I recently found myself out of state for an afternoon. I happened to be near my old childhood parish, so, since there were a few hours to kill, I stopped at the church to pray the divine office. The interior was exactly as I remembered it thirty years ago – contemporary, cold, barren, and distractingly ugly. No altar rails of any kind, tabernacle to the side and priest’s chair elevated in the center, no confessionals within the nave (probably a “reconciliation room” down a hallway), and rather than a crucifix, a massive risen Christ on a painfully stark sanctuary wall. It was truly a “worship space” for the “parish family” sharing in the “celebration” of the “Eucharistic banquet” around the “holy table”. A brochure in the vestibule proclaimed that this was a “Vatican II parish.” I would strongly disagree, but that’s another topic.
After praying the office, I went for a meandering drive through the old schoolyards and neighborhoods of my childhood – always a dangerous thing for a middle-aged man. Needless to say, it was a depressing day, and I was glad to get back home that evening to western Massachusetts.
I’ve always felt sadness at recalling the past, remembering the struggles of growing up, and most especially, the religious emptiness, confusion, and anger of my youth. I was raised in a liberal Catholic environment from top to bottom – from home, to church, to school. Liberalism, liberalism, and more liberalism. Interpreted, this means sex education, folk Masses, nuns without religious habits, gay priests and teachers, clay sacred vessels, the absence of grace before meals, catechism and Bible studies, Eucharistic Benediction, Stations of the Cross, and the Rosary, and an attitude that those pompous old men in Rome loved to impose on us ordinary folk a thousand burdensome rules and regulations about pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, and so on. Even Sunday Mass was regarded as an obligation to be fulfilled; it was that boring forty-five minute recitation of memorized words and perfunctorily performed gestures, a sermon full of platitudes, and a little something to eat just before the dismissal.
After a full twelve years of Catholic schooling, and perhaps six of serving as an altar boy, I lacked even a rudimentary understanding of the faith. And I dare say, I lacked also an experience of genuine Catholicism.
Ignorance is the key to boredom. So, after finally graduating from Catholic high school, I left the Church. I was bored out of the Church. And hardly a soul on earth cared about the departure…except my mother, God bless her soul.
Three days after my trip out of state, I received an unexpected email from an old friend who had been searching for me online. He was once my best friend, but we had lost contact with each other for perhaps twenty-five years. We had attended school and played in bands together and used to dream out loud about the gorgeous girlfriends or wives we would one day have. To get immediately to my point – he’s no longer a Catholic, but is now a Baptist. He said that when he was Catholic, he found himself not wanting to go the Church most of the time. Surprise, surprise. He had been dragged through the same liberal machine that I had been. And he, too, was another casualty of liberal Catholicism, of false Catholicism. He left a Church he never knew, a faith he never heard fully, convincingly, and courageously proclaimed. I can’t blame him for initially leaving, because the so-called Catholicism that we had both experienced was a load of rubbish. It was anything but authentically Catholic. It was painfully boring.
In the perennial battle between orthodox and heterodox Catholicism, between authentic and fraudulent Catholicism, I’d like to make one observation. Liberal Catholcism is allegedly the peoples’ version of the faith. It’s supposedly relevant to real daily life and the issues that concern real ordinary people. It doesn’t brow beat or offend, but comforts and consoles; it’s non-judgmental and tolerant of diverse beliefs and life styles. In other words, it has been designed specifically to please the masses and is free and able at any moment to make the next requested adaptation to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.
Why, then, have so many Catholics left the Church in the heyday of liberalism? Because liberalism fails to provide humanity with what it most needs: namely, the supernatural gifts of absolute truth and divine grace. And this failure in the supernatural domain results in utter boredom, as it should.
Liberalism places before man an over-sized image of his own fallen self. This image is not for reflection, but for admiration. Liberalism does not invite man to recognize either this tragic human condition or the divinely provided remedy to it. Instead, it intoxicates man with self-love and produces self-adulation – the very antithesis of true religion. He falls in love with an image that is actually grotesque beyond comprehension; only, modern man has become blind to this type of grotesqueness, to moral and spiritual ugliness. He believes, not the hard revealed truth about himself, but only the lie that he is beautiful just as he is, just as he comes into this world bereft of sanctifying – and therefore, beautifying – grace. And He believes also that nothing in his personal behavior could increase this moral and spiritual ugliness. Hence the liberal mantra, “God loves and accepts us just the way we are.” I dare say that if this were the case, Christ would never have died on Calvary, for there would have been no need to die, no need to redeem humanity. And now that our Lord has objectively redeemed us, we must subjectively respond to His salvific plea.
The Catholic religion is the fullness of this salvific plea. It is the masterful divine scheme which no human being or society could have invented. It speaks to us the truth about God, man, the world, and the catastrophic human condition. And it offers to us the only solution to this catastrophe – absolute truth and divine grace, without which there is no salvation.
Liberalism cannot see or will not admit the existence of this preternatural catastrophe. As a result, it denies the substance of the divine scheme and the reasons behind it. It presumes everything to be optional and fully subject to its editing. Whatever is difficult or mysterious, it simply disregards without a concern that it might be necessary. “You don’t like this particular dogma? Fine, ignore it. You don’t like that particular moral precept? Fine, violate it. You don’t like the transcendence of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Fine, turn up the guitars and sing about yourself. Celebrate the community. Sing, not about man’s desperate need for God, but about God’s groveling love and admiration for man just as he is.”
There is nothing in this navel-gazing brand of anti-religion that the human soul needs or that cannot already be found in this world. We already have the self-help industry, human potential movement, and New Age spirituality. The world already offers a thousand ways to spoil, flatter, massage, and adore the self. The Gospel is meant to be the remedy to this obsessive self-infatuation.
The Church is at her all-time worst whenever she tries to imitate this self-infatuated worldliness, because she was designed to be other-worldy and was given an other-worldly commission to “go out” to the world with the Gospel and bring in to the Kingdom of God all who have responded to it. And ironically, whenever she is most this-worldly, it is then that she most neglects the world by withholding from it the divine scheme for salvation that is the Gospel. Such a treasure was given in order to be given.
In a morbid sort of way, I would like to know exactly how many of my old Catholic classmates have survived their liberal formation and retained any amount of belief, and how many regularly attend Mass, confess their sins, study the faith, and live a holy Catholic life. Based on the many studies on the state of the modern Church, I believe the number would be quite small. And this is the mathematical indictment of liberal Catholicism, of that “religion” that has abandoned man’s inherent religious nature, leaving him utterly bored.