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Sunday, May 9, 2021

The False Religion Of Secularism–One Man’s Dismal Life Of Progressive Activism

Brady Mullins had been brought up Catholic – an Irish Catholic from New England -  and as any Catholic who grew up under the penitential governance of Irish priests, there are no stricter, no more authoritarian, no less forgiving ministers of the Lord.

Father Brophy was a prince of the Boston archdiocese whose Cardinal had him in mind for bishop and ultimately archbishop. His unwavering, irredeemably punitive sermons showed his mettle, his profound conservatism, and his refusal to buckle under to the rising and impertinent demands of secularist reformers.  

He was a tall and imposing man whose sermons were orations – grandiloquent calls to ignore the devil’s wiles, to aspire only to goodness, and to look to Christ the Redeemer as the only salvation from an evil, treacherous, and sinful world. 

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His sermons began quietly, softly, and slowly – perhaps a parable or a reading from one of John’s more forgiving verses – but then as he warmed to his theme and saw the congregation relax in contemplation of his gentle, consoling words, his voice became louder and more urgent – not yet harsh or demanding but insistent.

 “Jesus died for your sins”, he said, “and what is more painful than the nails hammered into his hands and feet,  his struggling climb up Gethsemane with his cross on his back, the whips and lashes of Roman soldiers, and the sword thrust into his side, is your continued sins.”.  

Here Brophy paused, waiting for the words to sink in and for the anticipation of the next to stir.  “Yes, your continued sins”, the priest went on more loudly and more pointedly.  “Your sins…” (here he pointed to the back of the church where the slackers sat)…”and yours” (this time pointing directly at known adulterers and cheaters).  

Brophy knew that such derivative tactics – i.e. making privileged confessional information public, or at least suggestively public – were not exactly according to code, but the wages of sin is death, the Devil is amongst the living, and the threat of eternal damnation so great that any ruse used in the name of righteousness was justified.

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Finally, as Brophy reached the core of his sermon – always on sin, most often on adultery, promiscuity, or impure thoughts – his voice rose to a crescendo, mighty and stertorous, resonating through the church, up to the high vaulted ceiling, and back to the choir loft.  No one left church without having taken notice.

Many parishioners opted out of Father Brophy’s Masses.  The much more lenient, forgiving, and charitable Father Leary officiated at early and late Masses, and the pews were filled for those who preferred his gentle, humorous, and indirect references to sin.  He was filled with the goodness of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s beneficent love, and so was loved by the congregation.  

But the mid-morning Masses were unavoidable.  Few churchgoers wanted to get up early on Sunday, and rather than skip Mass altogether (a mortal sin to be confessed to Father Brophy on Saturday) they attended his Masses.

Largely because of Father Brophy, Brady Mullins left the Church as a young adult.  It was the Sixties and the Church and its autocracy, male patriarchy, and obdurate stances on sexuality were prime targets for secular revolt.  Brophy’s Masses were poorly attended and then only by the elderly who had grown used to his hectoring and were still moved by his oratory.  St. Maurice Church was close to arrears as were many in the archdiocese.  Catholics were abandoning the Church in record numbers.

‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic’ is an old and familiar adage.  There was nothing pliant about the Irish American church in the Fifties, nothing that even suggested the individual spirituality professed by the counterculture.  There was only one path to salvation, and that was through the Holy Mother Church; and most lapsed Catholics like Brady could never shake this commandment.  As much as he tried to rid himself of Jesus and Father Brophy, he could not; and like many lapsed Catholics he turned to ‘spiritual secularism’ as an anodyne for his doubts.

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‘Spiritual secularism’ was a term that came out of Liberation Theology,  Latin American priests who took Jesus’ words about the poor seriously and literally, and became  activists for the economically and politically oppressed.  They were the self-appointed ‘deacons of poverty’ and were more often than not in the slums and not in church.  “The slums are our church”, they said, following what they saw as Jesus’ example of working with, ministering to, and loving the poor.

Spiritual secularism appealed to Brady because it had no ties to the Church or organized religion but was Christian in spirit.  The new activism concerning civil rights was exactly the right match of higher intent and ground-level ministry.  It was no accident that Martin Luther King was an ordained minister.

Brady, unlike most of his Sixties cohorts who were now corporate lawyers, university hospital surgeons, or Wall Street investors, never lost his drive for social justice. In fact there was no social cause that was not worthy of his attention. 

The denial of civil rights to the black man was just the most obvious and publicized expression of American capitalist depredation.  Women’s rights, gay rights, and the threat of global warming were equal to the corruption of white supremacy and indifference.  Brady enthusiastically and tirelessly joined every progressive activist group and was always on the front lines.

Unlike his colleagues who had subscribed to social activism because of politics or political philosophy, Brady never lost his sense of spiritual mission.  He was helping to fulfil Christ’s mission even though Jesus’ name was never spoken.

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This blending of faith and secular purpose seemed essential. One could not have one without the other; and while he respected the activism of his colleagues, he saw them drift too easily into a complaisant, convenient, self-centered social enterprise. Being part of a large homogeneous, and politically congenial movement took the place of religion rather than complemented it.  In fact the progressive movement looked more and more like a secular Catholic Church.  It had its liturgy, its litany, its commandments, its sins, confession, ceremonies, requirements of entry and laws governing expulsion and excommunication.

Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian (8.26.13) laments the passing of Robert Bellah, a sociologist who believed that a society without religion is impossible and dismisses entirely the notion, embodied in the Constitution, that the collective will of the people guided by the benevolent hand of the State is enough – there is no need for religion:

Liberalism… has no need of God because it trusts that the self-interest of the citizens will lead them to the best possible outcome: "the state is a purely neutral legal mechanism without purposes or values. Its sole function is to protect the rights of individuals, that is, to protect freedom." Such a state is, he thinks, an absurd impossibility, which could never exist.

However much thinkers like Bellah consider religion the sine qua non of a progressive society, it is belief that is universal and unchangeable, not religion. If the cycle of history turns towards the secular, and God is put on the shelf for a few hundred years, we will create other, secular gods.

Atheism, for example, is not simply a personal rejection of God, but a religion of unbelief – a collective movement with its own dogma, rituals, recitations, and cant.  There are now atheists’ conferences, school clubs, websites, and jamborees.  It is simply not enough to wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and conclude that God doesn’t exist.  We need affirmation, collective support.  We need to be in a crowd shouting “God doesn’t exist”, carry copies of the Atheist Catechism, proselytize and evangelize, and pray that others will see the errors of their ways.

Given the passion of Environmentalism, it has become the religious movement of the day and little different from the millennialism of the past.  The world will end in a fiery Armageddon, say Environmentalists.  We will pay for our sins against the Earth, and our fate will be hot, brutal, and inescapable. However, we can save the Earth and ourselves through prayer and good works.  There is still time.  How different are these warnings, chastisements, and admonitions from the fire and brimstone that rages from the pulpit every Sunday?  No different at all.

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Environmentalism may be the best example of secular religion, but America is awash in causes with believers just as fervent. The social media appeal for animal rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights. The faithful fill auditoriums to listen to secular priests fulminate about doom and disaster – puppies eviscerated, women up against glass ceilings, gays marginalized and abused. These true believers leave the room feeling as sanctified as those who receive Holy Communion.

This co-opting of religion – or the appropriation of religious belief, ceremony, cant, and authority – is what offended Brady.  People had fun at environmental caucuses, women’s conferences, and gay rights colloquies; and while there was nothing wrong with that, it was the congeniality of it all, the identity of belonging which made the cause diminished in value.  When asked why they were acting in the service of a social cause, progressives would answer in a tautology – because it is the right thing to do. 

Hindus were the most sensible, Brady thought.  The purpose of living is preparation for the eternal, and only through personal enterprise – faith, duty, prayer, and fidelity to those religious principles which lead to spiritual enlightenment – can one achieve it.  Social activism is irrelevant in India, for collective action means nothing within a religion whose goal is individual spiritual evolution.

The world is illusion, maya, say Hindus, so attachment to it or worse, attempts to change it, are fruitless and ultimately ignorant.  So, Brady reflected, his attempt at giving social mission a religious foundation was self-centered fancy.  He was no less misguided than his secular colleagues.

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So Brady went back to the Church.  There was both intellectual integrity and personal solace there.  At the end of one’s life, few think of what they have accomplished, how much change they have effected, what difference they have made.  They think only of what is to come; and facing the void of eternity without God would be unconscionable.

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