As a young man, I converted with great enthusiasm to Catholicism, and for 13 years was an ardent Catholic, eager to argue for the faith with all comers. The idea of not being a Catholic was utterly alien to me.
But spending four long years writing as a journalist about the sex abuse scandal destroyed my ability to believe in the Catholic Church’s claims. I didn’t lose my faith suddenly; it was torn from me bit by bit, like a torturer ripping out his victim’s fingernails.
I had never believed that the Catholic Church (or any church) was perfect, and had full confidence that the arguments for Catholicism would enable me to withstand any challenge.
But nothing prepared me for the things I learned in writing about the scandal — the cruelty, the mendacity, the cynicism of the clergy. I eventually lost the ability to believe that my salvation depended on being Catholic.
Humiliated and spiritually broken, I became Orthodox, but a very different kind of Orthodox Christian than I was a Catholic. Gone was my triumphalism, my intellectual arrogance and my effortless ability to trust ecclesial authority.
Losing my Catholic faith was without question the most painful, shattering thing that I’ve ever lived through.
In time, the pain of the break healed, mostly, but I continued to agonize over why so many of my devout Catholic friends had been as offended as I by the scandal, but had managed to hold on. Why had I been broken?
In the summer of 2013, enduring a spiritual and medical crisis brought on by intense family stress, I stumbled into Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the 14th century epic about the great Catholic poet’s imaginative journey through hell, purgatory and heaven.
I am not much of a fiction reader, but Dante’s “Commedia” set its hook hard. I read it like a drowning man seizes a log to keep his head above the maelstrom.
By the time I emerged from the 14,000-line text, I had been renewed and healed, delivered from the dark wood of my despair, and given new life. And I finally understood why I had gone wrong in my life as a Catholic and how I unfairly judge the church.
It’s not because Dante was a defender of the Catholic institution. In fact, his verses fall like lash-strokes on the backs of corrupt priests and monks. “Ravenous wolves in shepherds’ clothing,” he calls them. The archvillain of the “Commedia” is none other than Pope Boniface VIII, the politically ruthless pontiff who was in part responsible for the poet’s bitter exile from his native Florence.
Again and again, Dante’s prophetic denunciations make the point: If those ordained by God as shepherds lose their way so badly, the flock may lose faith that there is a right way at all.
Dante Alighieri suffered more harm from the church’s leaders than I ever had. Yet not only did he hold on to his Catholic faith, he also created, amid the ruins of his life, arguably the greatest work of Catholic art of all time, an epic poem to which Pope Benedict XV, a 20th century successor of evil Pope Boniface, even devoted a papal encyclical.
How had Dante done it? I could not return to Catholicism, not because I was still mad at Rome (I wasn’t), but because I no longer believed in Roman Catholic Christianity.
But I needed to know what Dante knew to protect myself from making the same mistake with the Orthodox Church, and to conquer my fear and mistrust of religious authority.
Dante believed that Jesus established the Catholic Church, and he accepted papal authority as divinely ordained. But he did not mistake the men who run the church for God. He saw the church as an icon of Christ — that is, a flawed human structure through which God’s light shines. In Dante’s metaphysical vision, all creation is an icon of the divine — some parts more than others.
I never consciously thought of the Catholic Church as perfect either, though. There must have been something more at work.
Over the course of his fictional journey through the afterlife, the pilgrim Dante (that is, the character in Dante Alighieri’s poem) learns that his basic error — the thing that caused him to lose his way — was making idols of things that were not God.
He sought salvation, so to speak, in romantic love, in literary fame, in intellectual life, and in the pursuit of politics. God can be in those things, but those things are not God. The goodness one might find in them is ephemeral, and cannot permanently satisfy our restless hearts.
Dante’s particular temptations were not my temptations, but I had done the same thing as he. I discovered that I had grounded my self-worth in the approval of my father, which I could not hope to earn. I had grown up in the household of a strong, loving father, a traditional Southern patriarch whom I hero-worshiped. He was gentle and kind, though also proud and willful.
We were very different. He was an outdoorsman who loved team sports; I was bookish and unathletic. By his own admission, he had no idea how to relate to a son who was so unlike himself. Despite his open affection, I always knew that I, who share his name, was a disappointment to him. This hurt. A lot.
When I entered my teenage years, we argued often, and I finally left for boarding school, in part to get out from under his roof. After I became a Catholic in my twenties, I transferred worship of my dad to worshiping the church — this, without knowing what I was doing. I expected of the church’s bishops, as I had expected of my father, something they were not capable of giving consistently: unconditional love, affirmation, and patriarchal care in which I could trust.
Why? Because I wanted nothing more than to feel at home and cared for unambiguously by a father. I could never be truly at home in my father’s house, because I could not shake the crippling sense of not measuring up to his standards. As a loyal son of the Catholic Church, I grounded myself in a substitute household, and felt strong filial respect and affection for the ecclesial patriarchs, especially Pope John Paul II.
When we all learned how so many priests used their roles as fathers to rape the children in their spiritual care, and that even the saintly pontiff had failed in his duty to protect the most vulnerable Catholics in his care, the revelations affected me with an intensity I did not fully understand, not even years after I left the Catholic church, spiritually broken.
Reading Dante revealed something shocking to me. The collapse of my Catholic faith had been about fear, injustice, hypocrisy and the obliteration of trust. That I knew. But more than that, it had been about fatherhood and sonship.
I was not wrong to condemn the fathers of the Catholic Church for their wickedness in the scandal, but I had made a mistake that the devout Dante did not: I expected more from them than they could deliver, and came undone by the shock of their failures.
This realization did not cause me to return to Rome. As I said, I don’t believe in Christ as a Catholic any longer; I am firmly Orthodox.
But it did occasion understanding, and call forth mercy (this happened, too, with my father); the bishops, the priests and my own dad were not monuments to unerring authority, but rather my companions in shipwreck.
And it taught me the importance of never mistaking icons through which the divine light shines imperfectly — for example, the church, the clergy and the family — for God.
Last fall, after making a pilgrimage to Dante’s grave in Ravenna, I visited the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, built over the birthplace of St. Benedict, my patron.
I, an ex-Catholic, found welcome and peace with the monks there, and though I was not able to receive Holy Communion, I stood at the back of the church during Mass and thanked God for his gifts to me in the Catholic Church, especially the blessing of its greatest poet, Dante Alighieri, through the artistry of which he delivered to me the wisdom that heals.