Mea Maxima Culpa
I’ve been praying about this for some time and the events of last week finally compelled me to write this.
It’s not a big secret that I have been horrified by the rise of MAGA Christianity and the profound antichrist evil I believe it to be. You guys have heard me rail against it again and again. Far more than the damage it has done the US, I mourn the deep damage it has done to the witness of the Church which is the primary sacrament and has a mission to assist in Christ’s salvation of the world I believe Christians in the US are in desperate need of metanoia–of turning around and, above all, of taking full responsibility for our part in doing the ecclesial equivalent of dipping the Eucharist in sewage and then being upset that normal people are refusing to receive at it our filthy hands.
To do that with any integrity, however, requires doing what God teaches us to do every single time we come to worship: confession of our own sinfulness and the admission that I have sinned, in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do through my fault, through my fault, through my own most grievous fault.
This is difficult to do for various reasons.
First it is often hard to pin down clearly where sin leaves off and ignorance begins. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” says Jeremiah. One is inclined to cut oneself a lot of slack in self-examination with “I was young and dumb” excuses. But there is a passage in A Christmas Carol that I find to be a tonic against such BS:
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
The sins I mean to discuss were, yes, partly owing to ignorance. But I might have known it had my pride not blinded me from seeing and deafened from hearing those around me who somehow managed to know what I somehow managed to miss. In the end, the reason for my ignorance was my arrogance. Mea culpa.
Second, it is difficult to discuss this because I know a certain kind of person will inevitably call it “virtue signaling”. Virtue signaling is what Jesus refers to when he talks of doing good things in order to gain man’s praise. He has nothing against being seen doing good things to gain God’s praise. Indeed, he commands it, telling us to let our light so shine before men that they may see our good works and praise our Father in heaven. But when we do it merely so that others hail us, then we “have our reward” and no spiritual benefit will come to us. God will have to judge which I am doing here, whatever people think.
Third, and very difficult is figuring out how to make amends, which I suspect is a lifelong project and never finished this side of the grave. I have some ideas, but the first idea I have is to write this piece. After that, I’m kind of playing it by ear.
What I want to discuss is simply this: my part in creating the conservative Christian MAGA horror show that now rampages across our country, threatening life and limb, spreading Pandemic, crying with self-pity, raging against the Pope, the Church, its neighbors, and brandishing aloft the banner of the unborn, Jesus, guns, hatred for gays, “the family”, and “religious liberty” while it lawlessly destroys both the US and the Church’s witness.
I do this because I cannot speak with full integrity against it until I own up for my part in creating. it. So here goes.
For the past 20-odd years (up till 2016) I was a minor, but nonetheless real public figure in Catholic circles. I didn’t set out to become one. I started writing about the Faith because I believe it and find it fascinating and because I have always felt an obligation to bear witness to it as best I can. I made the happy discovery as a clerical grunt working first at the University of Washington and then at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center that I could supplement my income doing something I loved: telling people about cool things I was learning as a relatively new convert. I had been received into the Church in 1987 and in the early 90s started fitfully submitting pieces here and there about this and that, which I was pleased to see accepted. They were always about some piece of Catholic teaching I found new and liberating and my motivation was fired by the only thing that has ever been the pole star of my writing: the pleasure in watching the lights come on for somebody else. Nothing makes me happier than when somebody writes or says to me, “I never saw that before! That is so cool!” (I actually studied to be a teacher for while, but found that writing gave me more pleasure because my audience was self-selecting and wanted to learn what I was teaching, unlike the state-enforced kids sullenly fighting to resist the student classes I taught in my Teacher Training program.)
So by the early 90s, I was quite content working away as a writer. A writer/teacher/evangelist, mind you, not an “apologist”. Others have called me that, but I never called myself that, for a number of reasons.
The first is that apologetics is and always has been the handmaid of evangelism. Evangelism is the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. Apologetics is the work of clearing away the roadblocks of reasonable objections to that good news. If no objection was made, no apologetics are necessary.
Why does that matter? Because if you start with apologetics and not evangelism, you tend to start with an adversarial rather than love-based relationship with your reader. Something I noted early on was that the apologetics subculture tended to attract young, unmarried males who were looking for a fight rather than joyful apostles who wanted to holler good news to the world on Pentecost morning. They saw their neighbors as threats and enemies to be defeated, or else as fellow soldiers in what was essentially a conflict with foes, cold now but eventually to be hot, with neighbors who were a latent threat.
That bugged me. But at the same time, I myself did it, through my own most grievous fault. I often took the posture of the adversarial Catholic, talking about the foolishness of moderns, speaking lightly of the stupidity of the liberals or the Protestants, and mocking the ignorance of those who did not see the truths I was writing about. It was a strategy for helping to ensure a sense of camaraderie with the Catholic audience I was writing for, but it helped as well to foster the growth of the single greatest poison now killing the US Church.
That poison is the deep, deep belief in our marginalization, victimization and persecution, behind which we hide while we defend and advance our own persecution of others. Conservative Catholics, with the help of my tutelage, constantly speak as though they are, or are just about to be, martyrs at the hands of shadowy liberal enemies. I taught them to think that way for years, because I firmly believed that the day was soon coming when godless liberals would finally gain a definitive upper hand in our culture and use their power to crush the Real Catholics[TM], namely those of us who were prolife and loyal to the Holy Father. It was all very simple back then and I was sure I knew the future. Conservative Faithful Catholics on one side of the coming culture war; gays, libs, moral relativists, mealy-mouthed Clintonian parsers of words on the other. I took it for granted conservatives would be the martyrs and the libs would be the persecutors. And I helped instill in conservative Catholics the deep attitude of the defiant, mocking, victim martyr who sneered at his liberal persecutors as they slowly worked toward the day of our final showdown. It never occurred to me to see them as actual Catholics. I was the real Catholic[TM], as were the rest of my Faithful Conservative Catholic readership.
Mea maxima culpa.
With that blithe assurance of my soon-to-be persecuted heroism was my monomaniac commitment to only one public issue in the Church’s wide-ranging social doctrine: abortion. I remember writing a piece in the 90s proudly boasting of being a one-issue voter. I didn’t write too much about political stuff. My focus, like the focus of most converts from Evangelicalism at the time, was on the quarrels between Evangelicalism and the Catholic faith. This is pretty typical for converts. You want the family you left behind to understand why you have taken up with this strange new family. So you spend a lot of time dispelling urban legends and myths about “Mary worship” and “salvation by works” and translating jargon like “merit” and “indulgences” and showing why sacred tradition makes sense and the doctrine of the Eucharist is biblical. Along the way, you affirm what can be affirmed in common, including opposition to abortion. But precisely for that reason, you tend to be blind to the things that conservative white American Christians don’t see, or fear, or distrust–such as racism, or contempt for the poor, or bellicose nationalism, or misogyny, or hatred of gays. All of which I did.
The result, which I only fully realized with the rise of the monstrous, racist, and deadly MAGA “prolife” movement was that I, through my own most grievous fault, helped to inculcate the belief that, just so long as you opposed abortion, “prudential judgment” meant you could let virtually all the rest of the Church’s social teaching slide and even oppose it when it “helped the libs”. Only belatedly did I face the fact that what I helped condition Catholics to accept was the idea that “opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world”. My focus was on getting all the dogmatic ducks in row. But those little spots where conservatives might do life differently when it came to racism? Feh! Or the Church’s teaching on liberal-sounding 60s jargon like “structural sin” or the “preferential option for the poor” or the “dignity of women”? All that Peace and Justice drivel was for the Kumbayah types.
So, for instance, I remember to my shame pontificating on my old blog some 15 years ago about how, really, let’s face it, racism is over in the US. Blacks whining about it were simply “infantilized” and needed to learn how to take responsibility for their problems and not blame white people.
I also remember writing in a similar vein about gays, but heaping on top of that a shameful comparison to Nazis, fascists, etc. The thought of regarding them as human beings made in the image and likeness of God was present to my mind as a sort of theological theory, of course, but at a practical lived level the truth was I spoke to and about them as problems or threats first, not as human beings. The first message I always broadcast was not the fundamental truth that God loved them and they were made in his image and likeness, but the fundamental truth that I wanted them to live according to a moral code they saw no reason to obey thrust upon them by people they had not the slightest reason to trust–people who constantly telegraphed their disdain even for the gays who were Catholic and did try to obey Jesus. I helped communicate that message of contempt. Mea maxima culpa.
And all the while, I was, with incredible slowness to comprehend, still making excuses for what I should have seen was the rapidly growing cancer of Conservative American Catholicism’s break with the Faith.
To my shame, the warning bell was not zealous Catholic support for a completely unjust war that met not one criterion of the Church’s just war teaching and was condemned by two popes and all the bishops of the world. Nope. My fellow conservative American Catholics said you could ignore all that because that act of mass murder was a “prudential judgment” and I went along with it through my fault, through my fault, through my own most grievous fault.
It was only when the grave, intrinsic evil of torture arose and I was shocked to see conservative Catholics first defend and then become the dogged, entrenched leaders of the defense of torture that I began to dimly perceive that all was not well. I kept thinking the problem was poor communication until I was forced to realize that, no, they loved it. Only then did I, with snail-like slowness, start to think that, just maybe, the babykilling liberals who I was sure loved abortion and didn’t know anything about the Faith might somehow have accidently made a good call here, probably because God uses ignorant pagans to humble his saints and teach them. God, what a prick I am!
You might think I could have learned that lesson a bit earlier with the priest scandal when it was the godless libs in the Church and the liberal media who brought to light the ballooning scandal in Boston and with Maciel and the Legionaries and Pope John Paul’s failure to act. But no. I did not think with the Church’s teaching or Tradition (aka, the mind of Christ). I thought with bureaucrats, with the mind of institutional ass-covering and, above all, with the partisan mind that thought first, not of victims, but of the question, “Does this help liberals or conservatives?”
Far too late was I to internalize the teaching of Holy Church that “Man is the only creature on earth whom God has willed for his own sake” and therefore to acknowledge that no mere human system–including ecclesial systems–takes priority over the dignity of victims. I helped further the cancerous idea, still poisoning MAGA Catholicism, that the trouble was gays and liberals and the solution was straight conservatives. Not for years did it finally occur to me that the problem was abusers, gay and straight, and enablers, liberal and conservative. Mea maxima culpa.
As the torture debates went on, i noticed for the first time something that bothered me but I could not articulate why. The apologists for torture kept talking as though opposition to it was, somehow, support for abortion. “Why should I care what happens to hairy terrorists when a million babies a year are aborted?” was the argument. Yet to me, opposition to torture was a corollary of opposition to abortion. The arguments for both were the same: let us do evil that good may come of it. I could not understand how conservative Catholics didn’t see it.
And yet, as time went on, I realized that every argument I made to rationalize GOP assaults on the poor, on the death row prisoner, on refugees, on the underpaid worker, on victims of unjust war, on the sick, the elderly, and the marginalized was doing the same thing. The contract we made was simple: support the GOP no matter what because soon and very soon they were going to magic away abortion. Do evil now because the Great Good would come soon.
That was the essential argument of the “five non-negotiables” Catholic Answers taught me to “focus on”. And in the end, that Faustian Bargain to which I gave assent in 2004 ended as all Faustian Bargains end, with the soul enslaved to evil–evil I helped Christians enslave themselves to. For far too late, I realized that the goal of every conservative Catholic argument against Church teaching was not to defend the unborn, but to use them as human shields for the real goal: defense of unjust war and torture, rejection of health care, cutting help for the poor, you name it. If the Church taught it and the GOP hated it, then out came the unborn and the cry went up that we have to focus on abortion, not on these evils the GOP wanted to further. The apotheosis of this was when Fr. Frank Pavone took my old rhetoric about being a “one issue voter”, put the corpse of a baby on the very altar of God and offered a 45 minute stump speech for Trump in 2016. I paved the way for that through my fault, through my fault, through my own most grievous fault with my proud “I’m a one issue voter” babble two decades earlier.
With that went something else, my casual slander of Catholic Democrats as both accomplices to abortion and hungry for the approval of sinners. For years and years I casually spoke of Catholic Democrats as essentially not caring whether the unborn lived or died. It never occurred to me to take seriously the idea that Catholic Dems really opposed abortion, but were attempting a different prudential calculus to address and prevent it. They were libs. They were dumb. They didn’t know the Church’s teaching or they didn’t care. Only Faithful Conservative Catholics did. We held the copyright. They were friends with the World. We were the hardy saints who faced persecution and did what was hard–all while we were blowing up Iraq and, for my part, turning a blind eye to the building tempo of racism in the Obama years. I didn’t see it at all. I didn’t believe it when liberals said it was plain as a pikestaff. I dismissed it as the “race card”, played to justify their being “soft on abortion”. Sure a few fringe kooks went in for birther silliness. But, as my friend Scott Eric Alt put it, I spent those years as I had spent my entire life, smiling patronizingly at liberals and people of color and saying “That’s not what we’re about” when they warned again and again that conservatives and conservative Christians had a huge and glaring racism problem. I knew better, because I was white and I had no racism issues and, sure, some toothless hick might, but who knows better about racism, infantilized hyper-sensitive black people coddled by liberals or me? If I needed the opinion of people of color about their experience in white America, I’d give it to them.
Can the mouth of an ass like me even bray the words Mea Maxima Culpa?
Then came Trump and the orgiastic outpouring of race hatred that was his core support and his message to America. The Nazis. The KKK. The Wall. The massacres at synagogues and the manifestos from the nuts quoting him verbatim before still more massacres. The Nuremburg rallies and the fascistic calls for and praise of violence by Trump. The very fine Nazis and the Mexican rapists and the judges who can’t be fair because they are Mexican and the Muslim travel bans and the condemnation of black “sons of bitches” and the sadistic family separations coupled with lies, lies, lies, and excuses for all this filth from Pavone and Heilman and Ruse and EWTN and Arroyo. And I passed from “But that’s not what we’re about!” to the astonished thought, “Holy shit! That is what we’re about!” and the realization that when the people you have dismissed as dumb, ignorant liberals for years are looking at you with a raised eyebrow and saying, “See?” you have a choice. You can arrogantly pretend they got lucky or you can rethink your life and see what else they were right about and learn something.
During the Obama years I tried very hard to pretend I was above it all with the favorite tool of the MAGA cult: the “Both Sides” Moral Equivalence pose. This is the pretense, beloved by pious conservatives like me, that since “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” you can therefore defend every filthy evil conservatives commit by pointing to some evil committed or permitted by liberals. The trouble was, I eventually came to see that the end point of this strategy always favor the greater evil. So “But abortion!” is the mantra of the conservative who defends, not the unborn, but GOP evil while doing nothing about abortion. The GOP, which is 100% responsible for establishing and entrenching our abortion regime with Roe and Casey dangled the unborn in front of us for years and accused the Dems. But they never acted except to teach us defend unjust war, torture, racism and the other horrors I have mention above. They got our souls ad gave us nothing in return.
And I helped. I partcipated in this during the Obama years, pretending that the gathering freak show of the Tea Party and its racist birther weirdos, while a little troubling, was nothing compared to Obama–because abortion. Ignoring the fact that Obama’s actual policies were, in fact, reducing our abortion rate, I bought the “Dems are all babykiller” stuff hook, line, and sinker and turned a blind eye to the 1/3 of Dems who are consistent life ethic Christians. My Both Side Moral Equivalence arguments refused to see it just as they refused to see the surge of racism in the GOP. Sure there was a deluge of Obama bone-in-the-nose memes and Michelle-the-ape stuff. But this was the work of “lone nuts”. Only brown people, especially Muslims, formed conspiracies. Bad whites told us nothing about the growing networks of white domestic terror. They all acted alone. Only lefties were terrorists.
During that time, the big threat was Big Government. Obama was going to grow Big Government with his evil plan to give us health care. Sure the US bishops had been calling for it for a century. But Big Government! Liberals! Abortion! The real reason for it all was so that liberals could kill us with Death Panels and spread abortion! Because they were the Party of Death. We believed in Life! I was prolife! To support liberal stuff was to support death! So I went along with conservative claptrap against Obamacare and talked as though this was the clear Catholic position. Somehow, opposition to abortion required letting sick people die. And as long as there was one single abortion anywhere in America, all other moral progress needed to be held hostage to it. And I agreed. I went along. I was complicit.
Ten years later, I now ruefully see that this was one of the many examples of how this political cultus projects on its victims and enemies its own evils. The people who talked about Death Panels are the same people now saying that granny needs to get COVID and if the weak be like to die they had better do it and help decrease the surplus population. I helped that happen and went along with it, because it was important to protect the Party of Life for the day when it magicked abortion away. Yet again, I sided with the people saying, “Let us do evil that good may come of it.” I did that through my own most grievous fault.
In addition, something else I participated in a lot was simply the Right Wing Noise Machine habit of majoring in minors. I went along, for years, with conservative media’s endless diet of panics du jour and hyperfocus on dumb, symbolic crap just to keep conservatives swimming in an ocean of trivial contempt for their increasingly dehumanized enemies. I wasted my time getting worked up about whatever crap Limbaugh or FOX said we should mock or worry about on a daily basis. Midnight basketball. Feminazis. Homeless updates. Some campus kerfuffle or other. A starlet saying something dumb. Obama’s 57 states gaffe. Tan suits. Latte salutes. Hillary’s emails. Mom pants. Terrorist fist jabs. Michelle’s bare arms. That guy in pajamas talking about health care. A thousand other trivialities for 20 years that filled the minds of conservatives with aggrieved piffle about nothing. I circulated it. I laughed along with it. I accepted the narrative of the Conservative Inner Ring that, say what you will, libs were contemptible dummies, not human beings and certainly not people from whom I might learn a thing or two.
In the same vein, I was oblivious to the Right’s love of the gun cult for years. I went along thoughtlessly after every gun slaughter repeating the mantra that it was “too soon” to talk about gun violence. I even did it after Sandy Hook, God forgive me. I believed the lie that those who spoke against the gun cult were “exploiting tragedy” for whatever it was libs exploited gun violence for. It took the horror of Sandy Hook to finally shock me into realizing what I had been defending. Too late I realized that “libs” were simply acting like Normals and trying to stop the next slaughter. Too late I realized that the uniform response of the gun cult to every slaughter was not the public-spirited “Dear God in Heaven, what can we do to stop this from ever happening again?” but the narcissistic cry “Don’t blame me! Don’t touch my gun! It’s too soon to talk about this. MOAR GUNS!” I look at my complacency for years in the midst of this sociopathic narcissist cult and feel nothing but shame for ever having gone along with it.
The same with my cowardly capitulation to the conservatives at war with the entire scientific community–and then the Holy Father–about climate change. For years, I hung back from challenging them out of timidity at opposing the Party of Life and Real Catholics[TM]. Only when Pope Francis spoke to the issue did I finally work up the gumption to speak. But by then, the cancer of science-denial and ignorance was well-established–a cancer that has now combined with the conservative Catholic narrative of imaginary persecution to turn MAGA Christians into selfish engines of plague all across America as they spread lies and pandemic with their conspiracy theories, nonsense, violent stupid protests, and the general death of body, mind and spirit that is the legacy of the MAGA cult. I helped lay the groundwork for that by going along with GOP BS. Pope Francis could see the problem. Why couldn’t I? Because I was a coward who, like Scrooge, might have known, but chose not to.
This piece is pretty long because I was trying to be thorough. I hope I have gotten everything, but I think I should add one more point before I sign off. It is simply this: I don’t love them, the MAGA folk, I mean. That too is a failure and a sin. Some days, I simply have to go take a walk and vent at God about how much contempt I have for them. I figure he already knows, so I might as well be honest rather than pretend. I have been to confession about it more times than I can count. I will myself to forgive because its about will not emotions.
But love? I’m not there and that is ultimately my fault too. If I were a saint, I would love them because that is the real measure. Sure there are lots of reasons to despise these people. But in the end, none of that matters really. I should be like Christ, but I am not, through my own most grievous fault. And that too sends out ripples of consequences because my loathing gives other people permission to loathe them too, which is not really what I want my life to be about. I want it to be about the gospel and the joy of discipleship to Christ. May he forgive me and help me get there someday, because I will never make it if he doesn’t.
And I hope that all the victims of my sins will at the very least not take harm from them and, in the Providence of God, grow through contemplation of my failures.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. For these and all the sins of my life I am truly sorry. God grant me true contrition and a firm purpose of amendment and help me to make reparations for what I have done.