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We Could Use a Little Fire and Brimstone



David Mills - published on 05/05/15

Catholicism is a most serious religion — why don't we act as if it is?

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It was his senior year, said the oldest man sitting round the table in the pub, and the first day of religion class in his Catholic high school the teacher handed out thin paperbacks printed on cheap paper. They’d had a real textbook the year before. A younger man remembered studying doctrine one year and coloring pictures the next. And the youngest at the table, a new father in his late twenties, said that all he’d known in his CCD classes was the lite version.

My companions at dinner were all victims of a revolution in catechetics. What most struck me as they talked was how sentimental was the teaching, and how light and thin it was. It sounded frivolous. The teachers may have loved the Church and the Faith, but they taught Catholicism as if it were a subject they didn’t really care about and didn’t expect their students to care about either.

The materials and methods made the Catholic Church look like one of those companies that makes products no one wants anymore and keep lowering the price in the hope — a hope even the salesmen feel is vain — that people will buy their stuff anyway. The catechetical authorities sounded like people who’d taken seriously Mary Poppins’ advice that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and decided to keep reducing the medicine and increasing the sugar.

It was fundamentally un-serious. The oldest man remembered even at the time noticing the symbolism of the big heavy hardbound book he carried to biology class and the small floppy paperback. Biology was an important subject to be mastered with effort, Catholicism wasn’t.

When I looked at Christianity as a fairly secular teenager, I was looking for something serious, something dramatic, something that mattered. Very early on the Catholic Church impressed me as the most serious version of Christianity. What her critics saw as faults, especially her dogmatism and her moral rules, I saw as signs that she knew life was a game to be played for keeps and that winning and losing meant everything. In a world that could be so frivolous about so much, even the ends of human life, she stood for the belief that the way we live means something ultimate.

That’s still true, but even so, I wish normal Catholic life were more overtly serious in this sense. I would find it a great help in not sinking into the complacency that seems to be our, or at least my, natural mode of spiritual life. (I exclude my own pastor from this, and others I know.)

We ought to hear a lot more about sin and the broad road to Hell, for example, than we do. And about Purgatory too. We don’t get a sense from most preaching and Catholic writing that our choices actually matter. We move in only one direction, and that’s up. God is infinitely indulgent (which is not the same thing as infinitely loving). He is always ready to let us back in apparently without our having to repent, as long as we feel regretful. Sins don’t leave a mark.

In all the homilies on the Parable of the Prodigal Son I’ve heard, the priest has always emphasized the father’s welcome, and sometimes touched on the older brother’s resentment. It is indeed a story about God’s never-ending love for us, but it is also the story of the prodigal son’s return, and that I’ve never heard spoken of.

The son had to walk a long way as a starving man with no money to get to his father. He hadn’t just moved into town and started partying, he had travelled to a far-off land. It was a long way back and getting home cost him. And when he finally got home, he had to tell his father he was sorry even after his father embraced him. Returning home didn’t make his life as it had been before. Although his father forgave him for rebelling, he’d thrown away his inheritance and picked up who knows what diseases.

That’s a drama. It’s a story of sin and redemption that could have ended without the redemption. It’s a story of choices that mattered and mattered both in this life and the next. The prodigal son could have died in that far-off land. He could have been too proud or too invested in his sins to return home. The Parable of the Prodigal Son tells us that life is a serious thing, and that reconciliation costs us, but that’s not the way it’s usually preached.

How often do we hear anything remotely like C. S. Lewis’s words in Mere Christianity about the ultimate importance of every choice we make? “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before,” he wrote.

And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

That also describes a drama. It’s also a warning to stay alert at all times and a promise of a great reward if we do. It’s a reminder that life is a serious affair.

I can guess why the softer versions of Catholicism appealed to so many. It wasn’t just the sixties, liberalism, compromising clerics, and the other reasons often given. Older friends have told me stories of growing up with a harsh, cold version of Catholicism, something out of the stereotypes. They needed to hear the gospel as good news. Priests have told me of the number of people they see who are paralyzed by guilt and the feeling God can’t possibly love them (as well as the ones who feel no guilt at all). They need to hear about the Father who runs to embrace them.

Still, we need more seriousness. Many of us laymen need it, because we need all the help we can get to seek first the Kingdom of God as Our Lord instructed us and not shuffle along expecting everything to turn out all right anyway.

The world needs it as well. A materialistic world is a world that has trouble being serious, whether we’re talking about materialism as a philosophical position or a consumerist practice. It tends to be a world in which few things really matter. People have an instinct for meaning, a sense that this world is not all there is and that what they do should count for something beyond their death.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. 

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