This month as part of my interview series, I have chosen Patheos contributor Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, who lives in Rockview, Maryland. His blog at Patheos is called “Through Catholic Lenses” and he just joined my Autistic Christians group on Facebook.
1. What was your childhood like? Are you a lifelong Catholic or a convert?
My family was very loving. Today, other than myself in religious life, my other siblings have chosen to live on the same street as mom and dad, next door or few houses down. I was a bit quirky and nerdy in that after school, I would prefer to come home and read a book about dinosaurs than go play sports a lot of the time. I was sometimes teased and usually excluded from the “cool” friend-groups at school, but I didn’t really care much as I have always worked more on internal than external motivation. I am a cradle Catholic, although I did have a lot of doubts and questions around middle and high school.
2. Were you diagnosed as a child or adult? What was your reaction?
I was diagnosed in my 30’s, as a Catholic priest. During the drive home, I was somewhat devastated. I wondered if my whole life was a farce or if I would have been better off staying in computer engineering, which was my major before entering religious life. However, as I read up on autism, all of a sudden so many things I never understood became clear. Imagine being in your 30’s and thinking everyone consciously analyzed social situations only to read that non-autistic people do this subconsciously. I count it now as a blessing because being diagnosed allowed me to resolve a lot of things and set myself up for ministries I’d excel at rather than trying to repeatedly in ministries not so suited to someone on the spectrum.
3. What made you decide to become a priest?
To me it was not so much deciding but feeling called. I had thought vaguely about it as a possibility from when I came back from doubting the faith in high school, but didn’t think too much of it. Aptitude tests, interests, and a job to support a family all focused around computer engineering, so I felt fine there. Then listening to John Paul II in February 2001, something clicked when he said “Be not afraid to be the saints of the new millennium.” From that moment, something clicked in my mind and I knew God was calling me.
4. What evidence can you give for God’s existence?
I exist, therefore a power able to make me exist must exist; nothing can make something exist from nothing but God; I am not nothing, therefore, God exists. I have experienced the love of God personally. Beyond that, many works explain it. I find that The Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Kreeft and Taceli has a good rundown of many arguments, although The Christian Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas Etienne Gilson has a few key arguments far more in-depth.
5. What is your favorite biblical passage and why?
When Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus at the empty tomb. To me this is the model of how we often encounter Jesus when we don’t expect him.
6. Who is your favorite biblical figure besides Jesus and why?
Mary, for obvious reasons. However, I also like a rather minor character, Ananius. You may not even remember who he is, but he’s the one who goes and helps Paul once he gets to Damascus after his conversion experience. He baptizes him, makes the scales fall from his eyes, and instructs him in Christianity. I always imagine the courage he must have had to go to Saul, who must have been such a persecutor of Christians. Also, he is an otherwise unknown Christian responsible for bringing up possibly the most famous Christian of all time.
7. Do you feel your autism assists you in a particular way?
Yes. People keep saying I should go on Jeopardy because I have such a good memory for facts and such. I can also be logical when others can be far more emotional.
8. What would you say to someone who thinks he would like to become a priest?
I would say that if you are thinking about it, do three things. First, increase prayer and Christian service. Second, get a spiritual director. Third, visit the diocesan vocation day or religious communities. If someone autistic is thinking about it, I’d say the same, however, I’d emphasize what specific things you struggle with and see if you would fit with the community. Be ready for some communities or dioceses to say a flat out “no” while others might be willing to try you out. That will be tough, but autism will come out eventually in formation and it is less painful to get a no after a 1-hour meeting than after spending six months with the community.
9. Why did you decide to start writing a blog?
I started as I had worked in youth ministry in the USA for four years and as I studied in Rome, I wanted to keep discussing youth ministry with others from the USA. Obviously, from 2011 to now my writing and blogging has significantly transformed. I found I was good at explaining some things, so I kept at it and more and more dedicated to explaining those things.
10. Why do you think many autistics don’t believe or wish to believe?
I think there are several reasons. First, many neurotypicals whose family is a religion will maintain that religion as a kind of cultural icon–they will show up on Christmas or Passover and identify as the religion, but not have it impact their life–while autistic thinking tends to not fall into this. This is mainly done for a sense of social cohesion and pleasing others in ways we generally don’t care much for. I find that autistics tend to be either ones who try to participate in religion weekly or not at all. We realize that if God exists, he deserves our time. Second, I think we often explain religion in ways that are very poor for autistics. If I have a logical and literal mind, having a very emotive and non-literal explanation, which is common, will often send us away. Third, and related to the previous, I think the atheist manner of argumentation–using logic more than emotion–resonates particularly well with autistics, as it is far more like how our brain works. Finally I think special interests can lead us away in two ways. First, our special interest can be so all-consuming we don’t give God time. Bill Gates once quipped about religion, “I have better things to do on Sunday morning.” He was so consumed with software, he didn’t have time for God. Also there is a disproportionate number of atheists in many fields (such as hard science university professors) that autistics tend towards by our special interests. If an autistic is surrounded by atheists who give logical arguments, he or she will tend to agree with those arguments.
11. What do you think could be done to improve our relationship with the autistic community?
I think that a lot of times problems are created when people in the Church don’t understand different neurotypes. I think we need to be willing to adapt a bit, but it should be a meeting in the middle, not requiring autistics to mask 100% of the time at church events and wear themselves out reading social signals. Many times, due to a lack of resources, at the local level, a church will provide one path for catechesis or youth ministry and unfortunately this doesn’t take into account neurodiverse individuals. I think many times, with minor adaptations, we can be integrated into such programs or a separate program for the neurodivergent can be started in a cluster of parishes, rather than trying to start one in each parish.