The Rise of Cross-less Catholicism

In the Australian on May 22,
Tess Livingston covered the new translation of the Missal. This good work needed early explanation. George Cardinal Pell, who was instrumental in the English translation, remarked: “The previous translators seemed a bit embarrassed to refer to angels, sacrifice and perpetual virginity. They went softly on sin and redemption.”
Though they must be put in a larger context, “going softly on sin and redemption” is equivalent to proposing another religion, with such un-pleasantries eliminated. We have become too frail to bear the truth of our tradition, of what it teaches, of what our real problems are.

Cardinal Pell’s remarks recalled an e-mail from a man I do not know. He teaches in a Catholic high school and was assigned a summer school course. He chose to offer one on C. S. Lewis and Tolkien — surely worthy topics — and sent in a prospectus to the program director. The response was that his outline included too many “negative” things, like “good vs. evil, vice and virtue, honor and shame.” The students would not react well to such harsh concepts.
I was “terrified,” as I told the man, that students could not face the most basic of Christian truths at a Catholic school. But it is true that what are called the “negative” elements in Christianity are seldom heard in our schools or universities anymore.

Redemption, it seems, has nothing to do with one’s personal sins or deeds. The students are “upset” by core doctrines, or at least teachers think they are. “Don’t upset the students” becomes censorship. No doubt ways of presenting such doctrines can be excessive, but I suspect that is a rare problem today.
Faith is thus transformed into a social movement. That is where we deal with the “negative” things: We work against bad causes to make the world “better” through judicious selection of movements that “do good.” We do not need to attend to ourselves. We do not like to know that our thoughts and deeds have anything to do with something that transcends the going political correctness in the local culture.
Diversity teaches that whatever anyone does is all right. Multiculturalism teaches that if such is the way they do it in Baluchistan, it must be great everywhere. The only “sin” is that of prejudice. Prejudice means that you acknowledge a truth, but you have no problems with anything anyone does. Our moral world has just about accepted every classical vice as a virtue. We fear that we will be against something because it is “evil.”
In a recent visit to Turin, Pope Benedict XVI remarked: “Towards the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche wrote: ‘God is dead! And we have killed him.'” Far from disagreeing with this view, Benedict adds: “This famous saying is clearly taken almost literally from the Christian tradition. We often repeat it in the Way of the Cross, perhaps without being fully aware of what we are saying.” Nietzsche is orthodox!
And how is it that we have “killed God?” Surely, it is through our sins and other “negative” things. Thus, if we do not even want to talk about these things, as Tolkien and Lewis do, we will have no conception of what Catholicism is about. We will deny that things we do need attention. Many schools, Catholic ones included, live in an environment in which the early practice of virtue is almost impossible. A friend of mine who homeschools her son recently told me that she was grateful to be almost through the “middle school” period, as that was the worst arena morally in most school systems.
But how does one deal with the Lord of the Rings or Narnia if sin, redemption, and their relation to glory cannot be brought up for fear that someone will be upset? G. K. Chesterton spoke of this aberration in his time. Literature is taught to prepare the child and adult precisely for the things that will, in fact, happen. We see what we ought to do by seeing how lives work themselves out when we do not do as we ought.
Catholicism is not a religion that provides a formula for not sinning. It says, “If you do sin, repent, and go on.” Nietzsche himself, I think, was scandalized by Christians who continued to sin. Christ Himself was not so scandalized. He knew we needed doctrine, grace, habit, purpose of amendment, penance, and forgiveness. If we eliminate these things, we invent a religion of perfectionism, not Catholicism.
We tell our young that everything is fine, especially themselves. Just do what others do. Do not judge. Do not distinguish. If something is wrong, it is not your fault. It’s the system. You are ok. Don’t worry. Be happy.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • S.G.

    This article started to make me uncomfortable, so I stopped reading it and clicked over the National Catholic Reporter where articles about oil spills and habitless nuns made me feel a lot safer.

  • Brian English

    “Faith is thus transformed into a social movement.”

    That sums it up perfectly.

  • John2

    Not sure you should say this cross-less form of Catholicism is “rising” in any meaningful way. All this has gone on for at least 50 years.

    I agree, there is a widespread failure to accept what Jesus offered in the first place. It was a cross, and we were to carry it. We all knew our cross could be rather heavy. But you set your face to carrying it, no baloney, that’s what you were supposed to do.

    The bishops, for their own reasons which I never understood, stopped teaching the faith. Can it be simply a need for more bodies in the pews and dollars in the collection boxes? I hope not.

  • Little Toot


    I get angry when I read of more of this “feel good” excuse for Catholic catachesis like what was imposed upon me growing up in the 60s and 70s by the Post-Vatican II runamuck liberals’ hijacking of the Church in the US and turning into Flip Wilson’s “Church of What’s Happenin’ Now”. Apparently there are still vestiges of it around. Fortunately, I haven’t tripped over any parishes like that but there are plenty of Obama stickers left in the parish parking lot on Sunday What I felt like and what that high school program director in OZ apparently wants is to make these kids Catholic Mushrooms- kept in the dark and fed only BS. I thank Almighty God for the new evangelization and orthodoxy making headway. I am also thankful for him softening my heart towards those who have done so much damage to the Church and potentially losing souls (if that is possible).

  • college-age Catholic

    Thank God for Pope Benedict and Catholic Orthodoxy! Very rarely do I hear discussion of sin and chosen wrongdoing. In today’s society so much is done to reduce personal responsibilty and culpability for wrongdoing. Today’s “cures” for sin include therapy, medication, and so on and so forth. And while I’m sure there are people out there with emotional and psychological issues that need to be dealt with, there is a difference between sin and ADHD. I wish the Church would address this more. When I go to Mass I don’t hear much talk about Satan or the epic struggle between good and evil this world is engaged in. I guess the devil’s greatest trick really is convincing the world he doesn’t exist.

  • Stella in Ohio

    When our daughter was about 9 years old I let her go with one of her friends to a summer bible school in a Mainline Protestant Church where I figured they would not say anything anti-Catholic. One of the teachers told the group of youngsters that Catholics keep the body of Christ on the cross because they are pre-occupied with death. Our daughter mustered all the she had learned from her family and Catholic grade school along with a strong Irish temper to inform the teacher that she was quite mistaken. Catholics keep the body of Jesus on the cross so that we will never forget that a heavy price was paid by our Lord for our salvation. Our daughter is now 33 years old and is still a practicing Catholic as are her 3 adult siblings. We never sugar-coated the idea of sin or hid unpleasant realities like the evil of abortion from them either. Our other daughter after returning from our family’s trip to a Pro-Life rally in Washington D.C. dutifully informed her kindergarten class that abortion is when a mother allows her baby to be killed before it is born. But the real message from a 5-year-old was that we are not supposed to just sit silently at home and do nothing about it.

  • Timothy

    We have to repent and go to confession. The dearth of confessions equals many lost souls. It really is that simple.

  • Dymphna

    “Catholicism is not a religion that provides a formula for not sinning. It says, “If you do sin, repent, and go on.” Nietzsche himself, I think, was scandalized by Christians who continued to sin. Christ Himself was not so scandalized.”

    This is a great insight. There are many Catholics who are scandalized when those in the Church sin. We should not be. We should be mindful of our own sin.

  • Don L

    You’ve identified the real danger to our Church -loss of the cross – we’ve become to sophisticated

    In the words of St.Paul, we are to discern and rebuke those who teach false doctrine, and every Catholic has learned as a child that sin by omission is just as evil as sins of acts that we do.

    Denying the cross (and its message of suffering is little more than what Christ rebuked St. Peter for, calling him Satan)

    In quoting several saints and JPII’s encyclical on suffering for a talk (out side of the Mass, I was informed (in a rather conservative Church)that some people would take offense and walk out if we talked about the positive side of suffering. I guess that Christ fellow was wrong when he said to pick up pour crosses daily if we wish to follow Him.

    Sad, that the only Church to really have both a human and a divine answer for suffering, is afraid to live it every day. To bad that the Cross is being stuffed in those un-needed confessionals by our perfection.

  • georgie-ann

    sinful tendencies are a part of fallen human nature, as are weaknesses, ignorance, and vulnerabilities,…very often pride tries foolishly and imperfectly to “cover it all up,” and we get kind of “good” at putting on an act that we are better than we really are,…sometimes we even believe it ourselves, as do others,…

    this is the danger of “the games people play,”…”all that glitters is not gold,”…and “what you see” is NOT always “what you get,”…this is unfortunately true in ALL walks of life,…it is good to be cautious, to gently test and question situations and people, to look beyond the “cover of the book” before jumping into more trouble than one needs to find,…(the voice of experience speaking),…

    our God of Love has given us His Word, His Son Jesus, and His Holy Spirit, and His Church,…ALL of these, to help us understand our TRUE situation,…quite the opposite of trying to “spoil all our fun” by making us “feel guilty” all of the time, He has not only taught us and warned us of the dangers of our condition without Him, but He has offered us Healing and Restoration for our souls through the Sacrifice of Christ–(once, for all)–and continues to feed us with His very Substance and Life in Holy Communion,…

    yes, we will find disappointing sins in those who are in the Church, as well as in those in the world,…we will uncover hidden sins, some to our shock and dismay,…we will find sins and vulnerabilities in ourselves,…the Bible warns us and teaches us to be vigilant,…i do not find the Bible, if read thoroughly, to encourage naivete,…but the Bible also teaches us not to be fearful, but to have confidence in Him, Jesus Christ, Who has overcome the world, sin and death,…

    eyes wide open, we should be rejoicing in so great a Salvation as is this, that our Loving God has provided for us,…an Open Invitation to ALL,…btw,…

  • Micah Murphy

    Agreed 100%. Google “Buechlein, deficiency” and click on the USCCB link for the brilliant summary of Archbishop Buechlein on the matter. The good catechetical schools have been teaching these for years and we’re starting to get all this into the schools, slowly but surely.

  • Mike

    My local church was built in the 1970s. It is very

  • i be a lowly sinnnerrr

    i love a good bit of hellfire an damnation, does i