The past 24 hours put me in the middle of an unpleasant conversation. However I think the reflections are worth sharing, so here’s the story:
On a group I manage, a recent member mentioned how she’s a student under “esoteric ISM bishop” (name withheld) and she’s getting a lot out of his teachings. Now a visit to said bishop’s website left me with more questions than answers, but any misgivings on my part are neither here nor there. He’s neither breaking my leg nor picking my pocket, so it doesn’t concern me; if she’s getting the spiritual food she needs then I’m happy for her, full stop.
Another member of the group expressed his misgivings about said bishop, and while his concerns were valid if we’re talking about clergy in the mainstream churches (I moved the conversation to PM because I wanted to hear more of the story), it brings a question of how we should approach talking about clergy in our particular subculture.
Why Should I Care?
I should probably start this off by talking about my own story. As you already know, there are several reasons I left the Traditional Roman Catholic movement, even though I continue to believe the theology (I identify as a “Doctrinal Traditionalist,” though I don’t much like the term). One is the way clergy treat each other, something Fr. Coomaraswamy does an excellent job of describing. While the article is significant to me personally for other reasons (the “Bishop Taylor” he mentions was my consecrator), Coomaraswamy’s main point can be summarized in this quote:
“Given the above behaviour, is it any wonder that laymen are disgusted and that some of them have become “home aloners”? That individuals who are presumably dedicated to the saving of souls should forget the admonition of the Apostle John to “love one another” is to say the least, rather extraordinary. How is it possible for priests to believe they are saving souls when they behave in such a manner.
“A further problem arises. When one brings a soul to accept the teaching of the Church, one has to immediately warn him that should he go to a traditional Mass in one parish, he better not attempt to do so in a neighbouring parish lest he be refused communion. Where he asks is that unity of which Our Lord spoke so often. For me at least, this has always been a somewhat difficult matter to explain. Traditional Catholics are used to this, but converts become bewildered.”
How clergy treat each other – and talk about each other from the pulpit – results in a massive purity spiral on the part of the laity. If you’re not familiar with the phrase “purity spiral,” it’s a term heard in radical political circles that describes members of a group or movement taking a “more pure than thou” attitude toward each other, creating dissension, division, schisms ad infinitum, ultimately alienating the movement from the mainstream population and rendering it useless. Insofar as this concerns the Traditional Movement, I think this explains the irony of why so many “Doctrinal Trads” are attracted to Feeneyism: even though denial of Baptism of Desire is thoroughly heretical, it gives the individual Trad a chance to say “Being next-level exclusionary is why I’m more Catholic than you!”
How this hit me personally is why I’m writing this blog post. While people were attending my Masses, I was something of a pariah in the Traditional Movement precisely because I neither walked the party line, rejected Feeneyism (you know, because I’d actually picked up a theology textbook!), and never bought into the purity spiral. It was also never a question of recreating a carbon copy of the Church of the 40s and 50s for me, which seems the real main thrust for many people in the Traditional Movement. It didn’t help that my previous involvement in the occult had been found out too (mostly through mis-steps on my part), and so the Hyperdox Crusade of the Internet Religious People was on!
Outside of people posting on forums calling me “Old Catholic” (fighting words in Trad-Land!), or claiming I wasn’t baptized, calling me a heretic because my crozier had a dragon’s head or my original coat of arms a pentagram (dude, seriously?) or the usual internet crap, none of that really bothered me. What did bother me was that people would repeat some of these claims as gospel, without knowing anything about me, reading anything I’d ever written, or so much as sending me an E-mail to ask whether a given thing was true. And then there’s the fact that if I did respond to anything, whatever I said would be twisted out of context by someone on the forum (I wish I had links to give as examples).
In 2008, the big storm hit that sent me out of the Trad Movement permanently. That January, somebody flooded a number of occult fora with sporgeries claiming to be from me and alleging that I had a homosexual relationship with my consecrator (whom the poster called “a regular Merlin”), that I was accusing some high-profile Trad clergy of running a cocaine ring, that another priest in Chicago had married a nun, and a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t remember because it was 10 years ago. When I categorically stated on my then-website that those posts were fake and I had nothing to do with them, Internet Trad-Land flat-out called me a liar and would rather take joy in kicking a man when he’s down. In fact that’s something these people seem to fantasize about while jerking off: talking shit about anyone they can and then dogpiling on them as much as possible.
Years later I found out who wrote these pieces, a conclavist living in a trailer park in the Pacific Northwest who declared himself “The One True Pope” back in 2011. But it didn’t matter anymore. That incident was what prompted me to leave the Traditional Movement because I couldn’t ignore the negative side of it anymore. Over the next year I packed up and planted Columbus Chapel of Faith Ministries (the Chapel of Faith Hymnal and Chapel of Faith Missal on my lulu site, that’s for whom I originally compiled these books), and found myself moderately successful once that purity-spiraling garbage was far away from my life.
A year later, when I saw the hypocrisy after Bishop McCormack was arrested for molesting a teenager and caught dead-to-rights on video, I was more than glad to have been out of that mess. As an example of hypocrisy, we always said we’d blackball child molesters instead of protecting them “like those Novus Ordinarians do,” but here’s an email from one of the other bishops with whom I was on friendly terms, expressing dismay and a need to hide information about McCormack’s case from inquirers:
I’ve long thought of writing a blog post titled Can the Traditional Catholic Movement Survive? and explain why I think it can’t in the long term, but I think these past few paragraphs have written that post for me.
But as for the original question – Why do I care? – I care because I’ve seen it first-hand.
Back to the Present
Enough about the past, let’s now come back to the online group I administer and the post talking about the “esoteric bishop.” The man posting on the forum was not coming from a place of disingenuousness, but used to work as a fraud investigator and found a few red flags such as grandiose titles and a refusal to talk about his credentials (he linked me to a post on the man’s Facebook page as evidence).
Now from my own look at the church’s website, the biggest source of my misgivings would be the lack of clarity. There were a lot of buzz-words such as “modern with respect for ancient tradition” but no clear theological statement or unambiguous description of how such phrases actually translate into their belief or praxis, and the “seminars” page had a list of price tags for yearly subscriptions.
Now don’t get me wrong, as none of this is a major cause for concern. I charge for my classes and have a subscribers-only Patreon feed, so this pot’s not about to call out any kettles. The only difference here is that I’m no longer in ministry, meaning I openly call my business a business and pay taxes on it.
Further investigation on this man’s Facebook page tells me he doesn’t seem guilty of simony, he doesn’t charge for exorcisms or other spiritual services, and when he talks about money and/or tithing, he’s merely voicing things I’ve found true back when I was in ministry, i.e. a church without financing is doomed to die. I had that experience myself too, because I insisted on financing my ministry with my own paycheck back when I was doing office work at a home health care company. When the IRS shut down my employer in 2011 for owing too much in back taxes (long story), I was too uncomfortable to ask the congregation to start donating. This put us into a downward spiral and we were more or less out of commission by Easter 2012, though our core group managed to limp along until June of 2015. So no, I’m certainly not going to put someone down for being smart enough to avoid the same fate my own ministry suffered all because of my personal hang-ups!
As to refusal to talk about his credentials, yeah that happened but I can see both sides. The person asking about his credentials openly called him a “fake,” a “liar,” and essentially a “con-man.” I can’t blame the guy for getting indignant and calling him out on the rudeness and name-calling, though giving a direct answer may have been better: “This is where I studied/who my mentor was (name), this is the bishop who ordained me (name), if you have any problem with that then good for you, because I refuse to make it my problem. Good day.”
So in essence I can’t say I was looking at a bad man, just someone who was in the Independent Sacramental Movement (which even most ISM clergy admit can be a lunatic asylum at times!), and facing the reality of what it means to work ministry without the backing of a denominational framework’s talent and treasure.
What does this mean? This means that if I have any questions about this man or another cleric – for example about any vagueness in his website’s theology – I should ask him directly, just as I’d prefer those people 10 years ago would’ve asked me directly. In fact the reason I haven’t given this man’s name is that I don’t know him, I’ve not spoken with him, and my desire to use this story as an illustration does not include a desire to drag through the mud someone I don’t know.
So What Do We Do?
We have to move to that weird intersection between the clerical state (usually derived from the ISM) and the Occulture, both of which are filled with egoists and humble seekers, con-artists and genuine teachers. When publicly speaking of a cleric, should we not bring up our misgivings? I don’t think that’s appropriate.
Should we open our digital mouths full-bore and talk trash to our heart’s content? I don’t think that’s appropriate, either.
This is the internet, where it’s too easy for misinformation and Fake News to multiply. It’s also a place that can destroy good people and elevate bad ones. So I don’t think either extreme (suppression or free rein) is a good thing.
What I do think is that when talking about clergy – or any other public or semi-public figure for that matter – we should be prepared with facts and documentation, and make every effort to stay strictly with the facts and not twist them to our confirmation biases.
If a given cleric is a convicted sex offender – then find his entry on the state’s registry, post the link, and put his ass on blast!
If the given cleric is a proven con artist (i.e. proven in a court of law), then post that link and explain this is why you don’t trust them.
If the cleric in question released an album as a drag queen, then post the link and say straight-up whether or not you’re not cool with it. Leave others to their own opinions because it’s not like you can “morality police” someone on the other side of the country (or world) anyway.
If the cleric in question says something that’s theologically heretical, then post it while contrasting what they said against the official theology of the denomination from which they hail, and then explain your issue either with the theology, or with why they insist on identifying with whatever tradition or denomination in spite of rejecting that tradition’s tenets.
If the cleric in question is vague or ambiguous on a point that could be interpreted either way, then make a point to ask him directly before assuming anything and then posting that assumption on the internet!
In essence, all I’m talking about is basic common sense. Not just for clergy but for anybody on the internet in general.
Stick with the evidence. Ask when there’s doubt. Interpret ambiguities charitably unless there’s clear reason to do otherwise.
If we claim to serve a God-Who-Is-Love, then we’re not serving that God whenever we bear false witness or calumniate about that God’s children. Instead we serve our own vanities and put the World’s opinions ahead of the Word-Who-Is-Truth.
Untruth and Vanity are blue pills. Bluepilling has no place in any genuine spiritual tradition.