Here… is the decisive reason for the abandonment of Christianity: its model for life is apparently unconvincing. It seems to place too many restraints on humankind that stifle its joie de vivre, that limit its precious freedom, and that do not lead it into open pastures—in the language of the Psalms—but rather into want, into deprivation… today it is a matter of the greatest urgency to show a Christian model of life that offers a livable alternative to the increasingly vacuous entertainments of leisure-time society, a society force to make increasing recourse to drugs because it is sated by the usual shabby pleasures.
“Letter to Marcello Pera,” in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, and Islam, 125-6.
Reflection – Ratzinger in this passage shows how very much in touch he is with the tenor of our times. Religion ruins everything, Christopher Hitchens sums it up quite succinctly. Religion: the global spoilsport, the sour nanny watching over all humanity and boxing our ears whenever we start having too much fun. This, sadly, is the image of religion in general, the Christian religion in particular, and the Catholic Church especially, for many many people.We’ve all run across this picture of religion and the Church, right? And (do I know who’s reading this blog? No I do not…) maybe some of my readers have precisely this idea of it, too.
It is difficult to dialogue with this view of religion. For one thing, it is simply true that the Church does say ‘no’ to certain activities that cause considerable pleasure to those engaging in them (fornication, for example; also drug use). There is a virtue called temperance, which is the proper ordering and restraining of our boundless human appetite for sensual pleasure, whether for food, drink, sex, or any other body-pleasing activity.
A perfectly reasonable case can be made for such restrictions; certainly, when it comes to food and drink we all know that too much of good thing results in 'too much of me', especially around the middle, and probably far too little of me in terms of longevity. And, as I’ve been pointing out on this blog in multiple posts, unrestricted sexual activity has manifestly not led to great happiness in our society—clearly some kind of structure around sexual expression is needed, and this means having to practice self-control, continence. Just saying no, in other words, at least some of the time. All of this is perfectly reasonable.
But it is the nature of desire that the first thing it shuts down is sober logical analysis—and the stronger and more intense the desire, the quicker we become blind to reason and argument.
‘Sin makes you stupid,’ as Aquinas put it (it sounds more erudite in medieval Latin). ‘I want what I want when I want it’ – as long as that is the prevailing ethos in a person or society, the Church with its rules and regulations and lists of virtues is going to be Big Mama Sourpuss. And who needs that?
So, what are we to do? I think the deepest witness of Christians today is the witness of joy. People aren’t happy in general—modern secularism has not delivered on its promise by and large. To see Christians leading faithful obedient lives and possessing joy in this is more powerful a witness than a dozen rational arguments. And the witness of our lives opens the door to these arguments – when people see that we have something real, something that gives us life, they might just be willing to entertain the idea of temperance or chastity or obedience. And this is the challenge before us today.