In Defense of Michael Voris and Simon Rafe

Those familiar with my criticisms of Michael Voris may be surprised to hear it, but I don’t really think there’s much worth getting worked up about over the recent news that Real Catholic TV has been defunct as a non-profit for two years, nor that Simon Rafe has been writing some D&D style fan fiction on the side.

The story is basically about two awkward facts that emerged at the same time. Awkward fact No. 1:

Voris told CNA on August 16 that he had “no idea” his nonprofit corporation St. Michael’s Media had been automatically dissolved in 2009 after failing to file records with the state for two years. An official at the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs confirmed on August 10 that Voris’ nonprofit was “no longer registered and in good standing with the State of Michigan.”

As of August 16, St. Michael’s Media’s website stated: “We are a 501(c)3 company & donations are tax-deductible.” An earlier test donation, made through the website via PayPal, showed that the officially defunct entity was still receiving contributions.

Awkward Fact No. 2:

Voris, President and CEO of Real Catholic TV, was equally surprised by evidence showing that his staff apologist and program host Simon Rafe—who is the webmaster at St. Michael’s Media, and co-authored its “Saint Michael’s Basic Training” apologetics course—had also written the “adult” role-playing game “Castle Dracula,” and fan-fiction depicting homosexuality in the Star Wars universe.

“I don’t know anything about this,” said Voris, when presented with descriptions of the works and evidence of Rafe’s authorship.

As recently as August 15, the website hosted the text of “Castle Dracula: A Tunnels & Trolls Solo Adventure by Simon Rafe.” Signed and dated “Simon ‘The Darknight’ Rafe, Baptism of Our Lord, 2010,” the work contains a paragraph vividly describing a sexual encounter with “a beautiful Elven woman” revealed to be “Asrel, the goddess of love, life, health, healing, beauty and sex.”

Rafe gives the player a series of options in the scenario: “If you would like strength and vitality, turn to 70. If you would like health and life, turn to 383. If you would like true love, turn to 467. If you would like sex appeal, turn to 203. If you would like sexual potency, turn to 366. If you would like make love to the goddess (even if you are female—Asrel is an equal-opportunity lover!), turn to 11.”

The Catholic News Agency is treating all this rather breathlessly, and I expect some in the blogosphere who aren’t especially keen on stuff like “The Vortex” will be rubbing their hands with glee (and then assuming a posture of “concern”). That’s not a big surprise.  When you live, as RCTV does, by denouncing others as impure, you’d better run a tight ship of your own.  When your bread and butter is encouraging contempt for bishops as bad managers of underlings, you’d better be careful about your own underlings. He who lives by the sword, etc.

But personally, I don’t think any of this stuff is a big deal and don’t think there is anything sinister at work here. I disagree with Voris on certain points and think that his My-Way-or-the-Highway presentation leaves much to be desired, but I don’t for a moment think him a dishonest man. As somebody who has an anti-charism of organization and who is cocooned in administrative chaos whenever I have to organize anything more complex than a trip to the zoo with my grand-daughter, I can easily believe that Voris simply lost track of whatever paperwork you have to do to make a non-profit stay on the books of the State of Michigan. If you find that incredible, then you’ve never worked in an organization founded by a guy with a specific charism (say, speaking and making videos) who delegates all the administrative stuff to somebody else and assumes it’s all being taken care of. I’ve seen such organizations (although “organization” is a strong word in such situations) and the barely contained chaos they often foster. Indeed, a standing joke I’ve loved for years is, “I don’t believe in organized religion. I’m Catholic.” It’s really pretty common with little non-profits and signifies nothing beyond, “We’re a young organization and we’re not quite sure what we are doing bureaucratically.”

For that reason, I’m also quite certain that, once Voris is back from Europe and they get caught up on the paperwork, Real Catholic TV will do whatever it is you do to make sure that their donors get the refund or tax exemption or whatever it is that is supposed to happen to make it all right. I don’t envy them the bureaucratic headache they face, and I don’t for one moment think they were trying to do anything wrong. It looks to me like a blunder, nothing more. So I don’t think there’s much of a story here beyond “Paperwork gets messed up.” I hope that it will give them a bit more empathy with the bureaucrats in chanceries they often denounce for similar disorganized blundering, but I don’t plan on losing sleep over this screwup or going all high dudgeony on them. Voris is a better man than me in that he has at least mastered the mysterious process of founding a non-profit, something that still leaves me in slack-jawed confusion and bewilderment. Give him a break.

Similarly, I just don’t see the big issue with Simon Rafe, whose background is in English, Creative Writing, and that whole side of the artistic world using his creative gifts to write fan fiction or create a D&D game with “adult themes.” One routinely reads novels, plays and short stories by great Catholic writers (Chaucer, Shakespeare, O’Connor, or such great science fiction writers as Michael Flynn and Gene Wolfe) in which all sorts of “adult situations” are portrayed and no mature Catholic would object. The Bard alone is full of rape, incest, adultery, cannibalism, sorcery and murder, not to mention routine bawdiness that has gotten laughs for centuries. 

Yet, sadly, Mr. Rafe felt the need to eliminate every last trace of his online game and offer a mea culpa lest somebody or other out there be upset and get the vapors. I think that is much more a comment on the stifling of the imagination which is, unfortunately, a common thing in some puritanized subcultures of the Church than it is a problem with Rafe. He himself seems to be wrestling with the question of what a conscientious Christian artist should do:

“Am I self-justifying? Perhaps I am,” he states, regarding his artistic license with characters’ sexual behavior. “Perhaps I am also moving beyond some rigid position into a more nuanced one, one where the strictures of duty begin to give way to the fluidity of art. Perhaps this is a dangerous movement, perhaps I should not be going there.”

So it does not seem to me, at least from what little the CNA article mentions, that he was being reckless or encouraging sin, but was trying, with integrity, to do what a good sub-creator does: hold a mirror up to nature. Part of what that includes, in certain forms of fiction (and role play gaming is a peculiar but real form of fiction), is the sex life of one’s characters—and in a fallen world that includes sex lives which do not always measure up to a Christian vision of the human person. It seems obvious to me that Rafe was not trying to celebrate or glorify sexual perversion, merely portray it. And I see nothing necessarily bad about that when creating a work of fiction.

For some reason, the CNA article treats the creation of a lesbian character in a story as obviously contradictory to the work of a Catholic apologist. I have no idea why. Shall I burn Brideshead Revisited to keep the contagion from spreading? And what of portrayals of graver evil? Murder, even more than homosexuality, is gravely contrary to Catholic faith. And yet some of the best fiction in the world has been created by fine Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton and Fr. Ronald Knox (who famously said that when he died he wanted to be remembered as a translator of the New Testament and the author of The Viaduct Murder). If it is somehow automatically sinful to imagine and describe a homosexual liaison in a work of fiction, why is it not all the more sinful to imagine and describe a damn’d incestuous Dane stewing over the nasty sty of his sinful and ill-gotten queen? If Rafe’s imaginative work sins gravely by creating a tale in which somebody has carnal relations with an elf, then how much worse is it for Chesterton’s imagination to crowd his brain and ours with beheading fiends, murderous dowagers, and slaughter of all shapes and sizes?

So while I think there is a tragedy and a scandal in the story of Rafe’s construction of imaginative worlds and tales, I don’t think the scandal belongs to him or to Voris or to Real Catholic TV. I think the sorrow lies in the fact that our puritanized semi-Calvinist Conservative American Catholic culture is one in which an honest Catholic who likes to construct imaginative tales in the medium of on-line gaming as an innocent hobby feels he must stifle and crush that imaginative impulse lest he be punished for it by people who fear and loathe imagination as a tool of the devil. I think it even sadder that, despite Rafe having apologized for this non-issue and taken it to confession, some people are still demanding Rafe lose his job and he be treated like a pariah.  The notion that it is self-evidently contrary to the work of a Catholic apologist to create works of the imagination portraying sinful characters is something that seems to me to be peculiar to our deracinated Millennial Conservative American Catholic culture. It is, no doubt, an over-reaction to pagan libertine Progressive American Catholic culture, but an over-reaction it is, just as absurd condemnations of The Chronicles of Narnia as “occult” are an over-reaction. 

Similarly, the notion that Michael Voris somehow had a responsibility to police what Simon Rafe was doing in his spare time with his innocent hobby of fictional world-building—and that his not doing so is somehow scandalous—is completely opaque to me. Rafe committed, at worst, a venial sin of imprudence in an attempt to tell a tale (and I’m not convinced it was even a venial sin, though he himself believes it was serious, I suspect due to the hyped over-reaction). Voris had neither the right nor the responsibility to police Rafe’s innocent private life and hobbies. And we have no business passing judgment either—except aesthetic judgment as is proper for an audience of fictional works. The Church is not Calvin’s Geneva. It is the Mother of artists great and small and the nursemaid of all who wish to act as imaginative sub-creators. I hope Rafe does not forever allow himself to be intimidated out of his games and stories by this silly contretemps. The world needs faithful Catholics who are not afraid to exercise their imaginations.  The Church needs to create a safe place for such people and guide them gently, not bring the hammer down on them and smash both their attempts at imagination, their livelihood, and their good work of trying to serve the Church.  Cut Michael Voris some slack.  Let Simon Rafe keep his job.  And let the folks at Real Catholic TV learn from this that the Church is about mercy before it is about denouncing impurity or weeding struggling, imperfect brethren out of the fold.

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