To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
BY Father Dwight Longenecker
I have been a Catholic now for 13 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 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
The two groups I am talking about exist within all these
Built Upon a Rock?
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.
We receive our foundational assumptions from those who first
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 meets once a
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
that 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 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. But 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
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 — 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.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the
author of Adventures in Orthodoxy and is chaplain of St Joseph’s in
Greenville, South Carolina.