The Spiritual Peril of Our Own Sensibilities
Our “sensibilities” are our receptiveness to the impressions made on us by our environment. They manifest themselves as feelings based on these impressions, making us emotionally responsive either for or against the source of the impressions. When our “sensibilities” are shocked or offended by certain situations or behaviors, the result is very often a feeling of moral outrage, even when, objectively speaking, no moral issue is at stake. Alternatively, our sensibilities can be satisfied, even almost pampered, by other situations or behaviors which we find pleasing, even when these situations or behaviors are not morally better than others which we may find offensive—or even sometimes when a situation is actually morally flawed.
Our sensibilities are not necessarily “wired” to sound morality and sound spirituality because they are fundamentally sensual and psychological. To be of real use to us, they need to be subjected to rational control; they need to be schooled. Sometimes they will push us in the right direction, as when we are shocked by some brutality. But not always. When they are not carefully monitored and schooled, they can be spiritually dangerous.
Without this constant schooling, our sensibilities depend mostly on a combination of our particular personalities and the culture by which we are unconsciously conditioned. It will be helpful, I think, to examine the spiritual pitfalls which can arise from both sources.
We all know that people in different cultures tend to be sensitive to different things. For example, we are gradually formed by our culture to be very aware of and have strong reactions to the moral content of some situations while being almost blissfully unaware of the moral content of others; or we are shaped to respond morally to many things which have little or no moral content at all. In the culture of the contemporary West, just over the past generation, we have seen a process of sensitization—a veritable shaping of sensibilities—regarding people with same-sex attraction. Similarly, over the past two generations or so, we have seen a process of desensitization with regard to purity. We have also been desensitized with respect to violence against humans, but sensitized for animals.
In the same way, the culture of the Middle Ages fostered a great sensitivity to the mystery of the Divine which penetrated all of nature, whereas the culture of the Modern period has given us a much greater sensitivity to the natural processes themselves, and in each age most people react emotionally to different stimuli and different situations according to their unconscious formation. A medieval person would have been very likely to be revolted, for example, by advocacy for the dissection of bodies for educational purposes. A modern might be more often revolted by those who insist on any sort of reverence for the body which might stand in the way of medical advancement.
Or again, in the 19th century, most Westerners found the concept of deliberate contraception extremely unpleasant and unnatural, and they had a corresponding emotional reaction against it. By the mid-20th century, our view of sexuality had been largely severed from the concepts of reproduction and family, and the thought of contraception no longer violated our sensibilities. Now, in fact, the sensibilities of many are upset by any effort to link reproduction with sex.
Or yet again, some cultures have been extremely sensitive to courageous behavior by men in battle while being almost oblivious to the problems of theft and plunder. Some cultures have been deeply sensitized to the horror of suicide; others have embraced suicide with feelings of nobility. Some cultures have placed a high value on the good of the community or tribe, such that behavior which weakens the community shocks the sensibilities of most of the community’s members. Other cultures (such as our own) place a high value on individualism, leading people to be more shocked and dismayed by the restrictions a community may attempt to place on personal behavior.
To take one final example, some cultures have instilled a great sensitivity to the differences between men and women, leading to a strong code of differential behavior, the violation of which most persons found offensive whether it touched any moral truths or not. Our own culture currently tends in exactly the opposite direction. We are more likely to be shocked when a young girl is not allowed to play football. And so it goes. All of these cultural tendencies shape our sensibilities.
The Problem of Modernism
The great insight of the Modernists was that the way we communicate the Faith in various periods is conditioned to some degree by the “categories” of our cultural perception. This insight accelerated the Church’s interest in the problem of inculturation, and the need to find categories and constructs in local cultures which could be used to more easily communicate the Gospel and Catholic doctrine.
But the great error of Modernism was rooted in what we might call its sin against the Holy Spirit—the denial that Revelation was capable of penetrating the human mind in ways which transcended and transformed culture, such that with appropriate effort we could build up a body of absolute truths which are not culture-bound. Instead, the Modernists advocated a culture-based spirituality, in which whatever they deemed to be the highest spiritual insights of a particular culture became the proper expression of the Divine in that culture, sweeping away all the allegedly culture-bound categories that had held sway before.
Now as anyone with a shred of common sense can see, Modernism itself was profoundly conditioned by cultural sensibilities. It was little more than the result of a rather puerile desire of Christians, especially clergymen and theologians, to avoid being counter-cultural, to retain the same status and “relevance” in a secular age as had been accorded them in a Catholic age. Therefore, by the mid-20th century, Modernism had become the quasi-spiritual and theological doorway through which a profound secularization entered into the Church, as Catholics at every level embraced the opportunity to reinterpret their faith and values in ways which made them more compatible with the larger surrounding culture—a culture which was no longer shaped in any significant way by the Faith.
The result was a rapid shift in Catholic sensibilities, beginning with a rejection of authority in favor of the zeitgeist (spirit of the times or cultural spirit). Where in 1930 parishioners would likely have been shocked if their priest undermined or contradicted a clear statement of the Holy See, in 1980 parishioners could very easily be moved to applaud the courage and vision such a contradiction seemed to them to embody. This broad infection of secularization in the Church led to countless abuses in preaching, in the liturgy, in catechetics, in theology classes, and even in social action and politics. In fact, as both the attitude of relativism and the power of the State grew during the same period, Catholics began to see things more and more in merely political terms. Every disagreement was understood to be essentially a partisan struggle.
In some universities and religious communities, these attitudes continue unabated even now that dioceses and parishes have begun to heal. Efforts by the Holy See to correct the wayward are a perfect example. The Holy See inevitably speaks in terms of the objective and absolute truths Divinely revealed through Jesus Christ, and the Holy See is inevitably dismissed as a bunch of old, celibate, white European males making a power grab for a party whose relevance has long since vanished from the world stage.
Modernist Sensibilities at Work in the Pews
Unfortunately, the sensibilities of many Catholics have now been thoroughly shaped by these cultural developments. When you combine this with the tempting prospect of being relieved of the obligation to engage in Christian spiritual discipline and to oppose the false values of the larger culture, this shaping of sensibilities has become way too easy and way too profound. Millions of Catholics attend Church at least occasionally with a grossly insufficient awareness of what their Faith really demands of them. More important in this context is the fact that millions of Catholics are in the unenviable position of being shocked by a clear expression of the truth, yet they are all too complacent (the word means “satisfied and unconcerned”) when the message of the culture is followed instead.
How often have we heard parishioners glibly dismiss priests who genuinely try to awaken people to this problem as “conservative” or “old fashioned”, with no effort to evaluate what is perennially true in their preaching and counsel? How often are Catholics offended by a pastor or a religion teacher who asks them to take a look at hard truths about sexual promiscuity, divorce, abortion, and contraception (the so-called life issues) on the one hand, and affluence, luxury, materialism and lack of concern for the poor (the so-called social issues) on the other? Western culture as a whole now schools us in acedia or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, by continuously shaping us to react listlessly and even negatively to the things of God, while engaging eagerly with the things of this world.
All of us are culture-bound to some extent. This is inescapable, and it is a significant part of the business of sanctification to learn to recognize what the Psalmist calls our hidden faults (Ps 19:12), the faults we take for granted, which most often are the faults that “everybody” shares. In every age, distorted sensibilities—that is, a sensitivity to the wrong things and an insensitivity to the right things—seriously retard the growth of holiness and hinder the work of the Church. Too often we find evil comfortable and good offensive.
However, it can be argued that the second half of the 20th century created an acute problem in this regard, because of the rapid transformation of culture in general, and of the culture within the Church in particular. Our cultural sensibilities were rapidly altered in new and surprising ways, some of them good but too many of them bad, and we are still trying to sort out the difference. In terms of a Catholic culture, at least, we appear to be still in the early stages of schooling our cultural sensibilities. This problem surrounds us; it is quite literally everywhere.
Up until now, I have been emphasizing the ways in which culture shapes not only our values but our sensibilities, which can become particular impediments to both spiritual perception and spiritual growth. But I said at the outset that our raw sensibilities are also determined in large part by our particular personalities. Different people are simply sensitive to different things, reacting differently both in terms of the appropriateness of their emotional response and its intensity. I would like to relate this as well to life in the Church today.
Thus there are some of us who, while not counter-cultural by reason, are rather instinctively counter-cultural. We tend to react negatively to almost anything that is fashionable. Again, there are some of us who are strongly attached to certain ways of doing things, especially if they are old or traditional, and our sensibilities can be easily offended if others do things differently. Or again, we react positively to some personality types and negatively to others, with no particular reason (though usually we attempt to make arguments in favor of our reactions when questioned). Or for some reason we are sensitive to one kind of vice but not another. If we are counter-cultural in today’s Catholic world, that will very likely mean, for example, that we will be very sensitive to the disobedience of not following the rules in every detail, while insensitive to pastoral inflexibility.
There is no clear demarcation between what we might call personality-based sensibilities and those inculcated by culture. They constantly interact, and once we realize what our sensibilities are, we may attempt to choose subcultures which reinforce them. Nonetheless, I think it is fairly safe to say that the classic divisions in the Church today are between those whose sensibilities tend to be formed more strongly by the surrounding culture and those whose sensibilities tend to derive more strongly from what we might call a dogmatic personality. Unfortunately, too many in both groups seem incapable of checking their sensibilities at the Church door.
Counter-Cultural Catholic Sensibilities
I am certainly instinctively in the latter category, but in the wake of my recent analysis of the validity of SSPX confessions (see Warning: An SSPX Priest Is Incapable of Absolving You from Sin), I was reminded of how spiritually misleading such sensibilities can be. Specifically, I received several extremely bitter messages in which Catholics who remained obedient to Rome derisively dismissed “Novus Ordo priests” in a way that definitely shocked what I like to think are my own severely schooled sensibilities. The spirit of this dismissiveness is best captured by one description of these priests as “clowns without costumes”.
Everyone knows the background that has contributed to this discontent on the part of some Catholics with strong anti-cultural sensibilities. This is the flip side of today’s misshapen Catholic coin. It first arose when the reform of the liturgy was unfortunately accompanied by increasing heterodoxy and even spiritual frivolity among too many priests, who became unmoored in the period of rapid secularization. Most deeply-committed and strongly inner-directed Catholics found this period extremely painful. And some Catholics who were trying to remain true to the faith, and who clung accordingly to the older liturgy which better matched their personal sensibilities, ended up reaping bitterness rather than spiritual growth from their sufferings.
I will not debate the pros and cons of various developments. My interest here is the role of personal sensibilities, which I believe has been devastating. For these Catholics whose personal sensibilities were so strong, it was not enough to observe that Fr. X was not all he should be in terms of theology and doctrine, or that Fr. Y seemed more at home acting like a layman than like a priest (however these are conceived), or that Fr. Z did not follow the rubrics and clearly lacked reverence, or even that they themselves did not happen to appreciate the virtues of the Novus Ordo as much as they appreciated the virtues of the Tridentine Mass. Rather, even when the ordinary form of the rite was said strictly according to the rubrics and they were assured time and again by the Church of the legitimacy and efficacy of the rite, they found that their personal sensibilities were violated by attending the Novus Ordo Mass.
This has led to extremes. In addition to rightly reacting against clerical heresy and attempting to improve upon banality (fair enough), some people feel that the priest at Mass should never smile, never show exuberance or joy; that he should never ask the congregation to pray for something special or to applaud some accomplishment; that he should never give a folksy homily and never tolerate non-traditional music; that he should never dispense with due ceremony or an emphasis on priestly status on any occasion; and so on and on and on. All of these things, along with the absence of certain arbitrary liturgical elements from years gone by, the very use of the vernacular language, and even the ability to see the priest’s face as he offers the Sacrifice, seem wrong to them, and this is primarily because these things violate their personal sensibilities.
What I am arguing here is that, whether these Catholics have remained obedient to Rome or have spun off into various splinter groups, much of their reaction has been conditioned simply by their sensibilities. In this essay, which admittedly contains an over-simplified binary presentation to aid clarity, their personal sensibilities played the same significant role in endangering their spiritual lives as the cultural sensibilities of those I discussed earlier. And of course there is always the corresponding attempt to rationalize when sensibilities are offended. On both sides, a whole vast scaffolding of justifying arguments has been erected which has been used to construct almost nothing of any lasting substance. If the first group’s sensibilities have led to a terrible complacency about the grossly inadequate spiritual values of the larger culture, the second group has responded with a determined, labyrinthine and reckless insistence on the objective superiority, including the objectively superior sanctity, of their own personal sensibilities per se.
I do not mean to minimize any of the other problems in the Church. I have already outlined the general situation. But I am convinced that for far too many of us the battle lines are drawn primarily on the basis of sensibilities—even to the point that significant improvements in the health of the Church are ignored in favor of past judgments and pet peeves. In the first case, the result is an almost brazen contentment with the values of the world or what we might call being in the Church without being of the Church; in the second, the result is bitterness or outright rebellion against the Church.
And yet there are also innumerable examples of people who began in either of the sensibility camps, but who recognized that their natural sensibilities were dangerous. They responded to the challenge by schooling their sensibilities, and so they grew spiritually and became forces for authentic renewal in the Church. Their sensibilities still often condition their first reactions to much that happens in the Church—a daunting impediment in the human condition!—but they have learned to recognize the signs, and to exercise a certain self-discipline. Their very self-knowledge leads them to judge others less harshly. They demonstrate daily that we are not to be victimized spiritually by our sensibilities. Instead we must have the courage to expose them—again and again and again—to the light of Christ.
There is never anything wrong with working respectfully against genuine failings, whether heresy or vice, irreverence or laziness, laxity or severity, self-righteousness or ecclesiastical disobedience, as long as such charity begins at home. But what has happened is that too many critics have allowed their personal sensibilities to be the means by which they judge whether a priest (or any other person) is devoted, faithful, charitable, honest and orthodox. And too often the result is both derision and division.
We all have a grave tendency to class vices as virtues, or virtues as vices, and to turn trifling differences into major issues, all according to our sensibilities. This is a telltale sign of spiritual immaturity. We seek somehow to indulge ourselves in a piety pleasing to our senses and emotions, often at the expense of others. And whenever we do this, our unrestrained sensibilities masquerade as the one thing we inevitably squander in the process. Our sensibilities masquerade as holiness.
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Posted by: littleone -
May. 31, 2013 8:02 PM ET USA
Yes!! Amen, and Lord please be with us all. Thank you for a very thoughtful analysis.
Posted by: AgnesDay -
May. 31, 2013 2:16 PM ET USA
People should follow this article with the news report of Pope Francis on the Corpus Christi procession. He is right. In adoring Jesus present in the Holy Eucharist, we can recover our sense of solidarity, which should be our primary sensibility.
Posted by: Cornelius -
May. 31, 2013 9:29 AM ET USA
Mastering personal sensibilities can be a challenge. A priest at a Mass I frequent in the day (a fine orthodox priest) routinely ad libs a vocal prayer after the Prayers of the Faithful. It is painful to hear; he struggles to express himself, stutters, hems and haws, etc. It causes me real pain to hear him, like watching someone torture a small animal. I wish he'd just read the prayer from the Sacramentary, which is fine and even lyrical. Oh Lord, help me.
Posted by: atila9565 -
May. 30, 2013 8:48 PM ET USA
When I started reading this article, I scrolled down and, seeing its length, I almost gave up. But I soldiered on and... thank God, it is brilliant! Congratulations! All people calling Francis "a liberal" should read, pray and meditate on it. Thanks!