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Soft-bellied Catholicism

via Catholic Stand

by Michael Lane

michael laneHow often have you been told Jesus loves you? Or, God loves you where you are? These are true statements and wonderful encouragement when you’ve fallen for the umptenth time. Numerous times in confession I’ve heard this affirmation of God’s love for me in spite of my sinfulness. Self-doubt dwindles when you hear God’s loving call to holiness. A safe port in the storm.

Each time I hear this sentiment, though, it isn’t completed. God does love you where you are and He will meet you there, but only to draw you away from sin and closer to Him. He will always love you, but He will never love your sin. I cannot read souls (surprise), but something I’ve noticed, and heard priests mention, is how everyone receives communion consistently but few seem to go to confession consistently. Granted, a priest may be blessed with a holy parish free from mortal sins, but there is something off-balance about the requirement to receive the Eucharist in a state of Grace and the number of seekers of Reconciliation.

Soft-Bellied

When I say “soft-bellied” I mean an overly easy practice or presentation of the faith. I do not mean simple but a false path to God full of “shortcuts” and no trials, no crosses. We’ve lost the tougher, I’d even say masculine, aspects of Christian suffering. Usually, we offer consolation and prayers to those in suffering. We tell them Christ is with them (He is), but that it is simply a time to be weathered and not a time to grow closer to Christ or develop humility and virtue.

I would argue three aspects of soft-bellied Catholicism exist today. First, and the most prevalent, is an over-emphasis on and primacy of individual feelings, as if how you feel should dictate how you or whom you should worship. Second, there is a withdrawing from the “tougher” aspects of Christianity in favor of no difficulties or unnecessary compromise with the world. An example might be the relatively unknown canonical practice of Friday penance or meat abstinence year-round rather than simply in the Lenten season. Lastly, there is the prevalence of the fear of vice rather than proactive cultivation of virtue in the context of the Christian Life.

The Feelings Directive

Friends who have fallen away have often told me they left the Church because they weren’t getting anything out of Mass, didn’t feel Church was for them, or something else of the sort. Happiness, fun, no doubts, perfect understanding, etc. Without these, they believed they didn’t need the Church, sometimes not even God. Good-feelings, for them, denote the proper place. If you’re happy where you are then that is where you’re supposed to remain. When the good times end it’s time to move on.

In his Prayer for Beginners Peter Kreeft wrote:

If we rely on anything else besides faith to maintain the practice of the presence of God, we will certainly fail, whether this is our feelings, or experiences, or sincerity, or good intentions, or reasonings, or plans. The reason these things will fail while faith will not fail is that these things depend on us, while faith depends on God. It is a gift of God . . . it is not our own self-created thing.

And St. Francis de Sales wrote:

Nothing troubles us so much as self-love and self-regard. Should our hearts not grow soft with the sentiment we desire when we pray and with the interior sweetness we expect when we meditate, we are sorrowful; should we find some difficulty in doing good deeds, should some obstacle oppose our plans, we are in a dither to overcome it, and we labor anxiously. Why is this? Doubtless because we love our consolations, ease, and comfort. We want to pray as though we were bathing in comfort and to be virtuous as though we were eating dessert, all the while failing to look upon our sweet Jesus, who, prostrate on the ground, sweat blood and water from the distress from the extreme interior combat he underwent (Mark 14:35; Luke 22:44).

We face similar situations whenever we deal with hot button issues. There is an emotional appeal rather than one of logic. Within soft-bellied Catholicism, feelings may guide not only the prayer life but also the wider practice of the faith: liturgical participation, social teachings, and our sense of sin.

So, when an individual’s faith is based solely on an emotional experience the relationship with God lacks a firm foundation. A ship without a firm hand on the wheel is susceptible to being tossed about by the wind and the waves. If joy presides then all is well but once events turn sour we struggle beyond the distress of the external/internal disturbance. Does this mean we should not take joy in our faith or accept those spiritually high moments? No, of course not.

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