Rod Dreher’s talent and prodigious output as a writer is undeniable. He has a keen eye for stories that matter, and he regularly sifts through the establishment media’s torrent of tripe to showcase stories that evince the anti-Western, anti-Christian animus that increasingly characterizes the contemporary left. Like most of us, though, Dreher has another side. Relentless self-promotion, even narcissism colors his output, a significant amount of which revolves around his latest book. Of course, writers tend to be a sensitive lot, but emotions drive Dreher to an extent unmatched by all but a few of his contemporaries.
“[D]reher’s eagerness to stoke anxiety among Catholics recurs whenever opportunity knocks.”
As a result, Dreher often expects his readers to be moved by whatever moves him at the moment, and nothing these days move Dreher more than the travails of the Catholic Church. Dreher abandoned the Church for Eastern Orthodoxy more than a decade ago. It was a defining moment. Beginning in the summer of 2018 and for several months thereafter, much of his work for the The American Conservative website was on the Catholic Church, to the point that a more accurate name for that website went from being “The Benedict Option Update” to “What is Wrong with the Catholic Church this Instant.”
Although he returned to a broader range of issues, Dreher’s eagerness to stoke anxiety among Catholics recurs whenever opportunity knocks. Thus Catholic stories have again, on occasion, nearly monopolized Dreher’s output, albeit for shorter periods of time.
Dreher’s singular focus on the failings of the Church represents quite a departure from the intended focus of his current home, The American Conservative, a magazine founded to promote the paleoconservatism embraced by its founders Pat Buchanan, Taki Theodoracopulos, and Scott McConnell, and specifically to oppose the Iraq War. Dreher zealously promoted that costly misadventure, going so far as to quote with approval a reader’s prediction that “there is going to be hell to pay for the Chaldean Catholics after the fall of the Saddam regime, as other Iraqi Christians hold them accountable for their relationship to the dictator,” and also for “the Vatican’s strong opposition to this war.” Indeed, Iraqi Christians began experiencing hell after we deposed Saddam, nor have they escaped it.
Time has not brought Dreher much closer to the founding vision of the magazine. Taki, Buchanan, and McConnell all wrote approvingly of the rise of Donald Trump, while Dreher did all he could to convince Christians not to vote for him: “By the time this thing is over, Trump will have indelibly stained everyone who stood with him,” he warned. Dreher has largely avoided the stain himself, with sporadic pieces on such topics as Trump’s dubious sanity and the need for Congress to begin impeachment hearings.
More recently, Dreher has indicated that he is likely to vote for Trump, even while adding that if he were in Congress, he would vote for Trump’s impeachment (but not his conviction) and also offering qualified praise for the Christianity Today article calling for Trump’s removal from office. This is typical for Dreher, who generally couples any genuine move to the right with several nods to the left. Back in August of 2017, Dreher was even graceless enough to attack Buchanan, without whom The American Conservative would not exist, for allegedly writing “a shameful defense of white supremacy” that was also “abhorrent” and “disgusting, racist, indefensible.” Dreher can virtue signal with the best of them.
Meanwhile, his focus on Catholic stories is more than odd: overwhelmingly negative and often breathlessly hysterical, with each report about the pope’s trying to trim doctrine, a priest’s abusing a minor or otherwise violating his commitment to celibacy, or a bishop’s hiding priestly crimes, presented as evidence that the Church is about to sunder or apostatize. Consider the headlines: “The Church’s Coming Catastrophe,” “Could the Catholic Church Collapse?,” “The Very Big Deal Catholic Crisis,” and, more recently, “The Trial of Conservative Catholicism,” and “What About the Protestant Catholics?”
The Dreher Narrative offers few, if any, mitigating factors. One would never guess from Dreher’s coverage that, despite the precipitous decline in the Catholic population in some areas, the share of Catholics as a percentage of the world’s Christians has been remarkably stable, going from 48 percent in 1910 to 50 percent in 2010, according to Pew Research. Nor would one guess that the Church continues to do enormous good, running the world’s largest charitable network and inspiring numerous Catholics, both clerical and lay, to follow Christ in profound ways, even to martyrdom. Such omissions appear intentional. When, for example, one of Dreher’s longtime readers asked him to present some positive stories about the Catholic Church for balance, Dreher was contemptuous, saying he wasn’t going to give his Catholic readers a “spoonful of sugar” and recount stories of nuns wiping the foreheads of dying heathens and the like.
To be sure, Catholic clerics have given Dreher plentiful grist for his mill, what with the history of homosexual predation by ex-Cardinal McCarrick, the demonic details of sexual abuse by priests described in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Archbishop Vigano’s accusations against Pope Francis, and continuing revelations of past sexual abuse by Catholic clerics in countries where the scandal is only now beginning to be felt. But again, as bad as these things are, Dreher need not ignore the enormous good the Church does every day around the world. And certainly, he should not ignore it, if he aims to be accurate, balanced, and fair.
As veteran religion journalist Kenneth Woodward noted in a sober, levelheaded article at Commonweal on the abuse crisis, “since the U.S. bishops established stringent new procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse in 2003, only two priests from the seven dioceses studied [in the Pennsylvania grand jury report] have been accused [of abuse].” Dreher himself wrote, in a September 22, 2018 piece, “Rome Betrays Underground Catholic Church,” that most of what any new grand jury investigations of Catholic dioceses “will turn up will be old cases; the 2002 Dallas Charter reforms really have had a meaningful effect in cleaning up the abuse problem.”
In addition, it seems reasonable to believe that sexual abuse of minors is an evil that was once present in many institutions that cared for children, because though there are bad people everywhere, child abuse in institutions that are not public schools or affiliated with the Catholic Church generally receives little attention, as suggested by the scanty coverage given to the Danish Government’s recent apology for decades of widespread sexual abuse in homes for orphans run by the Danish State.
To put it mildly, the effectiveness of the Dallas Charter reforms was not a major focus in the many pieces Dreher wrote about the Pennsylvania grand jury report. Still, even ex-Cardinal McCarrick’s case showed how effective they were. That story finally broke for one reason: The Archdiocese of New York followed procedures established by the Dallas Charter, investigated allegations that Fr. McCarrick had abused an altar boy, and then declared those allegations credible. The American bishops also pressed Rome to conduct a thorough investigation to determine who knew what about McCarrick as he was mindlessly promoted from Bishop of Metuchen to Archbishop of Newark to Archbishop of Washington and finally to membership in the College of Cardinals. In fact, Dreher’s portrayal of priests has been particularly acerbic. On July 2, 2018, in a post titled “Clericalism & Corruption,” he highlighted a reader who wrote to him claiming that priestly celibacy
creates a sense of entitlement. How? I have heard this logic among seminarians and priests again and again when alone among members of the “club” of fellow clergy: I’ve given up the chance of a spouse (which is a laugh as most couldn’t land a partner for life if their lives depended on it), so I am entitled to compensation, in the form of THIS. What’s “this?” Well, that depends: a secretary. [sic] a housekeeper and a cook to care for their needs like a spoiled infant, even though there is only one priest living in the rectory; massive remodeling construction for that same rectory of one because the faux marble in the bathroom is not of sufficient quality; dinner out at the best local restaurants 7 nights a week; four trips to Europe a year; a solid month’s vacation, plus a week’s retreat, plus “conferences” off here and there throughout the year; a little playtime on the side with a guy or girl or two; or five; or pretty soon daily mass is more the interruption of the lifestyle than the playtime is.
Two months later, on September 5, 2018, in “When the Alter Christus is a Degenerate,” Dreher highlighted a different reader, who, he claimed, “summarized pithily one effect of the Catholic Church’s problem with sexually corrupt priests”:
Listen son. The man in the white robe is the only one who can make the bread into Christ’s flesh. That man was called by God to be His intermediary on earth. Oh, and by the way, there’s something like a 50% chance he’s a total degenerate. No one knows exactly because none of the other priests have the guts to say. So stay away from him. He’s dangerous. But you have to revere the man too. Remember, he was called by God. Got that?
The reader didn’t “pithily summarize” anything other than his own delusions. The portrait of a Catholic priesthood half of whose members are “total degenerates” and “dangerous” is a fantasy, to say nothing of the complementary vision of a priesthood “most” of whose members “couldn’t land a partner for life if their lives depended on it,” who act like “spoiled infants” and demand, and receive, “four trips to Europe a year” as well as a “solid month’s vacation.” Far from being “dangerous,” most priests today take great care to avoid ever being alone with a minor. They know what just one accusation could do.
For the most recent reporting year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Annual Audit recorded three substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor within that year. That number represents .008 percent of American priests. It is possible that some allegations of abuse made by current minors that are still being investigated may yet be substantiated, but the pattern for recent years has been for the number of substantiated allegations of clerical sexual abuse by current minors to be in the single digits. Nor are most American priests jetting off to Europe four times a year and dining out at the best restaurants seven nights a week. They are, rather, busy doing an often thankless job that, these days, brings little respect, but plenty of sneering contempt. Read the comments under Dreher’s jeremiads. Or David Crary’s recent Associated Press story on American priests.
Dreher is largely uninterested in exploring problems in his own communion, Eastern Orthodoxy. In the same piece on Vatican diplomacy in China in which he noted the effectiveness of the Dallas Charter reforms in curbing sexual abuse by American priests, he remarked parenthetically that “in the Soviet Union, even though most or even all of the Orthodox bishops were KGB agents, the sacraments remained valid.” Given Dreher’s obsession with corruption in the Catholic hierarchy and how it affects the faith of ordinary Catholics, one might think that he would be interested in a thorough examination of how the Communist infiltration of the Russian Orthodox Church affected believers in Russia and the continuing effects of that infiltration. Such an examination might lead Dreher to conclude that Russian believers were justified in remaining in their Church, despite the Communist subversion. Or it might lead him to conclude that Russian Orthodoxy remains hopelessly compromised by the past associations of men still in its hierarchy. Either conclusion, of course, would cause problems for any argument that Catholics should follow Dreher’s example and leave the corrupt Catholic Church for the pristine Orthodox Church. This might explain why the topic doesn’t interest him.
In responses to his piece “The Pachamama Synod Ends,” Dreher emphatically denied that the Orthodox Church collaborated with Communism. To be sure, Eastern Orthodoxy produced many inspiring examples of heroic resistance to Communism, including one of the true giants of the last century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But Dreher’s denial ignores the Eastern Catholics in Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, and Transcarpathia, where churches were forcibly incorporated into the local Orthodox Church by the Communists. Eastern Catholic clergy who refused to become Orthodox landed in the Gulag, while Eastern Catholic believers were forced to worship clandestinely because the Communist governments simply outlawed Eastern Catholicism. The Communists also gave Catholic churches to the Orthodox, who willingly received them and often refused to return them after Communism fell. If that isn’t collaboration, nothing is. Even today, persons in the Russian Orthodox Church make troubling statements relating to Stalin, such as Archbishop Hilarion’s defense of the L’viv Sobor, the gathering orchestrated by the KGB to bring about the supposed reunion of the Ukrainian Catholic Church with Russian Orthodoxy.
When the Orthodox Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople broke communion, Dreher was far less interested in this actual schism than in the purely hypothetical schism he wrongly foresaw as possibly coming out of last year’s Youth Synod in Rome. He reported the actual schism in an uncharacteristically brief post, writing that “I don’t know enough about the details to offer an informed opinion” and admonishing his commenters to “please, be civil.” By contrast, in his post “Francis Abolishing Family Norms?,” Dreher admonished an Eastern Catholic reader three times for claiming to have found a refuge from modernism in Eastern Catholicism, because Eastern Catholics are still Catholic. In his final admonition, Dreher wrote:
You are not responding to my very plain point, which is based on the fact that the Eastern Rite churches are in full union with Rome. If a certain number of Latin Rite Catholics concluded that Pope Francis had fallen into heresy, the only way the Eastern Rites would be any kind of haven for them is if the Eastern Rite hierarchs formally broke with Rome.
Dreher dismissed his reader’s arguments for remaining a contented Eastern Catholic as “trolling.” In earlier articles, Dreher had responded to readers stating that they would never leave the Catholic Church because of the Eucharist by reminding them that the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of the Orthodox Eucharist. Such responses could have been seen as an attempt to undermine those readers’ reasons for remaining Catholic, but in any event, they were much less explicit than his angry impatience with the Eastern Catholic reader’s refusal to contemplate leaving the Church. Dreher, it seems, is a lonely schismatic, with little patience for Catholics unwilling to join him. Dreher’s occasional fishing for converts to Orthodoxy in troubled Catholic waters has only intensified following the Amazonian Synod. What else to make of his claims that what conservative Catholics claim to believe is now impossible? For example, in “The Trial of Conservative Catholicism,” Dreher found “it impossible to reconcile what conservative Catholics profess to believe about the papacy…with sustained opposition to Pope Francis.” And, in “What About the Protestant Catholics?,” Dreher approvingly summarized a Presbyterian writer’s argument as follows: “to no longer be able to trust the theological and doctrinal judgment of the Pope puts even the most reactionary Catholic pretty much in the shoes of Protestants, in a functional sense.” In the former piece, by contrast, Dreher contended that the inability of the Orthodox churches to convene an ecumenical council represents “a vital safeguard” in “liquid modernity.”
Of course, Francis makes conservative Catholics uneasy in a way that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict never did. Indeed, one could sometimes sense that conservative Christians of other denominations envied Catholics our leadership by the heroic and transparently saintly John Paul, and by the boundlessly erudite and undeniably brilliant Benedict. Today, that envy is gone, and some non-Catholics, including Dreher, would stoke the anxiety of faithful Catholics. But as discomfiting as Francis can be, he is no reason to leave the Church. Nothing is likely to come out of the Amazonian Synod that will be more dramatic than what veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen describes as Amoris Laetitia’s “cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.”
More to the point, Orthodox converts like Dreher are poorly positioned to raise doubts about Amoris Laetita, because the Orthodox have accepted divorce for centuries, Jesus Christ’s clear words to the contrary in the Gospels notwithstanding. And although Dreher warned Catholic readers that the Amazonian Synod would likely lead to married priests and women deacons in the Church, the Orthodox already have married priests and, at least in Africa, women deacons. The developments Dreher wants his Catholic readers to fear already exist in his own communion, and again, have existed there for centuries.
Besides, magisterial teaching limits what Francis, or any pope, can do. Ambiguous footnotes and changes in practice in some parts of a vast, global Church cannot erase what it has always taught. Hence, defenders of Amoris Laetita insist that no teaching was changed. Typical in this regard is Cardinal Ouellet’s assertion, in his lengthy defense of Amoris Laetitia in L’Osservatore Romano, that “Francis does not seek to change the doctrine of the Church nor its age-old discipline in the area of sacramental practice.” Nothing can stop a future Bishop of Rome from taking such assertions at face value and enforcing John Paul II’s teaching on communion for remarried divorcees in its entirety.
Indeed, nothing prevents other bishops today from doing the same, and many are, including Archbishop Chaput and the episcopacy of Poland. Francis’ supposed revolution is quite tentative, as shown by the statement from the bishops of the Buenos Aires region that Francis endorsed as the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetita. The Argentine bishops forthrightly wrote that “We present [these guidelines] without prejudice to the authority that each Bishop has in his own Diocese to clarify, complete or restrict them.” No Catholic convinced of the truth of the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage will find firmer adherence to that truth outside the Church, even after Amoris Laetitia.
The same is likely to be true with respect to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. As Pope Francis noted in Amoris Laetitia, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” No doubt many in the hierarchy, including those promoted by Francis, would like to ignore that, and all the Church has always taught about homosexuality; but as with the even more fundamental issue of the indissolubility of marriage, the sort of ambiguous statements and local changes in practice that might occur in places like San Diego or Chicago or wherever James Martin is passing by would be insufficient to erase what the Church has always taught, much less prevent a future Pope from articulating it with even more clarity.
Furthermore, it is hard to see why the Orthodox practice of “economy” could not one day be used to reach an accommodation with homosexual behavior, and even harder to see why Dreher would oppose it. After all, in 2017 he told The New Yorker that he favored gay civil unions and, while nominally opposed to gay adoption, he said that “there are so many gay couples who are wonderful parents that I find it hard to maintain any ardor for stopping it.” In contrast, several Catholic adoption agencies have shut down to avoid being forced to participate in gay adoptions. Orthodoxy, moreover, is at peace with artificial contraception. That concession is significant. A public that still agreed with the ancient Christian teaching against contraception, a teaching still maintained only by the Catholic Church, would not accept homosexual behavior.
No doubt, Dreher has pointed out many real and grave problems in the Church that urgently need to be addressed. Still, only at their own peril do Catholics look for advice on dealing with the crisis in the Church to someone whose own solution was to leave. There is never a sufficient reason for a Catholic to leave the Church, as understandable as leaving might seem.
As I consider the present crisis, I am consoled by recalling all the good things the Church has done in my own life, and all the good things it still does. I am also consoled by recalling what the Church has done historically, including giving birth to our civilization. For me, a particularly inspiring chapter in the Church’s history was the way the Church in Poland refused to bow to either Nazism or Communism, a refusal that resulted in the martyrdom of some 3,000 Polish priests. With that high heroism in mind, I remember how surprised I was when I first read the chapter on the Church in Norman Davies’ magisterial history of Poland, God’s Playground, nearly thirty years ago. Davies’ story contained episodes of venality and betrayal by the hierarchy, including the papacy, that I found difficult to square with more recent history. Yet that fuller history added weight to the conclusion of the chapter, a conclusion I think applies throughout the civilization of which Poland is but a part:
The Church’s path, therefore, is strewn with ambiguities. Sometimes, no doubt, the Church has failed the Nation. Sometimes, no doubt, it has closed its eyes to social ills and political injustices. Sometimes, no doubt, it has proved itself unworthy of the Faith. But of the central fact, that the Roman Catholic Church embodies the most ancient and the most exalted ideals of traditional Polish life across the centuries, there can be no doubt whatsoever.