Why Joseph Campbell Left the Catholic Church

Why Joseph Campbell Left the Catholic Church March 7, 2018
Joseph Campbell photo: Creative Commons

Joseph Campbell is the author of the seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. His work on myth and the universal appeal of myth has been instrumental not only in the understanding of the importance and function of myth, but it has also influenced a whole generation of filmic storytellers, writers and directors. Christopher Vogler springboarded from Campbell with his book The Writer’s Journey applying Campbell’s work to the art of story structure.

Campbell was brought up as a Catholic, but after the second Vatican Council he left the Catholic Church in disgust. He had come to appreciate the power of myth with its ability to reach into the subconscious and connect with the deepest parts of the human personality. He also realized that the Catholic Church was the one religious body in the West that still maintained a ritual sacrificial system, a hierophantic priesthood and the ceremonies and rites of mystery. He understood how these rites were connected with and made applicable the truths and the symbols of myth.

Then he said the Catholic Church went and threw it all out the window Furthermore, they threw it out the window at exactly the time that it was needed most. He saw that America had been Protestantized and with Protestantism the religion of mystery, myth and ceremony that drew on the deepest recesses of the human imagination was emasculated. The ceremony was replaced with dull, literal Biblicism and the sacraments were replaced with a utilitarian, bland therapeutic Deism. The mysterious temples to the Divine Son of God were replaced with bare preaching halls devoid of symbol, devoid of art, devoid of beauty, devoid of the ancient faith.

Feeling abandoned by his own religion he abandoned the religion.

This story unlocks one of the most maddening and frustrating things about the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. At just the time when our culture needed the depth of Catholic worship, ritual, beauty, art and liturgy the Catholic Church went in the other direction. In an attempt to be up to date they were actually half a century too late. This is constantly the way with the American Catholics. Here are a few other crazy examples in the world today.

Let’s take the issue of women’s ordination. This is an issue of the 1970s folks. That’s when the topic was hot. That’s when the really up to date churches like the Lutherans and Episcopalians jumped in feet first. Now the only Catholic women who want to be ordained are sweet old well intentioned grandmas who really should have been Episcopalian wimminpriests long ago. So Catholics like Phyllis Zagorno are still pushing this tired agenda and hoping to make progress. They should realize that the train has left the station. Most Catholics don’t give two hoots about that issue anymore. Certainly the majority of Catholics in the developing world don’t think its important.

Or take another issue: the LGBTQ thing. Don’t Catholics like that cuddly old Jesuit James Martin realize that this issue is passe? The Episcopalians and Lutherans dealt with it long ago. They have gay priests. Heavens, they have Bishop Gene who is a gay clergy icon if ever there was one. The liberal Protestants have already pioneered that one. Once again it is a case of the Catholic Church trying to be the church of what’s happening now when in fact it is being the church of what was happening twenty or thirty years ago.

The list of these relevant issues could go on and on. This is why the activists in Washington were dozens of old nuns and old hippie campaigners. This is why so many parishes think they are being up to date by singing tired old folk music from the sixties and seventies. This is why aging architects still think it is trendy and cool to build big pancake circus tent suburban churches out of concrete. This is why trendy Catholic bishops still go around trying to be cool and relevant and why old priests still celebrate the liturgy like they are a game show host or a stand up comedian.

Joseph Campbell voted with his feet, and I wonder how many Catholic clergy and bishops–looking at the statistics of the huge numbers of Catholics who have done the same thing have asked themselves why. Why have so many Catholics walked out to join the Evangelicals? Why have so many Catholics walked out not to another church but to the mall, the golf course or their lake house? Maybe it is not because the church was not relevant enough, but maybe it was because it was trying too hard to be relevant and up to date. Maybe they left for the same reason Joseph Campbell left.

“Oh! hang on! “, the objector will say, “If they wanted beautiful, in depth liturgy and traditional worship, why did they then scoot off to the local mega church?”

The answer is, “They went there because they were not given the true version of Catholicism which would have touched their hearts and transformed their lives. So they went searching for something–anything that might open their lives and make their religion real for them. In other words, anything was better than the dumbed down, shallow, good works is all you need suburban Catholicism they were getting–even the mega church was better than that.”

Anyhow, enough of a rant.

You’ll be interested to know that I was leading a retreat once in New England and doing some stuff on story structure and preaching when a deacon said, “Father, I just want you to know that I studied under Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago and all those folks were very networked with Joseph Campbell, and the story was that on his deathbed Campbell asked for a Catholic priest.”

I hope the story is true. Its always heartening to welcome home the prodigal son–especially if he ran away for some very understandable reasons.


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