As a philosopher and ethicist, I have only once before written anything of direct interest to Christian thinking. Moreover, never once have I written anything Catholic in tone. I suppose I figured the Church could take care of herself over the past thirty years. But I've heard less and less theology and morality from the pulpits and more and more psychology and secular sociology.
Incense and organs seem to have faded away from churches, and in their place are guitars, drums, cymbals, trumpets, and even electric guitars. Seldom are people quiet during Mass. Chatter about dress, politics, or upcoming festivals and barbecues are common. And, when walking to and from Communion, I see people greet each other and chat about weekend festivities.
Once, at a charismatic Catholic church I rarely attend, I watched as children ran up and down the aisles playing during Mass, one falling into a very large baptismal font. Fortunately, people were able to react quickly to this mishap since few were paying attention to the altar (more fashionably referred to as the "table").
Long ago, I taught Sunday school classes. Now I find from talking to many Sunday school teachers that they ignore the Catechism of the Catholic Church and teach almost exclusively about capital punishment, abortion, the environment, and sex education. Moreover, the content of the curriculum is indistinguishable from that of the public schools (except for abortion). So, what is the point of sending children to Sunday school?
Evidently, the only thing children, especially teens, get in Sunday school or its equivalent is the same as they get from television or the public school classroom - save for the condemnation of abortion. Opposition to abortion is seemingly all that sets CCD instruction apart from the rest of "pop" society.
Church has become a place of convenience. Parishioners greet people at the beginning of Mass and again at the handshake of peace. Catholics have become very good at the fashionable "airkiss" and the robust handshake. Parishioners are often treated throughout Mass to warmed-over folk and pop music. Once during the collection of gifts at a Catholic church in Chicago, I watched as the celebrant and deacons sat on the side of the altar talking, smiling, and bobbing their heads to the beat of the music.
On occasion I have found Catholic churches in both San Francisco and Houston that dismiss this "muzak" and boogie down to a heavy metal rock 'n' roll. The performers lap up the approval showered upon them, which sometimes comes in the form of spontaneous clapping from the congregation and sometimes in the form of accolades from the celebrant. In the midst of such jubilation, parishioners endure a brief politicised homily and then go home feeling - feeling what?
When I ask parishioners what exactly it is they feel when going to Mass, the most frequent response I get is that they feel "positive." A few times I have been so indelicate as to ask what it means to feel "positive," and I am usually told things like, "I feel positive about myself" or "I feel positive because I know that regardless of what I have done God still loves me." So there you have it. Catholicism has become a feel-good Church like so many other Christian-lite denominations.
It is true that Catholic doctrine makes clear that God forgives and loves us regardless of what we have done wrong - provided we repent. Moreover, Catholic doctrine does not condone whatever wrongs one intends to do in the future. This seems to be a point glossed over in these days of perpetual comfort and convenience.
The clergy officiating at such celebrations (the Mass) justify the party atmosphere by reference to the Psalms, in particular to the Psalmist's reference at times to celebration with harp, timbrel, cymbal, and even dance (Pss. 81,149,150). If my memory serves me right, the Psalms were written before the time of Christ, before the Last Supper, before the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and before the Crucifixion. In short, before there was ever reason for a solemn sacrifice of the Mass.
The Psalms are a type of prayer service. And they continue with Compline. Nevertheless, as beautiful and devotional as the Psalms are, they are not a substitute for sacramental devotion.
For example, one could argue that the Last Rites represent a cause for celebration. And why not? The dying are about to be blessed, their chance for eternal bliss enhanced. Even so, I haven't heard of any requests by the dying for some heavy metal accompaniment to the Sacrament or even a request for a bit of jazzy pop. Indeed, most regard this beautiful moment as much too solemn for an ostentatious demonstration of revelry.
Partying is fun. But when does partying become too much in the religious context? When does it promote negligence toward the Lord or, worse yet, disrespect?
Practitioners of Catholicism-lite don't fancy anything "negative." When their vocabularies were bigger they used to say they didn't like "fire and brimstone" homilies. Now they say they don't like guilt-trips. It's just better to be positive! Clergy now seem to agree.
In concert with this more "positive" approach to Church life, I have heard more than one priest explain in sympathy, "I can't imagine the Apostles were solemn men. They must have been wildly joyous because they knew the Lord!" I wonder, have these clerics ever read the New Testament? Where was the joy when the Apostles feared they were about to drown in turbulent seas? What do these clerics make of the scorn the Apostles at times shared with Christ? What do they make of the Apostles' mindset at the time of the Crucifixion?
These clerics of the "Church of Catholic Convenience" made their understanding of New Testament history patently clear on American television when, for example, following Pope John Paul II's approval of Mel Gibson's traditional Catholic movie The Passion of the Christ, they apologised for the Pope and condemned the movie. Many Catholic priests went on to speak against the movie from the pulpit, on television, and in written editorials. Evidently, these priests found the movie not joyful enough, as too much of a "bummer".
The followers of Catholicism-lite don't like anything that is in any way a downer. The idea of a Final Judgment is abhorrent to them. This dismissal of a final call to Judgment is surprising since the Bible contains numerous verses referring to a Day of Judgment by Christ Himself.
Catholicism-lite is deliberately kept free of anything uncomfortable. Bible accounts of responsibility or judgment are felt to be - well, depressing and anachronistic. There are other consequences to think about as well. If parishioners become gloomy on occasion when attending Mass, they may not come as often. That would mean their financial contributions would diminish. Fewer contributions would certainly be an inconvenience to the American Church now that there are so many lawsuits to pay.
Oddly enough, even with all the pandering to remove inconvenience from the Church, I still come across former Catholics who loathe the Church because they remember how she did once inconvenience them. Because of such admitted inconvenience they left the Church in search of a community that would welcome them for "being who they are." They want a religion that fills them with boundless self-affirmation.
An example here can be educative. I recently ran into a professional colleague who holds a PhD and works for a large medical school. She is a former cradle Catholic who now loathes the Catholic Church. It is not clear why she feels this way, although she has been divorced twice. Even though she has never sought an annulment, it seems her dismissiveness of the Church runs deeper than her resentment of Church policies regarding marriage, divorce, Communion, and annulment.
She claims to disavow not just Catholicism but all formal religions as well. She explains that she now belongs to a "spiritual group" that carries the incorporated name "You Deserve a Miracle!" She finds her participation in the group a very "positive" experience. So, alas, where church was once a place for her to come to grips with her relationship to God, the point now seems simply to find some positive experience of self.
Many clergy are sympathetic to this spin on positive thinking on the part of parishioners. As a result, religious ceremonies, including even the Mass itself, have been turned into a form of entertainment. The draw is no longer God, but is now "community" and "celebration". The prevailing theme is that Christians are gloriously happy people. God is no longer the God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
Practitioners of Catholicism-lite claim unrelenting joyousness as seemingly something of a duty. When questioned about their single- minded focus on celebration, many are quick to point to Jesus' participation in the marriage feast at Cana, the party for the prodigal son's return, and so on. God loves us and wants us to have fun. That, they explain, is the essence of spiritual enlightenment.
Unfortunately, in contrast to this unrelenting promotion of personal exuberance, the God of the Bible and of Catholic tradition has made it known that He is vulnerable to being rejected by humanity. And that is surely nothing to celebrate. Moreover, those who do reject Him run the risk of that rejection setting in permanently and separating them from Him forever. This is the spiritual reality the Bible describes. There are ups and there are downs. There is good and bad. There is reward and punishment. And lastly, there is consolation - and for the eternally lost, despair.
The biblical God participates in humanity. But surely people can't expect God to be a participant in some of the wrongs in which they freely engage.
God made it clear that the people who reject Him and His ways are not with Him now and will not be with Him later. Is this a cause for celebration? Or for sacrifice and repentance?
Paul A. Wagner is Director of both the Institute for Logic and Cognitive Studies and the Project in Professional Ethics at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
This article first appeared in the December 2005 issue of the 'New Oxford Review', and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2005 New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave, Berkeley CA 94706, USA, www.newoxfordreview.org