Sometimes It’s Best to Cover Your Eyes

Sullivan art 5-12-16

Dante’s Inferno, Plate I, Canto I, Gustave Doré (1857).

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.

Roseanne T. Sullivan About Roseanne T. Sullivan

Roseanne T. Sullivan is a writer from the Boston area who currently lives in San José, CA. Many of her writings and photographs have appeared in the Latin Mass Magazine, at the New Liturgical Movement, in Regina Magazine, National Catholic Register, at the Dappled Things blog, Deep Down Things, and other publications. Her own intermittently updated blog, Catholic Pundit Wannabe, is at


  1. So few know that Blessed Pope Paul VI, following in the footsteps of Benedict XV, wrote on Dante, a Motu Proprio; and, that Paul VI gave a gift of Dante’s Commedia to all the participants of the Second Vatican Council, telling them in this special edition, to use the Poem as a Breviary. Reminding us that Dante “achieved” what we are studying and discussing!

  2. Avatar Donna Procher says:

    I think many Catholic parents can easily understand Mr. Dreher’s eagerness to protect his children. It is the duty of a parent. Too many Catholic parents must engage in re-educating their children in the faith on the way home after Sunday Mass after having heard a homily filled with clunkers. Eventually some parents, weary of parish heterodoxy, and concerned about the faith of their vulnerable children, seek new, more faithful parishes. Alas, they may not be easy to find. This was our dilemma over 25 years ago. We, however, did not opt for the Orthodox Church, but for a Ukrainian Catholc Church, loyal to the papacy. It was a sanctuary for four years until the situation changed at one of our local Roman Catholic parishes. The Ukrainian Catholic Church has its problems too, but it did not seep into the liturgy or homilies. I am intrigued why Mr. Dreher did not seek a Byzantine Catholc rite. Then he and his family would have remained within the Catholic Church.

  3. Why do we write such articles as the preceding one? Articles such as the one above only serve to recycle personal animosities that have no foundation between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy – except perhaps in the eyes of the debaters. The “recycler” becomes the “new pronouncer” of past misdeeds. And such recycling hides the love between the two faiths (which are in actuality one faith) and the efforts of Rome and Constantinople.

    • Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers believe the other side is in schism. We love one another, but here can be only one true Church and one true set of teachings. Since several if not many doctrines on both sides contradict each other, then someone is wrong. A Roman Catholic who leaves what we believe is the one, true faith is an apostate. I’m not talking about misdeeds of the past. I’m talking about a current reality. For example, Catholic are being imprisoned in China up until the present day because they believe that to deny the primacy of the pope is worth giving up one’s life for.

      • In a “Year of Mercy” I believe you miss the point completely. As a shepherd I do not believe, nor does any Orthodox priest I know believe, that moving from Orthodoxy to Catholicism or vice versa results in apostasy. Each church respects, acknowledges, & recognizes the sacredness of the other’s sacraments (or as we call them Holy Mysteries). The only thing the priests of the two churches cannot do is serve at the same altar or commune together, which is a tragedy. It is the existing recognition of our same sacramental life that undergirds our love for one another. The Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch are doing all they can to “mend the fence” between West and East. Let the Bishops of West and East iron the issue out. Let us, at the parish – laity and clergy, simply love each other despite our frailties. This is current reality.

  4. Let’s get this straight. I’ve read what Dreher had to say about why he left. It is because a priest in his acquaintance betrayed Dreher’s trust, and put a child molester into the parish that Dreher had gone to, in order to avoid having his family deal with that sort of nonsense. And let’s also get the measure straight. Some of us have left the Roman side of our Church because the clergy there have largely lost any classical, scientific, philosophical, or theological education which might help either themselves, or the rest of us. Like the education which was mandated by Vatican II in Optatam Totius.

    And as regards to the process of child molestation, while you guys try to cover it up, the Jay Report indicates that fully five percent, or one in twenty priests in the U.S. or Europe, molested children, and four out of five of the molesters hit on boys. Whereas, in the general population, four out of five molesters go after girls, and the percentage of molesters to the general population is ONE-HUNDREDTH of the cohort present in the RC priesthood. It might be good to examine just why that is the case.

    • Bernard, I responded this way when you reposted the above comment on Facebook. “It might be good to realize that the priest you are calling a child molester is someone who Dreher has written about as having been accused and not found guilty. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t guilty. But still…I have read other studies that put the percentage of priests who abused children at about 1 or 2 (still a horrifying percentage). And those other studies have also claimed that the percentage of abusing priests is the same percentage of men in general who sexually abuse children. And I have also read that the percentage of men in the Catholic priesthood who abuse children is the same as the percentage of Protestant (married) ministers, and teachers. Fathers are way up there, and stepfathers are even higher. Some say that the percentage of priests who abuse boys instead of girls is high because for years [many of the] seminaries were dominated by homosexuals even to the point of excluding straight men, although I don’t know personally how true any of these claims are. I only know this for sure, that instead of condemning the Catholic Church that was founded by Jesus Christ, we have to seek to purify ourselves in response to evil in the Church, in the ways I describe in more detail in this longer version of my article, which is here:

      • Avatar bill bannon says:

        Can you name the one percent study or could it be a rumor based on the fact that Cardinal Ratzinger slapped a journalist’s hand when confronted and Ratzinger said offenders were one percent. But he cited no study making it seem like an edcated guess on his part. The John Jay Report was much later and seemed exhaustive.

      • Avatar N. Kane says:

        I have read that two studies – one in the Chicago Archdiocese and one in Philadelphia- produced the less than 2% figure using a 50 year period and thousands of priests’ records. The criterion for judging a priest ‘guilty” was very broad, using a “preponderance of evidence’ rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt”. It also counted as “molesting’ behavior which was, for example, verbal and questionably inappropriate along with things clearly immoral and illegal. In other words: they treated the priests in the study in a way that FAVORED their guilt rather than regarding them as innocent ’til proven guilty. If anyone can source these studies, please do. I have come across a study of the NY public schools (by C. Shakeshaft) wherein the % of molesters was higher than that of the Church. Any % above 0 is obviously tragic but this is the first time I’ve ever heard a 5% figure alleged. Finally, a question: Did the John Jay report even deal with priests in Europe?

  5. Bernard keeps repeating that 5% figure, even though people **show** him the actual John Jay Report — which actually concluded that about 4% of priests were “credibly accused” (not convicted) over a 40-year period.

    He has been shown the evidence again and again and again; yet he continues promulgating his 5% fiction. How is this not arguing in bad faith??

    Meanwhile, as I’m sure Bernard knows, both homosexuality and sex abuse are problems in Eastern Orthodoxy. (Google the GOA monastery in Astoria, NY, as but one example among many.) People who live in glass houses really, really should not throw stones.

    No, this does not justify even one case of Catholic sex abuse. But it sure in heck puts it into perspective. Double standards do no one any good, because they do not serve TRUTH.

    • Avatar N. Kane says:

      Well said. This horror, lamentably, is not limited to clergy or Catholics or Orthodox or any group of which I know. It is pervasive in the U.S. with the ongoing sexualization of children and young people by the media, advertisers, pop culture, and even families at times!

  6. I just want to add that I haven’t seen any writings of Rod Dreher that explain how he came to believe the claims of the Orthodox denomination. I only read where he wrote that he did not join them initially because he was convinced of the truth of their claims. That’s what I wrote about. About the % of priest who abused children: I ran across the 1% figure long ago, and I will try to find the study where it was cited. Remember that 8.33% of Christ’s apostles betrayed the Creator of the Universe, who was also his close friend.
    Here is a comment sent to me by a fellow-Catholic, a lawyer, by email:
    “Dreher does not sound balanced to me. He is attributing his departure to a ringer priest at the Tridentine Mass. It is an overreaction, and neither he nor his family suffered from it. Our Lord suffered far worse from Judas, one of the Apostles. Neither Judas’s betrayal nor the bad example of other sinners throughout the centuries compromises the unicity of the Church.
    “Dreher has to know that the Orthodox cannot be the true Church. They are hopelessly divided and autocephalic. The Patriarch of Moscow and the Patriarch of Constantinople are continually hurtling insults at each other. Their theology and ecclesiology are hopelessly irrational (I wish that Dreher would read the article Why I Did Not Join the Eastern Orthodox Church by Father Brian Harrison. And if Dreher is put off by sinners, he might consider that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow was a KGB agent, has wealth of over four billion dollars, several villas and dachas, keeps a woman in his house in Moscow, and wears a $40,000.00 watch.
    “I think you are also right to attribute Dreher’s leaving due to the name he sought from his exposés.
    “All these things are tragic, but in today’s crazy world not that uncommon for all kinds of reasons. They are an admonishment to us to pray for the grace of perseverance.”
    This is RTS again : Dear Fr. Nectarios Trevino, I love the Orthodox, but if I thought Orthodoxy in all its contradictory manifestations without a central authority was the Church founded by Jesus Christ, I would join it. Since I don’t believe that, and since I don’t believe that two communities with contradictory doctrines (about marriage’s indissolubility and contraception or the primacy of Peter, for three examples) can be said to be one in any logical sense, I have to love and respect you and still know that you are wrong, and that the Catholic Church is right. To say this is not to contradict the Year of Mercy, it is merciful to remind the illogical that there cannot be two truths that contradict each other. False compassion waters down the truth to avoid hurting people’s feelings. True mercy teaches the truth so that people will be saved by following true doctrine.

  7. Avatar N. Kane says:
  8. Avatar N. Kane says:

    Although from Wikipedia, footnoting is given and allows checking.

    Media reports[edit]

    According to a 2006 National Review Online opinion column republished by CBS News, Shakeshaft said that “… the physical sexual abuse of students in [public] schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by [Catholic] priests.”[4] She estimated that about 290,000 students were victimized between 1991 and 2000.[5]

    A 2004 editorial column in the Washington Post, noted the Educator Sexual Misconduct report was the first analysis of its kind. She studied nearly 900 documents to complete her analyzed research. Citing the Times Picayune, however, the Post also noted that Shakeshaft’s report had been criticized by two large teacher organizations, for not separating sexual harassment of students and actual molestation, lumping them both together, claiming that makes the problem seem worse than it is.[6] The editor added, “The fact that this report doesn’t make those distinctions doesn’t mean it isn’t valid; it does mean that more research is needed. In fact, the report itself points out that there has been no nationally financed effort to collect data on sexual misconduct in schools.”

    A 2002 New York Times report quoted Shakeshaft, “Only 1 percent of the cases did superintendents follow up to ensure that molesting teachers did not continue teaching elsewhere. In 54 percent, superintendents accepted the teachers’ resignations or retirements. Of the 121 teachers removed this way, administrators knew for certain that 16 percent resumed teaching in other districts… Moving molesting teachers from school district to school district is a common phenomenon. And in only 1 percent of the cases do superintendents notify the new school district. The term “passing the trash” is the preferred jargon among educators”[7]