How often have you been told Jesus loves you? Or, God loves you where you are? These are true statements and wonderful encouragement when you’ve fallen for the umptenth time. Numerous times in confession I’ve heard this affirmation of God’s love for me in spite of my sinfulness. Self-doubt dwindles when you hear God’s loving call to holiness. A safe port in the storm.
Each time I hear this sentiment, though, it isn’t completed. God does love you where you and He will meet you there, but only to draw you away from sin and closer to Him. He will always love you, but He will never love your sin. I cannot read souls (surprise), but something I’ve noticed, and heard priests mention, is how everyone receives communion consistently but few seem to go to confession consistently. Granted, a priest may be blessed with a holy parish free from mortal sins, but there is something off-balance about the requirement to receive the Eucharist in a state of Grace and the number of seekers of Reconciliation.
When I say “soft-bellied” I mean an overly easy practice or presentation of the faith. I do not mean simple but a false path to God full of “shortcuts” and no trials, no crosses. We’ve lost the tougher, I’d even say masculine, aspects of Christian suffering. Usually, we offer consolation and prayers to those in suffering. We tell them Christ is with them (He is), but that it is simply a time to be weathered and not a time to grow closer to Christ or develop humility and virtue.
I would argue three aspects of soft-bellied Catholicism exist today. First, and the most prevalent, is an over-emphasis on and primacy of individual feelings, as if how you feel should dictate how you or whom you should worship. Second, there is a withdrawing from the “tougher” aspects of Christianity in favor of no difficulties or unnecessary compromise with the world. An example might be the relatively unknown canonical practice of Friday penance or meat abstinence year-round rather than simply in the Lenten season. Lastly, there is the prevalence of the fear of vice rather than proactive cultivation of virtue in the context of the Christian Life.
The Feelings Directive
Friends who have fallen away have often told me they left the Church because they weren’t getting anything out of Mass, didn’t feel Church was for them, or something else of the sort. Happiness, fun, no doubts, perfect understanding, etc. Without these, they believed they didn’t need the Church, sometimes not even God. Good-feelings, for them, denote the proper place. If you’re happy where you are then that is where you’re supposed to remain. When the good times end it’s time to move on.
In his Prayer for Beginners Peter Kreeft wrote:
If we rely on anything else besides faith to maintain the practice of the presence of God, we will certainly fail, whether this is our feelings, or experiences, or sincerity, or good intentions, or reasonings, or plans. The reason these things will fail while faith will not fail is that these things depend on us, while faith depends on God. It is a gift of God . . . it is not our own self-created thing.
And St. Francis de Sales wrote:
Nothing troubles us so much as self-love and self-regard. Should our hearts not grow soft with the sentiment we desire when we pray and with the interior sweetness we expect when we meditate, we are sorrowful; should we find some difficulty in doing good deeds, should some obstacle oppose our plans, we are in a dither to overcome it, and we labor anxiously. Why is this? Doubtless because we love our consolations, ease, and comfort. We want to pray as though we were bathing in comfort and to be virtuous as though we were eating dessert, all the while failing to look upon our sweet Jesus, who, prostrate on the ground, sweat blood and water from the distress from the extreme interior combat he underwent (Mark 14:35; Luke 22:44).
We face similar situations whenever we deal with hot button issues. There is an emotional appeal rather than one of logic. Within soft-bellied Catholicism, feelings may guide not only the prayer life but also the wider practice of the faith: liturgical participation, social teachings, and our sense of sin.
So, when an individual’s faith is based solely on an emotional experience the relationship with God lacks a firm foundation. A ship without a firm hand on the wheel is susceptible to being tossed about by the wind and the waves. If joy presides then all is well but once events turn sour we struggle beyond the distress of the external/internal disturbance. Does this mean we should not take joy in our faith or accept those spiritually high moments? No, of course not.
We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song. As St. Francis de Sales advised though, we must accept joys in peace and not let them carry our soul out of a peace that rests in Christ and not worldly joys. Accept them as a gift, in other words.
Issues develop when we assume our spiritual and temporal lives will always, or should, be times of consolation without any moments or periods of desolation. Furthermore, settling for a feelings-centered faith creates far more stumbling blocks in spiritual growth than it removes. Individuals may come to think they’ve lost God because they no longer feel the “presence” of God, aka good feelings.
Lighter Weights Please
Assuming or believing the Christian life is summed up in letting the good times roll avoids preparation for difficult times. I confess, I lack large, concrete evidence to demonstrate the prevalence of this aspect of soft-bellied Catholicism. It is simply a sense I get by observation and anecdotal evidence. The phrases “redemptive suffering” and “offer it up” were unknown to me until college despite consistent Mass attendance and various homilists (see Col 1:24, Lk 14:27, 2 Cor 4:8-12, Phil 3:8-11, 1 Peter 2:19-22).
Compromises and cafeteria Catholicism seem rampant amongst Catholics trying to have their cake and eat it too. I’ve heard time and again we should be satisfied when an individual at least attends Mass on Sunday once in a while. Or, just as frustrating, we need to make Mass’s music up-to-date with contemporary tastes, Mass should be kept under an hour, priests should not preach on any topics that might cause discomfort for any member of the parish, and the list goes on. All to keep the “tougher” aspects tucked away.
Shunning the broader inclusion of difficult penance, fasting, and the like in favor of the “funner” or “nicer” aspects of the faith does the individual a great disservice. Assuming the Christian life is all valleys and no mountains does not prepare the individual the crosses they will encounter. In turn, they forgot Jesus’ example in His Passion and the consolation we may take from the sufferings of Christ (2 Cor 1:5-7).
A Virtuous Direction
In general, the happy-go-lucky atmosphere I’ve been discussing has contributed to a trend in how Catholics discuss vices and virtues. There is a tendency to approach sinfulness in the following way. A sin, mortal or venial, is identified as either habitual or a simply a particular struggle. The conversation turns to seek out the places, people, topics, etc which tempt the penitent back to the sin. St. Francis de Sales has two points here. First, we tend to suffer when we possess a greater fear of vice than a love of virtue. Rather than focusing on cultivating virtue to combat sinfulness we try to figure a way to escape temptation. Second, we fear our temptations rather than placing our faith in the Lord and His help. Additionally, “no human remedy has proven capable of healing this injury [sin and temptation].” Avoiding a bad thing does not necessarily mean good is being done.
Taken all together, it may seem I would purpose harsh penance, tough fasting requirements, and the like. No. Instead, I would advocate redirection from such a me-centered Catholicism. My feelings only, only the difficulties/challenges I choose, and my sins and temptations. Rather, a faith centered prayer life, embracing the Cross through our own tribulations, a proactive cultivation of virtue, and, above all, a resignation to follow God’s will in all things. A rejection of self-love and pride in favor of humility and charity is needed to accept tribulations and follow God’s will.
This life is such that we must eat bitter herbs more often than honey, but the One for whose sake we have resolved to persevere in holy patience, despite so many kinds of opposition, will give us the consolation of his Holy Spirit in due season . . . This confidence that restores our vigor will allow you suffer and withstand with great courage any battle you face, no matter how grave. -St. Francis de Sales