What is Hedonism? More Than You Think.

In yesterday’s Gospel Jesus set forth the need to accept the crosses of our life and carry them. As we reviewed in yesterday’s homily notes, crosses are not merely the big sufferings in life such as disease, the death  of a loved one, the loss of a job, and so forth. There are also the daily crosses of self-discipline, hard work, obedience, setbacks, consequences for our decisions, limits to what we can do, and the cross of resisting temptation.

Opposed to this teaching from the Lord is hedonism. Most people today link hedonism with sexual excess and perhaps drinking. But Hedonism is a far wider notion and it is why St. Paul said: We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 For 1:23). To the Jews, Christ crucified was a stumbling block since they believed that anyone hung from a tree was cursed by God (see Deut 21:23). But to the Greeks and Romans, the cross was an absurdity due to the widespread philosophy of hedonism among them. So what is hedonism?

Hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē, meaning “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 only 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.

Hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. It 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). As noted, he also taught that the cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).

Things have not changed, my friends. The world reacts with great indignation whenever the cross or suffering is even implied. So the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask incredulously of the Church, are you saying that a woman who was raped must carry the child to term and cannot abort? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a “gay” person must live celibately and may never “marry” his or her same-sex lover? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world and cannot be aborted and put out of his (more accurately our) “misery”? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a suffering person cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain? Yes, we are.

The shock expressed in these sorts of questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” in the hedonist 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 required! You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.

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 a priest dares to preach that abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and contraception are wrong regardless of the cost, or if he speaks about the reality of the cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at anything that might limit the pleasure that others want to pursue.

Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the cross and redemptive suffering seem like something from a distant planet or a parallel and strange universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reconstructed Jesus Himself to be someone who just wants us to be happy and content. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, doesn’t God want me to be happy? On this basis, all kinds 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 engage in that extended conversation with people.

4 Replies to “What is Hedonism? More Than You Think.”

  1. “The Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Remember that the pursuit of happiness, in the Declaration, is not a quest or a pastime, but ‘an unalienable right.’“

    The statements above surely brought an incomparable material progress to USA and to its citizens, but it is also bringing the demise of moral decadence to its people. This American experiment is beginning to crumble from within because it’s people bloated with seeking pleasure had forgotten sacrifice and discipline that even now is felt in present day fight against an invisible enemy of this pestilence. People cry out for their freedom, their pleasures without regard for others. The violence we are experiencing now started from an authority who disregarded the right of another human being. The disregarded human being was exercising his right to pleasure using drugs which destroyed his thought faculties of right or wrong.

    Only when we return to the path laid by our LORD to deny oneself, carry ones daily cross and follow HIM shall bring us true joy not fleeting happiness.

    Thank you Monsignor for letting us realize once more something this world cannot give.

  2. “The head wagging in congregations is often visible if a priest dares to preach that abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and contraception are wrong regardless of the cost”

    Wow! Where do you go to church? I would LOVE to experience this but in thousands of masses I’ve attended in probably 100 different parishes, I’ve never once heard a priest even suggest that IVF is wrong. Only once have I heard one say that contraception is wrong, and whilst there have been mild criticisms of abortion and euthanasia, they have never described them as anything remotely resembling “wrong whatever the cost”.

  3. Msgr, you stated “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”

    Why do people come to worship that in which they do not believe? Why do they approach the Eucharist and receive it, fully aware they are not in COmmunion with the Church and our Lord’s teaching?

    Obviously, this is a lie of the evil one, but it seems to me a door through which Satan has entered can be closed once identified. How do we help these faithful see and close this door?

  4. C. Beltz,
    In my observations I believe the answer to your question:
    Why do people come to worship that in which they do not believe? Why do they approach the Eucharist and receive it, fully aware they are not in COmmunion with the Church and our Lord’s teaching?
    The Church has become more of a “life coach” situation. People aren’t there to “worship” God anymore. It is now very centered on us, self. I might guess that the concept of going to Mass to worship God has been lost. Many go to feel better. It is more about what we get out of church and not what we are required to give God. The Eucharist and it’s true meaning are lost to most people at Mass unfortunately. It’s just a nice symbol, a reenactment of a supper as we all gather around the table.
    Sadly, this is many of the Catholic churches today. If you haven’t seen this in your church, consider yourself blessed with a very good priest.

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