Forty-some years ago, I sat in on meetings of the presumptuously-named Philosophers Club, which met in the home of its San Diego founder, a young man who would go on to become the leader of the American Humanist Association. Members of the club prided themselves on their rationality. They eschewed religion. Most were atheists, others agnostics. Several belonged to Mensa, the organization for people with high IQs.
One man I remember in particular. He was a late-middle-age German expatriate who spent his days calling in to radio talk shows, using the moniker “The U-Boat Captain.” At club meetings he made long, syllogistic arguments that ended up going nowhere, and he never failed to warn us of the dangers of “priestcraft.”
The curious thing about the Philosophers Club was that its members were at odds with one another on just about everything. They praised reason, but reason — at least as they wielded it — drove them to contradictory conclusions. They worked from a few shared premises they thought self-evident and unfalsifiable, but their conclusions were all over the place.
Back then, I chalked it up to their anti-religious prejudice, on the notion that if you reject half of reality (and the more important half at that), the supernatural, then you’re bound to run into a ditch eventually — and likely soon. Years later I came to see that religiosity is no guarantee of clear thinking.
In my years as a Catholic apologist I’ve met many devout people whose active minds led them astray, often in bizarre directions. They discovered some “truth” and ran with it. Sometimes they ran right out of the Church. This has happened even to fellow apologists. Let me give two examples.
Thirty years ago, Gerry Matatics was employed by me for about seven months. Then he left, establishing his own apologetics organization. At first he did what he did when we worked together, going around the country giving talks at parishes. It wasn’t long before he said he had undergone a second conversion. He already had converted, five years earlier, from conservative Presbyterianism to Catholicism. Now he converted from what he called “Novus Ordo Catholicism” to “Traditional Catholicism.”
He didn’t stop there. He began to critique the form of Catholicism he had left behind, beginning with the vernacular Mass. He asserted that the translation of “pro multis,” used at the consecration of the wine, as “for all” was more than just an infelicitous translation. He said that using “for all” made the consecration of the wine invalid. (Years later, “pro multis” became “for many” in English, an expression that better conveys the sense of the Latin.)
A rigorous logic followed. If the consecration of the wine was invalid in the English-language Mass, then the Mass itself was invalid. You can’t have a valid Mass unless you have a valid double consecration. But the Mass is the central element of Catholic worship, protected by the Magisterium, which God would not allow to err in formulating and directing the sacraments.
Yet the Vatican had erred. The popes who approved the translation had erred. This meant that the Vatican and those popes had gone off the rails. It meant those popes could not have been popes at all. It meant that the ecumenical council that had authorized revision of the sacred rites (though not, admittedly, to the extent we have seen) could not have been a true ecumenical council at all. It meant that bishops ordained by those non-popes were non-bishops.
Matatics ended up concluding that none of the bishops we see around us are real bishops. Their ordinations didn’t “take.” He admitted there might be a few true bishops still living in extreme old age — men who had been ordained by Pius XII. Only those bishops could ordain priests validly — but where to find such priests? Where to find a valid Mass? Not even within the Traditionalist movement, he said.
In the end, Matatics ceased attending Mass. He led prayer services in his home, cobbling together the rosary, elements of the old breviary, and selections from works of Catholic history and theology. A few years ago one of his children married — in a hotel room rather than in a church, with Matatics presiding at the service. It was the culmination of a rigorous “logic.”
Others have taken similar paths.
Louie Verrecchio once ran an apostolate that explained and defended Vatican II. He traveled around the country, giving talks at parishes. Like Matatics, Verrecchio underwent a “conversion” and ended up rejecting what he had done in support of the council and came out as an opponent of it. He didn’t stop there. Year by year he became more rancorous, more mocking. It has been most noticeable with his treatment of Pope Francis, whom he denies is pope and whom he refers to disrespectfully as “Frank.”
After Verrecchio made a recent online post, I asked him to explain his trajectory. “Where is it taking you? Does it have an end point? Each year you seem to be a few steps further along, abandoning something of what you had accepted the prior year.” I noted that first he had adopted a modestly adversarial position toward Vatican II, but as years went by his opposition deepened. He came to reject the council root and branch and used all the power in his rhetoric to make that clear.
Similarly with the papacy, at least the current papacy. Each year his position against Pope Francis has become more pointed, more volatile, more mocking, and now — in the post that drew my attention — he was saying that Francis not only isn’t the pope but knowingly is in league with demonic forces.
“Where,” I asked, “does this end for you? Where does this trajectory take you? The whole tenor, the unrelenting rancorous tone, of what you’ve been writing, for a long time now, points toward the Exit sign. Why haven’t you gone through that door?” Verrecchio replied to me online, but he didn’t answer me. He avoided the main thrust of my questions. He didn’t say where he thought his logic was taking him.
Reason is a wonderful and fearsome thing, like fire. Catholic apologists use reason to explain and defend the faith, but what happens when you adopt an erroneous premise — and then run with it? Most public controversialists pull back when they see their thinking leading to hopeless conclusions. They backtrack, looking for where they took a wrong turn.
But some forge ahead regardless. Why, I can’t say. I’m neither a psychologist nor a confessor. All I know is that some people who prize reason take reason to unreasonable lengths.
Karl Keating has worked as a Catholic apologist for more than four decades. The founder of Catholic Answers, he is the author of sixteen books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Debating Catholicism, and The Francis Feud. His most recent book is a memoir of hiking an Italian pilgrimage route, Sun, Storm, and Solitude: Discovering Hidden Italy on the Cammino di San Benedetto. He lives in San Diego, is an avid hiker and backpacker, and spends as much time as he can in the High Sierra.
Photo credit: Germany skier Severin Freund falls down the hill at the 2011 Nordic Skiing World Championships (Daniel Sannum-Lauten/AFP via Getty Images).
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