Newsletter #1: Breaking Down the Church
My first newsletter!
Welcome to my first newsletter at Substack! While newsletters won’t be my primary form of writing, I hope they’ll give you a bit of a “peek behind the curtain,” an opportunity to see a bit of what I’m doing, thinking about, and reading. In these, you might get book recommendations from my creative writing workshop, details for upcoming seminars, thoughts on newsworthy things, recommended articles, what’s good on Netflix, and photos of my dog. Today, you’ll get a bit on the dog, deconstruction, Latin Mass, the Catholic Church’s most recent scandal, and more.
And with that, let’s dig in!
What I’m Thinking, Discussing, Writing
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “deconstruction.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with deconstruction, the term was first introduced by Jacques Derrida in 1967 to help explore the relationship between oneself and oneself-as-other (that self we explore with ourselves when we examine ourselves). Since that time, “deconstruction” has been extended as a concept to a number of areas, from legal studies to psychology. As a practice, it largely involves breaking down language to show how it doesn’t have a fixed meaning.
In my life (and the lives of a number of TikTok-ers), deconstruction is most relevant to the question of religion. Others process deconstruction differently, but at this point, my treatment of deconstruction is related to the philosophical understanding, as “a double movement of simultaneous affirmation and undoing.” It’s a sort of autopsy on something that can keep living, if you want it to. I’ve been deconstructing the ways in which I’ve related to my faith, both consciously and subconsciously. In this process, I’ve been trying to work through what parts of the construction of what I perceive to be my faith life are true, good, and beautiful, and which parts of the construction were built on lies, falsehoods, insecurities, and coping mechanisms. The goal of this process is to rebuild in a way that is more integrative, honest, and true to both myself and my faith. I want to break across false binaries and figure out how much of what I’ve built up as “Catholicism” is really the Good News.
It’s been a really challenging process. I’ve found Sarah Coakley’s work (book recommendation below) to be very helpful, in reminding me that a sort of deconstruction is always involved in the process of prayer and theology. For Coakley:
“The task of theology is always in motion (in via), always undoing and redoing itself… because of the deepening of vision that may — and should — emerge from… ascetical demand and execution… What is blanked out in the regular, patient attempt to attend to God in prayer is any sense of human grasp; and what comes to replace such an ambition, over time, is the elusive, but nonetheless ineluctable, sense of being grasped, of the Spirit’s simultaneous erasure of human idolatry and subtle reconstitution of the human selfhood in God. Darkness as the condition of revelatory presence is, it emerges, importantly different from darkness as mere absence or ‘deferral’.”
Or, as David Bennett has put it, “We don’t deconstruct Jesus. Jesus deconstructs and reconstructs us.”
I have no idea how this will end. Some start with deconstruction and end in “deconversion,” leaving behind the faith. I’m planning on doing some writing about all of this, but you should keep in mind that the writing will come out mid-process. Your thoughts are welcome in the comments.
Priests and Double Lives
Last week, The Pillar broke a story about a top USCCB official being active on gay hookup apps while leading “the U.S. bishops’ response to the Church’s 2018 sexual abuse and coercion scandals.” The story has many layers, one of them being the method of investigation. Apparently, the publication paid a data broker to retrieve the priest’s Grindr and location data and then paid a data consulting firm to authenticate the data.
A slate of responses quickly came out. A theology professor questioned the journalistic ethics of the investigation and story. A canon law student worried about the precedent that this could set, and the possibility that belligerent groups would begin targeting their enemies using similar tactics. An ethics professor expressed frustration at the focus on privacy concerns and insisted we need to focus on the scandalous position of the priest. A canon lawyer and personal friend noted that not everyone is entitled to the same level of privacy. An advocate for those abused by priests hoped this would be a come-to-Jesus moment for the priest. Father James Martin called the investigation a “witch hunt” and charged the story with conflating homosexuality with pedophilia. The latter seems to me a misrepresentation. But I do have concerns about the article’s quotation from theology professor Thomas Berg: “‘When it becomes evident that a cleric is regularly and glaringly failing to live continence,’ that can become ‘only a step away from sexual predation.’” Catholics need to recognize that rape and sexual predation are a different kind of sin from consensual sex.
One downside of a forum like Twitter is that these various views can come off as mutually exclusive or in conflict with one another. Because the word limit only really gives space for one perspective per Tweet, the various perspectives can be seen as “at war” with one another. This is partly why I like spaces for long-form writing. They allow us to present the vast variety of perspectives needed to explore the complexity of these kinds of issues. All the sides presented above merit exploration.
Having recently reread Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (also recommended below), I’m very interested in the role that hypocrisy plays in the modern world. A law professor once remarked to my class, “Hypocrisy is the sin of the youth.” Arendt sees hypocrisy as a sin of the post-revolutionary world. Arendt argued that it was a war upon hypocrisy which transformed Robespierre’s dictatorship into the Reign of Terror. Other revolutionaries, and historians of revolution, have followed his lead, slowly working to unmask all revolutionary figures as impure in motives and thus worthy of condemnation. Arendt writes:
“The revolution, before it proceeded to devour its own children, had unmasked them, and French historiography, in more than a hundred and fifty years, has reproduced and documented all these exposures until no one is left among the chief actors who does not stand accused, or at least suspected, of corruption, duplicity, and mendacity… [No revolution] was complete without self-purges in the party that had risen to power. Yet the difference is marked. The eighteenth-century terror was still enacted in good faith, and if it became boundless it did so only because the hunt for hypocrites is boundless by nature.”
Once the war upon hypocrisy has begun, no one is safe, and all will be condemned. What one might gain from Arendt’s reflections is the conclusion that hypocrisy should not be unmasked merely for unmasking’s sake. I don’t think that’s what happened here, but one should still ask: Was there sufficient justification for the unmasking, and did the unmasking occur in an appropriate way? Only a “story about the story” can answer this. (I’d love for The Pillar to do one.)
The Pillar’s story also brought me back to my own self-disclosure in 2016. Back then, I was on the gay Catholic speaker circuit and writing for the Spiritual Friendship blog. At the same time, I was living a double life, and I realized that I was being unfair to my readers and followers. So I shared my story, withdrew from the blog (the blog’s leadership was very gracious and encouraged me to create space to work on integrity), took a break from public speaking, and stepped away to work on myself. Since that time, I’ve reevaluated how I view Catholicism and sexuality, at times drawing from my own experiences of deception to shed light on issues in Catholic culture. (To be clear, I have a lot I’m working on, and I’m not here to be your hero or role model.)
I’ve tried to raise a number of questions in the past. For one thing, I think the closet can be a very dangerous place, and the expectation that gay priests remain absolutely silent about their sexual orientation is harmful for both them and the Church generally. I also worry that the “ban” on “homosexual” seminarians can contribute to abusive cultures. (It’s worth noting that a key architect behind the 2005 Vatican “ban” turned out himself to be an abuser.) Certainly, the priest in the most recent scandal is responsible for his own actions. But I believe that toxic dynamics in conservative Catholic culture when it comes to sex, sexuality, and homosexuality also merit significant blame. Interestingly, the priest featured in The Pillar’s article was ordained under the leadership of arch-conservative Cardinal Burke. The short of the long: that culture can really mess you up, and while you need to take responsibility for your own failures, you’re also worthy of growth, change, and love.
The Traditional Latin Mass
Catholic world also blew up last week over Pope Francis’ apostolic letter, Traditionis Custodes. The motu proprio significantly limits access to the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass, the Latin Mass which was used by the Catholic Church from 1570 until it was largely replaced by the Mass of Paul VI in 1969 (with the revised Roman Missal following in 1970). In 2007, Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum allowed for the expanded use of the Extraordinary Form, but Pope Francis has now scaled it back. The Pillar has a helpful explanation of Pope Francis’ most recent changes.
I attended Mass in the Extraordinary Form during most of my college years, both while at Notre Dame and while studying abroad in Rome. I shared earlier this week how, as a gay Catholic, I both love the Extraordinary Form and recognize the significant cultural problems related to its use.
Many are complaining about a need to continue use of the “Tridentine Mass,” arguing for the value of “unity in diversity.” They argue that we should continue to have Mass celebrated in both the “Extraordinary Form” and the “Ordinary Form,” in an effort to cater to the diverse needs of the laity. It’s important to note, however, that the Tridentine Liturgy itself was promulgated in an effort to standardize the liturgy. And though Pope Pius V permitted other liturgies to be used in 1570 after the promulgation (provided those liturgies met certain requirements), the effect of the Tridentine Liturgy was to end the use of the vast majority of the diverse liturgies that had been practiced by the Church for hundreds of years.
My little buddy is the cutest Shiba Inu-Beagle mix you’ve ever met. But there are other adorable ShiBeagles, or whatever they’re called, out there. (You can follow Yuki from Hamburg and Guardian from Minnesota on Instagram.) My little guy is a pandemic pup. I adopted him in October, and he’s been challenging me ever since! I’ve had to learn patience and to relate to him as he is. When he does something I don’t like, I have to resist the urge to think of him as a “bad dog” and think about, instead, what I can do to train him to act differently in the future. Positive reinforcement isn’t always easy when he’s getting on my last nerve, but I have to remember that patience pays off in the long run. A dog is demanding, and requires time, patience, and commitment. But I’m really glad to have him in my life.
What I’m Reading
2021 has been a great year for reading. In the future, I’ll probably share more about what I’ve most recently read. But here’s my list of books I’ve completed this year so far:
Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy by Tina Schermer Sellers. 5/5 recommend to anyone from a conservative Christian background who has struggled with sex and sexuality. Also recommend to therapists.
God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'on the Trinity' by Sarah Coakley. 5/5 recommend to people interested in Catholic theology and sexuality, especially if you want a perspective that cuts across ideological lines and wants to work in a way that is integrative with the Christian tradition.
American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame's Father Ted Hesburgh by Fr. Wilson D. Miscamble. 4/5 recommend to people who want to dig into Notre Dame and American Catholic history.
Seeking a Center: My Life as a Great Bookie by Otto Bird. 4/5 recommend to people interested in Notre Dame’s Great Books program and classical Catholic education (very niche).
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. 5/5 recommend to people who like middle grade fantasy novels. It’s kind of a book lover’s dream world.
The Best American Poetry 2020, edited by Paisley Rekdal. 4/5 recommend to poets who want to know what gets published these days.
The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost by Harold Bloom. 5/5 recommend if, like me, your poetry acumen is subpar.
On Revolution by Hannah Arendt. 5/5 recommend if you like political theory that considers religion important. (Arendt was a secular Jew who was very interested in Christianity, especially Augustine.)
Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray. 4/5 recommend if you want to learn a bit about Antifa from one of its activists. (The book helped me decide that Antifa is probably not for me.)
Nothing Like I Imagined by Mindy Kaling. 5/5 recommend if, like me, you are obsessed with Mindy Kaling.
Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum. 5/5 recommend to everyone.
Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets, & Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong. 3.5/5 if you like crude humor.
Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative by Alasdair MacIntyre. 5/5 recommend if you want to think about virtue ethics in a way that is unusual, from a Thomist who hates capitalism and loves fiction.
You can also follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.