How Modern Heresies Isolate Us and Leave Us Unfulfilled

052614A couple of years back, a remarkable book was published by Ross Douthat. I recommend it as required reading for anyone who wants to grasp what has happened to faith in the second half of the 20th Century up until now. It is Bad Religion – How we became a nation of heretics. It seems good to review some of his findings, since these heresies seem only to grow in the consumerist West, where we take attitudes that are fine for commercial markets and misapply them to the faith. We end up with a “designer” religion, designed to please the customer rather than proclaim the truth of our founder and Head, Jesus Christ.

In the book, Douthat documented how the churches (both the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations) rose dramatically in the years following World War II, but then quite suddenly saw their numbers collapse as they were overwhelmed with successive waves of heresies, which he describes with great precision.

Douthat uses the word “heresy” quite correctly to describe a version of the Christian faith that holds an incomplete version of the full truth, one that chooses certain tenets and discards many others that both balance and complete the picture. Of course there are often tensions in holding all the truths.

For example, how do we reconcile God’s sovereignty and power with our freedom and capacity to say “No”? Or how do we resolve God’s mercy and love with the existence of Hell? The orthodox approach is to hold both and leave the tensions largely unresolved, or at least to seek a balance that respects both. The heretical approach is to chose one and discard or minimize the other in order to be free of the tension.

Heresy has become quite the “art” of modern Americans who are often “genius” in crafting endless varieties of do-it-yourself faith: one from column A, two from column B. For most Americans, the Church is largely irrelevant, and tends to be considered an annoyance, what with all her rules and traditions. Hence while most Americans identify themselves as believing in God, the actual content of that belief varies significantly and often diverges widely from orthodox Christianity not to mention orthodox Catholicism.

God as He reveals himself in Scripture is quite easily tossed aside by moderns, and a tamed, more “fitting” god is crafted—one who affirms more than demands, one who consoles and almost never warns.

We used to call this idolatry (crafting your own god and worshipping it). But most moderns prefer softer terms such as “finding the god within,” and discovering the “god of my understanding.” Truth is cast overboard or doubted altogether and a self-referential (solipsistic) thinking emerges that is self-authorized.  Along with this private magisterium comes a self-congratulatory “tolerance” that is extolled as the highest virtue. If there is any reference at all to the revelation that is Scripture or to the dogmas of the faith, most moderns interpret them in a highly selective (i.e., heretical) manner, and subject what does remain to interpretations that are often so twisted as to be almost impossible to follow.

What makes heresy so dangerous is that it most often contains some truthful elements. As such, many believers can easily be duped by the “partial Gospel.” Plausible teachers, using smooth words, seem to be confirming some truth of Christian faith. But they stop short of the full Gospel. For example, the purveyors of the “Prosperity Gospel” extol the power of prayer and the truth that God does want to bless us. But they largely discard the cross and the call of Christ to endure hardships and even poverty for the Kingdom. Gone is any notion that we have been called out of this world and are thus hated by the world, or the idea that we cannot serve both God and money. They also conveniently set aside the very consistent warnings about wealth issued by the Lord Jesus.

But it all sounds so good and so right: pray, trust God, blessings in abundance! Doesn’t God want me to be happy? Yes, and thus heresy has its appeal in pointing to some truths, but it ignores others meant to balance, distinguish, and contextualize.

Consider another huge trend in the modern age that has sorely affected faith: the rise of the therapeutic culture. Douthat spends a good amount of time describing and critiquing it. Quoting Philip Rieff he begins,

Religious man was born to be saved [but] “psychological man is born to be pleased.” [Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006, 19].

Douthat continues,

God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problem that arises, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves.” … [He] is not demanding, He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.

 Therapeutic religion is immensely tolerant: since the only true God is the one you find within, there’s no reason to impose your faith on someone else. But a tolerant society is not necessarily a just one. Men may smile at their neighbors without loving them and decline to judge their fellow citizens’ beliefs out of a broader indifference to their fate. [Tolerance can] easily turn out to be an ego that never learns sympathy, compassion, or real wisdom.

Therapeutic to its very core, it emphasizes feelings over duties, it’s impatient with institutional structures of any sort. [Kindle Edition Loc:4676-95]

Has it worked? Apart from the troubling heretical notions at work (again, heresy understood in terms of its classical definition, as an incomplete and unbalanced grasp of the true faith),  has the therapeutic religion worked even in its basic goal to “make us feel better about ourselves”? Douthat observes,

We’re freer than we used to be [since everyone can think and be what they want and construct their own little world largely freed from critique by a “tolerant” culture], but [we’re] also more isolated, lonelier, and more depressed … Therapeutic theology raises expectations, and it raises self-regard. It isn’t surprising that people taught to be constantly enamored of their own godlike qualities [since they are trained to discover the “god-within] would have difficulty forging relationships with ordinary human beings. Two Supreme Selves do not necessarily a happy marriage make.

Americans are less happy in their marriages than they were thirty years ago; women’s self-reported happiness has dipped downward overall. Our social circles have constricted: declining rates of churchgoing have been accompanied by declining rates of just about every sort of social “joining,” and Americans seem to have fewer and fewer friends whom they genuinely trust. Our familial networks have shrunk as well. More children are raised by a single parent; fewer people marry or have children to begin with; and more and more old people live and die alone.

Our society boasts 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, 30,000 life coaches—and hundreds of thousands of nonclinical social workers and substance abuse counselors as well. Most of these professionals spend their days helping people cope with everyday life problems … not true mental illness. This means that under our very noses a revolution has occurred in the personal dimension of life, such that millions of Americans must now pay professionals to listen to their everyday life problems … gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends. [Kindle version Loc:4819-38, inter al].

So no, it hasn’t worked. But its purveyors just keep coming out with the latest tome by the latest guru. To be fair, as Douthat notes, there are many causes of the social ills described above. But the therapeutic culture and its “spiritual (not religious!)” expressions do raise expectations for a great cure. Orthodox Catholicism on the other hand traditionally spoke of this world as a vale of tears and an exile to be endured before true and lasting happiness dawned. Contentment could be found here, and true faith is essential to that. But lasting happiness was found only in the Lord, and fully, only in Heaven. For now we should gather as a Church and console one another with the consolations we have received, and continue to retell the story of total victory promised us in the Lord, after the Good Friday of this life gives way to the Eternal Easter of Heaven.

But another reason the inward and highly personalized faith of the therapeutic culture does not work is that it rejects the communion for which we were ultimately made.

St. Augustine summarized our most fundamental problem as being “curvatus in se.” That is, on account of Original Sin, the human person will tend to be turned in on himself. This of course is exactly what a lot of modern versions of heretical religion peddle: a highly personalized, inwardly focused search for “God.” And it is a search that is apart from the community of the Church and the extended community of Sacred tradition. Chesterton called tradition the “democracy of the dead,” since it gave them a voice and a seat at the table. Through Tradition and doctrine we have communion, not only with each other, but also with the ancient Christians.

But modern heresy turns inward to a very lonely and rather dark place. It rejects the need for a Church or for any doctrines at all. Alone and turned inward, we cannot be fulfilled. It is no accident that the therapeutic “faith” emanating from a therapeutic culture is not fulfilling.

The real truth is that we were made for others and for God. Communion with God, and with each other in God, is THE goal of life. Christ founded a Church, and summoned us to a relationship with the Blessed Trinity. But it is the Trinity as revealed, not as reworked by us.

The “god-within” of modern heresy, is more often a mere emanation of our very self, a solipsism (from the Latin solus (alone) and ipse (self)). And “tolerance,” the way it is spoken of today (it is not true tolerance, more on that  HERE), does not join us together in harmony as advertised, it separates us into our own little worlds where “what’s true for me doesn’t have to be true for you.” Increasingly, we live in the little world of our own mind and are pulling up roots from any shared reality. God, if he is understood at all by these modern heresies, is a very local deity, who exists only in the mind of one person and is subject to later redefinition. He (or she? or it?) is a small and very contingent deity that has little role other than, as Douthot keenly observes, to be our butler.

One of the great challenges for us today, then, is to re-propose the need for the Church that Christ founded. He did not write a book and send us off to study it. He founded a community—a Church—and told us we would find Him there, where two or three are gathered in His name, where His actual words are read and heard, where His true body and blood are offered and received. Many are scandalized that He should be found among sinners, gossips, hypocrites, and the like (and saints too!). But that is where He is found. Indeed, one image for the Church is Christ, crucified between two thieves (one repented!). Yes that is where He is found: in the Church. And only within the Church and her careful, thoughtful doctrines and the accumulated wisdom of centuries is the journey to find God within us safe enough to consider. For yes, He does dwell within us too. But don’t make the journey there alone—no, never alone.

27 Replies to “How Modern Heresies Isolate Us and Leave Us Unfulfilled”

    1. Yes Msgr., very good article. Well, heresies or errors come from religious leaders, yes even from clergy!
      I couldn’t believe my ears when a 75 years old priest (this was on Easter Sunday) did a homily on God’s creative impulses where he concluded that it is, “just and right” that gays should get married. And he did this when the church was packed with the bi-annual crowd (I will go to church on Christmas & Easter only, so that I can show God that I did the minimum so let me in the pearly gate.).
      Oh this priest is so hip, he’s with the fashion of the day! He’s no longer reading the Catechism but he is reading some heretical books that’s been condemned by the Church. I e-mailed the Bishop and the Bishop said he’ll talk to him (what ever that means). I guess, nothing will get done.
      I guess this is where we are now, there is no accountability.

  1. How you can calmly state how outrageous the outrageous is, and how absurd the absurd is, without going into a rant continues to amaze me.
    Bringing an objective look at a subjective mess of confusion caused by those who carefully select data which supports a desire to feel comfortable with that which is uncomfortable seems to be divinely assisted for, I ask myself, how can anyone remain calm while the majority of society stands with their collective backs turned on the proverbial “elephant in the room” so as to believe that there’s no elephant in the room as long as no one looks at it.
    I used to get a little frustrated, and a lot of feeling of isolation, as we shared and “preached to the converted” among ourselves. Now, however, I’ve come to feel fulfilled about a forum where you can guide us to look at truth as a complete thing so that we can rise above feeing so helpless as all the information is filled with solid fulness instead of having only the spongy – and easily collapsible – which is being presented as a new “rock” on which to build a “new” church. They have been warned that many are called but that few are chosen so, if God lets the sheep who repeatedly seek the cliff edge continue to do so then; who am I to try to impose “sufficient data” on them when they reject the dis-comfort of such. I grieve at this callous attitude that I’ve felt the necessity to adopt and; having trimmed away my desire to tell them to look at the part of the room where the elaphant is NOT hiding; I assuage my conscience by attempting to lead by example. I can’t show them wealth, or fancy possessions but, I can show serenity (which I’ve never had from age eleven to age fifty) but have so well been graced with since I accepted God’s guidance and the fullness of His message.
    With God helping us through such people as yourself the “converted” can turn away from the guilt manipulation of those who claim that we hurt them by calling attention to the pain of their frustrating lives. Trying so hard not to turn totally away from them though.
    Sometimes I’m heartened by such as the quote of Charles Baudelaire which I recently found; “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” … … false humility?
    Checking out his other quotes I’ve found what I feel to be a few human imperfections but, I’m quite sure that mine and that (yes, even him) our beloved Msgr Pope has some. In one feels interested in his stuff I won’t go on about it just suggest one search engine his name along with “quotes”
    By the way, a sweeping thank you to any and all who have pointed out imperfections which you feel are in my stuff. I haven’t accepted verecity (sic) in all suggestions but, at some point I need to scrutinize, pray for guidance, and move on.

    1. Uh oh. resoving to avoid re-posting for the “shoulda saids” here I go anyway.
      I had a lot of trouble with “God as I understand Him” until I came up with God as I don’t understand Him. If He is beyond my perception he can do for me what I cannot do for myself, usually by leading me away from frustrating paths and onto fulfulling ones.
      Not so much the quick fix of feel good and get sicker but finding my way as darkness is gradually abated.
      I was also a bit vague on who to “search engine” for quotes. Meant Charles Baudelaire.

  2. Thank-you once again and God Bless!

    Agreed that one must be in a community but also it is important to have a spiritual relationship with Jesus as well.

  3. Yes, we have devised smaller but powerful communication tools such as iPad, iPhones, android cellphones and at a touch able to reach people and ideas at a minuscule of time yet we are left alone with very small circle of friends. We have believed in narcissistic happiness that only satisfy me and me alone. With this culture of hedonism and relativism, the moderns do not understand the sharing altruistic happiness that a true faithful Christian Catholic has in his heart nursed by the teachings and practiced by the real heroes who are the saints and the Church through the sacraments. The television and media had elevated the art of twisting and continuedly presented half truth and in between glorified sinfulness. Yes, we have accepted the world and totally agreed that sin is not anymore sin as long as it gives happiness. Come HOLY SPIRIT and enkindle in us the fires of Divine Love.

  4. That is good. He indeed did not give us the Book to study, but rather sent out His apostles to preach the gospel, to baptise and teach. I love the Catholic church as I love Christ and His people.

  5. It is so easy to fall into the trap of only “a personal relationship with God” without the effort of a conscious need for others. In addition to your ideas above, the problem seems to be almost structural within the Church today. The local Catholic Church used to offer regular devotions, novenas, confraternities and, of course, scheduled Stations and Benediction for the faithful. The local parish was the focal point of our religious life, even educating the parish children. This relationship to the Church seems to have changed. So, I agree with your insight, Msgr., but I think there has to be a return to mysticism and deeper spiritual conviction within the Church to unite the faithful. There is, as you so clearly articulate, something corrupted or missing.

  6. Monsignor: You have been blessed with a gift; You are a GREAT Catholic teacher. I am very grateful to have found you albeit in ‘cyber-space’. There REALLY is some high-quality available out there and you are the proof. “Seek and ye shall find.” I seeked and found Msgr. Pope. God bless you and a “shout-out” to the Holy Spirit for guiding me to your site.

  7. Douthat is one of our top Catholic public intellectuals. He’s up there with George Weigel. Bad Religion is one of the most important books I have read in the past few years. Too bad he writes for the NYT, but I suppose it is important to have a voice there! His recent columns on the divorce / remarriage / communion issue are quite insightful and point to the potentially catastrophic consequences of the impending showdown concerning this issue that is about to occur at the upcoming synod on the family.

    And…if I may start a campaign…

    Pope for Bishop!

    1. I wish to be part of that campaign committee!

      Excellent as usual, Monsignor.

  8. Bad Religion is a modern must-read. Monsignor, you should pair this with Robert Putnam’s less well-known finding that our current times, due to its emphasis on “tolerance” dogma, has caused most Americans to be disconnected from their next door neighbors, their neighborhoods and their communities.

    We care much less about Joe Next Door.

  9. Outstanding post but may I take issue with one thing? While these heresies have largely emerged in the West, their appeal is global. American Protestantism, ‘prosperity Gospel’, etc. are sweeping like wildfire through Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I think orthodox Catholics in the West are deluding themselves if they think they will be saved by a proverbial cavalry from the global south. Former Catholic strongholds like Central America and Brazil, for example, have already embraced American Protestantism and its easy ‘answers’. We can’t look elsewhere for help and need to start thinking about how to address these issues ourselves (as some like you already do).

  10. A very good example of the need to be a Church, together in communal worship and truth, are the times when there are big televised events happening in Rome or elsewhere that draw millions of Catholics together and is viewed by the world at large. The joy seen, the hope, the communion, and often much emotion!

    Some examples are: JPII’s funeral in ’05, the world youth days, papal visits around the world, When Pope Francis was elected Pope, are a few that I remember hearing people express positive and even longing feelings for the universal Catholic faith. I also remember the Catholic presence that was keenly noticed for a brief time after 9-11.

    I know 2 people who converted after the election coverage of Pope Francis because they felt the unity of that moment and how it affected faith-filled Catholics around the world and they wanted to be part of something so much larger than themselves. Their words. I know of someone who converted during the time of JPII’s funeral ceremonies.

    Deep in most people (perhaps all) is that longing for truth and unity and community. It’s just that the world has been allowed to shout over it with it’s advertisements for pleasure, escaping from pain, and self worship. No wonder we have so many therapists, social workers, etc. When all the while the One who is the One and Only Good Physician is in our tabernacles waiting lonely for those who would spare Him a little time. He who alone can give what the human heart needs.

      1. You could not much worse than many of them. I rest assured from what you write that you would be an excellent Pope.

  11. The most frightening verse in Scripture occurs in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee whete Jesus says that the Pharisee went and prayed *to himself.*

  12. No mention that these heresies were given their head in the Church as a result of Vatican II and the suppression of the Traditional Latin Mass in favor of the mass created in a room by a committee of people who adhered to many of the heresies you mention above. Tell me Msgr., how does a committee of men think they can ‘create’ a liturgy in a few years when it took over 1400 years for the Gregorian liturgy to slowly evolve into the beloved mass of the saints?
    The Traditional Latin Mass was ripped from us overnight, and you wonder how people might lose the feeling of the changelessness of God and the doctrines of his Church? The Church joined the revolution of the 60’s; it opened the windows, and every heresy you mention above flew in because they were thick in the air that modernists wanted so desperately to let in.
    Point the finger of blame where it belongs Msgr.: squarely on the men (and women) religious who failed to pass on the faith as they had received it. They’ll have to answer for that when the stand before our judge.

    1. Plenty of blame to go around Jack. Including a lot of parents who did not teach and hand on the faith. As for the Mass and the Concilium, while most must admit a rupture with the past and a discontinuity, nevertheless it is not fair to say that the concilium merely created the mass whole cloth. There were years of the liturgical moment and the study of patristic sources involved. Some of the theories were dubious (e.g. mass facing the people) but not everything was. Like it or not, and I understand that you do not, there was some basis in antiquity for many of the changes.

      1. Jack, you are right. Msgr., you are right too. It is like a big “dance” without the music ending.

        What I find disheartening is that this issue has split the Church at he expense of the faithful. A reasonable position today may be to widely use both forms of the Mass without restriction and with full endorsement of the hierarchy. Pope Benedict moved this way but clearly some Bishops did not agree with him. My take is that it has become irrationally political, not spiritual. It is kind of a prideful Zero Sum Game with winners and losers. So, the perpetuation of this internal fight between rupture and continuity stinks like smelly socks. It repels and splits often at the expense of giving honor and glory to God.

        For me, well, I pray that at some point the Church mission and practice returns to “saving souls” . Opening the vaults of tradition enriches our faith and grounds us in Jesus and his Church. So, I believe this issue should be prioritized higher than say ecumenism or environmental responsibility until it is resolved. There are sincere and holy people on both sides of the argument. Clearly, unless resolved, this internal cancer will ultimately force each soul to make a choice as to the path to be followed . . . rupture or continuity. Who needs that!

      2. Msgr Pope, I find nothing but truth in everything you proclaim….and I am a Protestant.

        1. Then It’s time for you to come home to Rome!

  13. I am amazed at the amount of very negative comments and videos on you tube which condemn all the popes since Vatican II, calling many of them Modernists or Masons. One video condemns the Apparitions of Sister Faustina and her writings and state that Pope John Paul II violated the declarations of the Vatican which stated that the Divine Mercy was not authentic and negated the Devotion of the Sacred Heart. Other videos condemn Pope Paul VI and later popes for allowing the new Mass and state that the post Vatican II Mass is not authentic. This kind of confusion can cause people to back away from the Church, especially when the average person is not trained in theology and, on the other side of the coin, is guided by a ” satisfy me” concept to get all the material pleasures they can attain….this becomes a more important goal as God takes a back seat. There are videos from a classification called Defeat Modernism and these videos on youtube allegedly show proof that every thing since Vatican II is wrong . Again, enough to confuse anyone.

  14. ” …they stop short of the full Gospel. For example, the purveyors of the “Prosperity Gospel” extol the power of prayer and the truth that God does want to bless us. But they largely discard the cross and the call of Christ to endure hardships and even poverty for the Kingdom. Gone is any notion that we have been called out of this world and are thus hated by the world, or the idea that we cannot serve both God and money. They also conveniently set aside the very consistent warnings about wealth issued by the Lord Jesus.” 1 Timothy 6:3-10
    Also, in my Bible reading for today, 1 Timothy 4:1-5 We’ve been warned about demons preaching a false gospel here, and in the Four Gospels.

Comments are closed.