one of the more public, and well-explained, examples. But in one form or another, his name is legion.

    Such facts are all the greater proof that nothing will improve in the American Catholic Church until the quality of the clergy, especially the higher clergy, improves significantly. In the last decade, it has improved only marginally; the majority of bishops, regardless of theology, are still more bureaucrats than shepherds. That’s what has to change; if it does, all else will change with it, and for the better.

  • By way of Amy Welborn (“Dreher’s Way” Open Book Oct. 15, 2006), Fr. Neuhaus’ response to Dreher’s conversion, which mirrors that of a number of Catholics:

    Yes, his decision is in large part reactive. But he is reacting to very real corruptions in the Catholic Church. I hope every Catholic bishop and priest will read his essay, and especially those bishops and priests who are inclined to heave a sigh of relief that we have weathered the sex-abuse scandal. And every Catholic engaged in the standard intra-church quarrels, whether on the left or the right, should take to heart what he says about Catholics being more preoccupied with church battles than with following Jesus.

    Dreher concludes his reflection with this: “Still, those of you more charitably inclined, please just pray for me and my family, that we always live in truth, and do the right thing, and be found pleasing to God, the Father of us all.” No Catholic should hesitate to join in that prayer.

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