A Church drowning in sentimentalism

Faith and reason are under siege from an idolatry of feelings.

(Image: Matt Botsford | Unsplash.com)

Whenever I teach graduate seminars, I lay down one rule for the participants. While they’re free to say what they think, they cannot start any sentence with the words “I feel . . .” or ask a question which begins “Don’t you feel . . .?” Quizzical expressions immediately appear on some students’ faces. Then I inform them I couldn’t care less what they feel about the subject-matter.

At that point, there’s at least one gasp of astonishment. But before anyone can even think “trigger,” I say, “Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m not interested in your feelings about our topic. Well, I want to know what you think about the subject. We’re not here to emote to each other. We’re here to reason critically together.”

The puzzled looks disappear. Students, it turns out, grasp that reasoned discussion can’t be about a mutual venting of feelings. And that’s as true for the Church as for graduates.

Catholicism has always attached high value to reason. By reason, I don’t just mean the sciences which give us access to nature’s secrets. I also mean the reason that enables us to know how to use this information rightly; the principles of logic which tell us that 2 times 2 can never equal 5; our unique capacity to know moral truth; and the rationality which helps us understand and explain Revelation.

Such is Catholicism’s regard for reason that this emphasis has occasionally collapsed into hyper-rationalism, such as the type which Thomas More and John Fisher thought characterized much scholastic theology in the twenty years preceding the Reformation. Hyper-rationalism isn’t, however, the problem facing Christianity in Western countries today. We face the opposite challenge. I’ll call it Affectus per solam.

“By Feelings Alone” captures much of the present atmosphere within the Church throughout the West. It impacts how some Catholics view not only the world but the faith itself. At the core of this widespread sentimentalism is an exaltation of strongly-felt feelings, a deprecation of reason, and the subsequent infantilization of Christian faith.

So what are symptoms of Affectus per solam? One is the widespread use of language in everyday preaching and teaching that’s more characteristic of therapy than words used by Christ and his Apostles. Words like “sin” thus fade and are replaced by “pains,” “regrets” or “sad mistakes.”

Sentimentalism likewise rears its head whenever those who offer reasoned defenses of Catholic sexual or medical ethics are told that their positions are “hurtful” or “judgmental.” Truth, it seems, shouldn’t be articulated, even gently, if it might hurt someone’s feelings. If that was true, Jesus should have refrained from telling the Samaritan woman the facts about her marital history.

Affectus per solam also blinds us to the truth that there is—as affirmed by Christ Himself—a place called Hell for those who die unrepentant. Sentimentalism simply avoids the subject. Hell isn’t a topic to be taken lightly, but ask yourself this question: When was the last time you heard the possibility that any of us could end up eternally separated from God mentioned at Mass?

Above all, sentimentalism reveals itself in certain presentations of Jesus Christ. The Christ whose hard teachings shocked his own followers and who refused any concession to sin whenever he spoke of love somehow collapses into a pleasant liberal rabbi. This harmless Jesus never dares us to transform our lives by embracing the completeness of truth. Instead he recycles bromides like “everyone has their own truth,” “do whatever feels best,” “be true to yourself,” “embrace your story,” “who am I to judge,” etc. And never fear: this Jesus guarantees heaven, or whatever, for everyone.

That isn’t, however, the Christ revealed in the Scriptures. As Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his 1991 book To Look on Christ:

A Jesus who agrees with everything and everyone, a Jesus without his holy wrath, without the harshness of truth and true love is not the real Jesus as the Scripture shows but a miserable caricature. A conception of “gospel” in which the seriousness of God’s wrath is absent has nothing to do with the biblical Gospel.

The word “seriousness” is important here. The sentimentalism infecting much of the Church is all about diminishing the gravity and clarity of Christian faith. That’s especially true regarding the salvation of souls. The God fully revealed in Christ is merciful but he’s also just and clear in his expectations of us because he takes us seriously. Woe to us if we don’t return the compliment.

So how did much of the Church end up sinking into a morass of sentimentalism? Here’s three primary causes.

First, the Western world is drowning in sentimentalism. Like everyone else, Catholics are susceptible to the culture in which we live. If you want proof of Western Affectus per solam, just turn on your web-browser. You’ll soon notice the sheer emotivism pervading popular culture, media, politics, and universities. In this world, morality is about your commitment to particular causes. What matters is how “passionate” (note the language) you are about your commitment, and the cause’s degree of political correctness—not whether the cause itself is reasonable to support.

Second, let’s consider how faith is understood by many Catholics today. For many, it appears to be a “feeling faith.” By that, I mean that Christian faith’s significance is judged primarily in terms of feeling what it does for me, my well-being, and my concerns. But guess what? Me, myself, and I aren’t the focus of Catholic faith.

Catholicism is, after all, a historical faith. It involves us deciding that we trust those who witnessed to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who transmitted what they saw via written texts and unwritten traditions, and who, we’ve concluded, told the truth about what they saw. That includes the miracles and Resurrection attesting to Christ’s Divinity. Catholicism doesn’t view these as “stories.” To be a Catholic is to affirm that they really happened and that Christ instituted a Church whose responsibility is to preach this to the ends of the earth.

Catholic faith can’t therefore be about me and my feelings. It’s about capital-T Truth. Human fulfilment and salvation consequently involves freely and constantly choosing to conform myself to that Truth. It’s not about subordinating the Truth to my emotions. In fact, if Catholicism isn’t about the Truth, what’s the point?

Third, sentimentalism’s pervasiveness in the Church owes something to efforts to downgrade and distort natural law since Vatican II. Natural law reflection was in mixed shape throughout the Catholic world in the decades leading up to the 1960s. But it suffered an eclipse in much of the Church afterwards. That’s partly because natural law was integral to Humanae Vitae’s teaching. Many theologians subsequently decided that anything underpinning Humanae Vitae had to be emptied of substantive content.

While natural law reasoning recovered in parts of the Church from the 1980s onwards, we’re paid a price for natural law’s marginalization. And the price is this: once you relegate reason to the periphery of religious faith, you start imagining that faith is somehow independent of reason; or that faith is somehow inherently hostile to reason; or that your religious convictions don’t require explanation to others. The end-result is decreasing concern for the reasonableness of faith. That’s a sure way to end up in the swamp of sentimentalism.

Other reasons for sentimentalism’s traction in today’s Church could be mentioned: the disappearance of logic from educational curricula, excessive deference to (bad) psychology and (bad) sociology by some clerics formed in the 1970s, inclinations to view the Holy Spirit’s workings as something that could contradict Christ’s teachings, syrupy self-referential Disney-like liturgies, etc. It’s a long list.

The solution isn’t to downgrade the importance of emotions like love and joy or anger and fear for people. We aren’t robots. Feelings are central aspects of our nature. Instead, human emotions need to be integrated into a coherent account of Christian faith, human reason, human action, and human flourishing—something undertaken with great skill by past figures like Aquinas and contemporary thinkers such as the late Servais Pinckaers. Then we need to live our lives accordingly.

Escaping Affectus per solam won’t be easy. It’s simply part of the air we breathe in the West. Moreover, some of those most responsible today for forming people in the Catholic faith seem highly susceptible to sentimentalist ways. But unless we name and contest the unbridled emotivism presently compromising the Church’s witness to the Truth, we risk resigning ourselves to mere NGO-ism for the near future.

That is to say, to true irrelevance.


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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 31 Articles
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He is the author of many books, including Becoming Europe (2013) and For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

55 Comments

  1. “I could care less what they feel about the subject-matter.”

    Couldn’t care less. If you could care less, then you care at least a little. If you care not at all, you couldn’t care less.

    I know – picky picky picky.

    • “Couldn’t care less. If you could care less, then you care at least a little. If you care not at all, you couldn’t care less.”

      Not just picky, picky, picky, but wrong, wrong, wrong.

      He stated he couldn’t care less, meaning as you point out that he already cares not at all. Since he is at the bottom point of not caring at all, he couldn’t care less.

          • Thank you, Mr. Olson!

            Docent, *now* there’s no error in what Gregg wrote, because it was corrected. It used to say “could care less.”

          • Reply to Leslie. I see the problem now, but check my last response to Carl if he allows it to be published. If Gregg accurately stated the way he phrased his response, correcting it the way it was done is inappropriate.

        • Okay, Carl. Question: Did Gregg accurately write the way he responded to students, or has he affirmed your “correction”? If he accurately set forth the way he phrased his response, was your correction appropriate, or should you have perhaps used [sic] after the statement to be faithful to what Gregg stated, yet indicate that such has been faithfully set forth as written even though an error or anomaly is involved in the phrasing?

          There was also some sarcasm in the way Gregg responded to the students, and so “I could care less” as a sarcastic phrase, though grammatically incorrect, should remain if that was his actual way of responding.

          And just for the record, “so while she may not care less, I do” suggests you care less. Is that accurate? 🙂

          • Thanks Carl:

            Good to read that Dr. Gregg approved your editing, but one question still remains begged and unanswered, which is how did Gregg actually respond to the students? Was it via what your correction sets forth or the way he set forth in the originally published article prior to your editing it? If the latter, then Gregg either botched in his initial article or the correction is a misrepresentation of how he responded to the students. Which one is it?

            Again, “I could care less” sarcastically delivered is indeed grammatically flawed, but it is also a fairly common way to make the point, and since this is how the original appeared, unless Dr. Gregg affirms that he actually told the students “I couldn’t care less,” the likelihood is that he responded as first published, thereby indeed making the correction a misrepresentation and untruthful.

  2. I remember once hearing a sermon where the priest (I think it was, or it could have been a deacon) was saying something about how one should be joyful about going to Mass, and if one was only going because it was an obligation one might as well not go (it wasn’t put that crudely, but that was what it sounded like). I wish I had had the guts to go up to him and tell him what I thought (not felt): if one isn’t feeling joyful about going but goes anyway out of obedience one is acknowledging:
    1)There is a God
    2)He should be worshipped
    3)He has established a Church and to worship Him in the form He wants us to worship
    4)That Church is the Catholic Church

    And that is good, not bad. I’m tired of feeeeeeeeelings.

    • Good. Of course it is better to attend Mass out of joy and love, but if we only ever did what we felt like the world would be a worse place. Your preacher seems to have forgotten about the noble idea of duty.

  3. Sentimentality must arise out of weakness; not weakness in arms, but weakness of mind and will. I am reminded of Denethor’s words to Pippin in the Lord of the Ring: “I accept your service. For you are not daunted by words; and you have courteous speech…” We have become a nation daunted by words (i.e. the speaking of truth) yet without courteous voice (when we state our opinions).

  4. Sentimentality…started with women…as per Opra…and then my wife…and now my college daughter who will leave the faith over the 2% that have SSA

    • I wouldn’t watch Oprah if you paid me, and I’m certainly not leaving the Church over people who decide to commit heinous sins because that’s what they’re tempted to do. Unfortunately there are any number of men who are wallowing in sentimental idiocy, too.

    • It actually began in the 1960, if not earlier. I was college student in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time in psychology they were teaching “how” to talk to children (or anyone) by discussing “feelings”. Elementary classes had the “magic circle” where the teacher was to ask student how they felt about a subject or how they felt about something that happened. It was the new approach that encompasses “active listening”.

  5. Good article overall but the elephant in the room is the liturgy. The ancient Mass promoted awe and reverence in the worship of Holy god and reminded us of the depth of our sin and the greatness, grandeur and majestic love of God for each soul who lived, lives, and will live. The contemporary Mass promotes happy chat, informality, focus on the celebrant and the congregation, and all the rest, including hymns most of which are cringe-worthy, bathetic ploys to engage and indoctrinate through emotion. There are of course exceptions to the rule — the ancient Mass celebrated poorly or coldly, as if the congregants were irrelevant; the contemporary Mass celebrated with reverence, dignity, and awe; but the general fact is this: the culture of the Church and the transmission of the Faith changed dramatically with the imposition of the new liturgy. All the rest, including the topics in this articleC are just consequences.

    • Yes! This is exactly it and I spent the whole article wondering when the liturgy was going to come up, but it didn’t. The NO oozes sentimentality and even reverently celebrated ones cannot escape its physical and spiritual orientation on the “community”. The Mass is sacrifice but the NO is almost completely stripped of sacrificial character, and this has so many secondary effects, not a single one of them positive. For instance, a Mass oriented to man, rather than to God, compels priests to give the weak, insipid homilies that the modern priesthood is notorious for.

      The recovery of the old Mass isn’t something that priests and bishops should consider getting around to once Francis is gone, it is something that they should consider absolutely imperative if they want to be freed themselves from sentimentality and bring their parishes and dioceses with them. By doing so, they may gain many, many souls for Heaven.

  6. Sentimentality is the source of Western liberalism and the Vatican, not merely Francis’ Vatican but that of the last several popes, have embraced it and the sloppy ‘thought’ that always accompanies it. Only bitter experience will return the papacy to a state of seriousness and, unless I’m misreading things, politicians around the globe are about to deliver some very bitter treatment to Francis and his cohort. Trump knows Francis favored Crooked, that he may have even contributed to her failed campaign; the leaders of Poland, Hungary, and Italy, among other European states, know that Francis’ advice concerning “refugees” has been catastrophic; the Church in China knows now that the pope’s political decision has thrown them to the Communist dogs. But the winds are now shifting rapidly. Just yesterday, half of South America, namely Brazil, turned at the ballot box against Francis’ globalist sentimentality and elected Bolsonaro. The new president has announced out of the gate that he will relax Brazil’s gun laws and let citizens defend themselves against rampant crime. Poland and Hungary are shutting their doors to Francis’ fake “refugees.” And Trump’s Justice Department is now planning a RICO indictment of many of Francis’ allies in American chanceries; the Vatican itself may find soon some of its past decisions declared criminal in American courts.

    As suggested above, there’s nothing like a little reality to cure someone of the sentimentality disease.

  7. A good account on emotion understood as “sentimentalism”. Nonetheless don’t undercut the inherent function of the emotive with cognition, particularly cognition of truth. For example assent to truth involves a desire to assent. All pursuit of knowledge and truth is a form of love. The faith we have in Christ is not initially based on reason rather the revelation of a truth that we’re drawn to emotively [again a form of cognition] by grace. Simply put we believe because God has spoken [reasonable argument follows]. The difference with sentimentalism is as understood a deficiency in objective cognition and focus on subjective predilection. For a comprehensive account see St Thomas Aquinas ST 1a2ae 22-48 Treatise on the Emotions.

  8. When I was 7 years old, my mother told me, “You think with your reason or you’re not thinking. Don’t rationalize your emotions.” Pretty heady stuff for a 7 year old! And yet, she was an artist, a member of the San Francisco Art Association. So she knew that reason even with faith is not enough to be fully human. On a purely practical level, I have learned the heard way that if something feels fishy, I had better pay good attention to my feelings!

    • Anne Marie reason on its own has great importance. For example we can know, understand there is a supreme being solely thru reason. We can apprehend that in nature, that all things have an end or purpose, that some greater power must move all things. The Apostle Paul in Romans 1 chastises Roman gentiles who refused to use their intelligence in observing evidence of God’s existence in nature. However to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God requires faith in the Apostolic witness. That faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. What motivates us is the gift of faith, and assent of the will to believe Jesus is the Messiah Son of God. The will is described as the rational appetite [desire]. Your correct that ‘feelings’ our emotive nature have a vital cognitive function.

      • Those who consider reason important usually admit the importance of emotion, too. But those who rely on feelings above all almost always dismiss intellect because it is “hurtful” and “unkind.”

        • I’ve met up with those who consider anything except reason as “psychological” and “introspective.” I’m glad you’ve met up with well-balanced people. Please send them over my way!

        • Leslie when we drift away from objectivity and manifest truth intellect and right reason becomes severe, judgmental. I’m beating the war drums again nevertheless I’m reminded of the Pontiff counseling newly ordained priests they shouldn’t be too exacting, definitive when dealing with moral doctrine. Sentimentalism is prevalent well beyond the classroom.

  9. I think that we need all three, reason, faith and feelings or emotions, and that they need to be integrated so as to work together and support each other. That integration, coming to wholeness, is the challenge. Emotions are not an effect of original sin that they should be disdained. Our Lord “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.” He felt sorrow and fear.St. Thomas Aquinas apparently wrote “Being insensitive to our feelings and emotions is a vice.” (IIa IIae Q. 92 A1).
    As I wrote, the challenge is to bring all aspects of one’s personhood into unity. Reason, because it is a higher faculty than emotions, is also more dangerous when it is not in accord with faith. Look at the effects of the Enlightenment. Moreover, we speak with good reason of “sentire cum Ecclesia.” And St. Thomas also describes “wisdom,” “sapiencia”, the highest Gift of the Holy Spirit, as “sapida sciencia,” “a sweet-tasting knowledge.”

  10. Great insights. It seems to be the case that along with this Affectus per solam, one also finds a prevalence and usage of the word “like.”

    Ex. I feel like you’re being too judgmental and not inclusive.

    In a majority of my college classes, this is what one hears and what one has to debate with. It’s a difficult task, for even feelings hold primacy in modern debates.

  11. The general point of your article is well-made, but is undermined in the penultimate paragraph when you describe love as an emotion. The failure to identify love as an act of the will – which may or may not be accompanied by emotion – is largely responsible for the ethical mess of contemporary society, not least in sexual ethics.

    • ‘The Abolition of Man ‘ by C S Lewis should be recommended reading for most people in this emotionally steeped age. But first read Mere Christianity by the same Author. From the first page it provokes one to think and use ones reason and it is written in a very easy to grasp way. Easier than The Abolition of Man which is an excellent follow up. John Damian

  12. I’m not acquainted with the term “NGO” outside of Non-Government Organization. I’d be curious to know how it connects to sentimentalism.

  13. I cherish Mar Steyn’s description of the liberal ‘take’ on our Lord (from his review of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ): ‘Some in this post-Christian culture don’t believe anything, some are riddled with doubts, but even the ones with only a vague residual memory of the fluffier Sunday School stories are agreed that there’s little harm in a Jesus figure who’s a “gentle teacher”. In this world, if Jesus came back today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally-friendly car with an “Arms Are For Hugging” sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imams.’

  14. Sr Gabriela writes that we need all three to be integrated – reason, will and emotion. The integration is provided by the notion of “person” – it is the person who reasons, wills (ie loves), feels emotions and much more.
    The notion of “person” is at the summit of philosophy and theology and we use it in an attempt to grasp some truths about the Triune God. This unifies the whole of our thinking and the presence of sentimentalism demonstrates the current darkness of the world today and of the threat to the truth taught and passed on by the Church.

  15. The idea that “by feelings alone” could be translated as “affectus per solam” is grotesquely incorrect. Even with so simple an aid as wiktionary, it is easy to find that what is required is a phrase in the ablative plural, such as “solis affectibus.”

  16. “Affectus per solam”???? What the heck is that supposed to mean? My gosh. That’s a horrible attempt at fake Latin. And I don’t just “feel” that way.

  17. The pox of sentimentality infects not only the Church but the secular society as well. The shibboleth ‘love is love’ offers a good example.

  18. The problem is that people don’t use the phrase “I feel” in a correct way. The use it to express an opinion or a thought, not a true feeling. “I feel that…” does not express a feeling.

  19. My husband and I own a Catholic church supply store that also sells books, bibles, religious articles, and gifts. For some years now I have been uncomfortable with the prevalence of Christian books for children that emphasize the “fun” of the Christian faith. I have noticed this from both Catholic and Evangelical publishers. Traditional illustrations of Jesus from days gone by were realistic, but now we more often see exaggerated cartoon-ish features that can only be described as “goofy”. I can’t help but fear that these images introduced to children at a young age will only contribute to the problem of sentimentality forming the minds of young people. A goofy image of Jesus certainly will not lead a child to faith, reason, or worship.

    • I, too, have noticed the rise of cartoon-ish illustrations (when I saw a sample page from “Youcat,” I flinched; the title is silly enough, but the illustrations contribute to trivializing the subject). I hadn’t thought of them as contributing to sentimentality, though I think you’re right. My complaint about them is that they diminish reverence. I’ve read things in which people sneer at the old holy pictures because they were too saccharine-sweet, but they were reverent and beautiful and special, and most of the ones today are none of those things.

  20. Feelings are good things. They tell us about us, our interior. But, not the ideal way to make decisions about how to live based on fleeting feelings. Make those decisions by “thinking”.

  21. Amen to all that, I say, Carl. And in fact said yesterday in part, on my blog http://www.juliadufresne.blogspot.com, as follows (You may say I’m overstating the case. I’d be interested in comments):

    Priests, religious and lay are supposedly following their vocations, meaning the state of life to which God calls them. Being gay is not following a vocation. God calls no one to be gay, because being gay means choosing to live in serious sin. Saying we need to utilize the gifts of sodomites is like saying we need to utilize the gifts of unrepentant axe murderers, corporate swindlers and terrorists.

    ‘Serious sin’ no matter what its colour ‘is the act by which man voluntarily detaches himself from God, the one source of life, charity and grace. … The sinner has, so to speak, obliged God to break all ties of friendship with him’ (Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen OCD, Divine Intimacy (aka the Carmelite bedside book).

  22. Nope
    The faith is more than a set of dogmas we intellectually accept.
    It must be lived with your whole being.
    I think you must be talking about something other that Catholicism.

  23. To be fair, it seems to me that the phrase “I feel” is often used as a synonym for “I think” or “I believe.” It doesn’t always refer to “feelings” as such.

  24. Thomas Aquinas wrote “Passio nata est obedire ratione”. Our passions, i.e. our emotions, our feelings, our inclinations need and want to be guided by reason. We should not ignore what we feel. Rather our feelings, which arise within us spontaneously in response to some stimuli should not be ignored but referred to the guidance of reason before we speak or act. For greater understanding of this I rseommend Dr. Conrad W. Baars’ book “Feeling and Healing Your Emotions”.

  25. Reason needs the peace and strength from the Holy Spirit that moderate reason. Without them, reason is clouded by the effects of our human weakness. Without the Holy Spirit, feelings share the same fate as reason.

  26. No, you may not demand that people cannot feel or say how they feel and rudely say you don’t care how they feel. That IS hurtful and it is nasty of you to do so. This is just a way for you to stop having to deal with being human and letting others be so. This is huge defect in you, not in others for having feelings. Christ certainly did not deal with people in this way. Reason is not our highest power, love, and feelings are. You cannot be an effective pastor or person if you insist on shutting off what is best in being human.

    • “you may not demand that people cannot feel or say how they feel and rudely say you don’t care how they feel.”

      I don’t think he was asking your permission, so you aren’t really in a position to tell him what he may or may not do.

      “Christ certainly did not deal with people in this way”

      TO be fair, the people then probably did not have the sad addiction to feeeeeeeeeeelings from which we suffer these days.

      “Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory.”

      Presumably he is teaching those graduate seminars on research, political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. Those subjects are not going to be learned or taught effectively by using “love, and feelings.”

8 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A Church drowning in sentimentalism -
  2. A Church drowning in sentimentalism: Faith and reason are under siege from an idolatry of feelings – Good Shepherd Catholic Radio
  3. VVEDNESDAY SCARY EDITION – Big Pulpit
  4. Sentimentalism in the Church: a modern epidemic – Acton Institute PowerBlog
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  7. Una Chiesa che affoga nel sentimentalismo – I TRE AMORI BIANCHI – Gli Araldi del Vangelo in Italia
  8. «Nella Chiesa il sentimentalismo offusca la ragione» – Cristianesimo Cattolico

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