Church Militant or Church Mollified

In conversation with a young seminarian last week we were discussing the problems within the Catholic Church. My own opinion is that the problems have little to do with all the external things we focus on: choice of hymns, type of liturgy, church architecture, preaching styles, etc. etc. etc.

All these things are important, but more often than not they are symptoms, not causes. The real underlying problem in the Catholic Church (and Western Christianity) is that it has lost the reason for it’s whole existence. It can be summed up like this: too much of the Christian Church in the West has followed the secular American creed that life is about the pursuit of happiness. We want happiness in this life. We think happiness in this life is possible. We expect happiness in this life. We want to make everyone happy in this life. If this is the basic underlying belief, then it follows that we spend our lives trying to be happy and make everyone else happy.

Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade. I like being happy as much as the next person, and despite my curmudgeonly moments, I think I am a pretty happy and contented person. However, to put human happiness in this world as our main raison d’etre is a flawed and fatal basic assumption.

When it translates to religion we have a religion that has, as its main purpose, solving people’s problems and making people happy. So religion becomes a kind of therapy. Religion becomes a form of social work. Religion becomes a political or social campaign. Liturgy becomes a time for hugs and feel good sentiment. Church buildings become meeting halls where the hugs and feel good sentiment can be dispensed. Prayer becomes a therapeutic tool and worship becomes a time to prod and poke ourselves to see if we are happy enough, and if not, to apply yet another soothing song or listen to another humorous, warm hearted sermon.

What happens if we change the basic assumption? First of all, what if we were to accept as the most foundational premise that the supernatural exists, and that the faith is the way we engage with the supernatural world in battle? What if we were to assume that the main reason for this life is not necessarily to be happy in this world, but to prepare for the next? What if we perceive this world, not as a playground, but a battleground? What if we perceived this life as a battle between good and evil in which every decision of every day mattered? What if we were to perceive ourselves not as puppies to be pampered, but troops to be disciplined and trained for warfare? What if we were to regard this world as a place of conflict and ourselves as front line troops? What if we regarded the confessional as the field hospital where we get healed after being wounded in battle, and the liturgy as the light of a letter or a food parcel from home?

Everything would change. Seminaries would become boot camps. Sermons would focus on the strategies for battle, the seriousness of the enemy and the need for constant vigilance. Confessionals would be full with the wounded needing healing. Liturgy would be a poignant and beautiful glimpse of our heavenly home–enough to refresh us and remind us why we are fighting.

When we talk of the Church Militant this is what it means–not necessarily that we’re arming ourselves for battle against the heretics or the infidels–but that we are putting on the whole armor of God, to fight against the powers of darkness in this world.

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  • Thank you, Father. I really needed this one today. You wrote all that I had been aching to hear at the end of a long few weeks.So, if you hear it from no one else, thank you.

  • I would have to disagree only as a matter of semantics. What is happiness to people today? People so often mistake happiness with the feeling of comfort or pleasure.In my view real happiness can only come from living in friendship with God. Sin is like a cancer of the soul, and can only bring unhappiness. The State of Grace is the most absolute happiness.I postulate that most mental illness is the result of sin and that only Grace can really cure it.

  • Indeed. By ‘happiness’ I meant materialistic, secular pleasure or contentment. In spiritual terms this is ephemeral.The ‘happiness’ you speak of I would term ‘blessedness’, thus the beatitudes.

  • Thanks Father Dwight. I read/heard somewhere a line saying “the Saints are happy in heaven” that got me thinking about this a while back.I’ve also noticed that the state of grace renders ephemeral pleasures simpler and purer. For example, the unfocused joy of doing something for its own sake, or appreciating something as beautiful without thinking of its worldly value or rarity. If you don’t get what I mean, just find a small, unspoilt child and give them a large ball of string. ^_^

  • This is really good – well done!(You’re not canvassing for Westminster, I assume?) 🙂

  • Go for it Fr Dwight! Our faith enables us to endure all things not escape them. i’m writing a little article for our Parish Magazine..might be mentioning the Path to Rome..alright if i borrow you for a few sentences if i may?

  • Use what you like jackie

  • W.

    Nicely said, Father. I understand your point in the comments about happiness and blessedness. [Here it comes:] However, I think the problem is with pleasure and not so much with happiness. People may seek happiness but they try to find it through pleasure and often through things that are merely pleasure … with no realistic connection to happiness. Happiness is more of a state, not some mere feeling. People confuse the two. We should seek happiness (in its classical and Christian sense) in this life but recognize that this life only brings a kind of qualified happiness, a partial happiness that is real yet points toward the full or complete happiness, the supernatural goal of our natural desires. A kind of qualified happiness that incorporates all your latter points. I do agree with the meaning behind the opening points; I just give them different names than you. I see the problem with our desire for pleasure and instant gratification and not enough searching for true happiness. I also think there is a problem with our lack of willingness for (let alone understanding of) sacrifice. I see this especially with teenagers. They have little patience or self-denial. They have not been trained or habituated into it. Think of how many disciplines in the Church have been done away with or made optional (thus practically done away with), let alone in the broader culture of today. There is little training–ascetics (in its more classical, athletic, and disciplinary sense)–of youth today. Little, if any, fasting or abstinence from meat (and other goods) on a regular basis. These somewhat little things train us to be able to say no to things or just “not yet.” They train us even to recognize something as good but also as something I will sacrifice for now in light of something more meaningful. There is much more to be said about this but I will leave it at this conclusion of mine: Catholics may not have ended up in such sexual problems as today (from the youth to the adults) had we not let go of the many “little” disciplines that can help habituate us into becoming, what one mere-Christian kind of called men with chests.

  • praiseddivinemercy…are you having a laugh? My bi-polar illness is caused by sin? My post-natal depression was caused by sin? Yeah right..thanks for that!

  • Anonymous

    Dear father, this is truly a great post. This can change the world.

  • Fr Bob

    BRAVO FatherI was praying today about how to address some issues with a particular group this week – hope you don’t mind if I read this to them!

  • Dear Father Thanks for this its good to Know there are a few more out there who take this view as its tough feeling like a minority of one or two. All that warm fuzziness out there seems to addle folks reasoning. Rob

  • Fr. Longenecker, I love the spiritual and supernatural warfare talk. We definitely need more of it in this materialistic world. Too many people have been lulled into thinking that what you see is all there is. It’s been said that “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I think it was convincing us that it wasn’t him whispering in our ear but instead was our subconscious because there is nothing beyond ourselves. Too often we forget that we really are engaged in warfare with unseen adversaries; that there really is a devil on our shoulder.I believe that the principle reason for the mass apostasy of America and the West is our affluence. Simply put we are too rich and consequently lazy. I was making just this argument to my parents last Saturday. After saying that it’s all the 60’s and consequently their generation’s fault I said that it was because America became too wealthy. With the mass increase in living standards following WWII the next generation became spoiled. A simple illustration should suffice. When I was young I asked my dad why he was not a hippie when he was in college. His simple response was, “I was too busy working.”We know what our purpose here and the meaning of life is. God in His infinite wisdom and love created us to (paraphrasing Jesus): Love and serve God and our neighbor. We are here to be suffering servants; happiness is for the life to come.James G

  • Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ: I have to say that I agree with PraiseDivineMercy, albeit in a very qualified manner. At the root of all human suffering is sin. Now no one (except maybe Tom Cruise) is arguing that mental illness is not caused by factors beyond control, especially those disorders with organic or chemical imbalance root causes. However, and this is a topic that is not covered much, sin can definitely aggravate a condition and hinder its treatment.Take those disorders that result from psychological trauma, especially during childhood. Many of those are caused by the sins of others. Other disorders can result from the choices one makes; i.e. the use of dangerous drugs that can cause paranoia and psychotic breaks. Now in my opinion the way in which sin most affects mental illness is in how it influences the treatment and identification of it.A big effect of sin is the stigma (caused by a lack of charity) that many place on mental illness. This stigma prevents many people suffering from mental illness from seeking treatment for fear of identification. There is also a lot of reluctance on the part of family members to getting their loved ones help from fear of association since a lot of conditions are inheritable (it might get traced back to them). There are also the cases where sinful behavior can mask and/or aggravate symptoms (e.g. a sinful life that alienates love worsening or causing depression).Now if we all acknowledge that we are sick (i.e. sinners) and in need of cure then we are not going to stigmatize people because they have an illness. If we are accustomed to receiving treatment for our spiritual ills (i.e. confession) then we are more likely to seek treatment for our or a loved one’s mental ills. In short, if there was less sin in the world then there would be less people suffering the ill effects of mental illness because those so afflicted would be receiving more treatment and more love from the rest of us. Hope that clarifies.

  • ~Margo (

    “What if we were to perceive ourselves not as puppies to be pampered, but troops to be disciplined and trained for warfare?”Know what else we’d have? Parishes that are centers of lay formation, or some type of formation for the laity that teaches them about their goal, role, and gear as soldiers.That’s my goal: help the army understand their orders, where their strength comes from, and how to respond.

  • Yes James but i’m not a greater sinner than you just because i’m bi-polar. Rather i would dare to say many suffering atrociously like the saints with depression & mental illnesses may be far more pure than those without these diseases. It always amuses me how others can comment on their view of the mentally ill..i’d rather wait for the day they have their own breakdown & then have a little chat. Make no mistake about it..1 in 4 of you will experience mental distress in your lifetime..might be best to start preparing now!’Grace can only cure it’..don’t be ridiculous! God invented lithium!

  • Jackie-You assume that I have never suffered from mental illness myself. I was speaking from my own experience. My mother was sinning when she did drugs while pregnant with me. My parents were sinning when they committed violence against each other in front of me. I was sinning when as I slipped into depression and isolated myself and I was sinning when I contemplated ending my life, because I had lost faith in humanity and God. I was sinning when I thought only of my own pain and did not see the sincere efforts of my grandparents.I was incorrect to use the word “cure” since what I really meant was adjustment. The grace found in a regimen of mass, confession and prayer really does stabilize my mood. God has also offered me the Grace to forgive those who sinned against me. Only by forgiving the people who hurt me was I able to begin to move on.

  • Oh i see a bit better now…yes i too have found the sacraments enormously healing..but you take my point people with these illnesses haven’t necessarily done anything wrong…

  • You the Man. I needed to hear that today. I need to hear it everyday.

  • Anonymous

    I would say that mental illness counts as collateral damage, just like any other illness. It’s all part of the drawbacks of life in a fallen world. But considering all the saints with all sorts of illness to help them suffer with Christ, it would almost seem more likely that people get illnesses because they’re not sinning. :)Seriously, though, this is one of those areas where it seems silly to seek reasons too much. Whyever God let you get sick, you are. How you deal with it is more important than the spiritual whys and wherefores.

  • Anonymous

    PS. I forgot to say that I’ve been reading and translating Prudentius’ early Christian poem “Psychomachia” (The Soul War). It’s pretty good stuff! You can see why it was so popular all down through the ages. (You can also see why the squeamish Victorians took it away from us. Philistines.) The medievals enjoyed putting on Virtue vs Vice tournaments inspired by Psychomachia. When I was in the SCA, we held one ourselves. It was hysterically funny and edifying too. I only wish I’d read Psychomachia back then.

  • It sounds interesting. After a bit of looking, I found an uncopyrighted translation here:

  • That got cut off, here’s the rest:

  • Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ: No offense was intended and I did not imply that you or anyone else with a mental illness is a greater sinner than anyone else. I did not say that all or even most mental illness is caused by personal sin. I understand that this is a touchy subject for you; it is for me as well. God has blessed me with health so far so I have not personally been afflicted with mental illness, but I think watching the person I love most in the world lose her mind qualifies me to comment on the subject. It was not her personal sins that caused the wife of my youth’s mental illness. However the personal sins of others, including myself, did contribute greatly to her not getting treatment. That was the subject my comment chiefly addressed. I agree that the Good Lord invented lithium; if only more people were receiving its benefits.

  • From the Spiritual Exercises of St. IgnatiusThe Meditation on the Two StandardsThe one of Christ, our Commander-in-chief and Lord; the other of Lucifer, mortal enemy of our human nature. Prayer. The usual Preparatory Prayer. First Prelude. The First Prelude is the narrative. It will be here how Christ calls and wants all under His standard; and Lucifer, on the contrary, under his. Second Prelude. The second, a composition, seeing the place. It will be here to see a great field of all that region of Jerusalem, where the supreme Commander-in-chief of the good is Christ our Lord; another field in the region of Babylon, where the chief of the enemy is Lucifer. Third Prelude. The third, to ask for what I want: and it will be here to ask for knowledge of the deceits of the bad chief and help to guard myself against them, and for knowledge of the true life which the supreme and true Captain shows and grace to imitate Him. First Point. The first Point is to imagine as if the chief of all the enemy seated himself in that great field of Babylon, as in a great chair of fire and smoke, in shape horrible and terrifying. Second Point. The second, to consider how he issues a summons to innumerable demons and how he scatters them, some to one city and others to another, and so through all the world, not omitting any provinces, places, states, nor any persons in particular. Third Point. The third, to consider the discourse which he makes them, and how he tells them to cast out nets and chains; that they have first to tempt with a longing for riches — as he is accustomed to do in most cases — that men may more easily come to vain honor of the world, and then to vast pride. So that the first step shall be that of riches; the second, that of honor; the third, that of pride; and from these three steps he draws on to all the other vices. So, on the contrary, one has to imagine as to the supreme and true Captain, Who is Christ our Lord. First Point. The first Point is to consider how Christ our Lord puts Himself in a great field of that region of Jerusalem, in lowly place, beautiful and attractive. Second Point. The second, to consider how the Lord of all the world chooses so many persons — Apostles, Disciples, etc., — and sends them through all the world spreading His sacred doctrine through all states and conditions of persons. Third Point. The third, to consider the discourse which Christ our Lord makes to all His servants and friends whom He sends on this expedition, recommending them to want to help all, by bringing them first to the highest spiritual poverty, and — if His Divine Majesty would be served and would want to choose them — no less to actual poverty; the second is to be of contumely and contempt; because from these two things humility follows. So that there are to be three steps; the first, poverty against riches; the second, contumely or contempt against worldly honor; the third, humility against pride. And from these three steps let them induce to all the other virtues. First Colloquy. One Colloquy to Our Lady, that she may get me grace from Her Son and Lord that I may be received under His standard; and first in the highest spiritual poverty, and — if His Divine Majesty would be served and would want to choose and receive me — not less in actual poverty; second, in suffering contumely and injuries, to imitate Him more in them, if only I can suffer them without the sin of any person, or displeasure of His Divine Majesty; and with that a Hail Mary. Second Colloquy. I will ask the same of the Son, that He may get it for me of the Father; and with that say the Soul of Christ. Third Colloquy. I will ask the same of the Father, that He may grant it to me; and say an Our Father. JMJJoe

  • TwoCentsWorth

    Father, thank you! You blew me away with your excellent post which describes the quintessential Church Militant on Earth. If today, in the USA, only 12 bishops, leading 12 priests, truly believed, lived and proclaimed your “what ifs”, a new apostolic age would resurrect a wounded Christianity and convert the world to Jesus Christ. How long, O God, must we wait for your intervention?

  • James

    Largely agree but I disagree with your view that:(a) Liturgy is a side-show; and(b) Happiness is not our aim.Wrong on both counts.The aim of philosophy AND theology is happiness – here and in the next world.Taking the soft option is not a recipe for happiness, however, but unhappiness.THAT is the point.That is why this world is a battleground as much as anything else.Liturgy is more than a letter or present from home.How we pray forms how we believe and act which is why prayer is one of the MOST IMPORTANT things we can do, the more so when it is public and official.This is why lousy litrugy is so bad for our faith and spiritual life.It is spiritually debilitating and certainly does lead to loss of faith and loss of courage to fight the good fight.Liturgy, moreover, should be a foretaste of Heaven since, in Heaven, we shall spend our time singing the praises of God.Do not underestimate the importance of liturgy. It is not the icing on the cake it is a vital part of the cake!The current lousy ICEL mistranslation of the liturgy is about as inspiring as mouldy bread.That’s why we desperately need a better translation and more celebrations in Latin, including the traditional rite.We ignore this at our great peril.