The Sentimentality Destroying Christianity

What are the elements of religion, those parts that, assembled together, make for a whole?  Well, if we look here and there at the many religions the world has known, we come up with a list something like this.

  • Sacred beliefs
  • Sacred rituals
  • Sacred morality
  • Sacred community
  • Sacred hierarchy
  • Sacred literature
  • Sacred persons
  • Sacred places
  • Sacred times
  • Sacred history

The thing about Catholicism, in contrast to many other religions, is that it contains all these elements, not just some of them.

(1) Our religion abounds with beliefs, not only the official creeds but many non-creedal beliefs, e.g., beliefs pertaining to legends about saints and about appearances of the Virgin.

(2) Its great ritual is of course the Mass, but it has (or at least did have prior to Vatican II) hundreds of lesser rituals, e.g., tipping one’s hat every time one passed before a church in honor of the Eucharist within.

(3) Its most famous moral code is the Ten Commandments; but each of these commandments can be – and have been – expanded into a myriad of more specific commandments, e.g., the Sixth Commandment ban on adultery can be expanded into bans on fornication, masturbation, homosexuality, and other improper sexual conduct.

(4) The Church, a worldwide thing, is a sacred community, created and sustained by the most sacred of all persons, Jesus Christ himself.  It is divided into local communities (parishes) and many religious orders and congregations.

(5) It has a sacred hierarchy (if the expression “sacred hierarchy” be not a redundancy): the pope at the top of a sacred pyramid; below him patriarchs and cardinals and archbishops and bishops and priests and deacons; and at the bottom of the pyramid the great mass of ordinary lay persons.

(6) Our most sacred book is of course the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  But we have many writings of a lower order of sacredness, e.g., Augustine’s Confessions, the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas, Dante’s Commedia, Pascal’s Pensées, The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, and many papal encyclicals.

(7) Our religion abounds in sacred persons: Jesus above all; and not awfully far behind him, his Virgin Mother; plus more that 10,000 saints and martyrs; plus certain living persons, e.g., the current pope (whoever he may be) and every priest and nun.

(8) As for sacred places, we have lots of them: Jerusalem, the Jordan River, Rome, Lourdes, Fatima, and thousands of little shrines scattered here and there throughout the globe.  And of course every Catholic church or chapel is a sacred place.

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(9)  We have sacred seasons of the year, e.g., Lent and Advent.  And we have many quite specific sacred days, e.g., Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, Christmas.  To a lesser degree, every single day on the Church calendar is a sacred day.  Catholicism doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any day that is purely secular or profane.

(10) The first part of our sacred history is told in the Old Testament.  The second and greater part is told in the four Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the many writings, both religious and secular, that have narrated the long history of the Catholic Church as it has journeyed through the last twenty centuries.

Catholicism, then, gives you a full-spectrum religion.

Contrast this with the civic religion offered by the ancient Greek city-states.  They gave you an abundance of rituals and temples and holy days.  But they were weak on beliefs; while they had a rich mythology, you didn’t really have to believe these myths.  And they were relatively weak on morality; while you mustn’t commit incest or parricide, and while you must never break an oath, the gods didn’t mind if you committed a wide variety of other sins – sins that the pagan gods themselves committed.

Or contrast Catholicism with the liberal religion that prevails in our mainline Protestant denominations today.  Liberal Protestants, accommodating themselves to the beliefs and practices of the secular world, have reduced most of the sacred elements of Christianity to a shadow or ghost of what they used to be in the days of full-blooded Catholicism.  To a very great extent, liberal Protestantism, in its embrace of secularism, has de-sacralized Christianity – if “de-sacralized Christianity” is not a contradiction in terms, which of course it is.

But while it may be true that liberal Protestantism has minimized many sacred elements of Christianity, this is not at all true when it comes to morality.  If anything, liberal Protestantism has decided that morality is the essence of Christianity; everything else is merely incidental, and thus dispensable.  In effect, it has adopted Matthew Arnold’s once-famous definition of religion (and by “religion” Arnold meant Christianity): “morality touched by emotion.”

Further, if liberal Protestantism has reduced Christianity to morality, it has reduced morality to the second of the great commandments of Jesus: “Love your neighbor.”  (Since liberal Protestantism has no more than a vague belief in God, it feels no need to stress the first of the two great commandments.)

What’s more, liberal Christianity more and more in recent times has tended to reduce love-of-neighbor to compassion – empathetic feelings for persons in a state of pain or suffering, along with actions intended to relieve that pain and suffering.

Hence, when liberal Protestants (or liberal Catholics, for that matter) hear a homosexual or a transgender person cry out, “Ah!  It cuts me to the quick when I see that society doesn’t want me to be what I truly am; when I see that society hates me for what I truly am” – when they hear such cries of pain, liberal Christians, their hearts overflowing with compassion, respond by saying, “Good Lord!  That will never do.  Let us reform society, let us discard much of old-fashioned morality, and let us reform the moral and psychological education of our children – all this in order that you, poor suffering ones, will no longer feel pain.”

But this “compassion” – to speak plainly – is empty sentimentality. It is not the fullness of Christianity but its last, dying ember.

*Image: Saint Michael Slaying the Demon (aka, St. Michael the Great) by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), 1518 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]

You may also enjoy:

Brad Miner’s Homosexuality in Scripture

Hadley Arkes’ Gorsuch Does Transgenderism: Notes on the Wreckage

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.