The last straw for Steve Skojec was an FSSP priest telling him that his son couldn’t make his first communion, and his soon-to-be-born son would not be baptized, because their family hadn’t been to Mass enough during the pandemic.
For seventeen years, he had been a gung-ho apologist for traditionalist Catholicism, for reasons that, honestly, I understand very well. Before that, he’d been caught up in the web of the Legionary cult, which tried to manipulate him into becoming a priest. When he finally left, he says, tried to destroy his reputation with his friends. They “were told how I wasn’t ‘generous’ and was a ‘fallen soldier’ and how they didn’t know the ‘whole story’ of everything I’d done.”
He had another bad experience at Franciscan University. He’d written a column on “liturgical irreverence” on campus in the school newspaper. The chaplain attacked him without warning in the final issue, leaving him no opportunity to respond. One of the Franciscans who later sympathized with him is now accused of rape.
His conclusion: “Everywhere I look within the Church, there’s a trail of bodies. You can trust precisely no one.”
At last, in traditional Catholicism, with its reverent liturgy and emphatic orthodoxy, he believed he had finally come home. There are few experiences in life more disorienting and unsettling than feeling like you’ve come home and then coming to realize that home isn’t what you thought it was — that the spiritual abuse you thought you had escaped long ago still looms over you.
“People love to tell you, ‘Just find a TLM community if you want to escape the madness in the Church!’” Skojec writes. “But that’s a lie, as many people have found out in various ways.”
A Long-Running LARP
Traditionalism now appears to the disillusioned Skojec as “a long-running Live Action Roleplay — a LARP — in which participants act out what they think Catholicism looked like in ‘the good old days’ while perpetually running down any kind of Catholicism (or Catholic who practices it) that isn’t traditionalism. But it is essentially an affectation; an attempt to reconstruct and live within a historical context that no longer exists. Traditional Catholicism does exist, in the sense that all history exists. The Traditional Catholic liturgy exists not just historically, but even now. But traditionalism, as a ‘movement,’ as an ideological oxbow lake, is a novelty.”
Skojec’s brutal, searching cri de coeur is the furthest thing from any kind of triumphalism. I wince at the thought of progressives pouncing on the man now — however much certain aspects of his history might incline them to want to do it — framing it as a vindication of their opinions of rightwing/Trad religion, as if they don’t live in glass houses themselves. As if spiritual or sexual abuse never came from leading progressives like Jean Vanier or Cardinal McCarrick.
It’s all broken glass everywhere. Wallow in triumphalism and you’ll find yourself paying the price for wallowing in broken glass. I feel deeply for Skojec in what he’s going through.
Truth and Community
Truth matters. Doctrine is important. To be a Christian is to believe the gospel of Jesus. Amen. But if we can‘t build communities that enrich and support one another, where we’re neither anonymous sacrament shoppers nor locked into weird culty codependency, what are we doing?
A friend of Skojec’s wrote to him: “I hate to say this, because it risks sounding trite, but I don’t think you have ever really been Catholic.” That might sound like more abusive, triumphalistic brutality, but it turns out that his friend also has been struggling with her faith. She goes on, “And peeling off this false thing, made of false things, is the first step to finding out who you really are. I actually am discovering that I do believe in God, and all that, and I think He’s trying to fix you.”
It’s a mark of just how far Skojec has gone to come to the end of himself that his response to this is: “Maybe He is. I hope so, because I cared about all of this so much I made it my whole life. I put it before family and friends. I was so invested … And I lost everything I had anyway — in a spiritual sense. Which was not at all what I expected.”
Here is a thought that has grown in my mind over the years:
What if all of Catholic history has been a struggle of people striving not only to be real Catholics, but to understand exactly what a real Catholic ought to be — and, by the same token, what the Church ought to look like, what the kingdom of God on earth would mean, what a Christian society should be, what kind of society Christians ought to work for?
What if what we have in the deposit of faith is less a blueprint, or an exact road map, than an evocative description? A picture that lets us, at our best, triangulate in more or less the right direction — it’s somewhere over there and from past trial and error we know it isn’t thus or thus — without knowing exactly where we’re going?
The image is an altar inside the Saint-Louis-en-lIle Catholic church, a seventeenth-century church located in Ils Saint-Louis, one of two natural islands on the River Seine, in central Paris (Photo by Geoffrey an der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images)