In Sunday’s Gospel the Lord sets forth the theology of the Cross and redemptive suffering. In so doing he sets forth a doctrine that is utter absurdity to this world. The indignation of the modern world against the Cross borders on outrage. Why is this? Simply put, hedonism. Hedonism is the worldly “doctrine” that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē “pleasure” and is akin to the Greek hēdys meaning “sweet.”
Of course pleasure is to be desired and to some degree sought, but it is not the sole good in life. Indeed, some of our greatest goods and accomplishments require sacrifice: years of study and preparation for a career; the blood, sweat, and tears of raising children.
But hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. Hedonism is directly opposed to the theology of the Cross. St. Paul spoke in his day of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Php 3:18–19). He also taught that the Cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).
Things have not changed, my friends. And thus the world reacts with great indignation whenever the Cross or suffering is even implied. And so the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask (rhetorically) of the Church: “Are you saying that a poor woman who was raped needs to carry the child to term and cannot abort?” (Yes we are.) Are you saying that a “gay” person can never marry his or her gay lover and must live celibately?” (Yes, we are.) “Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world as handicapped and cannot be aborted and put out of his (read “our”) misery?” (Yes we are.) “Are you saying that a dying person in pain cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain?” (Yes, we are.)
The shock expressed in these rhetorical questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the Cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” to the modern hedonistic mentality, which sees pleasure as the only true human good. To the hedonist, a life without enough pleasure is a life not worth living. And anyone who would seek to set limits on the lawful (and sometime unlawful) pleasures of others is mean, hateful, absurd, obtuse, intolerant, and just plain evil.
When pleasure is life’s only goal or good, how dare you, or the Church, or anyone seek to set limits on it let alone suggest that the way of the Cross is better or is required of us! You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.
And indeed many faithful Catholics in the pews are deeply infected with the illusion of hedonism and thus take up the voice of bewilderment, anger, and scoffing whenever the Church points to the Cross and insists on self-denial, sacrifice, and doing the right thing even when the cost is great. The head wagging in congregations is often visible if the priest dares mention that abortion, euthanasia, IVF, contraception, and so forth are wrong and should be set aside regardless of the cost, or if he preaches about the reality of the Cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at any notion that might limit the pleasure others want to pursue.
Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the Cross and redemptive suffering seem like a distant planet or a strange, parallel universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reworked Jesus and cannot conceive that He would want them to be anything but happy, content, and pleased. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” And on this basis all sorts of sinful behavior is supposed to be tolerated because insisting on the opposite is “hard” and because it seems “mean” to speak of the Cross or of self-discipline in a hedonistic culture.
Bringing people back to the real Jesus and to the real message of the Gospel, which features the Cross as the way to glory, takes a lot of work and a long conversation. We must be prepared to have that long conversation with people.