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cloak and dagger priest

I have never trusted those who hide behind a cloak of anonymity. It seems to me that they do not have the courage of their convictions, or else that they have something to hide. I have, therefore, been very suspicious of an anonymous “priest” who gives talks on the internet attacking J. R. R. Tolkien as a heretic and attacking me as a heretic because of my books elucidating the deep Catholicism of Tolkien’s work. In these talks Tolkien is condemned as a Gnostic and I am a Gnostic for defending him.

lord-of-the-rings-book-coverUp until now I have chosen to ignore this “priest” because I will not argue with those who will not show themselves. I am, however, breaking my silence because I have heard that some people have burned their copies of The Lord of the Rings after hearing the “priest’s” talks. Faced with such hard evidence for the harm he is doing, I have decided to confront him. I am doing so in the hope that he will have the courage to come out of the closet and reply to me as a man of honesty and integrity, using his true name, and that he will not continue to lurk in the shadows, out of sight, in masonic secrecy, like a cloak and dagger villain who stabs his victims in the dark.

Before proceeding to the arguments the “priest” employs to suggest that Tolkien is a heretic, I would like to take a closer look at the “priest” himself, insofar as we can know anything about one who hides from those who seek him. On the website, he describes himself as “a traditional Catholic priest… in good standing with his local ordinaries and Rome, incardinated with normal faculties and jurisdiction, and serving in North America.” Perhaps I might be accused of skepticism, but I am suspicious of someone who says that he is “in good standing” but who fails to reveal himself, or one who claims to be “incardinated with normal faculties and jurisdiction” but who refuses the normal decency of appending his name to such assertions. How do we even know that this anonymous person is even a Catholic priest, “traditional” or otherwise? He could be anyone! Such masonic shenanigans should not go unquestioned.

And what reason does the “priest” give for his decision to lurk in the shadows, thereby avoiding the light of day which would allow his interlocutors to see the whites of his eyes? Here is what we are told on the website:

Because this priest has duties and responsibilities to care for the souls of the Faithful entrusted to him, he chooses to remain anonymous. By remaining unidentified, attention to his flock will not be divided with those outside of his parish who might seek him out for questions rather than going to their local priests. Moreover, the message he is preaching—the Catholic Faith—is what is important, not the human being who is preaching it.

This is all very high-sounding but it is not very high in terms of ethical accountability nor very sound in terms of reason. Is this “priest,” if priest he be, holier than the numerous saints in heaven who, during their earthly lives, had the courage to put their names to their words and deeds? Did these saints fail to give due attention to their flocks by answering questions from those who were not of their flocks? Indeed, who exactly is excluded from the flock? Why should this “priest” refuse to answer questions? Why on earth should “local priests” be able to answer the questions which his own sermons prompt? And, contrary to the “priest’s” claim to the contrary, why should we trust that someone is preaching “the Catholic Faith” properly if the person doing the preaching doesn’t trust us with his name? Who is he? Is he really a priest? If so, is he really in good standing? How “traditional” is he? We can’t check any of these facts because we are being deliberately kept in the dark. We only have the “priest’s” word for it, if indeed he is a priest.

This long preamble was necessary not merely as a means of introducing my rebuttal of his claims of heresy against me and Tolkien but as a means of showing that masonic “cloak and dagger” secrecy is never a bona fide way of engaging in discourse. It is worthy of neither man nor priest.

Proceeding to the actual content of the “priest’s” talks, I must say that his arguments against the deep Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings are so poor as to be pathetic. They are, in fact, so poor that I wonder that anyone would resort to the burning of their copies of Tolkien’s work having heard them.

The first thing that is clear is that the “priest” is not in the habit of reading books. He announces that he was in the habit of listening to The Lord of the Rings annually and makes no mention of ever having read it. I have nothing against listening to books, and The Lord of the Rings especially lends itself to being read aloud, but you cannot study a text unless you read it. It is essential that particular passages be read closely and perhaps repeatedly to glean the depth of their meaning, and it is equally essential to be able to compare passages from different parts of the book, side by side, to see the thematic threads that an author is weaving into his work. None of this is possible with an audio “reading” of the work, or at least it is much more difficult. Listening to a book is fun as recreational “reading” but it does not offer a deep enough engagement with the text for anything that could be called or considered a scholarly reading.

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

Similarly, the “priest” mentions that he had prepared for his talk by listening to my eight-part course on The Lord of the Rings for Catholic Courses. He seems to have never read any of the three books I’ve written on Tolkien’s works, nor the fourth book of academic essays on Tolkien’s works which I have edited, though he claims to have “looked through various parts” of my books and my articles on the subject. His engagement with my critique of Tolkien is, therefore, largely superficial, or, at least, is much more shallow than it ought to be if his arguments against my reading of Tolkien are to be taken seriously. That said, let’s proceed to the arguments he presents.

In essence, the “priest’s” arguments are based upon an inadequate understanding of “allegory” and “myth.” Citing Tolkien’s oft-quoted words from the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings that he disliked allegory, the “priest” condemns Tolkien for criticizing allegory on the grounds that “God loves allegory.” What the “priest” doesn’t mention, though he should have known if he’d listened to my lectures carefully, or had read the right “parts” of my books, or had studied Tolkien’s own works in greater depth, is that Tolkien’s lamentably loose use of language in the foreword was not representative of his true understanding of allegory. In fact, in several of his letters he refers to The Lord of the Rings as being “an allegory,” which, on the banal level of argument on which the “priest” is working, would presumably mean that God loves The Lord of the Rings! There is no space within the confines of this article to examine Tolkien’s use and understanding of allegory at greater length, though I will devote a whole essay to it in the near future.

Having seen that the “priest’s” understanding of allegory falls short of the manner in which Augustine, Aquinas and Tolkien understood it, we then come to see that his understanding of “myth” is equally deficient and defective. There are two ways of using the word “myth.” The first is to see a “myth” as being synonymous with a lie. This is the way that the “priest” sees it and discusses it. The second is to see it as a “story,” which being the fruit of the God-given talent of creativity, contains truth in some form. This is the way that Tolkien, Chesterton and C. S. Lewis use the word. Since God is Himself a Storyteller, history being His Story, and since Jesus taught many of His most important lessons by telling stories about fictional characters, such as the Prodigal Son, story or “myth” has been sanctified. Our own stories or myths are good, true and beautiful insofar as they reflect the goodness, truth and beauty of the True Myth which God is telling. Compare this sublime understanding of truth and myth, which Tolkien, Lewis and Chesterton had, with the banal level of argument that the “priest” employs: “Freemasonry is very much based on the myth concerning Solomon’s Temple. In other words, masons love myths.”

Solomon TempleOne hardly knows where to begin in responding to such a line of irrational “reasoning.” First of all, we would have to insist that “the myth concerning Solomon’s Temple,” being biblical, is a true myth, which means that “God loves myths,” irrespective of whether masons erect a lie upon the true foundations.

In the final analysis, and resorting to allegory, the “priest” is like the proverbial man in a glasshouse who should beware of throwing stones. One wonders why one who insists on secrecy, placing the Ring of invisibility on his finger, should have the gall to use the freemasons in a pejorative sense.

My final words of exhortation to the “priest” is that he should take the Ring from his finger so that he can leave the realm of shadows and enter into the light, because, as Samwise Gamgee reminds us all, “above all shadows rides the Sun.”

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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26 replies to this post
  1. Joseph, I always enjoy your writing but enough with the “masonic” allegations and “masonic secrecy” references.

    I’m a Freemason and, although I consider it a personal and private matter, I don’t make any secret of it. Nor do most Masons. There is no sinister secret Masonic conspiracy lurking in the shadows or anywhere else. In fact, there is no Masonic conspiracy at all, despite the innumerable conspiracy theories that abound online and elsewhere.

    Judging by your references, I’m guessing you are saying Masons conceal their identities and make anonymous allegations. That’s rubbish.

    I enjoy Tolkien’s writing. And there’s nothing in Tolkien’s writing that Freemasons would object to. Quite the contrary. Nor would Masons denigrate Tolkien anonymously. Tolkien’s writing is typically about good versus evil, with good winning out in the end. Freemasons have absolutely no problem with that idea.

    You are too good a writer to make such cheap and unfounded references. Leave the “masonic” references out in future. They diminish the arguments you are making.

    • I am also a Freemason and second your criticism, sir. I am also an Anglican priest, which is entirely consonant with Masonic principles, which are no secret at all: the Masonic ideal is to gather men of all countries, sects and opinion in fellowship, to make good men better and to husband the world as lay shepherds. We do not preach. We do not prosletize. We pray at meetings, but do not conduct religious services. We lead funerals, but as would any fraternal organization.

    • In the first place, Mr. Pearce addresses issues from the perspective of a conservative Catholic; freemasonry is incompatable with Catholicism. It is unsurprising that he takes issue with the Masonic order.

      Secondly, regarding Masons, I have met several; none have been willing to discuss what they actually DO behind the lodge door. If it is simply a boy’s club, well, fine then, but it seems a remarkably successful one considering how quietly its membership committees pursue the next generation (How, by the way, in this day and age of mandatory equality of the sexes have the Masons escaped any attention for their exclusion of women? Something odd there, too…).

      The issue really has to do with definitions: what do you mean when you say “good”, or “better”, or “fellowship”? Masons do not use those words in the same manner that the Roman Catholic Church uses them because they believe different things. From the Catholic perspective, Masons distort those words with a world view that deemphasizes Christ and focuses too much on man. With that difference in mind, it is hardly a secret that Masonic societies have endeavored to weaken the Church’s influence over time. Targeting overtly, and successful, Catholic artists and their work would fall within the modus operandi of any organization seeking to lessen the Church’s authority. So from a Catholic perspective the secretive identity of the “priest” denigrating Tolkien and Pearce, well, that falls well within the realm of what Masons are capable of doing. It is why membership in a freemason order is, to this day, an act that incurs automatic excommunication.

      Recommended reading (all papal encyclicals by Leo XII):
      1) Humanum Genus
      2) Custodi di Quella Fide
      3) Inimica Vis

      One cannot believe in both the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and the Mason’s god, a Deistic deity. They are conceptually incompatible. The principal of non-contradiction applies.

      That said, Mr. Pearce’s use of masonic references with regards to this matter seems perfectly appropriate.

  2. I believe he’s using the terms “masonic” and “masonry” to goad this so-called traditional priest to respond. Masonry is one of their particular bugaboos, believing that Masons have infiltrated the church, were responsible for Vatican II and the new Mass, and on and on. That said, if you’re a Christian of any persuasion, Mark, you might want to reexamine your affiliation with Masonry. Benign-sounding ideas sometimes turn out to be pretty dark.

    Anyway, I continue to be amused by how much “traditionalist” Catholics have in common with Protestant fundamentalists. Having had enough of the latter, I have little interest in the former. Protestants talk about all the rules Catholics have to follow, but I’ve discovered far more freedom in Christ in the Catholic Church.

  3. As a priest I recently published a novel about the Legendary story of St. George and the Dragon, intentionally drawing upon the idea that this legend contains many truths about the faith. I was greatly inspired by the expression that story of Jesus is the “true myth” as Tolkien said to his friend C.S. Lewis.

    I have not read or heard the argument of the other priest. However, I would say that one can as I tried to do use allegory to express truths about the Faith. The imagery I used was to present the culture of life in the the hero St. George versus the culture of death in the dragon. Now, just as in every allegory there is some likeness to the reality being portrayed and some difference. This follows from the use of any symbols, even words themselves, but in particular allegory. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this precisely as you say. The Sacraments as symbols and realities that convey grace draws upon this symbolic world, but they truly convey grace.

    I would say the writing of Tolkien is just as legitimate as the passing on the story of St. George and the Dragon. Now, adults, including myself don’t generally believe that St. George fought a physical dragon. Yet the ancient story going back in the Arabic to at least the 8th century conveys certain truths about spiritual warfare and how Christ conquers evil through the saints. This message has resonated throughout the centuries because it passes on certain truths through allegory. This is the reason the story has been passed on throughout the centuries.

    I believe what Tolkien rightly confronted was how to convey Christian truths to a culture that no longer understands Christian symbols? One way is to draw upon the allegory of ages to try to express Christian truths, which I think he did masterfully. Now, the use of allegory can be done for manipulation as in the case of the history of speculative Freemasonry or virtuously as in the case of many Catholic writers who use various cultural symbols to convey the truth of the person as created in the image God.

    Regardless, I would say that if one condemns the writings of Tolkien as Gnosticism they would have to condemn the use of allegory in the stories of saints, the prophetic tradition and so many Catholic authors through the centuries.

    Fr. Joseph LoJacono, IVE

  4. While I have disagreed with you often I can say wholeheartedly that you are dead on in this essay, both in how you feel about people who criticize while hiding their real name, and about Tolkien being a very Catholic Christian writer. With one major exception in English, The Pilgrim’s Progress, most conscious literary allegory by Christians is pabulum and preachy crap, which is what Tolkien hated. But George Orwell made it work magnificently in the satire of Animal Farm. So did Nathaniel Hawthorne in the perplexities of moral behavior and the depths of human psychology . He never explained things to the audience of his Romances (using a literary definition of the term “Romance” rather than a Harlequin or Jackie Collinsish definition here). Tolkien and Orwell are much easier to interpret as allegory. But they both followed Hawthorne’s lead in making sure that their characters were always interesting and sometimes fascinating. Hawthorne I think took greater risks in the best of his endings than either Tolkien or Orwell, by not even going so far as to imply an allegorical moral for his readers to understand. For readers who haven’t read Hawthorne, check out his short story YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN: about 14 pages and a witches Sabbath/black mass. Every sentence counts and it is still able to trouble readers, and make their consciences queasy.

  5. Another problem is the conflation of “gnosticism” with gnosis. There can be doubt that Tolkien’s work has great depth with a powerful esoteric quality. It can activate the intellect (medieval usage).

  6. I infer – I do not know – that Masonry in England and in Europe are much different from Masonry in the U.S.A. Here it appears to be an organization for good fellowship and good works. I do wish that in this context Mr. Pearce hadn’t brought Masonry up at all. As for me, I would like to know more about the topic – the purported priest who is condemning Tolkien.

    Let us remember that Mr. Pearce is orthodox, learned, and a defender of the Faith.

  7. In his forward to the last edition of his masterpiece, Tolkien eloquently rejected allegory as the “purposed domination of the author,” preferring the term applicability, so that the freedom of the reader is respected. The Lord of the Rings can be read on many levels; for one minor example, his descriptions are extraordinarily vivid. It is so rich that it amply repays rereading, when one can marvel at a turn of phrase or subtly placed perspective which one finds suddenly applicable to present-day life. In spite of the scoffing of the critics, readers consistently regard it as the best work of fiction of the 20th century.

    The hobbits are especially engaging characters, and while they start off appearing to be quite simple, their knowledge, wisdom and character develops apace, which the reader absorbs subliminally while he is focused on the twists and turns of the epic tale. The hobbits are well-grounded in the best sense of the term; they love good food, good ale, well-tilled fields and a job well done; all very earthy. Along the way we meet the Great Willow, a tree with a malevolent heart, Tom Bombadil, a very vaguely defined fellow with a memory so long he intensely practices living in the present moment, Galadriel, a figure of enormous proportions whose subtle influence is as timely as it is crucial, and too many others to rehearse here. Of course Gandalf is both the catalyst for action as well as the deepest reservoir of knowledge, wisdom, and perspective. In chapter 2 he gives Frodo what I consider to be a complete answer to the issue of capital punishment. All of these figures have a respect, nay even a reverence for the good things that have been created; it is Sauron and his slaves that hold everything and everybody in contempt, as they despair of anything good coming out of their evil hearts.

    How the shadowy “priest” can find a basis for Gnosticism in the Lord of the Rings is a piece of mental gymnastics so twisted I am grateful that I simply cannot get there from here. Perhaps the poor fellow has his own great ring, giving the illusion of freedom while enslaving the wearer in shadow and distortion. Let us not fail to pray for him, with the pity Gandalf leads Frodo to exercise, which proves to be the ultimate salvation of Middle Earth.

    • Mr Shea,

      An odd comment.

      In our modern Culture of Death, which few in this arena would argue does not at the present exist, it is those who are progressive and liberal who hate the good, healthy, and human. The modern reactionary, well personified by your standard paleo-conservative, is vehemently opposed to that singular act which most threatens what is good, healthy, and human: abortion. Your sentence, therefore, is inaccurate.

      To be sure, reactionaries do tend to exhibit various degrees of “hate”, but it is a moral virtue to hate what is evil. Not to hate evil is, in fact, to commit the sin of indifference. Your comment, though, exhibits an unspoken derision of all “hate” while miscategorizing what it is a reactionary does hate.

      On top of that, you choose to summarize the instincts of all reactionaries with one sentence. In this instance, the priest in question seems to hate that which is good (that would be an error, but whether he is making a moral or intellectual error matters). Your sentence condemns a large group of people because of the error of one man; is that sound reasoning? The tone of your sentence is slanderous and leans towards the sin of calumny.

      In the future, it would be appreciated if you could more clearly outline your thoughts before making such a definitive statement.

      M.C. Tritle

    • The talks are called “Fantasy Literature, J.R.R Tolkien & Mystic Flight” two parts still on Youtube

  8. Mr. Pearce
    I fear you have done a grave disservice to yourself, Tolkien and the priest-critic.
    Instead of focusing upon his argument, over 700 words of your article are focused upon his anonymity. 

    But those who act on his advice are convinced by his argument, not any personal authority he may have.
    His argument is:
    A. Tolkien’s work invokes myth and magic.
    B. The Catholic Church condemns myth and magic.
    C. Therefore, Tolkien’s work should be condemned. (This also applies to Lewis and any fantasy author, as the priest-critic makes clear).
    To prove B. the priest-critic quotes the Fathers, Doctors and Saints of the Church, sacred scripture and magisterial teachings.
    So, either everyone else is wrong on Tolkien, which is possible; or the priest-critic has misused his sources, which should be easy to show.
    Tolkien himself would’ve argued the latter, and done so rigorously. He was a man who believed strongly in “thinking with the Church” as the saying goes.
    As his defender, Mr. Pearce, I believe you can do the same.

  9. This priest just wants to attack something beloved by all people and makes the faith look attractive – no different from The Remnant feeling bitter towards Going My Way, a beautiful Catholic film, for supposed “modernism” (yet not a single instance of any promotion of any heterodoxy can be cited in the entire film, and thus not surprisingly The Remnant is declines to provide any examples in support of their attack). I’d be willing to bet this priest thrives on misery and joykilling; if Tolkien were alive today he’d absolutely blast this priest for accusing him of gnosticism; Tolkien himself was a traditional Catholic who preferred Latin Mass.

  10. Thank you, Joseph Pearce, for standing up for a man that cannot be here to stand for himself.
    I have listened to the talks and I was made incredibly angry by them. In brief response to “JRRT” above, I would say that this article is less of a serious defence and more of an shocked reaction to such an idiotic screed.
    Tolkien would have indeed “thought through the Church” on this problem, but he would have included the history of the Church, the aesthetics, and the ethics as his arguments as well as quotes from the Church Fathers and great Saints.
    He would have said something like this, although no doubt more eloquently: The Church converted the pagan people by demonstrating that Christ was not only the fulfilment of Jewish myth, but also of their myths; that their particular creative humanity was also known and loved to God, and we as Christians, but also a Christian PEOPLE, must acknowledge, use, and truly love our own myths–for Christ is hidden in all beauty, in all truth, and in all goodness.

    I will close this with a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The Truth does not destroy; it purifies and unites.”

    P.S. Accusing Tolkien of being Gnostic is one of the funniest misinterpretations of a text that I have read in my life. Complete opposite of gnostic. If this priest was going to insult Tolkien’s Catholicity, at least call him a Pagan.


  11. The priest’s name is: Fr. Underhill from a parish in Bree near the Prancing Pony. Actually anonymity can be a wonderful thing. Pen names are great things in literature because authors might be discriminated against for their gender, lack of official credentials or their ethnicity. And in literature and media Batman, Superman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger and the Scarlet Pimpernel were all great heroic characters that kept their identities secret in order to accomplish their missions when the authorities were against doing the right thing. All a priest “in good standing” needs to do is preach the Catholic faith and he is ruined by the bishops. And if you make a big enough kerfuffle, you need to protect those in your life as was pointed out in the Dark Knight Rises. 🙂

    Also, when did the Church declare that Jesus’s parables were about fictional characters?

  12. Mr. Pearce, I must agree that if one is to call out one’s opponents by name and all but accuse them of heresy, it is bad form to withhold one’s own, the more so because we are not talking about the ingredients to making a nuclear bomb, but the ideas of J.R.R. Tolkien for heaven’s sake! Were our “priest” a thousand times right I think that he weakens his argument by anonymously keeping company with trolls and sock puppets. And were he a thousand times right I wonder that, with all the evils we are faced with today, Too Much Tolkienism rates so highly on our good Father’s top ten list of abominations.

    Which makes me wonder what he must be like at parties:
    “Father, can I offer you a beer and some nachos?”
    “Certainly not! I will take a few dried peas and a teaspoon of water.”

  13. It’s unfortunate that you feel this way about this priest and this retreat. I know who this priest is, though I’ve only met him briefly. I can tell you that he must have spent many hours preparing those two retreats and seriously doubt he had any malice towards you (he even apologizes to you multiple times). I thought his critique was done well and those two talks were a worthy admonition.

  14. Also, I would also like to point out that though this priest recorded his talks, he is not associated with the people who publish these talks and sermons online. At the time I was AudioSancto, currently Regina Prophetarum. Non of the other priests give their names either because it’s not part of their ministry. They have their own parishes and duties to carry out as priests and they don’t want to become cults of personality.

  15. I agree with the Priest wholeheartedly and am confused by the reply of Mr Pearce. In reply to the Priest, Mr. Pearce may want to address the following statement of Dennis Quinn in Iris Exiled: “What I do wish to argue, however, is that the fantasies of all these authors are gnostic because the form naturally leads in that direction.” The Priest called out the literature just as Professor Quinn did as being GNOSTIC. The Priest was correct in saying: “where are the fruits” from all these copies sold if they are so CATHOLIC. It is one thing to read and enjoy Tolkien–but quite another to spend more time with him than the Gospels and Genesis. It is also the priest’s role to caution against GNOSTIC LITERATURE and he is right on.

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