Why I’ll Stay, Why I Left

Two Essays from Our Special Issue on Catholic Identity
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)


These essays appear in the speacial collection Why We Came. Why We Left. Why We Stayed.Access the entire package here.


Ross Douthat

Late in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is asked whether, having drifted from his childhood Catholic faith, he intends to become a Protestant. “What kind of liberation would that be,” Stephen answers, “to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?”

I first read this Joycean line—which is, of course, somewhat unfair to both its targets—around the time that I became a Catholic, more than two decades ago now. But it’s only recently that I’ve appreciated it as more than an entertaining bit of lapsed-Catholic chauvinism.

In part, I’ve appreciated its relevance for Catholics dealing with the moral failures of their church’s leaders, with the What are we doing here? question that rears its head with every new round of sex-abuse revelations: we’re here because we still think the truth is far more likely to be here than elsewhere, however obscured and darkened by corruption it may seem.

But it also has a more specific application to the position of Pope Francis’s conservative critics in this turbulent pontificate. Again and again, in debates about the Francis era, conservative angst over the possible degradation of doctrine has met a serene rejoinder from the pope’s admirers that all is well and no schism can possibly come, because as faithful Catholics the pope’s critics don’t really have anywhere to go.

Which is, speaking as one of those critics, a pretty reasonable point, with which any serious conservative self-examination must contend. And especially the self-examination of a convert like myself, for whom the church’s claims to continuity and coherence were a reason (not the reason in my case, since I was a teenager following my parents and my conversion was less intellectualized than some, but still part of the story) to leave Protestantism behind.

If continuity and coherence are reasons to submit—or attempt to submit, with many doubts and fallings-short—to the authority of Rome, is apparent discontinuity a reason to look elsewhere? And if so, where would one possibly go next?

The answer in my case is nowhere; I will not be going, I have made my last conversion, the church is stuck with me until the end. And my reasons, when I reflect on them, are effectively Dedalusian.

I will not be going, I have made my last conversion, the church is stuck with me until the end. And my reasons, when I reflect on them, are effectively Dedalusian.

By this I mean that conservative Catholics are being asked by Francis and his appointees and admirers to accept—however tacitly and ambiguously and provisionally for now—a revision of church teachings that makes the church’s claims to authority and consistency seem less compelling and coherent and even possibly absurd. But at the same time any kind of exit strategy or alternative seems even more illogical and incoherent, more self-contradictory, than remaining with Peter even when he seems to be flirting with grave error.

Or to rewrite Joyce’s young artist’s line: What kind of fidelity would that be, to forsake a synthesis whose logic and coherence are endangered and to embrace one that seems incoherent from the start?

Of course, one might discern a coherent reason to leave the Catholic Church if a stern Calvinist soteriology suddenly became intellectually compelling, or an Anabaptist ecclesiology, or for that matter simple atheism. But for a conservative Catholic trying to assimilate Francis-era developments to a pre-Francis worldview rather than abandoning it entirely, there are really only two possible arguments for jumping ship.

The first would say, well, if the magisterium can reverse itself so easily from pope to pope, I should downgrade my confidence in the binding quality of papal rulings, assume that the official definition of infallibility was mistaken or misinterpreted, and accept something closer to the Orthodox understanding of Rome’s primacy, with sharp limits on the authority ascribed to pretty much all teaching issued by popes since the Great Schism. (Indeed, it’s even possible that Francis wants to encourage something like this downgrading, as a means to reunion with the church’s eastern lung.)

But suppose one did accept this understanding: Would that really be a case for becoming Orthodox? Not so far as I can see. First, it seems ridiculous to leave Catholicism over a pope’s evacuation of marital indissolubility…and then join a church that conducted a more explicit evacuation many centuries ago. Second, it seems equally absurd to accept an ecclesial model that emphasizes a more national and regional model of authority—and then rush to submit oneself to the Patriarch of Moscow or Constantinople, when the Patriarch of the West is clearly the relevant authority for most Catholics (even if his authority might be more limited than has traditionally been claimed). Swimming the Bosphorus might possibly make sense, under this analysis, for a Francis critic who was also planning to permanently decamp for Istanbul or Saint Petersburg. (Given Orthodoxy’s ongoing Ukrainian disputes, someone moving to Kiev would only multiply his dilemmas.) But in the West and indeed in most parts of the globe, even under an Orthodox model of Christendom the church of Rome would still be that critic’s natural home.

Then there is a second possible move: a traditionalist exile of the sort embodied by the Society of Saint Pius X, which professes its loyalty to every pope while declining to be actually governed by the papacy. After all, the argument might go, if you are already choosing the coherence of tradition over the seeming incoherence of a given pope or popes, why not join a community in which that choice has been made explicit, resistance to liberalization is the organizing principle, and an ambiguous sort of schism is accepted as a divinely ordered test?

I think liberalizers underestimate the potential power of this logic; and if there is an eventual schism on the church’s theological right, it will happen roughly along these lines: first with the concomitant liberalization of the official church and a stronger theological and liturgical traditionalist turn among conservatives (a combination already visible under Francis), and then with some ill-advised attempt by Rome to bring these traditionalists to heel (of the sort already deployed against some traditionalist orders under Francis), which in turn inspires a portion of the church’s priests and bishops, the next-generation and possibly more intense versions of Raymond Burke and Robert Sarah, to exercise a Lefebvre option and effectively decamp.

But if this is imaginable, I still can’t imagine joining the decampers—again, because the don’t-call-it-a-schism maneuver also seems to answer absurdity with absurdity, addressing the problem of a tacitly Protestantized Catholicism with a different kind of Protestantization. By entering into this kind of internal exile you don’t simply remain with Catholic tradition; you also place yourself under the authority of whoever leads the exiled church. And even for a traditionalist (let alone a confused conservative like myself), the tradition is not self-interpreting: if it were, Cardinal Burke and Bernard Fellay would have no differences between them, and the expulsion of Bishop Richard Williamson from the SSPX would not have become necessary.

To submit oneself in that way, whether to a Fellay or any other future exile, is ultimately to gamble almost the way megachurches gamble during their successions, without any “tu es petrus” warrant to grant confidence in the result. My own presumption is already considerable, but it’s not strong enough for that. Only if such a choice were forced—in a disputed papal election or a collapsed ecumenical council—could I imagine making it, because only then would it seem reasonable to imagine that the same Christ who chose Peter was asking us to choose as well.

Absent such still-unlikely developments, it seems more reasonable and faithful to remain—staying on a boat taking on water rather than casting oneself at some likely-looking flotsam, combining disputation with submission until time and providence either mysteriously vindicate Francis’s critics or prove, through a slow accretion of evidence, that we were simply wrong.

That this sets up a strange tension within conservative Catholicism is obvious already. Under Francis you have not only journalists and theologians lodging criticisms but high prelates using apocalyptic language and even making reference to the final tribulation of the church. But at the same time that rhetoric has no accompanying action that matches its apparent gravity, because no such action seems available.

In this tension it’s quite reasonable for more liberal Catholics to see the provisional vindication of their premises—evidence of how the petrine charism of unity and the operation of the Holy Spirit will gradually bring the recalcitrant along.

But as Francis likes to remind us, we have a God of surprises—and our remaining on the barque with Peter also keeps open the possibility that tomorrow’s liberals will come to wish that today’s conservatives had leaped overboard.


Jack Miles

In the eyes of Rome, I was still in good or at least easily reparable standing in the Catholic Church until I married for the first time, in an Episcopal ceremony in 1980, and began the regular attendance at Episcopal services that I have continued to this day. In my own eyes, however, my exit began earlier and occurred in a gradual process that, simplifying, I can present in four steps.

The first step came in 1968 with Pope Paul VI’s publication of Humanae vitae, renewing the church’s absolute ban on artificial contraception. If I may risk a recent, very Catholic formulation, I found the pope’s position intrinsically disordered. I knew that a great deal of responsible Catholic thought favored the changes that the pope had declined to make. The encyclical had, accordingly, the early effect of weakening my lifelong allegiance to the church itself. It set the exit in motion.

At this point in my life, I was a Jesuit seminarian in doctoral studies. But I had begun to reflect with regard to my own decision (at eighteen) to become a Jesuit; it had been the Society of Jesus—its intellectualism, its internationalism, its esprit de corps, its glamor—that had attracted me more than the church to which, of course, the Society is dedicated. Did I not have the cart before the horse? This was a second step: a recognition that my passion for Catholicism per se had long been less than my formal vocation called for it to be.

In 1970, as I completed my doctorate, I took a position as assistant professor of theology at Loyola University of Chicago, now with my relationship to the Society of Jesus, the church, and the world of possible religious practice more in flux than ever. Early in the 1970s, I attended a debate in Chicago between the late John L. McKenzie, SJ, an eminent Bible scholar, and the late Charles Davis, an English theologian of Catholic background and training, who had recently departed the church. To the best of my recollection after nearly fifty years, Humanae vitae was the formal subject of the debate, but the church itself was powerfully the background subject.

I still care about what happens to the Roman Catholic church, as all Christians should within the one mystical body of Christ, but for years now I have been relieved to do this from what has proven to be, for me, a saving, widening distance.

In the course of the debate, Davis posed a question that I then found and still find extremely clarifying. What, he asked, is available in Roman Catholicism that is available in no other form of Christianity? Would it be scholastic theology? Marian devotion? Eucharistic piety? A sense of universal mission? In every case that he could adduce, and he adduced at least a representative sample, the named item was available somewhere else in greater Christianity. What was uniquely to be had in Roman Catholicism, he concluded, was indeed romanità. It was the distinctive authority structure of the Roman church.

Was it he who then said, or I who then inferred, that just this structure had been exposed as inhuman or, to repeat the phrase above, intrinsically disordered in Humanae vitae? Whether any such judgment was to be rendered or not, Davis’s way of engaging the question made leaving the church seem far less grave and dramatic a matter than it had so long seemed within a religious taxonomy that divided the world into Catholics and non-Catholics, erasing all distinctions within the immensity of the latter group. In particular, it diminished the gravity of moving from one Christian communion to another.

During Vatican II, we Catholics grew used to the phrase “separated brethren” as a group designation for non-Catholic Christians. Davis led me to see us all, including the Catholics, as a single large band of mutually separated brethren. And the consequence of this change of perspective was that leaving the Roman Catholic Church for, say, the Episcopal or the Russian Orthodox Church was rather like leaving the Jesuits for the diocesan clergy or for the Benedictines. We had all once been a single church. We all still entertained an eschatological hope to be one again, recalling the ut sint unum of John 17:22–23: “The glory that you have given me,” Christ says to his apostles at the Last Supper,

 …I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Against this scriptural backdrop, leaving one Christian communion for another I saw as a proleptic act, a declaration of membership in the larger, glorious communion of ultimate reconciliation that lies over the horizon. Rather than a simple act of leaving, then, it was a kind of joining. This was a third step.

But there was a significant fourth step still ahead. My mental relocation from Roman Catholicism to Greater Christianity did not either logically or actually entail my becoming a practicing Episcopalian. I was then fresh from a doctoral program in Old Testament Studies that, in effect, was a program in comparative Semitic religion. I easily grasped the utility of understanding ancient Israelite religion by broadening the context in which it was considered, but why stop there? The seventies were a decade of lively American interest in Buddhism and Hinduism. In various ways, I had long been drawn to Judaism. In the “Concluding Unscholarly Postscript” to my introduction to The Norton Anthology of World Religions, I sketch how, in the course of the seventies, I took a further step and embraced despair (the phrase now makes me smile) as counseled by Bertrand Russell in “Why I Am Not a Christian” and then, at length (another smile here), tired of my own despair and ditched it. Neo-Buddhism, in a wholly ahistorical American configuration, beckoned for a while. I began a meditation practice under the direction of a convert to Hinduism that I still turn to now and again. In short, I passed the better part of a decade in existential exploration and experimentation, leading indirectly to a more academic kind of comparative religious exploration later.

After four years at Loyola and a fifth at the University of Montana, I left academe—forever, as I thought at the time—and commenced, in New York, the rewarding career in book publishing and journalism that filled the prime of my professional life. It was in New York that I first began occasionally attending Episcopal services, drawn by the superior music, the shapely liturgy, and a different sense of deep rootage in a mature tradition. I come from a Northern Irish family, however, and one of my cousins was imprisoned and brutalized only a generation ago by the British during the Troubles. Briefly, the thought of joining the English church seemed an unconscionable betrayal. Yet the Irish cousins themselves provided the corrective to that. Intermarried, they are quite averse to any Brit-bashing by visiting Yanks. The Irish of the Republic, thanks to their success in overleaping Britain to join the European Union, seem happy to be quite done with the age-old Hibernian ressentiment. So I got over it too and found, as Protestants like to say, a “church home.”

I am the more easily at home in the Episcopal Church because it is not the Anglican church and has not been since the American Revolution. The British monarch is still the titular head of the Anglican Church. The Episcopal Church, by sharp contrast, is headed by an elected presiding bishop, a constitutional arrangement that rather obviously reflects the American Constitution. Episcopalians and Anglicans together belong to a loose association, not a church, called the “Anglican Communion.” But such considerations as these were really minor matters that arose and were set aside well after I had concluded that, after all, I did want to practice a religion and that for historical, psychological, and aesthetic reasons, I would be better off as an Episcopal Christian with whatever mental reservations and extra-Christian inclinations than as an awkward and out-of-step Buddhist with an unshakably Christian cast of mind. So, then, this was the fourth step, consummated at the time of my first marriage. (Yes, there has since been a second marriage.)

Charles Davis returned to the Roman Catholic fold shortly before his death in 1999, but I do not anticipate that I will do so. My wife and I have purchased a pair of niches in the columbarium at the back of the Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, California. Davis’s judgment that romanità is defining where the Church of Rome is concerned, as well as his judgment about the human harm done by the pyramidal Roman authority structure, has since been painfully confirmed by the trauma of the sex-abuse scandal. More poignantly, somehow, it has been confirmed again for me as Pope Francis, after a few hopeful early signs, has finally failed even to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. As for the contraceptive ban that has opened such a chasm of alienation between the laity and the clergy within the church (and between the church and the nation), any adjustment seems as remote a possibility now as ever, half a century after Humanae vitae. I look on all this with sorrow, knowing that so many good Catholic friends would warmly welcome the changes that will never come. I still care about what happens to the Roman Catholic church, as all Christians should within the one mystical body of Christ, but for years now I have been relieved to do this from what has proven to be, for me, a saving, widening distance.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of several books, including To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon and Schuster, 2018). 

Jack Miles, the Corcoran Visiting Professor of Christian-Jewish Relations at Boston College, is the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography and, most recently, God in the Qur’an (Knopf).

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