I offer here a sketch of someone caught in the eddies of our time. A sketch because it is not complete; I am still in the midst of confusion and uncertainty. But something of an outline is taking shape, and Where Peter Is is providing that form, however hazy it still is to me.
I grew up Presbyterian, but I read broadly in the Protestant tradition. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I experienced the liberating effect of Luther’s sola fide. Sola scriptura was bedrock. At one point in college, I would have been happy living in the basement of a church reflecting on holy writ. When I went to college, had you asked me, I would have not been sure if Catholics were in fact Christians.
There was, however, an undercurrent, fed by my love of literature and my experience of nature. It became my own personal sturm und drang, and it pulled at the threads of my certainties from a fairly early age. If Descartes had his theoretical demon, I had mine who constantly asked whether I was too certain, too clear on what I believed. I would ask whether the Book of Romans really was the prism through which the entire Bible should be read. And I secretly fed and cherished this uncertainty, waiting and wondering if there would ever come a time when it would devour everything I held close.
This oscillating between certainty and a type of desire to see-it-all-burn stayed with me into college. At times I was physically paralyzed with doubt. Luther may have seen the maw of Satan in the outhouse, but for me it was the Nothing that terrified me. After a year or two of suffering through this cycle of doubt and depression, however, my demon—my postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion—began doing something odd. Like many of its offspring, it was turning cannibalistic.
I recall the moment I started becoming suspicious of my suspicion. It was between classes and I was walking from one colonial building to another. It was fall. I was wearing sandals. And I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked up at the empty sky. For a moment, it seemed as if the sky parted. It wasn’t like it was being torn, but more like the lifting of a wedding veil. A wave of fresh air flooded me. C.S. Lewis would call it a moment of joy. At the time, and even now reflecting on it, I would say that there was no content to this revelation. It was more the removal of a blockage, as if some plaque had built up in my soul and a sudden rush of blood had dislodged and dispersed it.
It was shortly after this that a friend of mine gave me a cassette recording of Thomas Merton delivering talks to the other monks at Gethsemane. If that moment between classes had been a removal of a barrier, Merton filled me with insight. At the time I did not know how popular he was or about the mountain he scaled. These talks were about poetry, about a world, both interiorly and exteriorly, pulsing not so much with beauty as with glory. As U2 might have described it, through Merton I was touching the flame and being brought to a place where the streets have no name. That was the first chink in the armor. In the back of my mind cathedral bells were ringing.
I attended my first Mass about a year later. I hated it. All the standing and sitting, the rote responses, the water, the vestments—all of it was an afront to my Protestant sensibilities. But the suspicion of my suspicion told me to wait, to continue walking down this path. Several months later I was accustomed to the Mass and soon grew to love it.
My pilgrimage to the Church was paved with books. In other words, I read my way into the Church. Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and John Henry Newman each played their part, as well as my studies in the Christian mystics and scripture. Von Balthasar was a veritable bludgeon who raised the final bastions of defense. I wouldn’t say my entry into the Church was not affective. By and large, however, it was not communal.
After college I studied theology at Duke, receiving my MTS. At a Methodist seminary, many of my friends were Methodist, several were Catholic, and several eventually converted to Catholicism. I studied under David Bentley Hart, taking every class he offered during his short time there. Reinhard Huetter was, and is, someone I would consider a mentor and friend. By the time I left Duke I was fervently orthodox but, given the situation, I was either the most liberal person in the room or the most conservative.
After leaving the academy, getting married and starting a family I had much less time for reading. It was also at that time when my community of intellectuals became a community of parishioners who had never heard of von Balthasar or Newman. Instead, they had heard of men like Jeff Cavins and Scott Hahn. Eventually I started hearing about a priest named Robert Barron. Life moved on. Then John Paul II died. My wife said there was someone named Ratzinger who was being considered to succeed him. I laughed and said that would never happen. I deeply admired Ratzinger but never thought the Church would elect someone of his theological caliber to the pontificate. And then it happened. I was overjoyed. His election solidified my sources. It also, importantly, solidified the reputation of those who I was being introduced to at a popular level. My academy and my parish had wed. Everything seemed to be clicking, or so I thought.
Then came Francis. At first, I was delighted, as were all my the influential Catholics I followed. He was a breath of (vibrant) fresh air. He was from the emerging southern hemisphere! He spoke forthrightly. He radiated joy. And, crucially for me, he took Ratzinger’s encyclical and adopted it as his own. It was not long, though, before my sources started to express hesitancy. Francis had said something on a plane about abortion that seemed to sideline its importance as the central social justice issue. Then he seemed to disparage us Catholics who had more than 2.5 children (I have five). Did he accuse us of mating like rabbits? It was discouraging, but it wasn’t concerning to me. Over the next few years, though, things started going downhill. Genuine concern began with his cardinal and bishop appointments. They were not the right appointments. For me, this is when a first inkling of some other “agenda” was at play. The pope who stressed dialogue seemed to be stacking the deck and creating a monologic echo-chamber. My sources told me there were priests and bishops who were concerned but felt like they could not express themselves without retribution. Apparently, Francis had a temper.
And then, not speaking metaphorically, all hell broke loose. All suspicions were confirmed. The Church was sliding into heterodoxy, if not heresy. And it was all because of a footnote and a Pope who seemed to agree with many scientists that man was at least playing a significant role in the planet’s warming. It was then that the split occurred, and a narrative was born, at least for me. My sources told me the Germans were coming. It was their fault. Strawmen were being burned alive. The Pope had an inner circle of advisors and “yes men” who hated America and everything it stood for. I read some of their comments about America and, well, my sources had a point.
Trump’s ascendancy spanned this turmoil. The day before Trump announced his candidacy, I had re-read David Hart’s 2011 article in First Things where he compared Trump to Satan. It was hilarious. Until it wasn’t. It is difficult to explain, from an American perspective, on a purely intuitive level, how bizarre was the situation. I knew it was a hoax. It was all an attempt to garner advertising for his business, or his television show, or something. Were we all caught in the Truman Show? I threatened to move to South America if he got elected, but I was purely joking. This too shall pass, I thought. For me—as I believe for many who are drawn to this site—one cannot understand what was happening to our view of Francis without understanding Trump’s impact on our imagination. It is much too complicated to describe in detail here. But for purposes of this narrative, I will say that it was around this time that I started hearing about a man named Taylor Marshall. He was making the rounds, not so much within the intellectual sources I had, but within the parishes. And he was saying some really crazy things. I listened to him talk about a fourth secret of Fatima and I knew he was, to put it charitably, a buffoon. But—more charitably perhaps—I recognized he was dangerous. John Paul II, Benedict, and Sister Lucia had all said there were only three secrets. I thought, why am I even listening to this? I hoped he would go away. He didn’t. He was, in fact, gaining traction.
Looking back on it now, I can see more clearly why. There were deep fissures opening up, at least in America. The Pope was being criticized and a business mogul who, in my opinion, was a moral slug was running for President. But—I was told—he would stack the judiciary. And, after all, there were (freaking) nuns being asked to fund contraceptives. As to the Church, if the Pope was held in suspicion, then we just go bishop shopping. Thank goodness for Bishop Barron. As far as I was concerned, he was my Pope now, and I would start cobbling together my own magisterium (this was my own form of “cafeteria Catholicism”).
This is when I started losing my bearings. Because, as I think is true for many of us, we wanted clarity. And no one was offering it. Trump just offered a strong arm and backfilling. The Pope, I was told, was talking out of both sides of his mouth. If the Church is the Church I joined, its clarity had to be unearthed. Into this void, I started reading more and more from people like Scott Hahn (who, incidentally, I think is one of the greatest gifts to the Church). It suited my still-Protestant leanings. I listened to Bishop Barron (who I also think is one of the greatest lights in the Church). But others were listening to people like Taylor Marshall. And if clarity is what you wanted, he offered it. He came equipped with an entire story, in fact, that identified the source(s) of all our troubles. All of them. And get this—it was the Freemasons. I responded to this the same way I responded to Trump—this cannot possibly be happening. This is just a bad 80’s movie, or YA apocalyptic fiction. But like some magnetic pull (or, to switch the metaphor, like some black hole), his story started drawing everything to itself. Time was beginning to be (re)stitched together after the horrible hiatus of the last fifty years.
Then things really began unravelling, and in such a way that Dan Brown would blush if it was proposed as a plot—new revelations of sex abuse; inert bishops and priests who offer only rhetorical platitudes, if they addressed it all (and like some virus, the infection began in, no joke, Washington DC). Then Vigano enters, stage left, and says the rot includes Rome. Suddenly here were Tolkein’s two towers, right here in the twenty-first century. I imagine at the intellectual level much of this sounds like rats scurrying in the crawl space. At the parish level, though, it’s entirely different. From Florida, to Georgia, to Texas, to North Carolina, I was personally aware of a spreading wildfire of doubt. Francis is caught up in all of this, and—whether it’s spin or not—nothing he does seems to dampen the blaze. Many people scoff at parish-level apocalypticism. But, from what we have been hearing (and, notably, what we aren’t hearing), at the ground level it feels like slouching toward Bethlehem.
I don’t need to belabor Scene XII of this tragedy with idols in the gardens, viral deaths, cities burning, and judges dying at the eleventh hour.
But one more anecdote is in order because it is what sent me to Where Peter Is. By word of mouth I was told that a priest in my area told his flock to read Taylor Marshall’s Infiltration and to refuse to be vaccinated. With that, it became personal. I know people in that parish. And, as my wife will attest—while to a fault I give everyone the benefit of the doubt—this was something that truly bothered me
This is where the analysis offered by many on Where Peter Is is much in line with my own. What happened to Francis went something like this: enthusiasm, concern, confusion, disagreement, open hostility, and, now, finally, indifference. Every step of the way, once the story was set in place, nothing he did could be read in any way but negative. Every plane flight he took, every off-the-cuff comment he made, every silence and every dubia ignored, it was all like some jigsaw puzzle, but with the pieces figuring the image of Pennywise the clown.
Today, I look back and wonder what I did or did not do that contributed to my own slide in this direction. Was my political stance a crabbed Americanism that focused on family values and abortion? Perhaps my drift came about because I thought if I moved left on an issue like the environment or labor or immigration, I may be sapping strength away from those fighting for unborn babies. And so I gave lip-service to those issues, but, in the end, that is all I did. But if that is the case, does that mean that I’ve traded the politics of the heavenly kingdom for those of Pilate? The left is no home for me either, though, and it never will be.
Or was it laziness bred from exhaustion or otherwise? Find my stable group, with a stable story, and read the Catechism and the Scriptures. There is a word for that, of course—Protestantism.
In the end, I do believe something dark and beyond our reckoning is trying to be born, and it is gestating in both the Left and the Right. And that so much of what we are experiencing today are its birth pangs. And I wonder if, like Jeremiah, we should admit that the reason nothing seems to be working from the national to the local level is because we are being pulled into exile. And that the flames of that exile are our passions that God is handing us over to in the expectation that something small but vibrant will come from the rubble.
Before drawing this to a close, let me offer a brief Scriptural reflection. There was a time in Israel’s history when the Lord established an abiding covenant with a man after his own heart, but a man who also would sun himself on his balcony while his people died at war. Adam-like, this man’s son would be responsible for sundering the family, severing tribe from tribe. And, if one were to gaze over the terrain at the rebellion his son engendered, one would be very hard pressed to condemn the schismatics. That is, if one were looking at this from a purely worldly perspective. But therein is the rub. That gaze is the same gaze of Adam and Eve at the fruit. And the desire to reduce-for-the-sake-of-clarity the schismatics’ actions to the purely mundane, or “historical” realm, is the voice of the Tempter. Because reaching for that fruit-of-clarity is the attempt to be like a god, and to know good and evil. But the covenant rested not on the holiness of the sons but on the almost hidden, primal act of the Lord. And the Lord did not covenant himself to an idea or to a book, but to a man, and his children, mandating a degree of trust that is without remainder. Because while man cannot maintain unity, the Lord’s covenantal power can, even through a Babylonian captivity.
And in this I will add to the list of my own sins—a failure of trust. A failure to trust that Peter was truly renamed, such that his new identity would not be purely his own, nor could it ever be grasped from a purely mundane perspective. Rather, Peter’s new identity is one wed to the resurrected power of Christ.
As I wondered to a friend the other weekend, we want clarity, but we want clarity in the way the world offers it. And if we are heading into exile (and, aren’t we all just sojourners anyway?), perhaps the clarity we should be striving for is the simplicity of Jesus the Christ, and the promises he made. And that is something I hear Pope Francis saying, over and over.