McGill prof argues Church moralism is counterproductive

Book Cover

May 16, 2011
Review by BRIAN WELTER
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays by Charles Taylor. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass., 2011). 424 pp.

In Dilemmas and Connections, a collection of his essays, McGill philosophy professor Charles Taylor articulates well the religious problems faced by people in secularized Western countries, including Catholics struggling against a tide of anti-Christian culture.

Locating the roots for many Church-state problems within Christianity itself, Taylor shows how both Christians and secularists are starved of essential meaning in life.

The West has lost a sense of the transcendent; it has disenchanted the world. We are left with a moral code that has little-to-no sense of the vertical. Secular humanists offer nothing higher than humanity on which to base their ideals, which encourages much violence when those fellow human beings fail to live up to expectations.

Taylor develops the important argument that even Catholics and other Christians have limited their sense of the transcendent. Moralism has affected the churches profoundly.

Though supportive of Catholicism, Taylor repeatedly criticizes its own adherence to moralism at the cost of a deeper spiritual, enchanted view of life. The Church puts moralistic and legalistic obstacles in the path of people seeking a transcendent dimension to life.

ROWDY CELEBRATIONS

For instance, in the 19th century priests strongly opposed French village Catholicism, which Taylor describes as being similar to the carnival spirit of present-day Brazil, full of saint's days and some rowdy celebrations.

In trying to get rid of this carnivalesque spirit, the local priests ended up meddling in people's lives too much and creating resentment. Instead of ridding the villages of dancing and entertainment, these priests unwittingly rid the villages of Catholicism.

Likewise today, Taylor argues, the Church's refusal to allow for a full sacramental life to people in "irregular" marriages, which places a block between the individual and a sacramentally oriented transcendent life, could have the same effect of driving people away from the Church.

In many essays, Taylor shows how this excessive moralism in both the Protestant and Catholic churches from the 17th century onward led to a "polite" Christian society where being polite was more important than being Christian.

This has strongly affected men and the churches' ability to create a pro-masculine atmosphere. Masculinity became a vice, with the "rowdy lifestyles" of young men particularly condemned. When the Catholic clergy called these men to the confessional, men found shame rather than transcendence.

Again, rather than change their ways, men changed their religious habits.

As Christianity increasingly defined itself in terms of morality and less and less in terms of the transcendent, it increasingly became a "woman's" religion, with a feminized male clergy. Christianity failed to inspire most men.

BOYS INTO MEN

Christianity has thus failed to turn boys into men, Taylor argues.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, argues Charles Taylor, was one whose tendency to violence was transformed into a spiritual energy.

CNS

St. Ignatius of Loyola, argues Charles Taylor, was one whose tendency to violence was transformed into a spiritual energy.

The young male tendency to violence can be, in the right conditions, transformed "into an energy with a quite different focus" from rowdy drinking and fighting, Taylor claims. He offers the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who went from being a soldier to being a saint and founder of an apostolic order.

Taylor hits the nail on the head, describing the damage from the current secular or Christian-inspired moralism, so often ignorant of the vertical dimension: "If instead of this (transforming male energies) you try to control young men by shame, you may be just stoking up trouble for all of us," as "early humiliation can predispose people to later violence," Taylor notes.

A challenging book, Dilemmas and Connections will give readers much to consider.

SECULARIST WEAPON

The moralism of the churches has, ironically, been used as a weapon by secularists against the churches themselves. The Catholic hierarchy was roundly criticized over the pedophile issue, with secularists unable to understand the value of a vocation to celibacy, and the Church unable to articulate well why celibacy was important.

Both Catholics and secularists, tied to a moral code, forgot that celibacy can only be viewed in its true importance when we take a vertical view of things, says Taylor.

So many problems have been caused by this turning away from the transcendent, Taylor argues effectively.

(Welter is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.)