The Work of Human Hands: When Catholicism Becomes a Hobby

Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, reminds us always that the Church is something we receive as a gift. It is not a human work but God’s work, and only insofar as we unite ourselves to it can it be said, through God’s grace, to be our work, too. Only then can we claim that our work in the Church does indeed have merit, not because it is ours, but because it is the work of Christ alive within us (Gal 2:20). Even the work of worship we must see as a gift of God’s grace, lest any man should boast; and if any should be inclined to boast, says Paul, “Let him boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31).

It’s precisely this understanding of the Church that modern man rejects, not consciously, but in the opacity of human pride. It does not occur to man that what demands his intellect and will, his organization, his artistry, his love for beauty and for fellowship, can yet be a gift to him, pure and simple, and not his own creation. But if the Church is man’s invention for the worship of God, rather than the mystical Body of the Christ through whom all things (including man and man’s intellect) were made, then the Church must be subject to man’s manipulation. Who creates can revise; can amend, can add, can delete. Unheard is Christ’s warning: “Whoever should break the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:19).

For we are assured by plenty of Catholic theologians— whose god is rather a puffy version of their haute-couture Western selves—that we are the Church, just as Americans are America and Italians are Italy. I doubt that such a belief bodes well for America or Italy; for the Church it means destruction. It means that we may amend what the Church teaches, updating it for our current desires. That nowadays those desires are most often of the sexually indulgent variety is hardly to the point; another age might indulge human bondage, or the view that men ought to be manufactured as machines for the greater good of the whole. The point, says Benedict, is that to treat the Church as a polity is to treat it as a human work. Those who do so, he concludes, preach a salvation by works. With a stunning nod to the deep truth that Luther saw, he notes that such a salvation by works is expressly denied by the New Testament.

Modern man is hardly unique in making this mistake. It is a perennial temptation, afflicting the pious as well as the heretic. Consider Roman religion: Peel away its encrusted ceremonials, and it is essentially an elaborate playbook of charms and spells. If the priest repeats certain words, frozen and dried in a dialect long since fallen from use, and then cuts the throat of the heifer with a certain knife, on a certain day, after making certain gestures to the left and to the right, that promises well for the city. If he makes the least mistake in the procedure—let’s say he coughs—he has to repeat the whole thing from the start. Some aura of reverence no doubt underlay the worship, but those Romans never really troubled themselves to meditate upon the blessedness of Jupiter or Apollo, much less to love them or to seek to dwell with them forever. What they wanted was brutishly practical: a fat harvest, victory over the Samnites, relief from a plague. Religion bound them to sharply prescribed traditions and laws of ceremonial worship—etymologically, binding is what “religion” means. But it also was the Roman way of binding the gods. Religion in this sense has potent uses. Only a supremely impious or irresponsible people would ignore it.

The Jews too fell for the same illusion, this idea that their worship-work bound God, rather than that it was the grateful and obedient sign that they had bound themselves to Him. Over and over the prophets say that God “desires mercy, rather than holocausts” (Hos 6:6), or that “all our righteous deeds,” by which the Jews would surely understand their righteous worship of the Lord in the Temple, “are as filthy rags” (Is 64:6). The lesson seems never to have sunk in.

Benedict himself points this out in a remarkable discussion of the career of Jeremiah. Recall that the young prophet had been part of a revival of the worship of the Lord and a violent stamping out of pagan shrines, undertaken by the saintly young King Josiah. Now an older man, Jeremiah is given by God the most unpleasant task of informing King Zedekiah and his religious and military leaders that they should submit themselves to political necessity and pay tribute to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Jer 21¬28; 2 Kgs 25).

How are the Jews to understand such a recommendation? They have only recently cleansed the Temple, burnt the groves dedicated to the Baalim and the Ashtaroth, smashed the bathhouses, driven out the catamites, and turned what was the lush valley of Hinnom into a dump for the copious refuse—now called Gehenna, a foreshadowing of hell. They have done all this, and they pride themselves on it. They have the Temple—and they enjoy having the Temple. No doubt business in the Temple is brisk. Zedekiah must think himself quite a partisan of the Temple: a deeply religious man, he, in the Roman sense above. Jeremiah’s demand must strike him not only as absurd but as blasphemous. How can we who possess the Temple ever be defeated?

It is as if the Temple bound God to it; as if one’s work in the Temple could compel the hand of God. Such reverence is utilitarian and, as God declares time and again, of no value whatsoever. The worship of God is not, as politics justly is, a human work. To understand that the Church and its liturgy are given to us, says Benedict, is to carve out a legitimate and relatively free arena for politics, while providing for it what it cannot provide for itself, namely, a justification of its fundamental assumptions. But to consider Church and liturgy as man’s work is to corrupt one’s worship, subtly making it into a way to gain whatever earthly goods one may desire. Nor does it lend keenness of vision to one’s politics. For if Zedekiah had been less “religious,” he would have done the wise thing. He would have seen the political necessity and would have paid that tribute to Nebuchadnezzar.

Always the same with man, the return to the sin of Adam. We say, “My will be done! I can work my own salvation; or, what will serve as well, I can compel you to save me despite yourself.” For the Church too has seen its share of “religious” people peddling the same superstition. Here I need not discuss the current “Word of Faith” blasphemers who go a-hawking Christ as our ticket for “naming and claiming” this Mercedes or that Rolex. We Catholics can provide a wealth of blasphemers of our own. It is easy for anti-Catholic bigots to pretend that the history of the Church has been one diabolical drama of Borgias confecting poison and Torquemada remanding Jews to the rack; yet we must remember that there really was something in the Renaissance Church to appall a man like Luther. I am not talking about corruption in general but about the pervasive assumption of the time that the Church was a fine arena for a career, for advancement, for wealth, for placing a younger son. It is what allowed the Medici family without embarrassment to have a teenage boy of no great devotion or intellectual achievement to be raised to the cardinalate; it is what allowed Machiavelli with mordant effrontery to analyze the actions of Pope Julius by the same worldly standards whereby he would analyze the military coups and blunders made by the French king Charles VIII, as he took and then lost northern Italy.

Ordination is not a career, says Benedict, but a cross, which those who are called by Christ must bear. No one listens. We hear incessant discussions about why women ought to be ordained to the priesthood prescinding from  the unanalyzed assumption that the Church is a polity, a human work. Such discussions seldom refer to Scripture or to our faithfulness to it; if anything, embarrassing verses in Paul (1 Cor 11:3-16, 14:33-36; Col 3:18) and Peter (1 Pt 3:1-6), and even the verse or two that some people hope were not really Paul (Col 3:18, Eph 5:22-24, 1 Tm 2:9-15, Tt 1:6, 2:3-5) need to be explained away, reinterpreted for the nonce, exactly as certain jurists of our time read provisions for capital punishment in the Constitution and find, by the charms of human ingenuity, that the Constitution outlaws capital punishment.

Readers of Crisis will surely agree: The Church is a gift to us, not an arena for careers. But there is something more insidious than thinking of the Church as a corporation for hustlers seizing the main chance. It is more insidious because it employs a real desire in us to worship, and a real devotion, even mingled with generosity. The clergy and laymen who cause the most harm in our Church right now are not those few who think of the Church as a powerful job. They are those, and their name is Legion, who think of the Church as a delightful and self-fulfilling hobby. We all risk falling for that lie.

You know whereof I speak. Sashaying choristers with frilly robes, in full view of the congregation, drawing pleasant attention to themselves rather than leading the faithful in a self-forgetting worship of God. Soloists, under a tingly spotlight, crooning into the microphone and writhing for emphasis, wailing the Sunday blues at Saint Cecilia’s piano bar; one might fancy they’d turn their hats upside down to collect tips from the communicants, except that nobody wears a hat to church, and the crooner often displays other parts of her body in more urgent need of cover. Rows and rows of the finest virtuosos, of lectors and lectresses, the Everyday Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, the Liturgical Commissars, Commissars of Religious Education, the Financial Commissar, the Grand Imperial Mystic Wizards of the Parish Council, and, thank God for one person who actually does work that is humble, unnoticed, and quite necessary, the janitor.

Let me be clear that I mean no disrespect to those lectors, EMEs, teachers, bookkeepers, and others, even singers, who relieve our overburdened priests and who do their work unobtrusively and humbly, aware that they are not worthy of doing it, and praying that they will perform it in such a way as to help lead some soul to God, or at least not get in that soul’s way. And I am well aware that people can make a hobby of moroseness, too. But I’ve been to enough Catholic churches to know that the temptation of reducing the Church to a hobby is often too strong to resist; the more so, as it is seldom recognized as a temptation at all.

Any danger in that? Roughly the same danger, I think, as beset the Renaissance, when the Church became enmeshed in struggles for temporal power among competing states and families in Italy. I don’t mean that we will soon see Catholic wars, assassinations, and internecine backstabbing; our age is not masculine enough for such clear expressions of its worldliness. I mean the danger of that same assumption that the Church is one’s plaything, at one’s own discretion, not to be taken quite seriously. At least the clerical agnostics of the Renaissance left doctrine and liturgy alone!

When the fathers of Vatican II called for a renewed appreciation for the laity and their more energetic participation in the Church, they did not mean that laymen should meddle in the choice of hymns to be sung on a Sunday, elbow the priest from the pulpit, or subject fornication to a plebiscite. They meant, as our Holy Father Benedict has insisted, that the laity should assume the responsibilities of adults in the Faith: fully committed to it and ready to evangelize, to bring Christ where it is inconvenient or difficult for the priest to go—to the oil derrick, down the mine, into the hospital ward, into the chambers of a party meeting, at a city council table. That would be to recognize the charism of the laity, to honor the distinction between church and the secular order, and to affirm that the secular order’s health can be restored only in Christ.

We see instead the reverse: The Church hobbyist contracts the sphere of the Church to the space within the building’s walls, and then makes that space as amenable to himself as he can. That’s no surprise. A hobby is what one chooses for oneself for diversion. One takes it seriously only to the extent that one diverts oneself by so doing; beyond that, one defers to others who are more serious about the diversion. There’s no virtue in being the serious hobbyist, and no vice in being the not-so-serious. I collect coins, but I haven’t made a fuss over it. So I don’t house my silver dollars in cases that resist all the tarnishing acids in the air. Sometimes I wish I had, but they cost a lot more than the ordinary cases, and, to be honest, I don’t care enough about it. The hobby is made for me, I am not made for my hobby.

Here it’s instructive to compare the Church hobby with another that Americans see happily practiced on a Sunday morning. On our way to our parish we pass by a very nice golf course. From April through October it is peopled by groups of three and four, almost always men. They’re friends, enjoying themselves, playing nine or 18 holes of golf, whichever they have time for, as they please.

It’s easy to blame Catholics a-golfing and to say that they ought to be at Mass. Perhaps they have been; we’re now in the age of the Saturday Night Special, a concession to golfers, whereby for the purposes of pleasing man we will pretend that our culture really thinks that Sunday begins at sundown of Saturday. Still, it’s fair to assume that most of the Sunday golfers have not gone to Mass. Why should they, if Church is a hobby?

For if Church is not a call to repentance and the complete submission of one’s life to God, then I tip my hat to the golfers. Some may be staying away from Mass because they know they’re not worthy to go there, and that if they did go there, they would have to change utterly; just as many people, hobbyists especially, attend Mass because they do not know they are not worthy to go there and have no intention of changing anything. They are already quite well, thank you. Witness their choice of Church as hobby, of Christ as mascot.

A golfer enjoys the fresh air, a wide sweep of the land, the twitter of birds, the beauty of blossoms and grass and God’s creation. The Church hobbyist breathes the staleness of air-conditioning and tinned homilies; and no green is as flat, nor would any true-hearted golfer want it to be as flat, as many a priest’s easy-spread sermons in honor of the wonderfulness of himself and his hobbyist brethren and sistren.

A golfer enjoys fellowship. He’s likely with his friends— not business associates—on a Sunday morning, and they know one another; they toss insults; they talk about their families, their cars, their trick knees, and other important things in a world we can see and touch. If one of them chips in from the sand, the fields will ring with hallelujahs and slaps on the back, and the laughter will be genuine, even from the fellow who finds himself no longer one stroke in the lead. Many a Church hobbyist holds hands with people he does not know (and I’ve never met a man with a natural desire to have his hand held), sweaty embarrassed hands, conferring the peace of God upon perfect strangers, not as strangers, but as pretended friends. The impassioned Church hobbyist may even arrogate to himself a rude familiarity, meddlesomely asking the victim’s name, and just as meddlesomely obtruding upon the victim’s consciousness (though but for a mercifully fleet moment) his own. The Church hobbyist does not feel as one with the stranger who kneels beside him as they raise their hearts to God in silent humility. Silence might breed true fellowship, but it would also ruin the sport of the hobby.

The golfer need not take golf seriously. It’s an exacting and frustrating game, after all. So on a Sunday morning, among friends, he can claim “mulligans.” Slice the drive into the water? Hit it again. The ball bounces into a muddy patch off the fairway? Give it a little kick with the foot so that at least it’s resting on the grass. The putt stops three feet from the cup? Don’t even bother with the next putt; it’s a gimme. None of this rule-breaking counts as cheating, so long as everybody agrees to it. The Church hobbyist takes mulligans, too. Birth control? Conscience clear. Kick it back into the grass. Sex before marriage? Not exactly wrong; we’re kind of sort of in love. Do that one over (and over). Divorce? Stumping for women priests? Dabbling in nature superstitions? Frittering a paycheck at the casino? Mulligans all. Not sins to confess; for the sacrament of penance, properly administered, would blow the hobbyist’s illusions sky-high.

Should a golfer transnumerate seven strokes into five, he yet hurts nothing beyond the enjoyment of the game. It’s a venial sin against honesty and charity. By contrast, the Church hobbyist claims mulligans that, according to the teachings of that same Church, might send himself and others down the eight-lane interstate to perdition. But hell’s a fire hazard the Church hobbyist finds convenient to dispense with, exactly as the pleasant duffer will agree to dispense with penalty strokes.

The golfer, if he whistles, can enjoy some pretty fair music. No comment.

The golfer, if he is a man, can enjoy the company of men, doing what is at least healthy and masculine. He doesn’t have to be surrounded by little girls of all ages and sizes and, occasionally, both sexes; he doesn’t have to wear pink bows and ribbons. The Church hobbyist all too often has a taste for pinkery. If he doesn’t, and his taste runs rather to the medieval or the classical, to things which are, in themselves, far more edifying than are the felt banners sporting fat white doves, the posters blaring about caring and sharing, the tangoes down the aisles, the hymns hurrahing the hymners, the turning of the entire Mass into one long, free rendition of “I Feel Pretty”—even if, I say, he prefers the Adoro Te to “We are the Bread, We are the Body,” it matters nothing at all, since Church is still a matter of his taste, and not all the good taste in the world will avail a hobbyist in the end.

The golfer can talk intelligently about shots that the great ones made long ago; most golf hobbyists can relate a legend or two about Sarazen, Hogan, Jones, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, and Woods. “Remember the duel between Nicklaus and Watson at Turnberry?” “Did you know that Trevino and Floyd used to go barnstorming through Texas and Mexico, hustling the amateurs to make enough money to buy their way into a shot at the tour?” Such talk is humble; the golf hobbyist recognizes something more important than himself, namely, the game, and gives due tribute to its traditions and its stars. The Church hobbyist may speak of the saints and the popes with the same deference, but that makes people uncomfortable. It might turn the hobby into that irritating call for complete submission, for a change of life. You can’t talk about Peter Damian calling down the curses of Gomorrah upon a clergy for their sodomitical abuses, not when you yourself wink at sodomy. You can’t recall Benedict of Nursia leaving the world to redeem the world, not when you want more than anything to make your way in the world, wearing a warm and handsome cloak of religion. So, in practice, you don’t venerate the saints; you smile knowingly at people who cherish tradition. But even if you had the whole calendar of saints’ days memorized, and could recite the Ordo Missae in Latin, so long as it was your choice to do it, as part of your own odd hobby, it would avail you nothing.

The golfer enjoys a sandwich and fries in the clubhouse. The hobbyist receives, for all he really considers it, a little cracker of very modest nutritional value. You can’t think it is Christ, and meditate upon that tremendous mystery, lest the specter arise again of a God who demands every inch of your being.

The golfer has one great advantage over the Churcher. If he hasn’t attended Mass lately, he may still think of it with childlike awe. He may turn back from his far country. The Churcher has attended Mass and has so redecorated it to his own taste that, far from his entering the Church with awe, it is the newcomer priest who must fear him. Should the golfer feel a pang of conscience and enter a Church, let’s hope it is when Mass is not going on; when some silent call of a stained-glass window not yet removed, a statue not yet amputated, a tabernacle not yet stuffed in a cloak room, a residual station of the Cross, a Eucharistic symbol carelessly overlooked by the architectural renovator, might yet remind him of the One who died and rose again, who claims every pulse of our hearts and no less; who saves the rebel before He saves the indifferent, who spews the lukewarm out of His mouth. If he enters when Mass is going on, will he see people forgetting themselves in innocent worship of the Lord, or will he see hobbyists having fun? What will he do, if he sees the latter? What should he do?

So when our good Pope Benedict sets his sights on the liturgy, on making sure that Mass is reverent and its celebrators obedient, regardless of the cries of hobbyist or lobbyist, my heart will be with that sinner who wanders into church one day. I don’t know what his name is—Adam, I suspect it is, like mine. The man may be sin-laden, desperate, crying out for something not of man’s invention, real healing for his all-too-painful evil, not a shrug and a pat on the back. He seeks a Savior, not a hobby-partner; for his hobbies are all smothered with the stale old smell of his own will. He longs to lay that will at the feet of One worthy to obey—and who sets man free by obedience. Instead he finds silliness, narcissism, self-indulgence: a hobby all over again, and no interesting one at that. His head clears; no Savior there. He leaves. The hobbyists will not miss him.

Benedict will.

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

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