By Larry Chapp
Blog Master’s Note: My original plan was to follow my first post in this series, which focused on Catholic liberals, with a post on the surging numbers of the so-called “rad trads”. However, after several emails I realized that I had not adequately spelled out in the first post what I meant by the numbing down of the Church. I do that here. Furthermore, I wanted to apply this analysis to a further explanation of what I find lacking in liberal Catholicism, which I develop in this post. I also wanted to make it clear that I am not simplistically blaming all of the Church’s ills on liberal Catholics. And so I also include in this post a criticism of the neo-con Catholic movement in the United States as being equally problematic. This has mde this post a long one, but I wanted the symmetry of the two critiques and so I decided not break it down into chunks but to include it all here. I beg my reader’s patience. I will return to my discussion of traditiionalism in part three of this series.
“The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am … against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual in an immediately unsuccessful way, underdogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.”
William James (The Letters of William James, vol. 2, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920, p. 90)
I am calling this four part series of blog posts “The Numbing Down of the Church.” I want to redress an omission in the first post, caused by my creeping senescence, which did not adequately spell out what my ultimate point is by using the term “numbing.” Specifically, my main point is that the Church has gradually lost its “eschatological edge” and forgotten that Christianity is a religion of conversion, a religion of repentance, and ultimately, therefore, a religion of sanctification, with Christ and Christ alone as the model. The redemption wrought by Christ is real and if one reads the New Testament carefully, as well as the Fathers and the scholastics, it becomes clear that this redemption is meant to have a transformative effect. Sadly, the modern Church has apparently become numb to the presence of sin and corruption and has despaired that such transformations are possible. It is as if after 2000 years of the faith, and 2000 years of various corruptions in the Church, we have just decided to throw in the towel and to roll our eyes with each new “scandal” and proclaim: “same as it ever was.” We have become so numb to the presence of sin that we have lost the capacity for outrage and, therefore, for real change in the Church in the direction of repentance, penance, and sanctification.
One could be tempted to see in this kind of jaded indifference to the horrors of sin a kind of crypto Lutheranism in the Church wherein the dysfunctional and disordered aspects of human nature are viewed, on a “practical” level, as impermeable to grace and which remain unchanged within us even after we are “saved.” However, this would be wholly wrong (which I think should matter) and grossly unfair to Luther, who at least believed in salvation, however forensically conceived. More likely, what has taken hold, as I have said over and over in these posts, is the despair and existential boredom of unbelief, of the crushing indifference of a de facto atheism that no longer believes in the realness of the supernatural as a true agent of regeneration within the natural.
This is precisely what I mean then when I speak of a “de facto atheism” in the Church. It does not mean that people no longer claim to “believe” in God, because they do demonstrably make this claim. But even Satan “believes” in God and so the essence of true faith must be sought elsewhere, beyond the mere confines of an intellectual assent to the proposition that “God exists.” It must be sought rather in the palpable “realness” of the God of Jesus Christ in particular (we are Christians after all, aren’t we?) and the extent to which we allow that God to frame and form our “plausibility structures” as a believing community. My claim is that, despite the outward appearance of faith in the edifice of the Church, that these appearances are deceiving and mask the fact that the true belief structure of most Western Catholics is decidedly secular, naturalistic, and utterly bourgeois in its prioritizing of worldly happiness over eschatological beatitude.
And I am not pointing fingers here at others. I feel this deeply in myself and am ashamed to admit that I value bourbon and my leisure time pursuits over the path of sanctification – – a path that would require of me certain sacrifices that I find it almost impossible to make. I am a man of my time and the “dogma” of bourgeois well-being lives loudly within me. But I hate it, which is why my writing is often so acerbic and seemingly “personal.” I see and feel and know from within this crushing acedia of indifference and so when I rail against it in the Church it is because I need that Church to be better than it is. I need that Church to be a bastion of faith and a beacon of hope. I need that Church to at least preach the necessity of conversion rather than to bless my concupiscence and call it a virtue. In short, ours is not an age of faith and most of us are de facto atheists now and I write what I write as a confessional act of raw and brutal honesty in order to guard against succumbing to the spirit of the age. Sadly, the Church is of little help these days in that endeavor.
I said above that ours is not an age of faith. But in a sociological sense it is, as all cultures must be, since all cultures have a “credo” even if it is in the form of Liberalism’s deceptive anti-credo, credo. The late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce has written that reductionistic scientism is the religion of modernity, and I agree with him. Sadly, the Church has bowed down before its various altars (capitalism, militarism, bureaucratic technocracy, bourgeois “well-being,” and the “value neutral” public square of Liberal democracy) and offered up incense to the Caesar of naturalism which accounts for our collective loss of a sense of sin and of our need for repentance. We no longer believe in the need for repentance anymore, let alone salvation, as our consciences have been trained to see all of our vices as merely “natural” aspects of human nature, the inheritance of our simian origins, which can only be improved upon through the bureaucratic and technocratic control of the Leviathan of the modern State. “Better living through chemicals.”
Therefore, individuals in local communities of moral and spiritual discourse are not trusted in the regime of naturalism since the solutions they propose to the existential problems of life are viewed as reactionary attempts to revalorize the concept of sin which threatens to undermine the entire ordo of technocratic control. And this is now as true in the Church as it is in the broader culture as can be seen in the fact that chancery bureaucracies treat with deep suspicion any new lay movement that dares to create intentional communities devoted to holiness that bypass the soul killing banality of most parishes. Centralization is the key dynamic of our time with the concentration of power increasingly in the hands of a few self-appointed elites reducing society and the Church to a simple binary of the controllers and the controlled. Bureaucratic anonymity and impenetrability are key elements in this control as individuals gradually come to see that they have no power over the process and quickly retreat into a world of techno-gadget bread and circuses.
These observations are not a digression from my main theme since what they describe is the very spirit of the age that the Church has imbibed with vigor. In such a regime the sacraments are hollowed-out and are reduced to mere “celebrations” of who we “are” leaving us in our sins which are now transformed into “virtues,’ which are the sacrosanct markers of our kaleidoscopic “identities.” In other words, what used to be called the temptations of concupiscence are now viewed as the very warp and woof of our deepest and truest selves which are now defined, not by Christ and the redemptive transformation he calls forth, but rather by a naturalistic and psychologized understanding of our nature that is better dealt with on the therapist’s couch or in Oprah’s kitchen rather than in the confessional. This is why I now bristle whenever I hear in a homily or read in a theology text that our sins are “addictions.” No they aren’t – – at least not in the psychologized sense in which they are presented – – but are instead deeply ingrained moral habits (vices) that are the result of my antecedent moral choices over time.
And all of this explains why the Church in the West is hemorrhaging members, and will continue to do so, as it doubles down on its “spirituality” of therapeutic naturalism. Because people are not stupid and they have better things to do on a Sunday morning than “celebrate” who they are with people they barely know and don’t want to know. It is much more fulfilling to celebrate who I am on the golf course or at the Mall with friends, sharing happy moments with people I actually know and care about rather than trek into an ugly Church to suffer through a ritual that very few actually believe in for what it is meant to be and which has become an empty exercise in “religion” for “the sake of the kids.” Which is ironic since the data tell us that those kids, once grown into young adulthood, are leaving the Church in droves. What is now abundantly clear, or at least it should be, is that the Church of therapeutic naturalism, the Church of suburban “nice,” the Church that now routinely preaches that you don’t “need” the Church in order to be a “good person,” is as compelling, at best, as tofu hotdogs, and as repulsive as Kale at worst.
A further marker of the ethos of naturalistic modernity that animates modern Catholicism in both its liberal and neo-con iterations is the love for bureaucracy and for bureaucratic solutions to what are, in essence, spiritual problems. The Germans love bureaucracy, especially theirs, which shows that the spirit of tribal triumphalism dies hard in some cultures, despite historical lessons that should have been learned. If we can just tweak the “structures” of the Church and make it more “synodal” (i.e. secular liberal) and if we can just have married priests, and women priests, and drastic changes in moral theology that openly contradict past teachings (which shows they think such moral teachings are merely bureaucratic “rules” that can be changed at will), and if we can just change our eucharistic discipline for who can receive communion, then all will be well. Very few people actually go to Church in Germany anymore, but it is a Church flush with cash from Caesar and is the second largest employer in Germany, so its bureaucratic clout continues to give the entire rotted edifice an outsized influence on the broader Church. For example, they were, for some strange reason, the leading players at the synod on the Amazon with its Pachamama mascot and curiously Eurocentric sets of concerns, demonstrating that the entire affair wasn’t really about the Amazon at all, but rather was a bureaucratic ruse larded with the glop of word salad liberalism. Unlike many, I do not think that Pachamama was set up as an idol at the Synod. It was instead merely an exercise in some ham-handed kitschy optics which meant to convey an artificially contrived notion of “enculturation” designed by some bureaucratic episcopal subcommittee on “getting with the curve of history.”
The fundament of my first post was, therefore, that liberal Catholicism is in fact an anti-gospel of unbelief masquerading as belief. The various prelates I criticized are not “dung beetles” simply because they are morally corrupt, but more to the point, because they are men of unbelief who continue to use certain phrases inherent to the faith in order to create a simulacrum of that faith that has been emptied of its traditional orientations and replaced with the gospel of naturalistic modernity. In the 1956 sci-fi movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” extraterrestrial aliens took over human bodies which they grew in plant “pods” and then
emerged with the appearance of being human when in fact they were inwardly nothing of the sort. Such people were called “pod people” who acted like alien zombies in human drag. My claim is that the contemporary Church lives a kind of “pod people” Catholicism where certain outward aspects of the Church remain, but where the inner faith of those structures has been replaced with the alien gospel of atheistic, therapeutic, naturalism.
By way of example we can see this dynamic at work in the currently fashionable idea that the Church must be a Church that reaches out to those on the “margins.” Now, it is indeed true that the Church is in the business of mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and an endless forbearance for human weakness. We are indeed to reach out to those “on the margins.” But all of that is in the service of repentance and sanctification. The counterfeit therapeutic Church of liberal Catholicism wants instead to baptize the margins and to declare them holy and to replace the Church of conversion with the Church of “inclusion” which is merely code for sexual license as evidenced by the fact that their “inclusion” does not extend to those of traditional belief and focuses instead on the sufferings of sexual minorities, whatever that vague term denotes. Jesus did indeed dine with tax collectors and prostitutes, and was willing to forgive the woman “caught in adultery.” But what he did not do was bless sin and call it good and he used his merciful embrace of those on the margins as a call to conversion to a higher way of life in the new regime of transformative grace that he was ushering into existence.
The Church is, as Pope Francis has rightly pointed out, a “field hospital” that must, in its missionary zeal, seek out the sick, as Christ did before us. But the last time I checked hospitals are for healing the sick and restoring them to integrity rather than absurd places where the healthy are mocked and diseases are blessed as signs of good health. The rhetoric of the “field hospital” is, in reality, not at all about healing sin and calling people to repentance, but is instead an Orwellian exercise in double speak meant to numb us to the reality of sin, its true destructiveness, and to transform those sins, through an act of linguistic legerdemain, into badges of virtuous victimhood. The Church must indeed reach out to the “margins” in order to bring the message of redemption to those who are suffering and who have been stigmatized, like lepers, by society. A resurgence of finger-wagging judgmentalness is not my point here. The point is that the Church must reach out to the margins, but not to become the margins itself. Such a notion is as silly as an oncologist who, instead of trying to cure his patient’s cancer, gives himself cancer in order to better “accompany” the afflicted person. A field hospital is after all an extension of a real hospital system that has a deep functional integrity which, therefore, has the capacity to extend its services to those who, for whatever reason, cannot find their way immediately to the main hospital. But it can’t be field hospitals “all the way down” lest the entire endeavor descend into mere triage without any hope of a truly reparative cure.
But lest people think my concern is only with the Catholic Left I think it also true of wide swaths of the American Catholic Right. In post-war America Catholics had finally emerged from their immigrant ethnic ghettoes and were mainstreaming into American culture. They were eager to prove their bona fides as “true Americans” and to finally shed their image as papist interlopers and constitutive outsiders whose allegiance to America was questioned. A grand project was launched, led by the theologian John Courtney Murray, to show that Catholics were very much at home within the American project since the very founding principles of America were grounded in Thomistic natural law theories by way of post-medieval English common law which was viewed as grounded in the same. Thus, America was portrayed by Murray and his followers as a crypto-Catholic country and the entire project of political Liberalism in its American iteration was embraced and baptized. The net effect of all of this for the life of the Church in America was the concomitant baptism of “the American way of life” in all of its bourgeois, cul-de-sac splendor and cold war militarism.
And that last point – – America’s cold war, nuclear militarism – – is illustrative of the pod people Catholicism I am talking about. A hydrogen bomb is a weapon of indiscriminate mass slaughter and is capable of completely obliterating entire large cities and of killing tens of millions of people in the blink of an eye. And the military strategy known as mutually assured nuclear destruction as a deterrent to the Soviets involved the clear intent to use such weapons should we come under attack. This was no mere “bluff” and was instead a very real and viable intent to use. As such, such a policy is clearly immoral and cannot be justified by any sane construal of the precepts of Just War theory which explicitly disallow the targeting of civilian populations with weapons of indiscriminate slaughter. But except for one tepid and toothless document put out by the American bishops in the 1980’s the American Catholic hierarchy embraced this nuclear policy through its damning silence. The Catholic Right frets over whether or not a Catholic politician who supports legalized pre-natal homicide can receive communion, all the while turning two blind eyes and two deaf ears to whether or not a Catholic in the military can serve in a nuclear missile silo while holding one of two keys needed to incinerate millions. I oppose legal abortion. But I also oppose the pod people Catholicism that leaves such a soldier in good conscience to turn that key.
Less awful, but still deeply troubling, was the emergence in the American Catholic Right of a political movement that sought to accommodate Catholicism to American style capitalism, foreign policy, and constitutionalism. Following in the wake of the “Reagan revolution” numerous theological texts emerged that claimed that Reagan’s call for “less government” was deeply Catholic, given its resonances with subsidiarity theory in Catholic social thought. It ignored, however, his mistaken belief that if we can make rich people richer then poor people will be better off too. Absent was any criticism of his clear American exceptionalism and his massive increases to the military industrial complex. Indeed, many on the Catholic Right cheered his expansion of the military and doubled-down on his “Red scare” rhetoric which was seen as thoroughly justified given the evils of communism. The papacy of John Paul loomed large here as well and a theological amalgam of cracker-barrel, cherry picked, Catholic social teaching and the papal geo-politics of John Paul emerged as a powerful American Catholic political ideology. Never mind the fact that John Paul was also deeply critical of unbridled crony capitalism and the consumeristic culture of the West. There was a cold war to be won and America was its white knight.
The real-world consequences of this amalgam was the tacit blessing of the politics of the Republican party which was allegedly the pro-life party and the party of “less government.” This tacit alliance with the Republican party could only happen in a Church that had been domesticated and neutered and which had lost its evangelical sensibilities. This is my central complaint and why I think that even this version of conservative Catholicism is an example of pod people deception. In fact, it might be more dangerous than liberal pod people Catholicism since it gives off the outward appearance of fidelity to the magisterium when in fact it is only faithful to that magisterium on issues relating to human sexuality, all the while supporting the very economic system and bourgeois culture that produced the modern sense of the atomized, autonomous, consumeristic, therapeutic self in the first place.
The entire project was underwritten by a bastardized version of Thomistic natural law theory which was ripped out of its theological context and presented as a kind of “faith neutral” form of discourse that was designed to meet the requirements of America’s naked constitutional square. I support natural law theory since it alone preserves the notion that the God-given structure of the natural teleologies of things must be respected as the only viable norm for Christian moral discourse. But it is a theory wholly wedded to a theological vision of creation as the expression of God’s logos and wedded as well, therefore, to the idea that the natural teleology of things is morally normative, grounded as it is in a divinely willed ordo. The confusion arises owing to the fact that classic natural law theory says that human reason can discern the divine plan without having recourse to Revelation. But even Aquinas noted that Revelation, though not strictly needed per se, was critical still to moral reasoning since our sinful human nature clouds the mind and distorts judgment. Furthermore, the fact remains that even if such moral norms are discernible in theory absent Revelation, that their normativity resides in a theological affirmation that God exists and that his plan for creation actually matters even in a political sense. In other words, without faith in God, why must we affirm that such teleologies are normative?
Therefore, the neo-con belief that a faith-neutral form of natural law theory could speak to the de facto atheism of our culture and, indeed of our Church, was and is a pure fantasy. Absent faith in God, utilitarian pragmatism rules the day, in and out of the Church. Natural law theory might be true, but the neo-con desire to use it in an Americanist form had more to do with a decision to remain within the confines of political Liberalism and its form of public rationality than it did with any real allegiance to its effectiveness. And given the complete collapse of the neo-con Catholic political project over the past 12 years one hopes that some of those neo-con eyes have been opened.
The result of this neo-con appeasement of American political Liberalism was the neutering of a robust and evangelical theological message of sin and repentance. The notion that you cannot preach the Gospel directly to our political culture is in fact a waving of the white flag in the face of Liberalism’s truncated categories of proper and allowable discourse. Liberalism is an anti-Gospel and it is constitutively grounded historically in a reaction against Catholicism. Therefore, any attempt to tailor the Catholic evangel to its benighted categories represents a selling out of the faith in order to remain respectable within the American intellectual milieu (which of course is silly since that milieu hates us and does so with extreme prejudice.)
Thus, both the liberal and neo-con approaches contribute to the “numbing down” of the Church insofar as they both eschew the language of sin, repentance and sanctification. The former do so because they don’t believe in them. The latter do so because they are embarrassed by them, which amounts to the same thing. The answer, in my view, is to reject both approaches and to see them for what they are: the hollowing out of the Gospel and its replacement with a foreign ideology alien to the faith. Liberals do this out of disbelief. The neo-cons do it out of an allegiance to political Liberalism, which, once again, amounts to the same thing.
What this means is that the path forward can only be the path of a revivified and reinvigorated Catholic traditionalism that is committed to a full-throated preaching of the Gospel and the living out of its call to conversion and transformation. It is the path of sanctification which means it is the path of the saints, of the martyrs, of the sacraments and of the commandments. It is a path that requires a Church of real believers who will boldly proclaim in public that Christ alone is the path to human salvation. Christ commanded us to not hide our light under a bushel basket. But we have done so and have hidden that light under the baskets of various ideologies. The Church, as Ratzinger famously noted long ago, will become smaller, more intentional, and holier. This is not “elitism” or a view of the Church as a home for the perfect. It is much simpler than that. Namely, it is the simple affirmation that the Church of Christ should be made up of people who actually believe in Christ. Imagine that.
Therefore, what emerges clearly into view is that the real debate over how to confront the current crisis in the Church is a debate between differing forms of traditionalism. That debate is currently ongoing and is getting more heated by the day. And much of that debate centers on differing analyses and assessments of whether or not Vatican II has any ongoing significance and/or whether or not it was all a big mistake in the first place. It is a debate too over the ressourcement theology that animated the Council and guided the pontificates of JPII and Benedict. And it is to that debate that my next blog post in this series will turn.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.