A critical, but surprisingly empathetic and humane look at Fr. Richard Heilman

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 oppositionas 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.

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8 Responses

  1. “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.”

    Please. Either you belonged to the 0.1% of Evangelicaldom that thinks Charles Finney wasn’t extreme enough, or you didn’t really understand what your church taught. How old were you at this time?
    – joel

    1. Yeah, I was under the impression that Evangelicals think they can do whatever they want. They’ll never state it that way though. My fifth kid has been dating an Evangelical former 7th Day Adventist for well over a year now. They argue about religion all the time. (Who would have thought my hippy kid would be so passionate?) He goes to their services twice a week and she occasionally comes to mass with him. He has convinced her that evolution is not only true, but it’s magnificent, AND that there must be a state of being that exists where a soul is neither in heaven or hell. The word Purgatory is more than she can bear though.

      Pretty heady stuff for an Evangelical. The “once saved, straight shot up into heaven” theory being dismantled still freaks her out. She wavers back and forth. Her Dad tells her Catholics aren’t Christian.

      My son’s passion for the faith worries me though. It is too wrapped up in being right. Anything that feeds the ego sets off all kinds of alarms in my head. I hope their relationship isn’t doomed because I love her, but the cult brainwashing that both sides serves up abundantly is good cause for fear, and a likely cause of destruction.

  2. Mark, as I’ve said before, this is the only Catholic blog I visit with any regularity. Despite having nothing to do, I’m always busy, so I don’t happen to have time to come here and get into it. But today, I want to.

    “ 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.” I can appreciate your sentiments here, up to a point.

    I’ve written before, and I’m certain here, About a story from the Mabinogion, the Welsh national epic, concerning the twin gods Nissyen and Evnissyen (unlike Nissyen). nissyen is good, within the constraints of ancient Celtic society. Evnissyen is…not. But within the context your commentary here, we would probably call him very damaged. He always has to hurt someone for him to feel that he matters, and much of Nissyen’s lot in life is to prevent him from doing the damage. At one point, after Nissyen has done his job, Evnissyen throws himself on the ground and rips up the grass because he has to hurt something. Despite that he is a God, you nevertheless must feel sorry for him, that he is so constrained by his nature and his damage that it is almost impossible for him to be good.

    So, you with Father Heilman and your feelings about him.

    There is an interesting set of commentaries at sorryantivaxxer.com. It’s a website devoted to case after case of people who have been Covid deniers, vaccine deniers, mask deniers who are now dead. It makes for a very interesting reading because it is a very secular example of the issues you were dealing with. One set of commentaries or along the lines of “dingdong! The Witch is dead! And another anti-Vaxxer idjit bites the dust.” And another set of commentaries is: “oh, you people are so mean to these people. How dare you rejoice in their deaths. You’re awful!“

    What’s the latter category of commenters seem not to understand is that no one is really rejoicing in their deaths, although it does sound like that, I will admit. That’s just how it is expressed, but What they are reading is not rejoicing, but anger. As I wrote in response to one of them, it is an anger that has no way to get resolved, as this pandemic continues along its merry way, aided and abetted by the covid deniers, the anti vaxxers, the anti maskers, the iggerunt, the spiteful, the religious idjits claiming either god will protect them or that god has commanded them NOT to protect others, the manipulating and the manipulators both.

    My point— and I do have one— is that there are an awful lot of evnissyen’s around. They are, in my opinion, very damaged, possibly to the point of irretrievability. And one very common characteristic, though this may just be a sampling error, is that hyper conservative religion is at the bottom of a lot of it. Outside of their own tribe, they simply do not care about others. One person at the site actually asked me why, since I am double vaxxed, I should care about the issue?

    Why, indeed? The very fact that she would ask that question, with the answer staring her right in the face, was the most remarkable thing about her question. In this last week alone, at least three people have died not due to covid, but because of the covid deniers and antivaxxers taking all of the ICU beds. These three could not get the medical care they needed.

    I suppose that I am just Christian enough to forgive this mentality. But I am not Christian enough to actually care about the people with this mentality. There is only one way to stop this plague, at least according to my degree in public health. Everyone gets vaccinated who can. We maintain our social distance, we avoid large crowds, we wear masks everywhere, we don’t touch our faces when we are out in public, we wash our hands. This is proven sound medical and public health practice. After that, we hope that science will find a more efficient vaccine as well as a cure.

    Nissyen displayed his goodness by caring about Evnissyen despite the damage the latter caused. I can feel sorry for the Evnissyens in this world, but I am well past the point where I can actually care about them. They threaten me and mine, just like they threaten you and yours. I don’t want anyone to die, but as I’ve said many times, there are no rewards or punishments in the universe, there are only consequences.

  3. As the author pointed out, the mundane aspects of running a parish pale in comparison with being a cultural warrior. The poor man is living a double life like anybody else that cheats on their family.

    I think these types of people are lonely. They long for what “could have been” instead of flourishing in the space and time that they are in.

    There is a young priest in his early thirties that serves as *pastor* in the town over from us. He has one of the most fabulous views from his rectory–probably worth about 5 million. He often preaches about the girlfriend that he broke up with, (who subsequently married his best friend.) It’s sad because priests used to live in community–not solitary outposts. They need friends that are also engaged in the lowly slog through this life. They need to become experts in the mundane (like any parent) before they can become experts about other souls and the supernatural.

    Sometimes if we lower our expectations a whole world of beauty and grandeur –in what used to look mundane–opens up to us.

    I’m afraid there is a pattern of oddball priests that try to live out their delusions of grandeur by entering the priesthood so they can take a short cut to being held in great esteem and looked up to–before they have earned that right. By frantically searching for a mouthpiece and a soapbox, they lead other vulnerable souls astray. So whose work are they doing if it’s not the Lord’s work?

    The rosary is a powerful weapon against evil, but when it is said *against* other people it becomes something of a blasphemy.

  4. The blog from which you lifted the article of Fr. H is awesome! Can’t wait to dive in. And the tone with which Mark’s article closes is right-on. As a 40-something I’ve seen my parents’ friends go from kind funny adults when I was a kid to full-MAGA a-holes now. The human picture of this transformation is a nice reminder that, like Darth Vader, there is still some good in (all of us) MAGA adherents if they turn away from the dark side.

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