I have been a Catholic now for thirteen years. Like most converts, I described my reception into the Catholic Church as ‘coming home.’ However, the homecoming was not all that the sentimental phrase implies. It is true that in coming home we received a warm welcome from many Catholics. It is also true, that in coming home we soon sensed that there were strangers in the family homestead. There seemed to be interlopers—aliens who had sneaked into the family home and taken it for their own.
I was quite prepared to find fellow Catholics with different tastes in music, church architecture and liturgy. I was also prepared to encounter Catholics with different opinions concerning politics, history, education and social matters. I knew I would also encounter a good number of poorly catechized Catholics who simply didn’t know their faith, and I was prepared for ‘dissenting’ Catholics who knew the faith, but disagreed with the teachings of the church while still remaining within her.
What I was not prepared for was to find two Churches within Holy Mother Church. These two churches are very difficult to identify and define because the two different groups cannot be separated according to outward criteria alone. It is too easy to divide these two groups according to ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’; ‘charismatic’ or ‘traditionalist’; ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’. The two groups I am talking about exist within all these preferences. The two groups are distinguished not so much by what they do, the way they worship or the causes they espouse, but by their underlying understanding of just what the Catholic Church is for.
Built Upon a Rock?
We receive our foundational assumptions from those who first educated us. These underlying assumptions, like the foundations of a building are invisible, yet they support everything else. Two very different sets of underlying foundations have created the two churches within the church. The two opposing views can be called ‘Happy Here’ and ‘Happy Hereafter.’ Those who hold the first believe that the point, not only of the church, but of the whole of human existence is to produce human happiness here in this life. The second is concerned with finding eternal happiness.
According to this basic assumption, this life is a vale of tears. This mortal life is hard because it is a place to battle against sin and to produce those diamond-hard souls called saints. Those who hold to the ‘happiness hereafter’ viewpoint expect to sacrifice their happiness here to win happiness hereafter. If this is your basic assumption, then your expectations for this life are realistic. You consider yourself and other people, while created in God’s good image, to also be sinners who need redemption and daily discipline. You believe in the reality of evil and consider this life to be the place and time to engage in spiritual warfare for the winning of souls.
This underlying assumption used to be the foundation belief not only of Catholics, but of all who called themselves Christian. All Christians understood life here and hereafter in this way. To do so was simply what Christianity was all about. Unfortunately, this basic assumption has been eroded within every branch of the Christian community. Modern Christians seem to have adopted one of America’s founding principles as the founding principle for the whole of life and the whole of their understanding of the Christian faith. The American ideal of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ may be a noble political ideal, but once the ‘pursuit of happiness’ becomes the basic foundation for one’s whole worldview a terrible distortion of the faith is the result.
The Pursuit of Happiness
If Christians put the pursuit of happiness in this life as the primary goal everything changes. Suddenly the church is not perceived as an army engaged in a spiritual battle, but a mutual self help group in which people try to make each other happy. Church buildings cease to be marvelous buildings transcendent with beauty that take us to the threshold of heaven and they become functional meeting halls where the mutual self help group meet once a week.
When the pursuit of earthly happiness becomes the driving force religion becomes utilitarian. Whatever is useful for making one ‘happy’ is what is good. Whatever is not immediately useful is discarded. So, for example, what use is religious art or glorious church architecture? There is no immediate usefulness, so the images are pulled down, new art is not commissioned, and if it is, it must be crudely illustrative or didactic. In other words, it has to do something and be useful.
When religion becomes a function to produce happiness here and now hymns become comforting, banal songs about us and our problems and how God will make us happy. When the quest for holiness is replaced with the quest for happiness the priest ceases to be an agent of God’s supernatural grace in the world and becomes a therapist, a social worker, or simply an avuncular administrator of the mutual self help group. When religion is expected to merely produce happiness, then worship is stripped of mystery and it must become entertaining. When religion is expected to simply make people feel better instead of being better no one preaches on the difficult or hard hitting subjects. The pulpit becomes a platform for pious platitudes that make people feel nice and the confessional ends up empty.
In the end, it is not only the confessional which is empty. People are not stupid. They soon realize that there are self help courses out there which are more entertaining, more motivating and run more professionally. If they want to be entertained, then worship on a Sunday morning will never be able to compete. If they expect to be made happy by religion they will very soon realize that religion doesn’t really deliver all the instant happiness they want, and they will either start a long and hopeless search for the church that really makes them happy or they will abandon the faith altogether.
The Adventure of Orthodoxy
If this diagnosis is correct, what is to be done? Shall we return to the old days of long hectoring sermons on mortal sin, the fires of hell and the possibility of damnation? Certainly more instruction on seriousness of sin and the reality of hell would help to redress the balance, but that is really only treating the symptom. A real cure is a return to a rollicking, honest and hearty understanding of what Christianity is really about.
It is about a supernatural transaction between God and mankind. It is the old, old story of a race fallen into sin, and a God who lowers himself to seek and to save that which is lost. Life, and especially the Christian life is about our search for the God who is searching for us. It is about stepping out on the adventure of faith to search for a city whose founder is God. It is about engaging in the war for our souls, and being determined never to sacrifice our eternal happiness in a search only for happiness in this life.
Where this old story is preached and lived with dynamic discipline, hearty good humor and joyful abandon the faith will flourish. Where it is abandoned the faith will soon falter. It is vitally necessary within our catechesis, the formation of our children, the instruction of priests and the teaching of the whole church that we renew the foundations of our faith. If we do not there will soon be no faith left. If we do, the faith will flourish and we will build a church which will have the strength, the power and the glory to welcome home many more of her lost and wayward children.
There is no better time to renew these foundations of the faith than the season of Lent. We are given the penitential season as a time to look within, to examine the foundations of our faith and embark again on that most exciting quest of all: the adventure of orthodoxy.
I am new to this site and I just read this article. I definitely have had a hard time putting my finger on what I sensed in the Church growing up and really as a result myself but this hit the nail on the head for me. Thank you for highlighting this crucial but hidden reality! I have more questions in this regard, your site mentions that you take private questions or email from your subscribers, any chance I can send you one?
Yes, as a Donor Subscriber you have access to the “Ask a Priest” section of the blog