After best-selling author, conservative blogger, and frequent First Things contributor, Rod Dreher, converted from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, he published many pieces about why he left the Catholic Church. In his book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life Changing Wisdom of the World’s Greatest Poem, which Dreher characterizes as a self-help book based on Dante’s Commedia, he repeated many of the same reasons for leaving the Church that he has written about elsewhere.
This essay examines some ways Dreher might have avoided his loss of faith in Catholicism, by emulating Dante’s response to the scandals of his own day. It also examines some things that Richard John Neuhaus wrote about Dreher’s departure from the Catholic Church shortly before Fr. Neuhaus died. Both Dante and Fr. Neuhaus provided what I think are compelling alternative ways that Dreher could have responded without jumping ship.
Actually, Dante’s ways of dealing with Church scandals of his own time, as Dreher described in his book, could serve as a model that any of us might follow to our benefit when we struggle to face evils in our Church. And Fr. Neuhaus’ observations charitably point out some specific weaknesses in Dreher’s reasons for leaving the Catholic Church that might be good for all of us to keep in mind.
Among Dreher’s stated reasons are what he, and many others, see as the lack of reverence in many liturgies, the uglification (my word, not his) of many churches, the destruction of sacred art, the watering down of doctrine, and the paucity of moral guidance, at least on the parish level.
But Dreher was especially dismayed by the collection of appalling reports he unearthed as a journalist delving into the stories about sex abuse by clergy, and into subsequent cover-ups. After Dreher retreated to a traditional Latin Mass parish, whose ways of practicing Catholicism seemed to avoid most of what he didn’t like, a charming priest in that parish turned out to be a con man. The priest had been telling everyone that he had been excluded from ministry because he was too traditional, but it turned out that the priest had actually been removed from parish work because he was yet another abuser. The Drehers were horrified to realize that their children could have been in danger from that priest predator if he hadn’t been exposed.
Dreher has written that his family then began to attend liturgies at a little Orthodox mission because they felt they had no place else to go, not because they were convinced by the intellectual claims of Orthodoxy. They stayed because the community, and its priest, gave them the spiritual goods they needed, and they converted because the only way they could receive Communion there was to convert.
While Dreher followed Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in his book, Dante was guided by Virgil and Beatrice. Dreher, on the other hand, had a Baptist-minister-cum-psychologist-in-blue-jeans, and his bearded Orthodox priest as his own guides. Dreher’s journey out of his own “dark wood” started when he was sick from Epstein Barr virus, and sleeping all day, most days. His doctor told him to get counseling or he would likely die.
Halfway through his Dante book, Dreher wrote about how Dante dealt with his own outrage against abuses of his day in a chapter titled “The Sins of the Fathers.” Dreher noted that in many places in Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, Dante lashed out against the corruption of popes and bishops. Abashedly, and with admiration, Dreher admitted that Dante didn’t let the evils he saw in the Church of his own day destroy his faith. Dreher wrote that Dante is his hero because he stared down the evil, and still kept his faith in the Church. And, Dreher admitted, “I had failed at this.”
It seems more correct to say that Dante didn’t stare down the evil as much as recognize it, deplore it, and then raise his eyes up to higher things. As Richard John Neuhaus noted in a “While We’re At It” piece (published January 2009, the month of his death) it would have been better for Dreher to have looked away, rather than going away.
Fr. Neuhaus agreed that Dreher was rightly sickened by the scandals, but added that “many Catholics feel the same way and, for sound reasons, believe Orthodoxy is not a place to go.” Dreher frankly admitted that there is also corruption within Orthodoxy, but wrote that he didn’t want to know. Neuhaus commented: “As with Dreher and Orthodoxy, there are things these Catholics really don’t want to know about their Church.” Neuhaus supposed that Dreher might still be Catholic if he hadn’t tried to win journalistic kudos for delving into the terrible things that were done by churchmen.
Another priest had warned Dreher that he was going “to find places darker than I realized existed.”
Nursing a decades-long obsession (which he has written about extensively) about his father’s not being able to accept his being a bookish, sensitive sort of man, Dreher was especially wounded by the betrayal by many Church leaders and priests and monks, and angry at seeing his surrogate father figures toppled. There are hints that his pride was also hurt for not having been right when he thought he had, by his intelligence, found the perfect spiritual home he craved. Pride was obviously at work, to some extent, also in how he continued to seek journalistic recognition for his exposés of the abuse scandals, even after he had been warned.
By looking into the face of those evils, Dreher may have caused his heart to be turned to stone. In Canto IX of Inferno, Virgil saved Dante from a similar fate when the Medusa came towards him.
“Turn your back” said the Master, and he himself turned me round. “Keep your eyes closed, since there will be no return upwards, if she were to show herself, and you were to see her.” Not leaving it to me, he covered them also with his own hands.
O you, who have clear minds, take note of the meaning that conceals itself under the veil of clouded verse!
As one commentator wrote:
The veiled meaning of the clouded verse is simply that obduracy hardens the heart against God, and stifles the conscience, delaying repentance. It is a facet of spiritual anger and pride.
Things may have turned out very differently if Dreher had Virgil at his side to turn him round, and to cover Dreher’s eyes with his hands. Dreher’s sessions with his Baptist-minister-cum-psychologist-in-blue-jeans, and his bearded Orthodox priest, apparently just weren’t quite enough to keep him in the Catholic Church.