The Rigorist Menace to Faith


The threats to the Church don’t always arise where you expect them. As C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape advised young tempters, the Enemy’s best strategy is to catch us off guard and keep us there, focused on dangers in the rear-view mirror and ignoring that silly “Do Not Enter” sign up ahead. The devil, Lewis wrote, wants us “rushing about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”

In sexual ethics, this infernal principle’s application should be obvious today. Read the works of theologians who reject the Church’s teachings, and you’ll find in them turgid page after page on the dangers of “Puritanism” and “Jansenism” (and such terms used loosely or falsely), even the flesh-hating Albigensianism. Such warnings were written even as “free love” was being proclaimed at Woodstock, suburban couples were swapping wives in the 1970s, whole new strains of venereal disease were cooking up in American bedrooms and bathhouses, and abortion was being legalized around the world. Clearly, the real threat to sanity and virtue that needed confronting was . . . Rigorism. Right?

On issues of eros, Christians are inundated with messages urging them to let their consciences go slack and presumptuously assume that God will be “understanding.” How many of us have had to argue with a confessor, “Yes, Father, it bloody well is a sin — now would you please absolve it?” How wearisome it has gotten, this fantasy football game orthodox Catholics have had to play for 40 years, doing research to correct our priests and teachers, greeting each new appointment of a bishop or a pastor with the almost idle musing: “I wonder if he’s a Catholic?” Inevitably, since Humanae Vitae, the litmus test has to do with sex.
It wasn’t always so, and Laxism isn’t the only problem. Give it time, and I’m sure that a soul-crushing Rigorism on sexual morality will reassert itself (at least in some Catholic subcultures). Just so, young Muslims in Europe stumble out of strip joints, go find the most radical mosque, and strap themselves with explosives. That’s how the devil works — goading us to and fro between a laxness that makes Faith bland and meaningless and a rigor that renders Faith unlivable and implausible.
Nor is sex the only issue. In Europe, the Enemy spent 100 years distorting the virtue of patriotism into hideous, Rigorist forms of nationalism. Then, after these ideologies helped kill some 80 million or more in two world wars and multiple genocides, the devil shoved patriotism off the stage and taught us that one’s native land means nothing. It’s not worth fighting for, and the sooner economic globalism, international bureaucracies, mass migration, and mass media can dissolve us all into a pea-green homogenous soup, the better. This Laxist approach to patriotism absolves our obligation to sacrifice for our fellow citizen or our neighbor. We owe him nothing more than we do the remotest goatherd in Mongolia.
Heresies tend to appear and disappear in just this dialectical fashion: The Gnostics denied Christ’s humanity; the Arians arose, as if in answer, to doubt His divinity. Many historic heresies, unsurprisingly, centered on imponderable mysteries such as the Incarnation and the Eucharist. But still more focused on our moral life and hinged on Laxist or Rigorist readings of the evangelical counsels. These are, you might recall, the statements by Christ where He enjoins a life of poverty, celibacy, and obedience.
A bald reading of commandments like “Sell all you have and give it to the poor” might yield the interpretation that this is a universal commandment. So Christians must reject the most fundamental fact of economic life — private property. Such a poverty was embraced by the Waldensian heretics and many other anti-worldly sects. When the Franciscan order arose to rediscover the value of this command as a counsel and a witness against the corruption and worldliness of late medieval Italy, the Church was wise to welcome it. A splinter group, called the “Spiritual Franciscans,” considered the Church too lax in permitting private property to anyone. Its leaders denounced the ownership of property as mortally sinful — and were duly excommunicated for their Rigorist heresy.
In the early Church, Gnostic Christians called for universal celibacy, rejecting marriage and procreation. In medieval France, the Albigensians revived this doctrine. So, more recently, did the Shakers — a sect that survived for centuries by adopting the children of non-Shakers, which now consists of a few old ladies and one lonely male convert. The Church duly condemned each of these Rigorist attacks on the holiness of marriage.
Few have ever ventured to suggest that all Christians adopt the kind of absolute obedience to their bishops that monks owe their religious superior — although some “lay movements” in the Church today do try to impose that level of control on Catholic laymen. Still, we can see in every extreme of clericalism the shadow of this temptation to turn all the world into a monastery and deny laymen their role as the leaders of society with the duty of seeking justice, obedient to faithful conscience and the virtue of prudence. When clerics today demand socialist economic policies, one-sided military disarmament, or open borders, they are engaged in just this sort of clericalism. Frequently, they are inspired by a Rigorist, heretical view of private property, just war theory, or the brotherhood of man.
Moving beyond the evangelical counsels to other statements from the mouth of Christ, various pacifist sects such as the Anabaptists (the spiritual ancestors of today’s Mennonites), took “turn the other cheek” to mean that no Christian could fight even to defend his children, much less himself or his country. Many idealistic Christians, from Pax Christi to the Catholic Worker, share that sentiment today — though few inside the Church will state pacifist principles baldly. If they prevailed, the result would be universal slavery and the dominion of evil men over the innocent whom we have failed to protect.
Rigorism tempts not the lukewarm but the devout. The heart of a sincere, self-sacrificing believer feels drawn beyond the carefully worked-out, sane middle ground the Church has cleared on which ordinary Christians can build their lives. Instead of reading this experience as a religious vocation they might follow, Rigorists apply their insights universally and build from them ideologies. Surely, the “institutional Church,” corrupted perhaps by Constantine, has compromised the plain intentions of Christ. Is not “orthodoxy” really a fig-leaf for worldliness and Laxity?
This raises the question of why the Church has interpreted the evangelical counsels not as universal commands but as modes of perfection to which a few Christians are called. Those who accept religious vocations vow to live the counsels literally as a witness of otherworldliness, but most of us do not.
Why is that? Because, if taken at face value and applied to everyone, the evangelical counsels would be incompatible with the continuance of the human race. This is most obvious in the case of celibacy — see you in 70 years! — but it applies equally to poverty and obedience. Abolishing private property on a large scale would rob economic activity of the energy that comes from legitimate self-love, and result in widespread starvation — as it did in the Soviet Union. Enforcing on all Christians the kind of absolute obedience to their bishops that monks owe their religious superior would yield a totalitarian state — while handing bishops the absolute power that tends to corrupt absolutely. We’ve seen how well bishops tend to handle the very limited power they already have; the prospect of giving them even more is hardly tempting.
Just as every Laxist heresy dissolves the evangelical counsels like a drop of iodine in a pool, each Rigorist error concentrates them into such a high dose they would prove toxic.
So let’s state the matter baldly: Each Rigorist heresy that arises — from open borders globalism to Christian socialism, from Albigensianism to pacifism — is more than a threat to the prudent governance of human society. It is a direct attack on the truth of the Christian claim. If Christ had meant the evangelical counsels to apply literally to everyone, the Church He founded would have been the enemy of the human race, and Christianity would be false. The Pharisees would have been right, and Judas a hero. That healthy gut realization, and not some drunken love affair with Prudence, is why we Catholics fight the Rigorists with all the fervor our ancestors displayed against the Albigensians.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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