Fr. Heilman was, until the rise of Fr. James Altman, the worst priest I have ever encountered in the Church. He led an orgy of orcs on a multi-day celebration to cheer for my destruction when I got canned by the Register back in 2016 for failure to worship Donald Trump, as good and loving shepherds do.
I didn’t know the guy from Adam, but that didn’t stop him from ginning up a furious cyber-mob and luxuriating in gloating cruelty while I was wondering how to feed my family. It was the second time I saw a priest do this and it was just as appalling the second time around.
I won’t lie. It took me a couple of years to forgive him. I really do have a very high regard for the priestly office and felt betrayed by his savage and sadistic bullying, which he believed to Manly Spiritual Warfare. But it taught me the valuable lesson that priests really are just flesh and blood and can be mean SOBs just like the rest of us. It did not “turn me off to the priesthood” or “open my eyes to the shocking truth of the Catholic fraud” as the exvert and reddit.atheist so eagerly hopes. I never became Catholic because I thought priests were gods and so I had no faith in them to destroy. I entered the Church in the Archdiocese of Seattle in the mid-80s and knew the Church was a mess from the get-go. Indeed, one of the attractions of the Church for me was precisely that it was a mess and had copious room for weirdos, oddballs, factory rejects, failures, and sundry human debris. In short, people like me.
If that sounds weird, understanding life in a small non-denom Church might help. The curious paradox of sectarian Christianity in America is that while it is often skeptical of Darwin, it has an intensely Darwinian theology. As I wrote long ago in a piece called “Brother Darwin’s Gospel Hour“:
For one of the weirdest ironies of American Fundamentalism is that it often regards any trace of evolutionary theory with fear and loathing while simultaneously holding a view of Christian history that reads as a kind of Darwinian myth.
The myth runs something like this:
Jesus creates the little cell called “the early church” on the day of Pentecost. It is, as the cell was to Darwin, a featureless, structureless blob of protoplasmic goo which definitely has no bishops, certainly has no Petrine office and reproduces by splitting into other equally undifferentiated blobs of structureless “fellowship” with no authority and no doctrine except “the simple word of God–the Bible.” This “Church as Algae Colony” model does not, however, last. Under pressure from the Greco-Roman environment, the primitive life form of the early Church begins to develop various structures and to mutate. Depending on who you talk to, the date may vary, but many Fundamentalists posit that the Church experienced some sort of Mass Extinction in the first, second, or third centuries. Theories vie for whether mass extinction happened shortly after the death of St. John or when Constantine legalized Christianity. But at any rate, some immense Comet of Apostasy slammed into the earth, according to this scenario, and “true Christianity” was nearly annihilated, hiding in the shrubs and underbrush of Europe like a tiny primitive mammal while, for the next 1500 years, enormous powerful brutes called “Catholics” roamed the earth like herds of tyrannosaurs, holding councils, electing Popes and having terrible earth-shaking doctrinal battles in which they imported all manner of pagan mutations like the Eucharist, Marian beliefs, bishops, statues and relics.
The roots of this apostate Catholic Church are, according to this scenario, from a totally different evolutionary line than that of True Christianity. It turns out that Catholics are actually the descendants of Babylonian Mystery Religions which swelled to immense proportions in the vacuum left by the Mass Extinction of True Christians. Sure, the Babylonian Mystery religionists repudiated paganism wholeheartedly and died for their refusal to renounce Christ. Sure, they fought fiercely to preserve Scripture from the scissors of Marcion. Sure, they defied the might of the State for the name of Jesus. Sure, they held the ecumenical councils, canonized Scripture, settled the most vexing questions concerning the nature of God and Christ, evangelized Europe, established the rule of civilization in the demon-haunted lands of barbarians, fostered the growth of science, philosophy, art, music, law and education, cared for the poor, challenged nations to be holy and preserved learning through waves of Viking, Mongol, Vandal, and Islamic invasions. But such “Christians” were an evolutionary dead end because they believed in bishops, the Eucharist and prayer to Mary. True Christians were the nameless, faceless, unknown “hidden church” that did nothing, said nothing, and accomplished nothing for 1500 years while the Catholics of the Mesozoic Era ruled the earth.
Finally, after centuries pass, God sends yet another comet, the Black Death (and a Wycliffe, a Hus and a Renaissance or two), to cause another mass extinction. The Beasts of Popery reel and fall! And then, out of the chaos God again raises up one organism (Martin Luther) who receives the divine spark and evolves to a higher plane of being. But, according to the scenario, Luther is not evolved enough. He still venerates Mary, for instance, and he believes in baptismal generation. So, ever reforming, God abandons this early evolutionary theological equivalent of the Megatherium and continues the march through the ages, “raising up” Calvin, then Wesley, then Finney, then Moody, then the Asuza Street Revival, then the Latter Rain Revival, and so forth till at last, today, we have… Me and My Sect who have finally arrived at highly-evolved, truly spiritual purity. And this must go on ad infinitum. For the only thing that keeps the spiritual gene pool pure is precisely the constant battle for survival among the various sects. That is why Loraine Boettner suggests in Roman Catholicism that “the diversity of the churches, with a healthy spirit of rivalry within proper limits, is one of God’s ways of keeping the stream of Christianity from becoming stagnant.”It is not love, but competition, that ensures the life of the Church. Indeed, Boettner goes on to quote Walter Montano to say that competition is essential in order for the Christian to know the freedom of the gospel at all. In Montano’s words: “Organic unity is a foreign element in Protestantism. The lack of organic unity is the strength, not the weakness, of Protestantism, and assures us of our freedom before God… Unity and liberty are in opposition; as the one diminishes, the other increases. The Reformation broke down unity, it gave liberty…”
Now, for a theology that utterly repudiates “survival of the fittest” ideologies and claims faith in a supernatural God of love, this is a very curious way of looking at God’s dealings with the human race. It does not look very much at all like the desire of Jesus who prayed to the Father for his Church that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). One does not see between the Father and the Son a “healthy spirit of rivalry” as a model of the unity of the Church. One seldom notices Jesus teaching the disciples to quarrel over who is “stagnant.” One does not see St. Paul issuing ultimatums to choose freedom over unity or telling the Philippians (whom he urged to be “one in spirit and purpose”) that unity is a prison and competition is strength. Indeed, the idea of flushing weaklings out of the spiritual gene pool or throwing off the chains of love in order to survive is not something that seems to look anything like biblical teaching. But it does look a great deal like Darwinism.
One of the side effects of this notion of the small, pure Church of people who are really and truly realio-trulio Christians is that, while you are supposed to have “assurance of salvation” you are, in fact, perpetually haunted by the question, “Did I really mean it when I asked Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior? And if so, why did I just sin again for the millionth time?” Evangelicalism had a ready explanation: you weren’t a real Christian. You needed to really really really repent this time. It was handy for casting out embarrassments from the fold and distancing ourselves from grifting preachers who got caught in bed with live boys and dead girls. But for the tender of conscience it was a formula for anguish.
So it was a great relief to encounter the Catholic Church and its engagement with the reality of human failure in its theology of reconciliation. Instead of the crazy insistence that, somehow, baptism magically guaranteed no more sin, the Church had for 2000 years said, “Of course you will sin and fail again! Why do you think Jesus picked the dopes he did as apostles, especially Peter? The idea is not that you won’t sin but that there is a remedy when you do. Don’t be discouraged. If there’s hope for Peter (and for all the other failures he made saints) there’s hope for you.”
It’s one of the many reasons I love the Catholic tradition. The sheer humanity of the thing and its “We’re All Bozos on This Bus” patience with the weak.
That’s why I was so appalled by Fr. Heilman’s brutality. He’s supposed to know that as a confessor.
But it’s also my way into forgiving him, because he’s just as much a bozo as the rest of us and ordination doesn’t magick that away. He needs mercy too. And mercy is for sin, not for excusable booboos. Whereto serves mercy but to confront the visage of offense?
The piece on Fr. Heilman is a piece on a lot of his generation. His journey is one a lot of MAGA have gone on and it will end in pain and frustration if the Holy Spirit does not find a way into the mess. If you are trying to fathom how that subculture could fall for such a disastrous perversion of the Faith, this piece does a pretty decent job of charting the metastasization of the Cult. But above all, it extends empathy to the biggest victims of the Cult–its members–in a way I appreciated:
I don’t want to call out Father Heilman as some sort of especially villainous figure in the church; he’s not. He just seems like an old man who doesn’t know what he’s watching, and he definitely posts too much. But I wrote the story because there are thousands of people like Father Heilman; the reason I wrote about Heilman and not somebody else is just because he’s written down every thought he’s had over the past four years. And I know that he’s not the only person you’ve heard of that watched too many YouTube videos and started posting crazy, hateful shit all the time. This is not a story of one man, it’s a story of way more men than we should be okay with.
And if I were making up this story from scratch, and if I had to create a main character who was susceptible to this sort of thing and whose decline would be awful and tragic, I’d write someone exactly like Rick Heilman. I’d make him a high school football star, and make him unable to pursue a career in that but willing to bring it up at every opportunity. I’d make him a practicing Catholic who grew up in the 60s so he’d unconsciously connect the pre-Vatican II church with this seemingly perfect and innocent time in his life and American history that wasn’t ever really perfect or innocent. I’d have nothing interesting happen to him until he was in his forties, and then I’d give him a small success in organizing his community. I’d get him obsessed with traditional masculinity at a time when there was a growing backlash against the harmful effects of toxic masculinity. I’d have him eventually start a website to take his message to the world, and then I’d keep breaking his brain. I’d have a new conspiracy theory about abortion surface every day. I’d have every Catholic running for president lose to a game show host. I’d write in the biggest blow to the church’s moral authority in decades, and I’d have his mentor die and leave nobody behind to say anything nice about him. And I’d make this character a parish priest, because a parish priest is an important job in Catholicism, but it’s definitely a job. You’re spending your time looking at spreadsheets to manage the parish budget, and finding a plumber to fix the sink in the rectory, and sitting in interminable PTA meetings for the school. It’s tedious and mundane, so are you going to go back to that? Or are you going to be a strong masculine warrior, are you going to uncover secret evil gay plots, are you going to try and keep posting to save the world, save the institution of marriage, save the babies, save the one true church?
If it seems far-fetched that a priest, who went to divinity school, who reads his Bible regularly, could get sucked down a YouTube hole, remember that every priest is still a man, and just like any other man, he can find garbage on the internet, fall for it, and double down. And there’s a whole patch of that garbage tailored specifically to conservative Catholics that makes them feel important, moral, and infallible, and they carry that garbage with them when they counsel married couples, write homilies, baptize children, and hire teachers. Plenty of good reporting has been done already on YouTube radicalizing people through it’s terrible recommendation algorithms and deepening well of hard-right content. You can find stories about it dividing families, inspiring violence, and swinging elections around the world. Rick Heilman’s story is the story of how it’s hurting our priests and our church.
I’m grateful to Tony Ginocchio for writing as he did. He does not pretend that the Cult is not responsible for the evil it does. But he leaves room for pity for a broken humanity, which is one of the things I love best about my Church. In the end, it’s a picture of a wounded man, muddling through life like the rest of us, trying to make things make sense and mostly failing. I felt, for the first time, genuinely sorry for Fr. Heilman in a way I have not before. I hope he finds some peace and stops hurting people, including himself.