From Fr. Longnecker:
Do you remember that stylish film The Matrix? The hero, Neo Anderson, exists in a dull, conformist, monotone and monochrome world. Then he wakes up and is “born again” and enters the world of adventure and risk which is the real world.
What I find curious about modern American Catholicism is that it is similarly monotone and monochrome. The bland, egalitarian architecture, the shallow show-biz type music, the anodyne homilies and the assumption that the Christian religion is about being nice people and making the world a better place reminds me of Neo’s boring world.
The paradox is that as our popular culture has become increasingly sensual, opulent and materialistic, our religion has become more barren, dumbed down and bland. This tendency for everything in church to be big and bland is not just that we’re trying to do religion on the cheap. We’re doing it on the cheap because there is a creeping Manicheanism in the church.
Manicheanism is the belief that the physical world is sinful. Our bodies are dirty and sinful. Sex is always dirty and sinful. Wealth is dirty and sinful. The material world is dirty and sinful. Manichee taught that we must rise above the physical and become spiritual. Underlying much of American Catholicism is this same belief–a kind of strange, below the radar Puritanism.
We’re guilty of a subtle and weird form of hypocrisy. We load up our lives with as many rich and lush experiences as possible. Our homes are palaces. Our vacations are luxurious outlays of self indulgence. We spoil our kids, we spoil ourselves. The average suburban American middle class person eats and lives at a level of luxury and opulence a Roman emperor would be impressed with, but when it comes to religion we do it on the cheap.
I don’t think this is simply because we are ungenerous, but because we really do think that somehow our religion is the place where we “do austerity” for an hour every week because we have this idea that we should all be poor Franciscans, and that the Catholic religion is otherworldly and poor and that being Catholic means we should be against all that expensive stuff and against pleasure and so the church should be like a bare auditorium–just a place to meet in before we go out into the world.
So, on the one hand, we live like princes, but expect the Prince of Peace to live like a pauper. We distrust the physical aspect of our religion, and this is evidenced not just by the cheap, barren architecture, but also by the sentimental, tacky music, the polyester vestments, the fake electric candles and the felt banners with cliched slogans.
This distrust of the physical is rooted in something even more disturbing. I believe we distrust and dislike and dismiss the physical in our worship because we don’t really believe in the Real Presence of the Body, Blood Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and even more fundamentally, we don’t really believe in the astounding and disturbing fact of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ who took human flesh from his Immaculately Conceived mother–the most Holy and Blessed Virgin Mary.
I don’t propose that suburban American Catholics go around denying these cardinal doctrines of the faith formally. No, they still stand up and say the Nicene Creed every Sunday (if they go to Mass) but they don’t know what it means. They haven’t really examined the claims. They haven’t faced up to the implications. It hasn’t become an earthquake in their lives. They’re like Neo in his ordinary world–still asleep.
To fully affirm the Incarnation and the Eucharistic Presence is to be born again. It’s to wake up. If we examined the implications we would be materialistic in the proper way–and that is to love all things—yes all things–according to their eternal worth. We would love our material blessings. We would enjoy life in a rambunctious and rumbustious way. We would love all that this material world has to offer, but we would also realize that at the heart of the material world is the One who took human flesh and clothed himself in matter, and we would love and affirm that fullness of materialism through a fully and properly materialistic Catholic religion.
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