Therapy Religion
Catholic church leaders plunge into the culture of emotionalism
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


The state we're in
Anyone old enough to remember the cultural landscape of this country before the free market revolution of the ‘eighties will be only too aware that the last twenty years in Britain have witnessed a rapid cultural decline. The broad framework of beliefs and values that came into being during the period of post-war reconstruction has finally collapsed, leaving, in its place, a barren terrain of intellectual and moral confusion.
Traditional concepts of moral character, based on the practice of acknowledged virtues, have given way to a new emotionalism as “feelings” have become the main element in individuals’ self-understanding.
Older principles like self-control, emotional restraint, recognition of the needs of others and co-operative efforts for the good of all have been replaced by a cult of “selfism”, in which personal desires, cravings, vulnerabilities, addictions etc. are indulged, exhibited and indeed celebrated.
The most egregious instances occur in voyeuristic television chat-shows, where a seemingly endless procession of tragic cases rehearse their “journey to hell and back” or their “struggle to be me”. Such ordeals might comprise the death of a pet animal, difficulties with “out-of-control teens” or life-threatening courses of plastic surgery.
Here we should note that in earlier times a sense of alienation would probably have been channelled into some form of political activism: private dissatisfaction would have fuelled efforts to improve society as a whole. Now, in the era of triumphant capitalism and squawking soap-opera politics, a “boob-job” or a drastic plan of weight reduction seems to represent the summit of many people’s aspirations towards the good life.
But the new irrationality has spread its slimy tentacles well beyond the confines of the television studios. Aids to “coping” are now provided by hundreds of therapeutic agencies which simply didn’t exist twenty years ago. These “empower” people to manage the “trauma” of failing an exam, for example, or witnessing a motor accident.
Until recently unpleasant, but mundane and predictable, experiences were faced resiliently and unselfconsciously. Histrionic posturing incurred general censure.
But now many individuals seem to go around looking for opportunities for high emotional theatre, like the young man who announced to me at the presbytery door that “he’d had someone die on him”, as if the death of a remote acquaintance (as it turned out) was significant mainly as a scene from the epic drama of his own life.
The bishops jump aboard the therapy bandwagon
Christian doctrine has its own light to shed on the phenomena of declining cultures.
Fallen human beings are apt to mistake the sources of genuine happiness. In pursuing self-centred ends they alienate themselves from their true good; they harm others and themselves. The Christian message is therefore firstly an appeal to repentance: an invitation to turn from false, destructive values and to embrace “the beauty of holiness” instead – our essential vocation.
This can only be found in communion with God, not in self-indulgence and the pursuit of personal pleasure. As Jesus taught, holiness involves forgiveness and love of enemies, values irreconcilable with our culture’s relish for cruelty, humiliation and revenge. He also warned that faithfulness to God’s rule would involve sacrifice, misunderstanding, losses, the carrying of the cross.
Real, active discipleship and imitation of Christ is rather different, therefore, from the ideas many modern people have of religion as little more than a type of aromatherapy: something passive and effortless which enhances their overall sense of contentment.
Unfortunately modern church-goers often appear more attracted by the fashions of secular society than by the central elements of Christian belief. This is the main problem with the bishops’ Everybody’s Welcome campaign. To judge by their website the campaign organisers are completely immersed in the culture, and jargon, of emotionalism.
Preaching during Mass at the Making Everybody Welcome conference earlier this year, Bishop John Hine of Southwark informed the participants that “People today make judgements based very much on how they feel. A sense of welcome is therefore high on people’s register – that is why what we have been doing this weekend is so very important.”
So the Church has to incorporate, rather than challenge, the self-indulgent emotionality that modern people exhibit and mould its working methods by the criterion of their “feelings”.
“Your work here,” he went on, in a flight of fancy designed, no doubt, to ingratiate himself with the assembled apparatchiks and boost their sense of self-importance, “is the beginning of something enormous, which could bring about tremendous changes in our church. It is core to the gospel message and while its success lies in God’s hands, we all have to do everything we possibly can to make it work. I will play my part, but recognise your own power to make this real.”
This kind of speech is a modern art form: spinning out words for several sentences while saying precisely nothing.
Fr. Daniel O’Leary had already fluffed up the participants’ plumage at the start of the conference:
“I do think that what you are going to be asked to do this weekend really is touching the very heart of the gospel. There is a danger that somehow we may just see it as a practical exercise that will help things. It is, of course, that, but it is infinitely more important. We are touching on topics that are quite explosive and that really strike at the heart of a lot of our differences and similarities. It's Matthew 25 in practice. It is a cutting edge moment. Without being too dramatic about it, I feel this is a cutting edge moment of the life of the Church in England and Wales.”
Or rather, Daniel, “without being too dramatic about it”, are we perhaps having a Diana moment?
Small wonder that when the results of the groups’ work was presented at a plenary session on Sunday morning there were the inevitable “moments of deep emotion”. Nor should we be surprised to learn that the leaflets compiled over the weekend were “in effect the personal history of all those attending the conference.” The real surprise would have been if the participants had attained a degree of sobriety and objectivity and managed to get beyond contemplating their own navels for once.
The measures which the Everybody’s Welcome activists want to see parishes adopt also conform to the culture of emotionalism: “Name Badge Sundays” enabling parishioners to “affirm” and support each other; brightly coloured cushions for children to sit on and toys to play with to “help keep them occupied and contented” (anything except praying and getting to know God, perhaps?); breathless efforts by the priest to “involve everyone in the Mass”, show genuine personal interest in everyone, make everyone feel valued and esteemed.
Are church-goers today really so fragile, so desperate for reassurance, so willing to be treated like children?
But then there’s the other side of the emotionalist coin, the elaboration of “pain” and woundedness – or moaning, as it used to be called.
We’re told, for example, that there are “a lot of bewildered and hurt people trying to bring their children up in the Catholic Faith despite feeling alienated from it themselves.” We are also informed that, “When it works, Church is massively successful and important to people. When it does not, it is massively wounding.”
No one pauses to ask if all this hurt and bewilderment is justified by objective circumstances. It may be due to neuroticism, self-absorption or a refusal to accept the rigours of Christian life. The statements are simply taken at face value: such strong passions are apparently self-authenticating.
We learn that people’s hopes from the Church today “are for acceptance, being there, belonging” - which means that “people, relationships, friendships come first, then services, then teaching.”
No role for God, then – or is that being “insensitive”?
More to the point, human associations do not in fact “come first” in the Church, followed by the dimension of faith. Relationships within the Christian community are precisely those between fellow-believers, fellow-disciples, or else they’re meaningless. What happened to the idea that Christ is the vine, we the branches, and cut off from him we can do nothing?
The whole Everybody’s Welcome project appears as an exercise in evacuating Catholic life of its supernatural content and replacing it with a sort of horizontalised therapy religion instead. It reduces the faith to the level of a counselling session or an outing to the pub - albeit a child-friendly pub with play-pens and clowns! As Mgr Tony McDade of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy said recently: “One of our problems is that we have lost the sense of the Church as the light of the world and have allowed the world to become the light of the Church”.
There was a time when Catholicism was universally perceived as embodying a certain spiritual and intellectual seriousness, derived from centuries of accumulated experience of God and man. It is a matter of regret therefore that the Church leadership in our country has ceased to remain aloof from the cultural disorientation and shallow emotionalism of the day.
But God preserved his people before “in spite of dungeon, fire and sword” and he will surely defend us now from the equivalent ghastliness of this new therapy religion.
(The Everybody's Welcome website is at www.everybodyswelcome.org.uk)