A primer for disillusioned Catholics

Sooner or later, everybody struggles with disillusionment. It might be because your bishop or priest is a screwup, a disgrace or a pervert. It might be because you entered the Church, brimming with zeal and love for Jesus and the Faith — only to discover that the nun who seems to run your parish (there’s only a priest there every other week) resents the Church, belittles the Faith, and treats you like an ignorant hick because you take seriously and delight in the Church’s teachings. 

Or maybe you have a hero who lost his faith or sinned gravely. Maybe you are a student who took the Faith for granted and are now at a Catholic university where the prof delights in deconstructing the Faith (he calls it the “fundamentalism”) of freshmen who take Church teaching seriously. 

Maybe you are somewhere in middle age and have begun to wonder, “Is that all there is? Work, buy, consume, die? I thought there would be more.”

‘Knowing the truth’

In sum, maybe you are facing the fact that some hope you had, somebody you deeply believed in, some cause to which you gave yourself, some supposedly self-evident truth about the universe isn’t so true after all, and the glow of promise you felt in your younger (and what you are tempted to call your “more naïve”) days has dimmed, leaving you asking whether the Faith is a cheat and a fraud. You are struggling with disillusionment, disappointment, and the whole complex of disorientation, discouragement, fear, doubt, anger and depression that goes with it. What do you do? 

One very helpful place to start is to learn what “disillusionment” really means. 

Most people think of “disillusionment” as a synonym for “cynicism.” But, in fact, to be “disillusioned” means, quite literally, to have illusions stripped away. Having an illusion stripped away, while painful, is a good thing in the Catholic tradition — provided we really understand what the illusion is and, even more importantly, what reality is. It is Jesus, after all, who says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). 

The problem is, we are bad at that whole “knowing the truth” thing, due to concupiscence: the darkened intellect, weakened will and disordered appetites born of original sin. So, for instance, we find it easy to imagine that our encounter with human sinfulness somehow disproves the goodness of God or the truth of the Gospel.  

We can easily believe the lie that at the core of life is darkness and misery, not light and joy. So some fellow Christian rips us off or lets us down and we bitterly talk as though we are the first hard-bitten cynic to conclude life is a candy-coating of sugary naïve Christian piety on a nasty core of gritty reality — just as though the entire story of the betrayal, kangaroo trial, humiliation and murder of Jesus Christ never happened. 

But in fact, of course, the Christian faith is founded on a Savior who endured all the nastiest, filthiest things that fallen man had to throw at him. And these things are still features of the human condition today. Christianity, in short, has no illusions about just how low and despicable people can be — including even the Christian people who let us down. That’s why it says we need a Savior. It’s we, in our suburban comfiness, naïveté and generally warm and approving view of ourselves who live in illusion, not Christianity. And it is exactly that illusion, not the Christian teaching on sin, that is stripped away when we are dis-illusioned. 

The trouble is that, being fallen ourselves, we are often prone to miss that. Instead of seeing what a wretched species we are without a Savior (and that this Savior has decisively defeated all the marshaled powers of sin, hell and death by his resurrection and ascension), we find it enormously easy to conclude, “Everybody but me is blind to the ugly truth. I’m going to harden my heart so I never get suckered again” — paradoxically making ourselves even more open to deception from the devil.  

In short, we can whipsaw from the presumption that things are fine and people are nice to the despair that life is garbage, people are all jerks, and there’s no hope. That is, we pass, not from the illusion known as presumption to the reality of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, but from the illusion of presumption to the deeper illusion of despair. For no one is more deceived than the person who chooses to close himself off from the love of God and neighbor and the hope that is in Christ. 

Getting our bearings

Here’s reality: No creature — be it luck, money, power, connections, sex appeal, charm, a hero, a lover — is going to see us through or satisfy us. Some will betray us. All will sooner or later leave us frustrated and unfulfilled. But that is a feature, not a bug. For as St. Paul says, “the creation was subjected to futility”(Rom 8:20). 

In short, in our sin-weakened state, we are as Martin Luther famously observed, like drunks who fall off one side of the horse and then climb back up and fall off on the other side. We ricochet from presumption (that creatures will make us happy) to despair (that happiness cannot be found) while remaining oblivious to the fact that both of these extremes are the enemies of hope (that happiness is found only in Christ). 

Getting our bearings means realizing that we are to live in hope, just as St. Paul does when he continues, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance” (Rom 8:22-25). 

Divine encouragement

To live in hope is to set our sights on eternity where Christ dwells and to realize that he teaches us to regard this world as “passing” not permanent. The reason this world awakens desires in us that it can never fulfill is because this world has been designed to do so by the Creator. It is sacramental and is meant to lead us to Christ, not to itself.  

Therefore, disillusionment, futility and what the pagans called “the tears of things” is, sooner or later, part of the package and is, surprisingly, a good gift of God lest we fall into the sin of idolatry (which is the worship of the creature instead of the Creator). Indeed, so strong is our urge to latch on to creatures and make them into substitute gods that even in a world where everything comes to futility, we can still barely be restrained from doing it. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the smartest thing we can do with disillusionment is thank God for keeping us on track and teaching us to set our hearts on him and not on creatures. 

This does not mean we are to be stoics and stop feeling the pain when life lets us down. On the contrary, we are to keep “our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:2-3). So we should bring our disillusionment to Jesus and his saints (both in heaven and those we know here on earth), telling them our troubles and asking for encouragement, and we should give his encouragement to others.  

To encourage somebody is to “put heart into” them. Jesus and his saints offer encouragement all the time. But we must remember that the peace Jesus offers is “not as the world gives” (Jn 14:27) for it is not rooted in this passing world. That is why St. Paul tells us, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth” (Col 3:1-2). 

Mark Shea is the author of “The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Rediscovering the Our Father” (OSV, $12.95). He writes from Washington state.