The Rise of Cross-less Catholicism

In the Australian on May 22, Tess Livingston covered the new translation of the Missal. This good work needed early explanation. George Cardinal Pell, who was instrumental in the English translation, remarked: “The previous translators seemed a bit embarrassed to refer to angels, sacrifice and perpetual virginity. They went softly on sin and redemption.”
Though they must be put in a larger context, “going softly on sin and redemption” is equivalent to proposing another religion, with such un-pleasantries eliminated. We have become too frail to bear the truth of our tradition, of what it teaches, of what our real problems are.

Cardinal Pell’s remarks recalled an e-mail from a man I do not know. He teaches in a Catholic high school and was assigned a summer school course. He chose to offer one on C. S. Lewis and Tolkien — surely worthy topics — and sent in a prospectus to the program director. The response was that his outline included too many “negative” things, like “good vs. evil, vice and virtue, honor and shame.” The students would not react well to such harsh concepts.
I was “terrified,” as I told the man, that students could not face the most basic of Christian truths at a Catholic school. But it is true that what are called the “negative” elements in Christianity are seldom heard in our schools or universities anymore.
Redemption, it seems, has nothing to do with one’s personal sins or deeds. The students are “upset” by core doctrines, or at least teachers think they are. “Don’t upset the students” becomes censorship. No doubt ways of presenting such doctrines can be excessive, but I suspect that is a rare problem today.
Faith is thus transformed into a social movement. That is where we deal with the “negative” things: We work against bad causes to make the world “better” through judicious selection of movements that “do good.” We do not need to attend to ourselves. We do not like to know that our thoughts and deeds have anything to do with something that transcends the going political correctness in the local culture.
Diversity teaches that whatever anyone does is all right. Multiculturalism teaches that if such is the way they do it in Baluchistan, it must be great everywhere. The only “sin” is that of prejudice. Prejudice means that you acknowledge a truth, but you have no problems with anything anyone does. Our moral world has just about accepted every classical vice as a virtue. We fear that we will be against something because it is “evil.”
In a recent visit to Turin, Pope Benedict XVI remarked: “Towards the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche wrote: ‘God is dead! And we have killed him.’” Far from disagreeing with this view, Benedict adds: “This famous saying is clearly taken almost literally from the Christian tradition. We often repeat it in the Way of the Cross, perhaps without being fully aware of what we are saying.” Nietzsche is orthodox!
And how is it that we have “killed God?” Surely, it is through our sins and other “negative” things. Thus, if we do not even want to talk about these things, as Tolkien and Lewis do, we will have no conception of what Catholicism is about. We will deny that things we do need attention. Many schools, Catholic ones included, live in an environment in which the early practice of virtue is almost impossible. A friend of mine who homeschools her son recently told me that she was grateful to be almost through the “middle school” period, as that was the worst arena morally in most school systems.
But how does one deal with the Lord of the Rings or Narnia if sin, redemption, and their relation to glory cannot be brought up for fear that someone will be upset? G. K. Chesterton spoke of this aberration in his time. Literature is taught to prepare the child and adult precisely for the things that will, in fact, happen. We see what we ought to do by seeing how lives work themselves out when we do not do as we ought.
Catholicism is not a religion that provides a formula for not sinning. It says, “If you do sin, repent, and go on.” Nietzsche himself, I think, was scandalized by Christians who continued to sin. Christ Himself was not so scandalized. He knew we needed doctrine, grace, habit, purpose of amendment, penance, and forgiveness. If we eliminate these things, we invent a religion of perfectionism, not Catholicism.
We tell our young that everything is fine, especially themselves. Just do what others do. Do not judge. Do not distinguish. If something is wrong, it is not your fault. It’s the system. You are ok. Don’t worry. Be happy. 


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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