Thursday, August 20, 2020

In Memoriam: James Larson (1941-2020)

I apologize it took me so long to get around to this, but I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of a brother and friend in the Lord who passed away in July. I am speaking of Mr. James Larson, a friend and collaborator, who died on July 6th. He died of heart failure while doing what he loved: writing an article about the Church. He was found dead seated at his desk, his Bible open to the book of the prophet Jeremiah. The final, unfinished article he was working on when he passed has been published on his website, Rosary to the Interior. You may view his obituary here.

Mr. Larson was a prolific and insightful writer who was making valuable contributions to the conversation about the Church in crisis back when I first took up blogging well over a decade ago. I stumbled upon Larson's original website, War Against Being, when I was first delving into traditional Catholicism (War Against Being is still up, although it looks like Larson ceased work on it in 2017 to devote energy to his other website). The premise of War Against Being was that the crisis in the Church was not essentially about liturgy but rather metaphysics, specifically, a deliberate abandonment of the metaphysical principles enshrined in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The darkness within the Church was metaphysical. I felt like his writings really got to the philosophical heart of contemporary problems in a way few others did.

This itself was not a novel concept; many others had said the same, and there are other very scholarly writers doing admirable work in the same vein (for example, Dr. Francisco J. Romero Carrasquillo, Ph.D of the blog Ite Ad Thomam). But what struck me about Larson's work was not necessarily his level of erudition or the iron-clad logic of his argumentation, but the almost prophetic quality I found in his writing. Anyone who has dug through Larson's expansive corpus knows what I mean. He was a man of deep spiritual insight who always looked at things from the perspective of the supernatural, regardless of the subject matter. When reading Larson's works, I always felt like I was getting a look "behind the curtain", so to speak—a privileged view into what was "really going on" behind it all. His writings not only informed, they nourished. They took a broad view, looking at the Church today from the perspective of heaven.

I remember when I discovered War Against Being I was still working for the Church as a DRE. I poured through every article and was deeply stimulated by them. Many concepts for some of my most perennially popular articles were first put into my head by Larson. For example, the observation that the theology of Joseph Ratzinger is fundamentally Teilhardian was an insight I picked up from Larson and would develop in my subsequent essays. Or my articles identifying the real problem with evolution being a denial of the metaphysical concept of substance. The whole genesis of my ebook Laudato Si: The 40 Concerns of an Exhausted Layman came from Larson's observations about naturalism in the thought of Pope Francis. And much more. Even his more trifling ideas were insightful, like his observation that the papal "Year of" phenomenon always ends up jinxing whatever it is trying to draw attention to, which I subsequently explored in my own essay (see: "Children's Crusade and the Age of Mercy", March 2015). His contribution on my own thought are truly difficult to measure.

Sometime after I read everything on War Against Being and began work on my own humble blog, Larson and I got into contact. I do not remember how or who contacted whom, but we struck up a rich and rewarding email exchange that spanned many years. My communication with Larson was always solely about spiritual matters and our mutual hobby, writing. Literally. We never talked about anything else. He never asked about my family, my work, or anything else, nor I him. Our friendship was solely focused on our writing. I came to admire him very much as a writer and thinker. I admired his insight and lucid style; as an older gentleman, Larson admired my ability to navigate the new media publishing world successfully. Speaking of age, I have to say, until James Larson died, I never knew how old he was. I knew he was older; being in my 30s when we started talking, I assumed he was in his 50s. I did not know I was engaging with a septuagenarian (Larson was 79 when he died last month).We never bothered to ask our ages in all our years of communication. Not that it would have mattered, but I realize now in retrospect that he has a sort of timeless feel about his character and the way he spoke and wrote that made it hard to pinpoint his age from his writing alone.

After some time I asked Larson if he had ever considered self-publishing his writings in book form. Larson was initially skeptical, as for him, "self-publishing" evoked images of junky spiral bound notebooks from Staples. I tried to convince him of the contemporary advances in self-publishing and offered to help walk him through the process and publish anything he wished. To my astonishment, he produced a largely unpublished draft of a work he called War Against the Papacy. Over the next several months I worked with James to self publish War Against the Papacy, which I published through my own publishing imprint Cruachan Hill Press in April, 2015 (click here to buy the book). I remember how giddy James was when he saw how professional the book layout looked compared to how he imagined a self-published work would look.

War Against the Papacy is very characteristic of Larson's thought and why I was attracted to him to begin with. War Against the Papacy is a traditionalist defense of the papacy which nevertheless avoids all the standard traditionalist arguments and even critiques some traddy canards, like the trad obsession with Cum ex apostolatus officio, the 1559 bull of Pope Paul IV that doesn't have even one fourth of the import that many traditionalists seem to think it does.

Larson had an interesting relationship with traditionalism that very much parallels my own. Though Larson fully accepted and understood the chaos of the post-conciliar Church, he had very little in common with what I would consider the vanguards of traditionalism in the English speaking world. He was very much in the camp of "I agree with your conclusions, but not the arguments by which you came to your conclusions." He loved the traditional Mass but had little interest in liturgical arguments; he thought the contemporary hierarchy had been taken over by the forces of darkness but had no sympathy for the SSPX or Lefebvre. He thought Pope Francis acts in a spirit completely antithetical to that which is proper for the successor of St. Peter but never questioned the validity of his pontificate and considered any variant of Sedevacantism to be unthinkable for a Catholic. Like the Prophet Jeremiah, whom he died reading, James was ultimately a contrarian, beating his fists against the wind amidst a generation that had little interest in his conclusions and less patience to understand the rationale behind his arguments. But that never stopped him from continuing to patiently,  persistently beat nonetheless.

Not to say Mr. Larson was flawless in his writing or his opinion. And we certainly disagreed on a few issues, though it was never so substantial that I felt any hesitancy promoting his work. As I've often said, there is no "Trad Magisterium", and I welcome many divergent points of view on issues Catholics of good faith can disagree about. James was always an outsider whom other trads respected but did not quite know what to do with. Perhaps that's something that resonated with me as someone who has alternately been praised or ostracized by larger trad outlets depending my adherence to Trad Groupthink in a given year.

In December of 2017, Mr. Larson launched his new website, Rosary to the Interior. Rosary to the Interior was started from Mr. Larson's conviction that "
We are at a point in the history of the Church in which none of the normal apostolates which sustain the life of the Churchcatechesis, proper intellectual formation, all sorts of organizations in defense of faith and morals, apologetics, etc. seem to possess the power to resist and defeat the enemy" (source). It was a prayer crusade (organized by lay people and certain participating clerics), to pray the Rosary on specific Marian feast days for the intention of the purification of the Church. I helped promote the endeavor when it was first announced. James was ardent in his devotion to the new endeavor to the end of his life. As mentioned above, he died while writing an article for the site.

Unfortunately, I fell out of contact with Mr. Larson in his latter years. My life was changing and I no longer had the time to keep up with James' output, which became more frequent in the last two years. Nor did I devote much time to our correspondence. He still faithfully emailed me every time he wrote something, though. I miss those emails now. Usually just a simple "I just wanted to let you know I published a new article", and then a link. It was nice to know he was still out there writing, even if I couldn't give him more attention. He wasn't asking for any promotion, just wanting to let an old friend know that he'd created something new. Alas, I seldom had the time to read his newer material. I will definitely make the time now.    

If I had to choose a favorite work from James, it would be a piece from War Against Being entitled "St. Francis of Assisi: They Pretended to Love You So That They Might Leave You." This was one of his works I have come back to multiple times over the years. I think it is a good exemplification of everything I admired about Mr. Larson's writing. I hope you'll give it a look.

Requiescat in pace, Brother James. I'm sorry I fell out of contact with you in the end. I pray for the repose of your soul and ask the same of all who stumble across this post. And
—if you are now gazing on the everlasting hills from the halls of light—please remember my poor soul, which will someday, God willing, join you before too long.


Thursday, August 13, 2020

When a "Good Priest" Goes Bad, and What We Can Take Away from the Case of Fr. Leatherby

Editor's Note: Maximus is a long-time collaborator of the USC blog who has recently begun contributing again. He has advanced degrees in theology and a long history of working for the Church at various levels. On this feast of St. Maximus, we are glad to welcome this guest post.

The recent account of things coming to light in the Sacramento Diocese should be disturbing to any member of the Faithful, and particularly those who would consider themselves "conservative" or "orthodox" Catholics. The story starts off as a familiar one: a conservative priest is removed from ministry allegedly for being too conservative. Those on the right defend the priest, vilify the local ordinary (who is decried as a liberal or anti-life or any other number of easy labels for political expediency), and persist in a campaign to "get their priest back". Those on the left decry the hypocrisy of the right, by manifesting the double-standard held by the defenders on the grounds that "at worst, the it's only a sin between heterosexual, consensual adults". The right shouts back and says, "but those gay priests got off without a warning!"

A mess to be sure, and what-about-ism cannot be the way forward. Inevitably, events transpire that begin to leak so-called facts, and then the cycle concludes with a trial by public opinion, an even more divided laity, a distrust in the hierarchy, and a tarnished witness of the Body of Christ to the world.

We've heard this before.

At the risk of contributing to the undue continuance of the news cycle around this issue, I'd like to comment upon a few important details that may get lost in the noise, in hopes that we can do better in the future.

1) It seems that there has been a real failure -- or at least a manifestation of the real poverty -- in our canonical systems. It may not be popular, but I believe His Excellency, Bishop Jaime Soto when he says that the process has extended out of his hands. It is also not surprising that the family and local congregation would support a priest who is by all accounts conservative, charismatic, and a sign of contradiction in our world over and against a local ordinary, who, like so many ordinaries in the Church today, is not known personally by the community but is perhaps seen as a distant administrator rather than a shepherd.

2) AND YET, to focus on the moral issue and the lagging canonical process that has not yet been resolved IS TO MISS THE POINT ENTIRELY. The primary documents that were either distributed publicly or else leaked demonstrate in abundance that the recent confirmation of excommunication by the Bishop is not at all in relation to the moral life of a priest, but rather is a far graver crime than that of morals. While inappropriate relationships in the closed forum undoubtedly cause damage to the individuals involved and consequently to the Body of Christ, the crime of schism is a direct assault on the whole of the Body itself. Moreover, the public manifestation of errant teachings brings with it the consequence of leading so many members of the faithful astray, who, through little fault of their own simply wish to follow the pastor they trust -- even if that is off a cliff.

3) The public airing of the allegations pertaining to the alleged moral indiscretions of the priest is an injustice to all. As difficult as it has surely been for the lay faithful not to have received any specific clarifications on the allegations from the Bishop, IT IS NOT THE RIGHT OF THE FAITHFUL TO KNOW THESE THINGS. The priest, even though suspended, has a right to a good name. In the modern West, we are too quick to project our alleged "right to a public trial" on to the processes of the Church. And yet, we have no such right to know. Let us imagine, for a moment, that Fr. Leatherby, who admits his guilt on the one hand but on the other strongly objects to the degree of the guilt to which he is being accused, is telling the truth. Will he be able to get a fair trial? And if so, would he be able to ever exercise ministry again? Not in any country that has access to the Internet.

4) The specific allegations revealed in the Catholic Herald bear a haunting resemblance to another story made public. This concurrence of stories about two conservative clerics who both studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome at the same time should bring up alarm bells for the reader. How did these priests come to fabricate these "rites" and plan to carry them out on the faithful? Is there a network of predator conservative priests being formed at the NAC? Or, is this simply a case of "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," who latched onto a story floating around at the time she was being questioned? Frankly, I don't know and I am trying not to be overly curious -- we shouldn't even know these details, and this is the entire purpose of a tribunal process: to discover the truth insofar as it is able to be discovered, and to pass a judgment on the thing without the scrutiny of voyeurs from the outside.

5) If the report from the Diocese, that they would support Fr. Leatherby's request for laicization, is correct, this too is an injustice. It is an injustice because the trial regarding the crimes of a moral nature need to be brought to their proper conclusion for the sake of the alleged victims. It is an injustice because the crime of schism of a priest should be given a just sentencing, not a get out of jail free card so that this priest according to the order of Melchizedek can start up his own "independent 'catholic' church" with valid but illicit sacraments. It is an injustice because it may very well be that the salvation of Fr. Leatherby is dependent upon the tough love of a Mother rather than a laissez-faire policy regarding schism, one which embodies the spirit of the age, with the instruction"you go and do you, and that's okay".

Some other, secondary, remarks:

1) If the individual crime of schism is a serious one, the "Bene-vacantism" represented here is not a serious schism, but a fashionable idea that will die off in due course. Its telos is either sedevacantism outright, or else it is merely a weak tantrum akin to a teenager who lashes out after having done something wrong. Those who follow this route will most certainly be reconciled before the final judgment -- indeed, Fr. Leatherby's letter indicates that he is open to the possibility of correction of an error of fact (i.e.: who is in fact the pope). For the student of history, it should not be a surprise that when two people style themselves as pope in their external adornments and titles, that there would be confusion in the minds of the faithful. Let us pray that this... situation... does not endure for too much longer.

2) The 350+ lay faithful who have been led astray need some serious pastoral accompaniment. It may be that the Bishop is too distant and perceived as the bad guy to directly lend a hand, but perhaps their pastor/s can be given the Bishop's confidence and support in this effort.

3) We should pray for Fr. Leatherby, for his renunciation of error, and that he will be granted the grace of humility, to seek the solitude of a monastery where he might pray and offer penance for his grievous wounds on the Body of Christ. Perhaps, following the lead of His Excellency's invocation, those who are concerned for this priest (and not merely titilated by the thrill of a good priest gone bad) would consider a novena for his repentance and conversion. Considering the time of year, I would propose holding this novena from the Vigil of the Assumption (Aug. 14th) through the feast of the Queenship of Mary (Aug. 22nd). Here's a good novena.

In conclusion, I earnestly hope that there is justice for all involved in what has now become a 3-ring circus. Schism is never a good thing, and this should not be obfuscated because of alleged improprieties that have not yet been given a final judgment. That these two would be conflated, or that schism would even be eclipsed by crimes of a more private nature, simply does not bode well about the outcome.

Oremus pro Ecclesiam!