Catholicism’s Ghost

February 2020

One of Hollywood’s more sybaritic starlets solemnly announced the other day that she was embarking on a 30 day “spiritual cleanse” in India. Since neither ecumenism or eco-enthusiasms are my métier, I was bewildered.  Could it be some novel Gnostic excrescence?  Or a twenty-first century variation of Stoic apatheia?  Perhaps a new twist on commonplace pantheism?  Knowing Hollywood, it is some terribly au currant exercise in self-absorption.  No doubt it is indeed that epiphenomena of modernity, namely, being spiritual without being religious.  But without religion, the spiritual is a vain voyage into the self.  Common error sees the spiritual as merely the non-physical.  That is like saying a Titian is merely the absence of white.  Both are missing the fuller picture, in fact, missing it entirely.  When ‘spirituality’ departs the moorings of religion, it becomes anything that suits one’s taste.  Chesterton pointedly remarked: “Anytime one speaks about the spirit of Christianity, they are speaking about the ghost of Christianity.”  Same thing, in a different key.

This parlous error is not confined to the pampered denizens of Hollywood.  It has long taken up residence in the Church herself.  No surprise, since it is the softer side of a hard-knuckled Modernism which has been galloping through the church for over one hundred years, now reappearing with a greater virulence than ever before.  What are its signs?  A conspicuous absence of doctrine; a decided tincture of Freudian/Rogerian self-stroking; a marked identification of ‘spiritual progress’ with self-aggrandizement; a not so veiled contempt for the millennial Catholic tradition of perfection; a studied attempt to reconfigure a Catholic figure, when admitted of mention at all.  This ‘new spirituality’ litters the contemporary Catholic landscape, leaving any naïve Catholic searching for God swallowed whole by its ideology.  This highly organized tribe suffers no lack of handsome facilities, usually identified as ‘spirituality centers’, an Orwellian term whose irony is lost upon its partisans.  Essentially therapeutic depots with a thin veneer of Christianity, they are monuments to what Dr. Philip Reiff called, The Triumph of the Therapeutic.  Visitors are met with a sunny ambience, practitioners wearing carefully affirming smiles with a Potemkin village manner.  All of it, a genteel descent into a Dante demimonde.

The Church has suffered eruptions of this faux ‘spirituality’ many times over the millennia, but heretofore mustered the will to condemn them.  That will has yielded to an irenic torpor. This ugly blotch upon the Bride of Christ has many origins. Its remote predicates lay in the first century with the Gnostics, the Manichees of the fourth, Joaquim of Fiore and the Spiritual Franciscans of the thirteenth, the questionable Cloud of Unknowing and ambiguous Meister Eckhart of the fourteenth, the Alumbrados of sixteenth century Spain and the Jansenist petite eglise and the Quietists of seventeenth century France. 

But the proximate one can be traced to a Cistercian monk, Fr. Louis, whose name in the world was more recognizable, Thomas Merton.  This world-famous convert of Seven Storey Mountain fame produced works on Catholic spirituality which can be rightfully called classics.  By the late 1940’s he had become for many an iconic figure, fit to beckon souls to the delights of the interior life of sanctification as few others in the century had. More than a few thrilled to the lines of Life and Holiness, Seeds of Contemplation, the Sign of Jonas, Bread in the Wilderness and The Last of the Fathers.  These works were part of a stellar period immediately following his entrance into Cistercian seclusion in 1949.  It lasted until the very early sixties.  Then Merton strayed.  Permitted to leave his Cistercian cloister (a shocking departure for that ancient Order of St. Bernard of Clairvaux), he began to rub shoulders with the emerging Catholic Left and gradually shed his old Catholic skin.  His written works became hostage to the antinomian spirit of the Sixties.  The ancient Catholic spiritual/ascetical/mystical tradition, which Merton passionately loved and propagated so eloquently, began to dim in his writings. Then finally disappeared.  Replacing it was a faddish syncretism which spoke of Lao Tzu rather than John of the Cross, Karma instead of Calvary. Tragic for Merton; even more tragic for the Church. 

Effects of this subtle inversion soon rippled out to every corner of the Church.  Beneath its heavy hand, Catholic institution after institution surrendered to its sweet song of emancipation: seminaries, convents, houses of formation, schools and parishes.  In the sixties and seventies, it was a Daring New Thing, a tantalizing rupture from two thousand years of a Catholic ascetical tradition which had forged saints and mystics.  By the eighties it had become standard operating procedure, a New Orthodoxy for a ‘reimagined’ church.   Consider this freshmen ‘retreat’ being conducted at a New York Catholic high school in just a few weeks.  Each parent was asked to answer the following questions, which will be then read to the ‘retreatants.  Recall, this is a ‘spiritual retreat’:

  • Express the support for him/her despite all the misgivings, fights and mistakes
  • The unique qualities you admire about your child
  • Reflect on your child’s growth and maturity in the past year and transition into high school
  • Your belief in them, dreams, and support for the future
  • Importance to keep values such as kindness and love
  • Anything unique to your child and your relationship with them

If this seems to you part of a routine therapy session, you are right. But, any mention of God here?  Any reference to the Catholic Church or her teachings?  What about adherence to the commandments?  Confession? Prayer?  Sacrifice?  Virtue?  Christ Crucified?  All these clear markers of Catholic perfection are buried beneath an oleaginous newspeak designed to sterilize the soul of any of its natural or supernatural aspiration.  Perhaps this is the real child abuse which deserves prosecution.

This descent into solipsistic reverie takes its cue from a serious and long mounted reconceptualization of God.  The Ascent of Mt Carmel and the Interior Castle propounded by Doctors of Prayer like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila respectively are preempted for a feckless journey into the Freudian landscape of the inner consciousness.  Any identification with the classical Catholic touchstones of perfection are treated as retrograde and atavistic.  Yet, no matter all their theological legerdemain one truth remains:  Union with God is won only on the Cross through the Tabernacle.  All other roads are ruses perpetrated by the Prince of Lies.  St. Augustine warned against this foray into the self-as-god because he once fell victim to its titillations.  He was lured into a Manichean universe and a Plotinian Absolute, which left man unanchored from moral norms or any contact with a personal God. 

After famously reading the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”, Augustine exalts as though a heavy boulder has been lifted from his chest.  He writes:

“The Light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away”, he concluded, “You had converted me to yourself.”  At his baptism on Easter AD 387 he enters the Ambrosian basilica in Milan.  In the word of Dr. Pecknold, “Singing hymns, experiencing a miraculous healing, touching the relics of martyrs, breathing in the fragrance of the Holy Eucharist, he knows the altar of his heart has been turned around by God.  He knows that its only God who can draw together all the scattered and fragmented elements of our lives, but we must offer all of ourselves to be forged in the fires of divine charity.” 

By the end of Book Ten of the Confessions, he is writing as the Bishop of Hippo: “I am mindful of my ransom. I eat it, I drink it, I dispense it to others and as a poor man, long to be filled with it.” 

This alone is the soaring summary of the life of spiritual perfection, thoroughly grounded in the doctrine and tradition of the Church.  Compare it to the ‘new spirituality’.  Exactly.  There is none.  The Church proffers a royal road to Christ’s heart on Golgotha; the other, a narcissistic cul de sac of cloying conceit.

As soon as any soul seeks another path other than the one set out by the Catholic Church, he soon finds himself in a spiral of deceptions.  St. John of the Cross tartly replied to those given to this temptation: “(it) outrages Our Lord, in not merely glancing at one’s crucifix.  God would have a right to say, ‘Here you have my Beloved Son, in Whom I well pleased.  Hear Him, and do not seek for new modes of teaching.  Because in Him, and by Him, I have told you and revealed all that you can desire and ask me, – giving Him to you as a brother, as a master, as a friend, as a ransom and as a reward.”  The ‘new spirituality’ is an ugly caricature of the millennial truths of union with God set forth by the Church, her saints and Doctors.  It is a blueprint for a soul’s demise, a perilous mimicry of modernity’s folly. 

Whether it be the strange god of Hollywood’s invention or the still stranger god of Modernism’s excreta, Catholics should flee.  For God is to be pursued only as God, the Thrice Holy God of Hosts.  For that, one need go no further than one’s crucifix, then the Tabernacle.

Anything else is Catholicism’s ghost.

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