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Horizontalism

by Cardinal Jean Danielou, S.J.

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  • Description:
    "What is known as 'Horizontalism' reduces Christianity to the dimension of the love of neighbor." In his article, the author gives an incisive analysis of how Christianity, if redefined as philanthropy, loses its reason for being. Only by keeping its vertical dimension does it have anything to offer modern man.
  • Larger Work:
    L'Osservatore Romano
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, October 17, 1968

What is known as "Horizontalism" reduces Christianity to the dimension of the love of neighbor. The origins of this tendency are easily seen. It arises from the fact that the accent in Christian morality was placed too exclusively on religious obligation and the social obligation of the Christian was perhaps not sufficently emphasized. But through overreaction Horizontalism has minimized the "vertical dimension" of the love of God, of worship, of prayer, with the purpose of reducing Christianity to a form of social service. It is certain in the first place that for the Christian the love of God is a dimension as essential as that of love of neighbor. If there is no sacrament without charity, neither is there charity without a sacrament. Prayer is a duty as imperious as service. Horizontalism is an expression of the crisis of the sense of God within Christianity. But to empty Christianity of its religious dimension would be to reduce it to a banal moralizing. And that precisely at the moment when the movement of civilization has a greater need of the sacred than of the primacy given to technology.

Christian charity not philanthropy

I must add that horizontalism is in error on the very nature of the love of neighbor. For dedication to another, a spirit of service, kindness toward those in suffering are not at all an exclusively Christian prerogative. They depend on the human heart that God has made compassionate. If Christianity is reduced to this human dedication, it is understandable how many would no longer see what distinguishes a good Christian from a good Marxist. In reality what characterizes Christian charity is not a greater or lesser spirit of dedication but a new depth. It makes us love in a neighbor that which Christ willed to have realized in him: adherence to his divine vocation, assistance in bringing it to fulfillment. This situates it on the level or salvation. But it is very evident, then, that this kind of charity cannot exist without love of God. For how could one endeavor to share with another the life of Christ, if one did not first strive in himself to live this life? In separating charity toward the neighbor from Charity toward God. Horizontalism empties Christian charity of its proper content to the extent of transforming it into a vague philanthropy.

Christianity not a temporal ideology

The danger of horizontalism is in its changing Christianity into a temporal ideology. It thus stands for a falsification of all Christian concepts, emptied of their theological content and applied in the political forum: sin becomes frustration, conversion consists in revolution, the Church becomes identified with the socialist (secular) city. Such an ideology insinuates its criteria in the light of which all the acts of the Church are judged: it is not concerned with their religious significance but only with their political import. It will constitute itself in this way a kind of authority in opposition to the authority of the Church, an authority which will exercise its magisterium through the press and through other media of communication. This ideology claims to be identified with authentic Christianity and will inflexibly condemn all those who will not accept it.

Law will not change heart

A deviation such as this is not new in the Church. It asserts itself whenever there is the temptation to identify Christianity with a temporal order. Now such an identification of Christianity with an ideology is equivalent to the very negation of the Christian message. For the essence of the Christian message is to judge the temporal situation in the light of the transcendent vocation of man. And that is why Christianity cannot identify itself with any political, economic or social regime whatsoever. But it will judge these in view of their consequences for the human condition. Christianity is in this sense a principle of revolution. But it demands that the force for the transformation of society be not on the basis of a political ideology but on the fundamental needs of the human person. Moreover Christianity nurtures no illusions on temporal institutions whatever they may be.

"The true bread comes from heaven"

One must say, therefore, that "Horizontalism" radically corrupts the nature of Christianity by emptying it of its supernatural and eschatological dimension and reducing it to an instrument of social transformation. Christ did not refuse to give bread to the famished

multitude and to restore health to the sick. Always, however, when He did this, He gave at the same time the reminder that it was not for this that He had come and that "the true bread is that which comes down from heaven.

"The danger against which Christ Himself was always on guard was that of seeing Himself used for a temporal end while the essence of His message was to reveal to man the transcendent dimension of his vocation. To empty Christianity of this is equivalent to stripping it of all that gives it the fact of their sensing that temporal ideologies are superficial and do not reach to the inmost depth of their existence. It is to this profound level of life that Christianity reaches. When it denies this it loses all appeal.

It is necessary to add that this is particularly true in regard to the present situation. The current crisis is situated less on the economic than on the cultural level. It certainly expresses the revolt against a consumer society which assures to it material well being, but at the risk of the enslavement of man. How truly absurd it would be to reduce Christianity to a temporal ideology at the moment when civilization touches the limits of technology and is experiencing the need of the sacred. It can then be affirmed that "horizontalism" is an answer to a situation that is already out-dated, one which Marcuse describes under the name of the "one-dimensional" man. We are witnessing now the rediscovery of the other dimensions of man. It is in being faithful to its true nature, which is precisely to reveal the ultimate depths of man in Christ and to give us access to them that Christianity finds itself at one and the same time in convergency with what Humanity is waiting for today.

© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2012.

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