A Meditation on the Utter Absurdity of the Cross to a Hedonistic World

083114In 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.

34 Replies to “A Meditation on the Utter Absurdity of the Cross to a Hedonistic World”

  1. How to begin this long conversation? I say God is Love, Mercy and the licentious only see wrath, judgement or present a different Jesus and I am speaking air. He bears His wounds, pleading for us before the Father and we can unite our suffering to His and I hear “quality of life”. I guess it takes smarter minds than mine, they will not see love, sacrifice to them doesn’t mean ‘make holy’ and my childlike faith makes me a fool. So I pray. And keep praying… All things in Christ!

    1. I think just planting the seed is a step…even if you don’t have the long conversation, they will see the light
      In your eyes and hear the joy in your voice, and some will want to know more. Then, perhaps you can continue
      that conversation. I pray and hope!

      1. You’re right. Thank you for Holy wisdom. Yes, even the smallest of seeds, sewn in faith and love, the Lord provides for and brings about maturity and fruitful abundance, according to His will. May His will be done always, I hope and pray.

  2. I fear you won’t get the attention needed for that long conversation until suffering becomes unavoidable and people will be forced with the choice of finding their way to the Cross or perishing. God will have to intervene like an atomic bomb.

    1. I believe this may be true. Oftentimes, God allows major suffering so we will turn to him. I don’t know that people will be “forced” into chosing their way to the Cross over perishing…. forced is may not be the right word. However, such a situation may help to make their choice easier or obvious.

  3. It seems unfair that GOD wants us to suffer while many are enjoying their happiness which they never earned through hardwork. Yet I frequently see many wanting the easy way out because it is really the path of least resistance. What I know is that this world was never made for us to be happy unless it is truly for GOD, knowing, loving and serving GOD.

    1. Msgr. Pope is a Master Theologian, indeed! Short and sweet (straight to the point). Efficient use of the language, that’s his style!

  4. I would suggest a difference between those who seek to avoid suffering for overtly hedonistic motivations – e.g., someone who wants to abort an inconvenient child – and those who deal with extreme human suffering on a daily basis – e.g., someone in extreme pain from cancer or another disease.

    I think this latter group – which is large – would benefit from and deserve a more robust statement than they should do “the right thing”. I think it is entirely understandable for someone in extreme and permanent pain to want to die and for those around them to support that wish (I don’t support that wish – but I am not in constant pain, nor am I the care-giver to such a person).

    1. +FOR OUR WAYWARD HEARTS . . . “And lead us NOT into TEMPTATION. But deliver us from EVIL. Amen.” – Matthew 6:13 . . .

      We pray this deliverace prayer . . . daily . . . in our personal prayers and in the Holy Prayer of the Mass with other children of GOD . . . and it certainly applies to what is actually a . . . “temptation toward evil” . . . as expressed in the below sentence . . .

      “… I think it is entirely understandable for someone in extreme and permanent pain to want to die and for those around them to support that wish …” (- from Jaimer R‘s comment above) . . . Understandable? Perhaps . . . but . . . sound? . . . holy? . . . or wise thought and supportive action? . . . no!

      Only if one knows and understands the . . . TRUTH . . . of the wisdom of the Judeo/Christian concept that . . . fallen . . . sinful . . . mankind . . . is prone to ALL kinds of delusional . . . “TEMPTATIONS” . . . even as Adam and Eve entertained same with the GRAVEST of consequences in the Garden of Eden . . . (many of which delusional temptations of man Monsignor shared in his above insightful monologue) . . . can such a misbegotten temptation/delusion of mind to . . . extremely dangerous . . . “wrong” . . . thinking be understood . . . and redirected to health and the . . . “good” . . .

      For at . . . NO . . . time . . . anywhere . . . throughout our Holy Mother Church’s Magesterial teachings or in Sacred Scripture is . . . “death” . . . considered or presented by our Wonderful GOD and Saviour as a . . . “good” . . . (except in the . . . victory OVER death . . . redemptive suffering and death of Jesus . . . the Blessed Christ . . . our loving LORD and Redeemer on his Holy Cross . . . which redemptive suffering His children can participate in with Him in this new Grace filled day and age ) . . . St. Pope John Paul II recognized and diagnosed this temptation/delusion of evil that was spreading in an epidemic around the world . . . and called it for what it was . . . a Satanic development of a rampaging . . . world wide . . . “CULTURE OF DEATH” . . .

      “It is FEAR that pushes EVIL solutions to suffering and denies its potential to GENERATE GOODNESS and VIRTUE. It is FEAR that sustains the Culture of Death.

      In order to push back and build a CULTURE OF LIFE we MUST NOT BE AFRAID to embrace our crosses. With steadfast faith and hope we trust in the mercy of GOD to bring GOODNESS from our troubles. In the face of suffering we must not despair. St. John Paul II, pray for us!” – Denise Hunnell, MD

      Link: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/be-not-afraid-st-john-paul-ii-s-key-to-building-a-culture-of-life

      +“And we know that to
      work together unto good,
      to such as, according to His purpose,
      are called to be saints.” +
      Romans 8:28 drv

      “… This is not all: the Divine Redeemer wishes to penetrate the soul of every sufferer through the heart of his holy Mother, the first and the most exalted of all the redeemed. As though by a continuation of that motherhood which by the power of the Holy Spirit had given him life, the dying Christ conferred upon the ever Virgin Mary a new kind of motherhood—spiritual and universal—towards all human beings, so that every individual, during the pilgrimage of faith, might remain, together with her, closely united to him unto the Cross, and so that EVERY form of suffering, given fresh life by the power of this Cross, should become no longer the weakness of man but the power of GOD.” – St. John Paul II

      Link: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/hlthwork/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris_en.html

      “TRUST in the LORD with all your heart, and do NOT rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He WILL make straight your paths. Be NOT wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and TURN AWAY away from evil.” – Proverbs 3:5-7 rsvce

      . . . all for Jesus+

        1. What sort of ‘practical’ statement were you looking for? Just what exactly do you mean by ‘a more robust statement than they should do “the right thing”’? What exactly do you mean by ‘robust’? The only statements which a Catholic can give are those which are consistent with God’s wishes. We know God’s wishes by referring to the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church. From that teaching we know that nobody has the right to take their own life, whatever the reason.

  5. I could and do fall into the trap of the modern world –trying to avoid suffering at all cost, but for having friends who had a child that was born with severe paralysis to all limbs. They have raised and supported their son who is now in his thirties and oh yes has had too many trips to the hospital for medical procedures. Nonetheless, he has a sharp mind, is an active sports fan, and has a sense of humor. The parents have become significant advocates for government aid to physically challenged persons. The best part is they are among the most joyful persons I know. Also, they have two adopted children.

  6. What will hell feel like? When should human “sensibilities” override the Word of God?

    What is the pain of cancer versus the pain of eternal damnation? Or even purgatory for that matter?

    Suffering is and always has been salvific, or did we forget the whole Passion and how it changed the world. One man suffered and died, millions saved. Need anyone say more?

  7. Excellent post! It’s makes me sad to see so many of my brothers ans sisters reject the very Truth that is the only Way to Eternal Life.

  8. The gospel clearly says if you want to follow me pick up your cross. That means we are going to suffer ..but eternal life is the reward. Nothing on this earth can come close to that ..

  9. While hedonism may provide some explanation, perhaps it does not capture the entire picture.

    It seems the missing element is purpose. Why should I sacrifice? Why should I suffer? Why should I deny myself? What is the purpose? The actual problem may be a disconnect from the purpose that makes sacrifice meaningful.

    When we disconnect life from the larger picture – when we see life in terms of philosophical materialism and thus see man as solely a biological entity, avoiding suffering and pursuing pleasure makes total sense. We find a cultural worldview that strips meaning from suffering and leaves the religious life in the dust.

    When we criticize the hedonistic streak in life without first setting up the larger picture – we may seem to be churlish and out-of-touch. We may seem to be old-fashioned nudges who should be ignored, if not ridiculed.

    So our task may be communicating more clearly the big picture of life that brings purpose and meaning. Not sure we are crossing that bridge as effectively as we might. (Sometimes we may assume it is obvious when it is not.)

    Would be interesting to ask people for what would they be willing to suffer? That may open a bridge to finding the meaning that brings things into focus.

    1. The Priests bear the brunt of this as you say..communication break down. They have the authority with the full weight of Holy Mother Church behind them to speak of these matters, from the platform paid for by the PASSION OF CHRIST! Where are they? The ones with the authority?
      Many times I sit in the pew and shake my head over a homily that is so watered down even my own children leave saying…..YUP God Loves me…when are we gonna hear something else? It is difficult for the laity to talk about what is not even TOUCHED on by the majority of the religious.
      I have taught religious education for many years. It never fails that when it comes to teaching even the 10 COMMANDMENTS the parents complain with a vengeance. Our new head of the program has forbid talking about the commandments and telling the children and parents they should consider attending mass. So there you go.

      1. I beg your forgiveness, Terry Colby, but I dont believe the priests should bear the brunt of this responsibility….parents should. It starts in the family….your children will hear God speaking to them
        through you. They will hopefully learn from their parent’s example.

        God bless your faith.

    2. Unfortunately, this sense of purpose is missing even from the theology of our Protestant brethren. There is no “making up in one’s own body what is left undone by Christ” in Protestant theology: Christ does the suffering and we get the grace. This completely vitiates any redemptive aspect to our own suffering.

  10. “.. “Are you saying that a poor woman who was raped needs to carry the child to term and cannot abort?” (Yes we are.)…”

    What about the poor man who raped the woman?

    Does HE have to care for his unborn child and can not ” just disappear” ?
    When the man does not provide food to his unborn child, then his child dies, and the father is a killer….isn’t he?

      1. When I was 15 yrs old and raped by my dad’s drinking buddy, I became pregnant (back in the dark ages of the 70’s). Nothing happened to his friend because my dad didn’t believe he could do such a thing. I was given the choice of putting the baby up for adoption, or hit the road. I stayed, out of cowardice of the unknown of living on the streets. I gave the baby away to unknown parents through a lawyer my dad hired. I suffered then, I suffer now. I offer this pain as well as other pain up to our Lord, because I know there is a reason He allows it. I don’t have to know the reason, I only need to know that I trust in Him completely. Not blind trust mind you, but well thought out and decided trust. Faith is a gift, rejoice in it! Thanks for the use of the orange crate, Msgr. Pope.

        1. Tracy, GOD Bless you. You must have suffered a lot. I do not know how you have come to terms with your dad and that of every man and your child you gave away. Sometimes, I indeed feel GOD is unfair with the unwanted circumstances in our life but HIS Ways are not our ways, HIS Thougths are way above our thoughts. I know I am tougher because of what the awful experiences I encountered made me. I have chosen to place my life in the palm of HIS Hand. JESUS is my LORD and my GOD. Thank you, Tracy you made my day.

      2. “Also she can put the child up for adoption”
        That statement lacks charity and a sense of the nuances of being pregnant. A mother’s relationship with her unborn baby is not often something that can always be so casually severed by adoption. Sometimes it it is the right decision. These are things you may want to talk to women who’ve been in situations like this before to get a better understanding of all the dynamics involved.

        1. But it is an option more charitable than killing the child. Women DO put children up for adoption and sometimes that is the best thing for the child. Life does not merely consist in figuring out what makes adults happy. There is nothing casual being suggested. But there ARE options, and one of those options addresses the objection “are you saying she has to raise the child?” to which I would answer no. She can, if she wishes give the child another home through adoption.

  11. This a great post. The idea of suffering isn’t supported by the the flesh, the devil and the world. So its an uphill task to communicate its benefits. A few hours ago I was at the bedside of a very sick child. The mum told me that she has lost hope. According to her world view, she didn’t have enough faith or else her child would not be sick.
    I tried my best to assure her that God loves her and the He is aware of all that she is going through. Therefore, He must have a reason for allowing it to happen. Please please please don’t stop praying and don’t lose hope.
    I am not sure I made a dent but I will be back there tomorrow.

    Its not easy to equate a loving God with suffering. Poorly catechised Catholics follow the trend of protestants and reject suffering because ‘it is not their portion’. Yet suffering rears its head whether we like it or not. And we are at a loss on what to do. Sometimes we yield to the temptation to shake our fists at God but I believe the best way is to live out our daily lives offering to Our Lord the little annoyances of the day. So that when or if the ‘big one’ comes, we shall help others in their homeward journey by our example.

    Of course bearing in mind that the cross has to be taken up DAILY to follow Jesus. He never said it will be velvet cushioned with French fragrance.

  12. Indeed. Another’s need for love in order to live, and the giving of that love, are good reasons to suffer. In other words, we should not allow the prospect of suffering to dissuade us from loving God, self and neighbor.

  13. Thank you, Monsignor Pope. THIS is the kind of message the flock lacks, thirsts for, and should be hearing from the pulpit regularly, but are not. Thank you for your exemplary courage, your concise explanation of the Word of God, and your love for your flock.

  14. Man is born with active hedonistic impulses. His potential for spiritual insight is still a few years down the road. Hedonism has a head start, and the spirit is always in the catch up mode (we can thank Adam & Eve.) We can thank God for infant Baptism. The grace and the spirit of generosity and self-denial offset the effects of our hedonistic impulses. It seems that what separates the authentic Christian from his hedonistic impulse is a routine ascetical practice. The ability to endure heroic suffering for the Lord is made possible by responding to His grace in daily prayer and ascetical practices.

  15. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20081029_en.html
    Pope Benedict XVI gave a good explanation of the Theology of the Cross in a General Audience held on October 29, 2008.

    “For Paul the Cross has a fundamental primacy in the history of humanity; it represents the focal point of his theology because to say “Cross” is to say salvation as grace given to every creature. The topic of the Cross of Christ becomes an essential and primary element of the Apostle’s preaching: the clearest example concerns the community of Corinth. Facing a Church in which disorder and scandal were disturbingly present, where communion was threatened by internal factions and ruptures which damaged the unity of the Body of Christ, Paul did not present himself with sublime words or wisdom but with the proclamation of Christ, of Christ crucified. His strength is not in the use of persuasive language but, paradoxically, in the weakness and
    trepidation of those who entrust themselves solely to the “power of God” (cf. 1 Cor 2: 1-5). The Cross, for all it represents, hence also for the theological message it contains, is scandal and folly.” The theology of the cross is summed up in 1 Corinthians 1:18-23.

  16. Certainly hedonism has crept into how our children are being reared…giving out awards just for showing up so that no one’s feelings will be hurt, playing games without keeping score so there will be no losers,…the list goes on. If our children seldom if ever experience natural or logical consquences for their behavior, how will they ever grasp that there could be spiritual consequences for sinful, immoral behavior?

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