Early last year I wrote an article entitled A Reflection on the Contemporary Situation. It was later published with the Latin Mass Magazine (Christmas, 2015 edition). I would like to offer here this article for people to consider. It was the fruit of a number of thoughts that I was having for several years. I finally came to organize my thoughts on paper and this article was the result.
I have not gone through the entire article and compared it with the printed version in LMM. If there are any variations, they should be minor, though I did amend the first two citations after noticing an error that I did not catch before in the editing process. I also changed some of the web site references to make them more suitable for an online format.
A Reflection on the Contemporary Situation
Kevin J. Symonds, M.A.
In contemporary Catholicism, there are many unique problems that might be addressed over time. The problems about which I speak are rooted in secularism and its devastation of faith with a concomitant focus upon a cult of utility and the pursuit of profane novelties. These oftentimes lead to a trivialization of evil and, ultimately, the denial of Jesus the Redeemer of mankind.[i]
There is an element of unknowing in supernatural faith as it is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This is difficult at times and not so clear to many. The temptation is to turn to superstition or novelties that offer a passing fancy or “cheap grace.” These novelties offer a seeming remedy to the ills of the times, but are ultimately unfulfilling, and, in not a few cases, are very dangerous to the life of grace in the soul.
For the past several centuries, “Christians have been tossed from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, with new falsehoods arising every day.” Truly, these things have decimated many of our cherished morals, ethics, and traditions. Great cultural upheavals have resulted and are ongoing, leaving many people, Catholics included, becoming more disillusioned with society, religion and even their own lives.[ii]
One of the components of our culture that has suffered tremendously in recent decades is a proper understanding of and relationship between the sexes. The sexual revolution and the rise of militant feminism (and its response known as the “Men’s Movement”) has called into question the fundamental differences between men and women. A crass Naturalism exists within these movements and it has taken root within the culture.[iii]
In the face of the degradation of Western culture, people are seeking guidance. Catholics are no exception to this phenomenon. Previously, however, they turned to that perfect society, the Catholic Church and her pastors. However, some significant challenges and obstacles have arisen within the Church, making difficult the way that Catholics interact with the Church and her pastors. Volumes have been and still could be written on these challenges and obstacles.
For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to say that the issue is rooted in the deleterious effects of Liberalism. The attitude behind this heresy has settled within many Catholics and created a serious situation that is disrupting the Catholic communion. Simply put, many Catholics are following ideological lines as opposed to the divinely revealed truths of religion. This is devastating to supernatural faith and, consequently, many people are losing faith.
Nature abhors a vacuum and something must fill the resulting void. Often this void is filled by seemingly orthodox and faithful Catholics (and sometimes others), as a cursory glance at our history clearly demonstrates.[iv] Oftentimes, such persons exhibit some “charisma” which further adds to their popular appeal, and such things offer comfort and solace to confused and disillusioned Catholics in this difficult hour.[v]
As an example for the above, let us look at the contemporary culture wars surrounding questions of sex and sexuality. The Men’s Movement was previously mentioned as being a symptom of the problem of secularism and Naturalism. This Movement was established largely as a response to the rise of liberal feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It largely saw men as becoming depreciated as a result of liberal feminism. In an attempt to fix this, advocates of the Men’s Movement promoted archetypal images such as “man in the wilderness” or “Iron John” (this is especially promoted in an aspect of the Movement known as “Mythopoeic”). This was as opposed to Christian virtue and chivalry.
Some behaviors were associated with the Men’s Movement. Behaviors included general nudity, howling at the moon (sometimes in the nude) or engaging in “drumming,” (i.e. the banging on a drum in a primal, tribal fashion intended to stir up the passions).[vi] This enjoyed some cultural support owing to rock-n-roll music then coming into its own with its focus upon the lower passions.
Two key figures of the movement are Robert Bly and Carl Jung. Bly wrote a book aptly named Iron John and became a central figure of the movement. His résumé is a wrap-sheet for all things “New Age” and he was very influential in establishing within the core ethos of the Men’s Movement the above-mentioned archetypal imagery. Others would follow similar, and perhaps even more questionable, paths.[vii]
For his part, Jung was a noted psychologist and “mystic” who was hostile to the Catholic Faith. He promoted the idea that men receive “wounds” from their fathers that hurt/hinder men from fulfilling their roles as men and that the wounds need to be healed before man can take his place in society. This idea became a central dogma to the Men’s Movement.
This language of wounds is detrimental to supernatural faith. It presumes that at some fundamental point of a man’s life, he received a wound and now cannot function well. Thus, the pursuit in Jungian psychology is to find and heal this “wound.” Once accomplished, and almost by magic, one’s troubles will begin to dissipate. The man will be “large and in charge” and “master of his domain.” This idea is eerily similar to the heresy of Gnosticism because of its focus upon “knowing” one’s deep wounds and the “freedom” (read: “salvation”) that comes with this knowledge.
In reading about this “wound” one may be tempted to think that it sounds like the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, yet they are not the same concept. Jung rejected Original Sin and the Savior, Jesus Christ. To Jung, the problem of mankind was not sin, but bad psychology that, once overcome, would cause mankind to flourish. In this respect, it is the heresy of Pelagianism reborn as man must pull himself up by his own bootstraps.
Regretfully, the baggage of the Men’s Movement has trickled down to our day and age. In some ways, it has morphed into greater or lesser forms, but is still nevertheless present. One way in which it has continued is within Evangelical Christianity and, by extension, its various connections through “charismatic” and ecumenical circles.[viii] The connections between these are not easy to trace without an extensive and detailed study. It suffices to say that there are persons and/or groups which are affected by the ideas mentioned above. One such group is known as the “Charismatic Renewal.”
The Charismatic Renewal is, in short, a movement that began within Protestantism with leanings toward Calvinist theology. It claims that the Holy Spirit is giving people once again (and largely) the extraordinary gifts. Among others, these gifts include “tongues” (and its interpretation) and healing.[ix] Exorcisms and/or “deliverances” were also a prominent feature.
The Renewal found a foothold with the Catholic Church in 1967 at an event known as the “Duquesne Weekend.” From there, the Renewal spread to not a few quarters of these United States where some people formed into “covenant communities.” Prayer groups were formed and a very expressive “charismatic spirituality” arose that, among other things, included the introduction of liturgical abuses.
Prior to the establishing of the Renewal within Catholic circles, there was the ecumenical movement. This movement was dedicated to finding a way to heal the divisions among Christians. It was very popular in the first half of the twentieth century and though it was well-intentioned, there were errors that arose within it that forced Pope Pius XI to clarify what ecumenism means for Catholics.[x]
For its part and our purposes, it is important to make the observation that the ecumenical movement found a powerful tool in the Charismatic Renewal to gather together Christians from all walks and professions.[xi] Regretfully, because of the enthusiasm accompanying the renewal and the lack of a central authority, the renewal was—ironically—not always so careful in testing the spirits. What eventually happened was a convergence of Evangelical Christianity, the Charismatic Renewal and the Men’s Movement.[xii]
The union of these three groups had a peculiar effect. People began to blend “charismatic prayer” (especially those for healing) with psychology. Bound up within this prayer (known commonly as “inner healing”) was a fixation upon “wounds” and healing them.[xiii] It was taught that the Lord wanted to heal these wounds and make people “fully alive.” A quote from St. Irenaeus became a slogan for this manner of thinking, “the glory of God is man fully alive.”[xiv]
The above history became more apparent about 10-15 years ago with the rise of the Evangelical writer John Eldredge and his organization Ransomed Heart Ministries.
Eldredge is a counselor by training and influenced by Jungian psychology and the thought of Robert Bly. He has authored a number of books but three in particular have (arguably) a sort of pride of place. These books are, Wild At Heart, Waking the Dead and The Journey of Desire. Eldredge has gained a lot of popularity from his books—Wild At Heart having sold over a million copies alone.
Wild at Heart displays an ecumenical attitude towards Catholicism. Prominent Catholic figures such as G.K. Chesterton and St. John of the Cross are cited in the book.[xv] These, however, are mixed with ambiguous references to “Christianity,” “the Church” and “priests.” Moreover, the audience is given much to think about, but is not told how to live the Christian life in the fullness of Christ’s Revelation. It is devoid of a liturgical spirit.[xvi]
The overall point of the book is that there is a crisis among contemporary men. Insofar as this goes, it is a valid point. Eldredge’s approach, however, and some of his talking points offer more harm than good. His writings demonstrate a lack of understanding of the doctrines of Original Sin and concupiscence. Furthermore, they are riddled with the Jungian psychology of “wounds” cobbled together with various tenets of (Evangelical) Christianity that defy common sense and even Eldredge’s own logic.[xvii]
The dangers of these things were not too readily apparent at first. This changed, however, as time went on and the underlying Naturalism was gradually exposed.[xviii] Evidence of this error arose in an article from Eldredge about Jesus and “poopy diapers.”[xix] In 2010, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand commented upon the underlying fascination with such things (in general) in an article entitled Revelation and Curiosity.[xx] She wrote about the danger posed to supernatural faith by “useless questions” as these miss the object of divine and Catholic Faith. Building upon a remark made privately to her by a Cardinal, von Hildebrand wrote:
This “harmless” and understandable curiosity rampant today (after all, is one not entitled to ask questions?) can have another serious consequence. Revelation being silent on certain issues, the impatient questioner, eager to find an answer at all cost, might, unwittingly, be tempted to become “creative” and will fall from the supernatural to the purely natural.
Regardless of the possibility of the spiritual dangers of associating psychology with certain popular trends, the charismatic focus on healing (and, more dramatically, deliverance ministries) became a fixture in what was now seen as “Christian psychology” or “Christian counseling” (à la Jungian mythopoeic influence). Among many Catholics this was no exception, though recent evidence suggests that the tide may be turning.[xxi]
Meanwhile, in 2009, and in tandem with the above history, a significant disagreement arose among some noted Catholic intellectuals. The disagreement had a very public face, lasted a few years, and whether or not it was ever truly resolved is not clear. The cause for this disagreement was remarks made by Christopher West, a popular speaker and commentator on Pope St. John Paul II’s writings entitled Human Love in the Divine Plan: A Theology of the Body.[xxii]
These writings were delivered from 1979 to 1984 by the late Pontiff in a series of weekly catechetical addresses on human love as it relates to the Divine plan of God for creation. The addresses were later collected and published as a stand-alone book. At first, these writings were slow to make traction in the larger cultural ethos. This changed, largely, when they were “discovered” some years later by Christopher West.
West was on his way out of the Catholic Church. Much of his human formation and his understanding of the Church were bound to experiences growing up in the Charismatic Renewal through a covenant community. For whatever reason, West rebelled against his upbringing. This took the form of being a “wild child” listening to rock-n-roll music and drumming, among other things.[xxiii] He later stated that he “gave God one last shot” and read the Holy Father’s Human Love in the Divine Plan. These writings deeply affected West and he decided to dedicate his life to promoting them far and wide.
There is one drawback to the writings: they are written by a “philosopher-Pope.” The writing style is a bit deep for the average layman, thus necessitating some proper theological and philosophical background. Most people, however, do not have such a background and depend upon knowledgeable people to “explain” the writings.
The above situation leaves room for interpretation and a couple of schools of thought exist. One of these schools is the “Westian” school, so named after Christopher West because of an entire body of interpretive literature inspired by him. Another school of thought, as yet unnamed, has since been established. It challenges what it sees as excesses or errors within the Westian school. For our purposes, it suffices to say that the two schools differ sharply on some key points. The debate in 2009 arose because of these differences.
One of the intellectuals who challenged the Westian school was Dr. Alice von Hildebrand. She openly criticizing an “irreverent” approach to human sexuality that she saw within the Westian interpretation. This school was fascinated by such things as the “bloody placenta” from Jesus’ birth, or looking upon the Easter Vigil candle as a phallic symbol.
Concerning the irreverence within the school, Dr. von Hildebrand’s argument largely stood upon the Christian doctrine of concupiscence and the necessity of safeguarding against this. As for the school’s fascination with afterbirth, Dr. von Hildebrand took aim at the crass Naturalism underlying the fascination. In the midst of the disagreement, she published her earlier mentioned article Revelation and Curiosity and its point on “useless questions.”[xxiv] In 2015, she again addressed this same point in a new article entitled Wine into Water.[xxv]
What may not have been clear at the time of the aforementioned debate was just how deep the problem goes or how profound were von Hildebrand’s observations on it. In her mid-eighties at the time of the debate, she saw and lived through much of the devastation that was unleashed upon the Catholic Church and the larger culture. She offered a bridge for people back to the beauty of the harmonious relationship between man and woman. Hers was a credible witness, having seen a better era for such things and married to a man who wrote profoundly upon the issues facing the world today.
Nevertheless, von Hildebrand was largely rejected by the Westian school as being “outdated” and “unable to reach people of today.” This was for no other reason than she refuses to compromise her dignity and Catholic faith by speaking in an unrefined and unchaste manner.[xxvi] The contradiction was striking as the chastity she represents is the same that her detractors claim to be striving after (and teaching), and she was hated for it like Christ before her.
In the end, it is apparent from a look at the various historical currents that there is a devastation of the Lord’s vineyard. Instead of dwelling on the problem let us ask ourselves where do we go from here? What can we do to correct these errors and amend our lives? The answer is so simple, it is shocking—devotion, with fidelity to the Catholic tradition, and above all to Jesus Christ present in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar. This will have a couple of different manifestations in accordance with one’s religious beliefs and persuasion.
For Protestants (or non-Catholic Christians in general), returning to the Catholic tradition takes on a more literal meaning. As scholars and Popes alike have observed, the errors afflicting the world today have their origin in the rebellion of the Reformation.[xxvii] The tree is not good and has borne bad fruit. The realization of this fact is not easy, but if there is an honest man, the search for truth will win out in the end, and I speak as a former Protestant.
For Catholics, returning to our tradition is more intimate and, in some cases, less literal. The rebellion of the Reformation, for all sakes and purposes being, appears to have found its way into the Church by some crack. For our part, we need only recognize this fact and do penance while imploring the Divine Assistance to sweep the ravages of secularism and liberalism out of the Church and heal the crack.
A recent interview by Raymond Cardinal Burke alluded in part as to how returning to our tradition could be done (or provide a starting point).[xxviii] The Cardinal remarked upon the importance of devotions in the spiritual life as these not only safeguard the interior life, but grow and enhance it.
Above all else, a strong devotional life requires devotion to Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In his article, Cardinal Burke decries the loss of the sense of the sacred within the Liturgy and its effect upon men. Not only this, but how to help men become attentive once again. The Cardinal states:
One way to re-engage men is to restore the dignity of the liturgy. Men will respond when they see a priest reverently acting in the name of Christ. Men will not respond when the priest is putting on a show about himself. Offering the Mass in a reverent way has always attracted men throughout the history of the Church. It does today.
He then goes on to share some of his pastoral experience:
We have gravely wounded the current generations. As a bishop, young people complained bitterly to me, “Why we were not taught these things. Why we were not more clearly taught about the Mass, Confession and traditional devotions?” These things matter for they form a spiritual life and a man’s character.
Burke goes further later in the article also to state:
Aspects of the Church’s life that emphasized the man‑like character of devotion and sacrifice have been deemphasized. Devotions that required time and effort were simply abandoned. Everything became so easy and when things are easy, men don’t think it is worth the effort.
What kind of devotion is Burke referring to? He mentions early in the article about devotion to St. Joseph. Moreover, a strong, manly devotion to the Blessed Virgin has always been a sure safeguard for young Catholic boys. It teaches a proper reverence—not just respect—for women. It also engages them on a chivalrous level, helping them in their relations with other women.
Women having a strong Marian devotion learn how to act like Mary and contribute to the enrichment of their own dignity as wife and mother. For either sex, praying Our Lady’s rosary and entering into the mysteries of Christ and His mother take people out of themselves and focus upon God. Such is a perfect remedy in the midst of our man-centered culture!
To put some color to the above, there is a story that Pope Leo XIII had to have a tumor removed when he was late into his eighties and he opted for no anesthetic.[xxix] He simply gave orders for Mass to be said in his presence during the surgery. During the procedure, Leo held his own, though after a while, the pain began to manifest, and the doctor quickly finished his work. Leo, the story claims, was up the next day standing with assistance getting work done and was concerned about an ill Cardinal.
Whether or not the above story is true, it demonstrates a truly forgotten aspect of the Christian life of heroic virtue—the ability to take pain for the love of God and the salvation of souls, above all our own. Men like Leo are what the Church and our culture need today, wholly passionate men who live for God and who will brook no resistance or accept substitutes. Such men do exist in the world, but they are few and far in-between and we need more of them.
In addition to the above, it would be unthinkable not to include mention of a classical education. Such an education teaches children to have a disciplined mind and to think logically. It also puts them into contact with the sources, the richness, of the Catholic Faith. Being united to the sources will never lead one astray and this is so important that the Church, in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 249) has mandated that priests have this education.
Earlier, the topic of profane novelties was discussed. Whenever these arise, it is usually because of a disinterest or dissatisfaction with the revealed truths of religion; sometimes it is a general slump—a kind of ennui—in one’s spiritual life or devotions. The problem here is not with these truths or one’s devotions, but rather the heart of the person affected by sin and who is working out his or her salvation with fear and trembling.
The proper name for this particular issue is sloth or acedia. The remedy is not easy because it requires some ascetical work, but this is part of the battle that is the Christian life—that dying to self about which we often hear but with little substance.[xxx] Thankfully, the Divine Physician, Jesus Christ, has seen to it that His Church’s spiritual tradition is not wanting on this specific ailment but it is up to us to delve into the medicine cabinet.
If the above thoughts seem trite, the reader is encouraged to remember that God often speaks in a small voice. Moreover, we are finite creatures and can only do so much. The rest is up to God. Moreover, it has taken many centuries for our Latin liturgical heritage to spread, grow and blossom over the world and in the hearts of Catholics. Being faithful to the interior life of virtue and what has always made us great is never illogical.
Pope Benedict XVI gave a powerful, simple yet quickly forgotten remedy to the ills plaguing mankind today. He says simply that we need to repent and turn to God. He said:
And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence it seemed to us too difficult. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed.[xxxi]
Following the lead of the (now) Pope Emeritus, let us admit that we have sinned by giving our love and attention to other things rather than to God and resolve to return to and be faithful to Divine Revelation.
[i] See the remarks by Cardinal Ratzinger in his homily before the 2005 Conclave: “The Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.”
[ii] Cf. <http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html>. Within this disillusionment and confusion is a small, practically unnoticed question in the silence of one’s heart. While small, it has a profound effect upon one’s life and actions, asking “where do I go for direction?” This question is a silent cry of the human heart that is, sadly, often wrongly answered.
[v] Claims of orthodoxy and charisma do not equate sanctity nor do they mean qualified.
[vi] For information on “drumming,” see: <http://www.globalmeditations.com/drumming.htm>. See also Women, Men, and Gender (edited by Mary Roth Walsh), and The Gender Line: Men, Women, and the Law by Nancy Levit. These two books are herein cited only for their historical value as they affirm many statements made in the present article.
[viii] I am reminded at the point of the Scripture, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
[ix] Various figureheads within the renewal claim (or claimed) to have the gift of healing. Secular society largely knows these people as “faith-healers.”
[x] <http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19280106_mortalium-animos.html>. See also, Hubert Wolf, Pope and Devil: The Vatican’s Archives and the Third Reich. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press: 2010), 232-245. Cardinal Merry del Val’s remark on page 241 seems prophetic, if not humorous.
[xi] This is, arguably, largely due to its ecumenical focus and claim to the extraordinary gifts and the sensationalism, the tangible (especially through its focus upon exorcisms/deliverance) often associated with the latter.
[xii] I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the union of the Charismatic Renewal with Marian devotion in these United States. This union has had a very unique effect upon souls that is as of yet not very well examined.
[xiii] The place of exorcisms and “deliverance ministries” in this regard is not insignificant.
[xiv] This is taken from St. Irenaeus’ Adversus Haeresis Book 4, Chapter 20, Verse 7. The full quote, in Latin, is, Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei” (The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God). The quote is made to be man-centered when Irenaeus, in fact, never intended this purpose.
[xv] See also Virginia Fisher’s interview with John Eldredge on Catholic Exchange wherein she compares Eldredge’s works to Pope St. John Paul II’s writings Human Love in the Divine Plan: A Theology of the Body.
[xvi] In fact, in one place, Eldredge even appears to encourage missing one’s Sunday precept!
[xvii] The remark on Original Sin and concupiscence stands out in Eldredge’s discussion about the “desires of the heart.” He is not clear as to whether or not every desire of the heart is good. A story about his son Sam (who is good at computer games) that Eldredge relates in his book Waking the Dead (p. 118) illustrates this point. Considering that the elder Eldredge in Wild at Heart adopts a “wilderness” ideal for men, this is truly a contradictory story.
[xviii] While it is difficult to define in all its manifestations, Naturalism here refers to the practical effects of a philosophical system that, among other things, denies the supernatural order and Divine Revelation. Its focus is upon this life, the here and now, and does not concern itself with supernatural faith and thinking about this faith thereof.
[xxii] These writings are known simply as Theology of the Body or “TOB” for short among its enthusiasts.
[xxiii] In an article entitled Body Language, West admits to practice “drumming” (though not necessarily in a “New Age” sense). The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City has preserved the article in its publication Sooner Catholic (Vol. 34, Number 22, November 18, 2007, page 15). It is available online.
[xxvi] One person by the name of Jason Cabral (if memory serves) went so far as to call Dr. von Hildebrand a “crusty old wind-bag” in a remark published in the National Catholic Register sometime between May and August, 2009.
[xxvii] Chapter 8 of my upcoming book Pope Leo XIII and the Prayer to St. Michael provides some discussion of this.
[xxx] I am going to suggest that with respect to the present point of ascesis and virtue, there is a hint among our culture of the Protestant rejection of the necessity of works in working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
[xxxi] <http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20100415_pcb.html>. Incidentally, Pope Benedict XVI prefaced these remarks with a clarification about the Gospels and Jesus’ forgiving of sins. There is a strand of thought among some commentators upon Pope John Paul II’s Human Love in the Divine Plan that Jesus never solicited contrition from the woman caught in adultery. Pope Benedict teaches that this is an error. He states:
There is an exegetical trend that states that in Galilee Jesus would have proclaimed a grace without conditions, absolutely unconditional, therefore also without penitence, grace as such, without human preconditions.
But this is a false interpretation of grace. Repentance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin; it is a grace that we realize the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being. Repentance the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace.