Is Catechesis Possible in a Narcissistic Age?

Millennials—who most researchers and commentators identify as that generation born from the early 1980s to 2000—may grow weary of hearing their parents and grandparents say, “Young people today seem more self-centered than in my day,” but their forebears are right. Their narcissism, in comparison to past generations, has been empirically verified in the work of San Diego State University psychology professor, Jean Twenge, and is confirmed in another study by the National Institutes of Health that was published in 2008. I can almost hear someone’s feisty Catholic grandmother or grandfather saying, “I don’t need a study to tell me what I see with my own two eyes and hear with my own two ears.”

Of particular interest to the Church is the work of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton, in the early 2000s, that foreshadows the aforementioned studies and provides an illuminating window into the spiritual and religious lives of American teenagers and, undoubtedly, many of their parents. The results revealed that the typical teenager in the U.S. believed that

each individual is uniquely distinct from all others and deserves a faith that fits her or his singular self; that individuals must freely choose their own religion; that the individual is the authority over religion and not vice-versa; that religion need not be practiced by a community; that no person may exercise judgments about or attempt to change the faith of other people; and that religious beliefs are ultimately interchangeable insofar as what matters is not the integrity of the belief system but the comfortability of the individual holding specific religious beliefs.

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Smith and Denton called the dominant religion of American teenagers in the early twenty-first century “Moral Therapeutic Deism,” whose primary agenda is to make one “feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life.” God is “something like a Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps people to feel better about themselves, and does not become personally involved in the process.” The results of these studies spotlight the narcissism of the Millennials but it’s easy to forget that they are often the offspring of the Baby Boomer generation who gave us the foolish saying, “If it feels good, do it.”

These trends were remarkably predicted six decades ago in the landmark book, Triumph of the Therapeutic, by Philip Rieff, who recognized that, in the West, the religious world-view that is concerned with personal salvation in God had been eclipsed by the therapeutic culture whose primary goal is for the individual to feel good because there is “nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.”

Eminent moral philosopher and Catholic convert, Alisdair MacIntyre, laments the corrosive effects of the therapeutic agenda on ethics in the West that reduces right and wrong to something that is entirely subjective and feeling-based: “whatever makes you happy as long as you don’t hurt anybody.” Erudite author and radio talk-show host Dennis Prager interviewed a 26-year-old Swedish woman and graduate student and discussed some of the more controversial religious and moral issues of the day with her. Prager, whose religious faith is deeply rooted in Judaism, told her that he got his values from the Torah and asked her where she got her values. She said, “ From my heart.”

It’s not an exaggeration to assert that many American Catholics have been colonized by the Therapeutic. How else can we account for the fact that, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, 58 percent of them who attend Mass weekly believe that divorced and remarried parishioners, who have not been through the annulment process, should be allowed to receive Communion; 42 percent think that co-habiting couples should be able to partake of the Eucharist, and only 46 percent think that pre-marital sex is a sin? It’s difficult to believe that a weekly attender of Mass would be ignorant of the Church’s teaching on these issues. It’s more likely that a large percentage of the people are aware of the teaching, have chosen to reject it, and are appealing to the authority of the feelings of their autonomous self. Like the Swedish grad student, they are following their heart. MacIntyre calls this way of doing morality “emotivism.”

The therapeutic sensibility often comes out of hiding when there is controversy among Christians and the issue of authority comes to the foreground. Over the years, when I’ve had arguments with other Christians about the homosexual lifestyle, I’ve encountered the therapeutic world-view: “I like Bob and Bill. I know them. They’re great people. They didn’t choose their sexuality. They’re good neighbors, hard-working, and law-abiding citizens.” This all may be true but notice the source of authority here is how the person feels about Bob and Bill.

A co-worker I knew who was a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America had these sentiments until we discussed the witness of Scripture concerning homosexual behavior. He then changed his mind and embraced the orthodox view. The results weren’t so good in discussing the same issue with a middle-aged Catholic man in an Adult Christian Education class I co-taught in the mid-2000s. On the one hand he was aware of the witness of Scripture (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26; Matthew 19:1-12) that was buttressed by over 2,000 years of Church Tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium. On the other hand were his own feelings about the issue that were greatly influenced by a close friend who had a gay son. He went with his feelings.

The good news in these two stories is that minds and hearts can change if you have some common ground in the area of authority. However, catechesis in a therapeutic age can feel overwhelming at times and calls to mind Hercules fighting the Hydra: with the serpent having so many heads, where do you start? The deleterious effects of the Therapeutic on ethics is just one head. The Church should strap in for a long, hard struggle and needs to have an “all hands on deck” approach with both the lay priesthood and ordained priesthood fully engaged in the battle.

It’s a conflict whose spiritual and moral lineage can be traced back to the Garden of Eden and the seduction that took place there. The serpent undermined divine authority, Eve consulted her subjective feelings and disobeyed, Adam followed suit, and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since. Perhaps a good starting point for catechesis in a therapeutic age is to present sharp contrasts—bold colors, not faded pastels—between the Therapeutic and the Orthodox—i.e. Christian traditions rooted in orthodoxy—with the hope that the parishioner will choose the latter and leaven the culture with that faith. A small beginning of that instruction might read as follows:

The Orthodox believe the purpose of their existence is to know, love, honor, and glorify God. Their raison d’etre is to serve God; for the Therapeutic, the purpose of God’s existence is to serve them. For the Orthodox, their relationship with God is an end-in-itself: their highest goal is to love God; their greatest possession is an intimate relationship with him. For the Therapeutic, their relationship to God is a means to an end; it is utilitarian in nature. Their highest goal is for the Deity to provide them with feelings of well-being; their greatest possession is to have a life that is a journey of self-discovery and self-fulfillment. The Orthodox seek a pilgrimage that imitates the Passion in self-giving love. The mission of the Catholic is to incarnate what has been re-presented in the Mass—the self-donating love of the Crucified God—and be sent forth as the anti-therapeutic in a therapeutic culture. As important as catechesis is, the spirit of the anti-therapeutic is caught more often than it is taught. This explains Malcolm Muggeridge’s conversion to Catholicism late in life. It wasn’t Mother Teresa’s erudition that moved him but her example of self-giving love.

The Orthodox know it is the Father’s good pleasure to give them subjective feelings of happiness. Scripture commends the enjoyment of life (Ecclesiastes 8:15); their Lord performed his first miracle at a wedding feast turning the water into wine. Many Catholics would call this “good Catholic fun.” However, whereas the Therapeutic see feeling good as a right, the Orthodox see it as a gift that is not guaranteed. Catholics hearken back to the words of the Mother of God to St. Bernadette of Soubirous: “I do not promise to make you happy in this life, but in the next.”

It is interesting to note that in his last published writing, C.S. Lewis wrote, in contradistinction to the Declaration of Independence, a piece called “We Have No ‘Right To Happiness.’” He averred that we should not be pursuing feelings of happiness but the “happiness” that Aristotle called eudaimonia that has nothing to do with feeling good, but has everything to do with spiritual health: a moral quality of life that Aristotle described as “an activity of the soul expressing virtue.” The Therapeutic want to feel good; the Orthodox want to be good.

The Orthodox also know that there is an undeniable measure of disappointment built into the ancient faith. This is summarized cogently by Simon Tugwell, O.P.: “Christianity has to be disappointing, precisely because it is not a mechanism for accomplishing all our human ambitions and aspirations; it is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God.” For the Orthodox these disappointments become a doorway to humility and self-knowledge; for the Therapeutic they become a cause for offense and a reason to move on and explore other “spiritualities” or churches that will help them “find themselves.”

Despite disappointment being built into the Christian faith, multiple studies indicate that the Orthodox, in general, do experience subjective feelings of well-being more consistently than the Therapeutic. But since the pursuit of feeling good is not front and center in their lives, they often experience feelings of well-being as a result of putting other things first (e.g., faith, serving others, charitable giving, family, friendships, etc.). While the Therapeutic put feeling good at the top of their agenda, many of them will experience the law of diminishing returns: the more they chase subjective feelings of well-being, the less they will experience them, like a drug addict who has the initial cocaine high then spends twenty years trying to recapture the original experience.

The Therapeutic will often say, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” Devout Catholics will often say, “I’m not spiritual; I’m religious.” For the therapeutic personality, the “spiritual” is defined as those experiences that increase good feelings while “religious” experiences decrease them or are neutral. Thus the Mass can be deemed spiritual or religious based on the particular mood of the therapeutic parishioner. If Christian leadership accommodates the therapeutic Zeitgeist, they will be consigned to emerge every Sunday morning as the “Therapist-in-Chief” with their homiletical grab bag of affirmations and happy talk—Deepak Chopra in religious garb—in an effort to facilitate a plentitude of endorphins among the gathered assembly. This is what the apostle Paul called “preaching another gospel.” Instead, both the ordained priesthood and the lay priesthood need to stand firm in the faith once delivered to the saints, imitate the self- sacrifice of the Passion, and extend the tender mercies of God to those who have been bewitched by the Therapeutic.

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Narcissus,” was painted by René-Antoine Houasse in 1688.

  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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