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People are not abandoning the churches because they are too religious, but because they are not religious enough. They understand that if a religion is about no more than mouthing spiritual platitudes and working at the soup kitchen, then they don’t need to get up early on a Sunday and troop off to church to hear bad music and a shallow sermon…

St. Peter’s Square

I can remember my dismay when studying theology at Oxford to come across the modernist interpretation of the seventh chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. Church goers will remember the King James version of verse fourteen: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The professor said in his usual languid way, “Of course the word alma which is translated ‘virgin’ can just as easily, and more probably be translated ‘young woman.’ There is no real reason to put upon this text a supernatural meaning.” This learned essay disputes the point, but there is another problem of which the question of interpretation of one Old Testament term highlights. The reason it was suggested that alma means “young woman” not “virgin” was not out of any concern for precise and proper translation of ancient texts, but out of a preconceived notion that the supernatural is impossible, and St. Matthew’s idea of a virgin birth was not only quaint and outdated, but mistaken.

This is the tiresome (and now mostly discredited) drive to demythologize the gospels. The modernists argue, “Modern people cannot be expected to believe in miracles and so forth, so let us have the birth of Christ, but not from a virgin. We will have the shepherds, thank you, but not the angels. Wise men are allowed, but not the wonderful star of the magical, mystery tour.

I am painting with a broad brush. In fact, the de-mythologizers have a point. We should be prepared to strip away the parts of our religion that are no more than legend and myth. We can certainly allow some legendary and mythical parts of the Scriptures, and to be sure, over the centuries many superstitions and myths did accumulate—especially in the devotional customs and celebrations of popular religion. Saint Nicholas riding his horse across the rooftops along with Black Peter? Girls wearing wreaths and candles on their head for St. Lucy’s Day? Come now, it is all very charming, but this is the stuff of legend and folklore, not history.

But the modernist de-mythologizers would strip it all away. There are to be no miracles, no angels or demons, bodily resurrection and presumably, therefore, no Heaven or Hell, no Virgin Birth, and no Incarnation of Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary.

To strip the supernatural out of religion has always seemed to me to be not only extraordinarily dull, but extraordinarily stupid. After all, what is religion about except the interface of this world with the next, the ladder from earth to heaven, the interruption into this world of the gods and goddess—the terrifying beings from another realm? Religion—any religion—from the primitive to the Presbyterian is about some sort of connection with the supernatural. When you remove the supernatural what is left? It is not religion at all. It is a set of table manners.

Which brings me to this year’s Christmas rant. A storm has blown up over the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. The traditional creche is usually uncontroversial, but this year a theme was imposed on the scene from Bethlehem. Instead of just showing the Holy Family with adoring shepherds and magi, a tableau was set up portraying the seven corporal works of mercy. The corporal works of mercy are:

  1. To feed the hungry.
  2. To give water to the thirsty.
  3. To clothe the naked.
  4. To shelter the homeless.
  5. To visit the sick.
  6. To visit the imprisoned
  7. To bury the dead.

The seven are portrayed realistically with some of the faithful dismayed by the nakedness of the unclothed and the gruesomeness of the corpse. But this prudishness disguises a deeper reason for discontent with the nativity scene.

The corporal works of mercy are so dominant in the scene that they conceal the Holy Family and inadvertently reveal what is left of Christianity when the supernatural is plucked out. All that is left is the parroting of religious bromides and good works. If there is no supernatural dimension to Christianity, all that is left is Jesus the storyteller and kind religious teacher—a blend of Gandhi and St. Francis, and to follow him is to join a sort of Rotary Club with some spiritual vanilla flavoring.

This is the true reason why so many churches are emptying. People are not abandoning the churches because they are too religious, but because they are not religious enough. People are not stupid. They understand that if a religion is about no more than mouthing spiritual platitudes and working at the soup kitchen, then they don’t need to get up early on a Sunday and troop off to church to hear bad music and a shallow sermon.

I call this religion without the supernatural neo-Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the heresy that good works are sufficient for salvation. Neo-Pelagianism is the ultimate form of salvation by good works. The modernist does not believe in the need for salvation because he does not believe a Heaven to be won or a Hell from which to be saved. Therefore all that remains is to save not himself, but others by his good works.

Do not imagine that I am therefore against the corporal works of mercy. We are certainly called to love our neighbor, but the first and greatest commandment is to love God. It is a question of priorities, for we cannot truly love our neighbor unless we love God first and we cannot love God if we think he does not exist, or if he does, that he never interacts with this physical world.

I find it interesting that Pelagianism, when it first appeared, was most popular among the well-to-do, the well-educated and the well-connected. So it is today. It is always easier to believe a religion that requires no belief. Pelagianism’s blend of spirituality and good works is just the sort of religion you would invent if you were to invent a religion. It is the religion of the respectable, and it makes respectability a religion.

A religion, on the other hand, of a God who interrupts this realm first in earthquake, wind and fire, then by an angel who announces a miraculous birth and a child who is the world’s stranger and the world’s great danger, a burning babe of Bethlehem, who came to Palestine and lives today in bread and wine…

…now that is a real religion.

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13 replies to this post
  1. Bravo, Herr Pfarrer! It is the gift of transcendence that we as Catholics should (must?) hold close and cherish, not the transitory accoutrements of a cold empiricism espoused by those who would seek to expunge religion of its truly sacred story. Wishing you and your readers a Blessed Christmas from Austria.

  2. Thank you, Father. This is in the same vein as what I once told a friend who said she found the Catholic Church “too dogmatic”: I replied that dogma is simply the statement that (a) there is a truth, (b) we can know the truth, and (c) this is the truth. Why on earth would you want a religion that doesn’t do that???

    • Exactly. As a non-Catholic I still remember when your Church said it was the ‘one and only’ route to God. I myself wasn’t religious, but I thought that was commendable. RCC doesn’t do it so much any more, unless I’m mistaken. Trying to ‘get along’? Who knows?

      • No, Doug, you are not mistaken. Unfortunately. On the books, the dogma is the same as you remember. But in practice, we now have a thing called “ecumenism.” Non-Catholic missionaries invented it in the 20th century, when they realized the impossibility of proselytizing in mission lands, since none of them agree on dogma. Thus ecumenism was born.

        All of the popes until the 2nd Vatican Council condemned it, for the very reason you point out (it denies the exclusivity of Catholicism). Catholics were always forbidden to take part in it. After the Council the floodgates opened and Catholic clergy entered the ecumenism movement. And the popes lead the way. The current one continues it, as for example last year in Sweden.

        But there is nothing binding on the believer in Catholic dogma about this; it is purely a “pastoral” practice, which can be accepted, or rejected. Modernity-oriented Catholics accept it; Traditional Catholics reject it. It has produces no conversions. On the contrary, it tells people to stay where they are. People like Cardinal Kasper even admit straight out that conversion is not even the point. According to him, that was abandoned at the Council. Thus the fruits of ecumenism : absolutely zero. In the end it is what you said — it’s about getting along, little more.

        • Thanks for the information, Michael.
          I don’t know about the reason [not able to proselytize], since there are active Protestant missions in many third-world countries e.g. I do know many of them ‘get along’ by mixing rituals and customs. For instance many will set up “Christian” feast days to coincide with local animist or other celebrations. Also they often tolerate the continuation of polygamy. It’s odd, because Protestantism is often labeled as “Pauline”, while the RCC is often considered “Petrine”, and it was Paul who asked pointedly ‘what fellowship does light have with darkness?’
          And, if Paul’s statement is considered to have anything like the force of dogma for Catholics, how can it be countermanded by “pastoral practice”? Doesn’t that leave the ‘sheep without a pastor’?

  3. Well said Fr., the NGO version of Christianity feeds the appetites of those who desire to worship the creature above the Creator. A very Merry Christmas to all.

  4. I was in a Catholic seminary in the 80s for 6 years and was subject to a barrage of neo-liberal, protestant hermeneutics, which was also, curiously, anti-intellectual.

    That, and the lax lifestyle in the order I was part of couldn’t either, hold my interest, or provide the disciplined structure I needed to commit for life to both the order and the priesthood.

    I have recently seen members of the same order living on the streets, being poor with the poor, while being deeply committed to a traditional Catholic spiritual life.

    If only…

    But then I wouldn’t be married with three kids, pursuing a vocation as a teacher in a very poor area. The Holy Spirit has his way in the end, but in the meantime a lot gets lost.

  5. Yes I believe in the dogmas of the Catholic Church. Everything that is said in the Credo and that we recite at each mass, I do believe. How come people go to mass, pray the Credo without believing what it says? Over 50 years ago, when I was in the 9th grade, some girls in my class and I got in an argument about Adam and Eve, weather they really had existed or not. I was convinced that they had really existed, they were our first parents and what the bible said about them was true. Well, the teacher interrupted and said that all that wasn’t true, it’s just a story, a kind of allegory. I was so disapointed to hear this, which meant to me that we have been lied to during the previous year when we have been taught about the book of the Genesis. I never could put up with this rejection of the supernatural in our catholic faith by people who proclaim to be Catholic.

  6. An excellent article. I have one extra thought, and that is when people write, or in this case alter a story to make a point, they not only usually wreck the story, but do a poor job of making the point they are trying to make. First, we must remember that the Corporal works of mercy are not merely the suggestions of a kind religious teacher, but the commands of our Lord. The second is, that one of the works of mercy is at the core of the Nativity narrative. While humble, the stable was the shelter that the homeless (in Bethlehem anyway) holy family were allowed to stay. In other words, someone took pity on them and offered the only thing they could so they could have shelter… but lets ignore that beautiful, but subtle point by hitting you over the head with a whole bunch mroe.

  7. Fr. Hardon defined ‘religion’ as: The justice (giving to someone what they deserve/belongs to them) we owe to God our creator and the action of our living that testifies to that reality.
    With that simple definition I cant imagine “social justice” or any justice that doesnt firstly begin with justice towards the my creator and your creator. Merry Christmas.

  8. Father, an excellent article.

    And on the same topic and in the spirit of ‘religious mystery’, I’m amazed how many fellow Catholics refuse to believe the Virgin Birth i.e. that our Lord proceeded through the walls of our Lady’s womb, like light through light, and not by the normal route by which a woman gives birth.

  9. Silence speaks volumes. On entering the beautiful old church at St. Mary’s in Winfield Queens. All one heard was quiet. When people had to speak, they did so in hushed tones. Often now when entering a church or after Mass it sounds like a movie theatre before the lights go out and the trailers for coming attractions occur.

    I hate when people applaud a virtuoso performance by the choir. Worse still when the Mass celebrant, or chief buddy says, “good morning,” or worse still, “hi folks.”

    One priest in my parish had the habit of repeating his greeting when unsatisfied by the volume of the “audience” response. The practice carried over to the Mass responses.

    It was no big deal at all.

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