(note: this is a longer article and your email may truncate it. If you cannot see all the text, you can view it at matsumoto.substack.com)
Recently the Pope (the white one not the black one) formally recognized 21 Coptic Christian martyrs as saints within the Catholic Church. Perhaps you remember the unfortunate souls. In the year of our Lord 2015, ISIS (which was probably indirectly created by the U.S. government) put 21 Coptic Christians in orange jumpsuits and cut their heads off.
Like most things terrorists do, it was played for shock and outrage and achieved its mark. The image of 21 people, bound, kneeling before their captors and then being horrifically executed, angered a great many people and simultaneously cemented ISIS’s reputation as a group not to be trifled with. The martyrs’ pope (the black one, a lot of people don’t realize the Coptic Church has its own pope) recognized their sacrifice instantly, and the 21 victims immediately entered the roles of the venerated saints. The ranks of people whom the Coptic Church regards with absolute certainty as citizens of Heaven. This is fitting and right and good…
For the Coptic Church.
For Catholics however?
Look, people will accuse me of being mean. I’m not being mean.
If you’re unfamiliar with the details of global Christian politics and history I will give you a short, one paragraph summary:
Once upon a time there was a not well defined following of Jesus. This budding religion, this cult, was spread by Christ’s apostles around the Mediterranean, Africa, and some of India. About 350 years later, this cult had grown and was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. All the unofficial leadership and traditions of the church then became codified, made law, and the local and regional leaders of the church got special robes and hats to distinguish themselves as important. Over the next 700ish years, various theological and political (mostly these) disputes caused factions of Christianity to splinter off from this official Roman Church. The response to these splinterings (called schisms) from Rome was always the same, being some version of “this schismatic group is heretical and all who follow them are damned to Hell for all eternity unless they repent.” State oppression of the splinter group usually followed. This oppression was often highly effective and almost all such splinter groups were irradicated and no longer exist. A few survived however and these groups have since banded together into something called “Oriental Orthodoxy.” The Coptic Church is one of these. Then, in the year 1054 (ish) the BIG SPLIT happened, and the Church of the Western Roman Empire split from the Church of the Eastern Roman Empire. Over time, the Western Church came to be known as “Catholicism” and the Eastern Church as “Eastern Orthodoxy”. This is super confusing because “Oriental” is just Latin for “Eastern”, but that aside, the Eastern Orthodoxy Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church are two separate things.
Fine and good.
All this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, theologically speaking, if the Catholic Church had not said, often and definitively, that they and they alone were the only ones who could get you into Heaven. Catholics today deny this, and make up all kinds of reasons for why what the Church said in the past isn’t really what it said. It did say it though.
And everybody knows it.
The Catholic Church has claimed universal and exclusive authority over the souls of Men for centuries and doggedly insisted that it alone possesses “the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” The admission of martyrs from another church, another faith, into the Catholic litany of saints, is a dramatic about face. It is, when you get down to it, an admission from the Church of, “well… okay. Sometimes our dogma is wrong actually.”
That’s actually a big deal.
Now in truth this is but the latest in a series of such admissions that have been given since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. It’s very annoying though because the Church can never just come out and say straightforwardly that they are changing their doctrine and dogma. Protestants don’t have a problem doing that because Protestant churches have never claimed infallibility. The Roman Church has though. Like, repeatedly. By its own definitions, it can’t be wrong. It touts its own claims as universal, eternal truths. As a result Catholics have become amongst the most nimble practitioners of mental gymnastics the world has ever seen. Perhaps you’ve never been exposed to their contortions. Bless you. The limberness of their reasoning is hard to adequately convey! Suffice it to say that, to Catholics, words have simply ceased to mean anything. Definitions are infinitely loose and mailable to the point where up can mean down and black can mean white. Don’t believe me?
“It (The Catholic Church) firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives; that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the church's sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the catholic church.” Council of Florence Session 11
That’s pretty definitive, no?
I mean it’s harder to get a more concrete statement out of somebody regarding the specific situation we find ourselves in than that. Coptic Christians are schismatics (not in union with Rome), and, even if they have had their blood shed in the name of Jesus, go to everlasting fire.
That was the official, authoritative, Catholic teaching. Supposedly universal, eternal, and infallible.
Until like a week ago.
And now, today, Catholic forums are full of people doing intellectual somersaults to show you why texts like the above, actually mean the opposite of what they appear to say.
Frankly it’s all a bit tiring. Catholics often pride themselves on being “intellectuals” what with their Aquinas and all. But the truth is they’re nothing of the sort. They wear intellectualism like a skin-suit, finding ever longer and more complicated Greek words from a thousand years ago to justify incoherence.
Just a bit fed up at the moment. That’s not a fair statement to all Catholics, obviously. But, it is a big problem within their ranks. When I converted in 2015 it was out of a sense of desperation. I was in the midst of a spiritual crises and looking anywhere for solid ground on which to stand. The Catholics seemed to have that. They promised it. “Our truth never changes,” they said.
Or, at the very least, they themselves were similarly deceived.
It’s weird because it kind of reminds me of pro-wrestling. You know, the WWF and WCW, that sort of thing. Once upon a time they really really tried to convince the public is was real. That all those flying elbows and chair smacks and suplexes were legitimate attempts by actual opponents to try and dominate one another in the ring. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, this illusion was fiercely maintained. “Kayfabe” they called it. A word whose etymology is not really clear. Some speculate that “kayfabe” might be a kind of pseudo pig-latin for “be fake”, as wrestlers were known to shout “Kayfabe!” whenever someone not “in the know” walked into the hotel or the dressing room. It was a signal to let everyone know they needed to drop into character. Wrestlers who “officially”, in the ring, were in a feud would go so far as to book separate taxis, take separate planes, and stay in separate hotels to avoid appearing in public with their “enemy.” If word got out that these in-ring mortal enemies were, outside of the ring, actually friends… well Kayfabe would be broken! Wrestling would be ruined. The illusion would be shattered and the “sport” would die. Even into the 90s, this concern about “keeping kayfabe” persisted but, like so much else, with the coming of the internet it started to crumble. By the end of the decade, it was all but gone.
See, in 1997 (and yes, I do know a lot about Professional Wrestling. What? Can a man not be multi-layered? Is it illegal to appreciate Dante, Shakespear and the Macho Man Randy Savage?) there was the now infamous “Montreal Screwjob.” At the time Bret Hart was the champion of the WWF but Vince McMahon, the owner of the company, had gotten word that Hart was leaving to wrestle for his rival, the WCW. There was an upcoming bout in Montreal that Hart was scripted to win against Shawn Michaels, but McMahon, not one to be crossed, got other plans. Having his champion, his star, leave and go wrestle for his rival, taking all those fans and eyeballs with him… it was too much. He couldn’t stop Hart from going, no. But he could stop him from going with his reputation. Secretly Vince got together with the match referee and Shawn Michaels and they all agreed that Hart couldn’t be allowed to win. It was decided that at some point in the match Shawn would put Bret into “The Sharpshooter”, Bret’s own signature move, and, when he did so, the ref would call the match, pretending that Hart had tapped-out.
So it was.
Hart, the hottest star in all of wrestling at the time (and a Canadian), was made to lose by tap-out via his own signature move on Candian soil in front of all his fans.
… Even though he quite clearly never tapped.
Hart was furious. He got up from “The Sharpshooter” screaming and confused. It didn’t matter. The match had been taken from him as well as his belt and some portion of his dignity. As for the fans? Well, those still under the impression that it might all somehow be a true athletic contest really couldn’t believe that anymore. Kayfabe had been broken. Publicly and in a massive way. McMahon had decided that breaking the illusion for his audience was worth the money he would save by not having his champion walk over to his competitor as a hero. He could leave, sure. But Vince was going to see to it that he left like a bitch.
Whether Vince was right or wrong about it being more profitable to break Kayfabe I can’t say. What I can say is that Wrestling declined massively sometime after that and never really recovered. Vince might have cut off his nose to spit his face. Or, not. You could also argue the decline was inevitable. Shifting public tastes and lots of new alternative sources of entertainment cropping up online. Still though, I can’t help but think that part of the decline was because the illusion died. Hard to get emotionally invested in a fake fight, isn’t it? Now? Today? Wrestlers don’t care anymore. Kayfabe’s not a thing. In the ring, while the cameras are on? Sure. Play your part. Outside of that though? Today nobody cares if you’re seen splitting an avocado toast with your arch rival or if you talk about the way you script your matches on a podcast.
Same thing happened in the Catholic Church.
They broke Kayfabe.
And, once broken, it’s damn near impossible to get back.
We could argue all day (people do) about just when Catholic Kayfabe was irreparably broken. About what event, precisely, is the Catholic analogue to the Montreal Screwjob. For my money it’s Vatican 2, when they changed the liturgy and opened the Church up to all manner of other changes too. Before that the Mass had always been a serious thing. Important. Something you went to every Sunday on pain of Hell if you didn’t. They spoke Latin there, burned incense, had golden vessels and embroidered robes.
And… then they went and put the whole thing into bad English.
And you know sure, on paper, you still go to Hell for willfully missing Mass on Sunday. Wink wink. But nobody really cares anymore. People miss all the time. While the cameras are on, on the stage, everybody still does the things and pretends they’re practicing the same religion that their great grandfathers were. But, off-stage, Pope Francis is hanging out with Pope Tawadros at the bar. Buddies. “Ours is the one true Church and everything and we speak infallibly but also… look, who cares? What’s wrong with you nerd? Digging up documents from like… years ago! Just shut up about it, loser.”
That’s why the Pope canonizing martyrs from another sect matters. People get mad at folks like me for saying so and accuse us of being “heartless” or “un-Christian” or whatever but we’re not. Or at least I’m not. I’m just a guy to whom logical consistency matters. And listen, I get I’m the outlier on that. I know most people don’t care. But, logically, if you say that you possess and preach eternal truths but then later contradict them…
That means you’re wrong.
Your truths aren’t truths. Or, at least, they aren’t eternal. And further, you’re not infallible. You literally just fallibled yourself. And once that Rubicon is crossed it opens the door that you might be fallible on everything else. What you’ve previously called sin might turn out not to be (actually this already happened, re: usury). What you’ve previously deemed necessary might not be so (again, see confession, fasting, lent, etc). What you’ve previously…
Look you get the idea.
If you do all that your claims to Authority are basically eroded. You broke Kayfabe.
And, unsurprisingly, your audience has stopped caring.
The Catholic Church continues to exist on momentum but that momentum is rapidly running out. In fifty or so years it won’t even matter on the world stage. After the last batches of “true believers” die off it’s kinda over. The Church will still exist mind you, and probably for a very long time. But it won’t matter. It’s power to speak is gone. It’s authority is gone. It will, I suspect, continue to try and gradually mold itself to the secular culture as a means of hanging onto relevance. Indeed this is what it is now doing, all its former concern for things like contraception, homosexuality, blasphemy, gluttony, greed, and an all male priesthood falling rapidly by the wayside
And maybe this is good!
If all that stuff is an illusion, if it really was just Kayfabe all along, then I agree we don’t need it. Currently the church is producing a small army of apologists with beards who get on YouTube to try and massage the faithful into not noticing the logical holes in the narrative too much. That’s fine but it can’t last. I mean, I’m for it, but it can’t last. If those fat bearded guys can help some of the faithful feel better about the collapsing integrity of their religion I’m all for it. I don’t even mind the mental cartwheels. People gotta do what they gotta do to cope.
As I say.
It can’t last.
Narratives which break their own rules never can.
The problem is there’s nowhere else to go now. I mean, nowhere but Disney World.
A few weeks ago I went to Disney world with my family (one of the reasons for the recent gap in my posts). My wife and kids and I went with my wife’s family and we all had a blast. The new Tron ride is really good, as is the Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster at EPCOT. I can’t say I enjoyed the Avatar rides though. Probably because of my motion sickness. Anything that tries to “immerse” you in a fictional world through the use of an IMAX screen is probably not for me. Physical motion doesn’t bother me that much, it’s the felt mismatch between physical motion and what my eyes are seeing on the screen that’s disorienting. Anyway, as a family vacation spot I can’t recommend Disney World enough. They have Mickey shaped pretzels and all you can eat buffet breakfasts with princesses. They’re even turning Splash Mountain into a ride for black people. All good fun. The trick of it is you have to fully embrace the experience. You won’t enjoy yourself if you go there trying to be “cool” or “above it all.” In my case that means going full Dad mode and wearing Mouse Ears and a fanny pack. That’s the only way to do it. All good fun.
Anyway, while I was there I couldn’t help but make note of the religious nature of it all. Such is my way, reading too much into things. Nonetheless the nightly ritual of the huddled masses gathered around the castle to sing and hug and cry is surely something approaching a spiritual service. The emotion, the catharsis, the looking upward in hope for higher power… it’s all there. People love Disney. As the fireworks exploded above the towers in the Magic Kingdom I watched grown adults sing “Hakuna Matata” (what a wonderful phrase) with tears in their eyes. People embracing and cooing in awe at the sight of Tinkerbell flying through the sky. There were mothers putting their children on “It’s a Small World” with a gleam of nostalgia and pride in their eyes, and everywhere men, women, and children strode about wearing t-shirts and mouse ears, the religious garb of devotees. Growing up Baptist all the Evangelicals around me were skeptical of Disney, and generally frowned upon it. Like so many other things, the instincts of rural country Christians has proven correct, much as the urban mainline protestants and other “respectable” versions of the faith refuse to admit it. Instinctually those people in Alabama knew that Disney was treading on their turf. Competing with them for the souls of Men. Catholics, Orthodox, the Protestants who wear hats… none of them caught on to the Disney threat until it was too late. Why would they? There was no “intellectual” reason to. Disney couldn’t be a religion, rationally speaking, because it has no god. No dogma. No doctrines. Those dumb red-state-ers. They’re just uneducated. Worrying about Disney. Harumph.
But that’s the beauty of it though.
The Modern World, America, Capitalism, Materialism, Atheism… has streamlined religion. Optimized it.
As it has everything else.
As it turns out, people don’t go to Church to “get saved”, or to “fight the Devil”, or to “become better people”, or to “worship God.” They don’t now and they never did. They went to feel like they were doing those things. They went to get the dopamine hits of connecting with something greater than themselves. For the sense of righteous superiority they got from an Authority telling them they were good people. For community, for food, and to be entertained.
That’s what they went for.
Most of them anyway.
And Disney figured out it could give them all those things without making it complicated. You know, without a thousand year old book written in ancient Hebrew or creeds about Mohammed or the nature of the Trinity. Calories without nutrition, sex without love, education without wisdom, families without children, medication without health and, finally, at long last, religion without God. America.
And that’s beautiful.
It really is, I’m not being factitious. There’s something truly honestly beautiful in a philosophy being followed to its logical conclusion. It’s a show of commitment, and, truly, of faith. See, in American Sign Language the sign for “belief” is to touch your head and then make the sign for marriage. Belief, faith, is being “wedded” to an idea. You know, for better or worse… till death do us part. And as much as I detest the Ideology of Plastic, there is nonetheless something honestly admirable about a society honoring its convictions. America has transcended the problem of Kayfabe by embracing it. By openly admitting everything is fake and then noticing that nobody cares. Hollywood. The Silver Screen. Youtube, Tiktok, and Instagram. In America, everyone is an actor and everything a spectacle. And all the emotional highs and lows you might have gotten in a previous age from Church you can get for free. Morally and psychologically free I mean… monetarily Disney World is actually very expensive. All the guilt, all the shame, all the trying to change and repent… not optimal. Not streamlined. People gather, every day, around a Plastic Cinderella Castle with as much or more devotion as Muslims marching around their black cube. And most Muslims only do that once in their life, out of fear of going to hell if they don’t. By contrast America has created a Mecca people go to multiple times a year! A Mecca they buy annual passes too. A Mecca they spend their vacation time on. The Zenith of Capitalistic Materialism. The Epitome of Plastic. The Triumph of Atheism.
American Mecca. O say, can you see?
And you have to take seriously the position that maybe they are right. As I’ve said before, The Devil has a point. The Materialists, the Atheists, The Plastic… has a point. Organized religion has failed. Failed so spectacularly and utterly that it no longer even believes in itself. There is not one religion on Earth today with the self-confidence to declare itself the One True Path. Not one. Ask a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, whomever, if they possess The Truth and they will almost universally tell you no. They possess a truth. At best. Gone are all ideas of exclusivity and there are no dogmas anyone feels overly compelled to defend.
So maybe Plastic is correct. Maybe, after all, the real answer to all the hard questions of Life and Death really has just been, “Hey… shut up and have a churro.”
At least it’s consistent.
I like the monorails.
See ya real soon.