Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Placatory proselytism? Obscuring the challenge of Faith

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 14, 2023

In some periods of history, when the Church was a socially dominant institution, there has been a temptation to “triumphalism”, a kind of cockiness about the prerogatives of the Church and an almost belligerent expectation that these prerogatives are to be acknowledged, admired and praised by all parties. The temptation to triumphalism is a byproduct of worldly success, or of the remembrance of past worldly success, which (whatever relief it may seem to offer at times) really has no place in Catholicism at all.

But this does not mean that having the courage of one’s convictions is in any sense triumphal. Usually, in fact, it is not only personally dangerous but an obstacle to advancement not only in the world but often in the Church herself. There is always a great difference between courage and mere swagger. The latter invariably appears when the coast is clear. The former is visible only under pressure. It is a byproduct of faith—the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen (Heb 11:1). And sure enough, when faith is weak or nonexistent, the courage to insist on the moral demands of faith disappears.

The closest that Our Lord ever got to what we call “triumphalism” was His entry into Jerusalem, which we now celebrate on Palm Sunday. This was a kind of parade created by those Christ excited, and of course it did hint at something of His true nature. Nonetheless, it was a parade which led straight to His passion and death. The lesson is that all spiritual elation must be tempered by humility, and all Christian greatness must take the form of vulnerability. This reality is the key not only to Christian meekness but to Christian courage.

Hiding from the Truth

Now the first thing to note about this Christian dynamic is that there is a huge difference between making oneself vulnerable to rejection and attempting to avoid that rejection by placating those who deny the teachings of Christ and His Church. The verb “placate” is most accurately defined as “to soothe or mollify especially by concessions.” In the West today, this is often the preferred form of “evangelization”: To conceal the Church’s judgment against sin so that those who are in effect ideologically disposed to sin will feel validated through an ever-greater accommodation by the Church.

As various Christian denominations and even Catholic groups fall over each other in their haste to redefine their teachings to suit cultural trends, we can easily see that the kindest possible name for this process is placatory Christianity, that is, a Christianity which seeks to reach a spiritual comfort zone through doctrinal, moral or ritual concession. Usually this takes the form of granting something as a right, accepting something as true, or acknowledging defeat. All three of these senses are heavily involved in the kinds of concessions so frequently made under the pressure of popular culture today, as our Divine Suitor is routinely rejected in favor of the one thing He cannot offer. I mean the approval not of repentance but of sin.

This is placatory Christianity, and it is ascendant almost everywhere because of its common confusion with “understanding” (on the conceptual scale) and “charity” (on the moral scale). But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, placatory Christianity is, on the conceptual scale, “obfuscation”, and, on the moral scale, “cowardice”. In contrast, Our Lord had no patience with those who obscured or downplayed His demands. Instead, He preached: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Mt. 18:9). Is it really necessary to add that this applies to every part of our bodies?

As with Jesus Christ, so too with his closest followers: St. Peter, who denied Christ three times, insisted when he had “turned again” on professing his love three times and accepting the death Our Lord predicted for him. The Sons of Zebedee, in their zeal, insisted that they could and would drink the very cup that Christ drank and be baptized with the baptism with which Christ would be baptized (Mt 20:23). And St. Paul insisted:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. [Phil 3:7-12]

In another place he is franker still: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to ratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).

An absurdity

A placatory Christianity, that is, a Christianity which concedes to sinners the right to their sins, is a dead Christianity. A placatory Christianity is in fact the very worst form of proselytism, seeking to buy new recruits by offering a non-existent benefit. But why non-existent?

First, it is a lie. Our Lord did not come to deny the distinction between holiness and sin, God and Satan. He came to offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin, and share the power of His life sacramentally with us. This is why Paul said: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God” (Gal 2:20-21).

Second, as soon as a placatory Christianity is received, nobody wants it. Placation is desired only by those who wish to gain something from the Church in this world—an increase in status in some circles, a victory of self-approval in others, or a kind of ideological victory. But the reality is that the Church never grows as her ministers and members placate others by attempting to include them without faith or repentance. To the contrary, each time a concession is gained, those who have won it become less interested in the Church, for she has already given them what they wanted from her, namely a self-betraying affirmation of their own importance. As quickly as the concessions are made, just as quickly do the Church’s numbers decline.

The foundation of authentic religion is what God knows, not what little we perceive. Divine Revelation, through which we come to know what God knows, is not to be bartered away in a continuous adjustment of Christian principles to suit the vagaries of time and place, influence and ascendancy. A Christian witness that makes concessions in matters of faith and morals ceases to be Christian. A Catholic witness which revises itself continuously with the changing moods of human culture ceases to be Catholic. A placatory Christianity is a Christianity unfaithful to Christ. At the very moment the concession is made, it ceases to be Christianity. For precisely this reason, it ceases to rankle the sinner…and ceases to matter at all.

Or let us put this another way. A Christian must always be of service, but he is first of all Christ’s servant. Christians cannot bury what has been entrusted to them and remain faithful servants. They cannot at one and the same time speak in Christ’s name while hiding Christ’s light. This is simply blasphemy, and it is for this very reason that the Catholic must be rooted always in the Truth as Christ revealed it, as the Church has Magisterially articulated it, and as the saints have exemplified it in their lives. A placatory Catholicism—a Catholicism which concedes to others the right to define Christ’s teachings for themselves, and thus concedes that right to the world, the flesh and the Devil—is a bankrupt Catholicism. It is a Catholicism which only hastens its own irrelevance.

The mind boggles at the insistent inconstancy of those within the Church who, in every era, have wished to exchange the Way, the Truth and the Life for mere personal comfort and worldly acceptance, as if truncating the Gospel somehow extends the Church’s mission. Catholics who placate (which is to say appease) are Judas-like in their deviousness—not sinning from momentary weakness but contriving as did Satan Himself to make Christ bow down and worship what is false in order to gain the whole world.

It is true, then, that there is no room outside of heaven for triumphalism; but the opposite is also true. For there is no room in heaven for those who concede that Christ is not the Lord of all. There is no room in heaven for those who are unwilling to be joined to Him as completely as His own body, and as intimately as His own bride.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Mar. 15, 2023 5:25 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this. So few are willing to say this; fewer still are willing to live it.

  • Posted by: FredC - Mar. 14, 2023 6:04 PM ET USA

    Reminds me of Chapter 3 of the Book of Revelation: 15 “ ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.