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Religion shouldn’t make people miserable

Why can’t we get it?
Religious people often give the impression of over-seriousness. It’s as if
the weight of the worries of world is hanging from our shoulders giving us a
droopy, hand-dog appearance. Making us more than a tad miserable. The kind
of people, maybe, that you’d cross the street to avoid. The kind of people
who sigh their way through the day, expecting the worst. Waiting for some
inevitable disaster to occur. Or possibly, with a bit of luck, the end of
the world.
There are exceptions, of course. Pope Francis for one seems to sing from a
different hymn-sheet. Now there’s a 78 year-old man with huge
responsibilities, difficult decisions, an impossible job and yet he seems,
well, happy. Usually religious people don’t seem to be happy. Priests don’t
seem to be that happy anymore. Happy bishops seem to be fairly thin on the
ground. But the pope is happy.
What’s different about the happiness Francis exudes is that it’s based on
the very essence of the Christian faith, that God loves us beyond all our
imagining. And he loves us regardless of what we do or what we fail to do.
For some inexplicable reason some ‘religious’ people tend to want us to
believe the opposite, that we’ll get to heaven only if we succeed in
building up enough brownie points by negotiating successfully a series of
jumps on a complex and difficult circuit. A kind of snakes and ladders
version of religion where despite the ladders we might have successfully
negotiated there’s always a snake waiting to send us to ground zero again.
To such a degree indeed that it’s almost impossible to envisage anyone
getting to heaven at all apart from a few miserable saints.
I suspect that Francis believes that God loves us so much that we’re all
going to end up in heaven anyway. Why else is he so happy to say he’s a
sinner? He wants us to believe that it’s no big deal because to be human is
to fail (and to sin) but the unimaginable, inexpressible, incredible love
God has for us will conquer all our limitations and our sinfulness.

  • Isn’t it extraordinary that after 1500 years of Christianity in Ireland, so many of us still haven’t got our heads around the essence of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ – God so loved the world that he sent his Son to tell us about it? Isn’t it extraordinary that so many of us still don’t get it?
  • Isn’t it extraordinary that people who have said their prayers, met their responsibilities and lived admirably can arrive at the end of their lives worrying if they’ll get to heaven when the dogs in the street know that they have to be a shoo-in?
  • Isn’t it extraordinary that the inevitable failures and peccadillos of the human condition have been promoted into huge sins by misery-inducing Christians who don’t seem to understand the central message of the Gospel?
  • Isn’t it extraordinary that we’ve found it easier to believe that, despite everything Jesus Christ said and suffered, that we still find it easier to believe in a God who doesn’t love us rather than in God who does?

A priest who spent much of the pre-Christmas days sitting long hours in the
Confessional told me that though he heard hundreds of Confessions ‘there was
hardly a sin among them’. He’s on the ball because most of the sins
confessed in Confession aren’t really sins at all, just obvious examples of
human failure.
It can be difficult, especially for those of us old enough to remember the
hell-fire denunciations of sin in the past, to get our heads around the fact
that the religion presented to us (and the image of a judgemental God that
was used to sustain it) seemed to have more to say about sin than about
love. I once heard the priest-philosopher, the late John O’Donohue, talk
compellingly about growing up in rural Ireland at a time when almost
everything seemed to be a sin: ‘You could hardly stir at all’, he said in
his booming voice, ‘without committing some kind of sin!’
It has taken us a long time to realise that such an understanding of the
Christian faith is fundamentally skewed. Younger people, who have no memory
of the fears, worries and scruples that damaged our belief in a loving God,
wonder what all the fuss was about. Sadly some older people still worry,
even after a lifetime of living decent and moral lives, about whether God
will turn them away from him when they die.
Here’s a question to ponder: what can we do to bring the central truth of
the Christian faith – that God loves each one of us individually, uniquely
and personally beyond what any of us deserve or could ever expect – into the
very heart of our religious experience?
Part of the answer may be making Confession simpler. Getting it out into the
open, away from the often-dreaded and dreary Confessional Box. Dare I say
it, making it a bit easier for us to recognise and acknowledge our
sinfulness, without the tortuous and scrupulous detailing of every possible
sin, as if God would refuse to give us the benefit of the doubt if we failed
to include every possible peccadillo for the Great Accountant in the Sky?
Part of the answer too may be to domesticate sexual sin, to place it in due
context rather than at the centre of life’s stage with a great spotlight
emphasising the grand obsession. As Pope Francis seems to be suggesting.
Some priests, of course, don’t want Confession to be easy. For some
inexplicable and probably heretical reason they prefer to retain Confession
as a harrowing experience, as if the forgiveness of God can only be mediated
by making us feel miserable. Some priests talk dismissively about people
today ‘losing their sense of sin’ when what’s really happening is that
despite the guilt we have poured for centuries over the natural compulsions
of people’s lives, so many (to their credit) have retained a natural and
human understanding of what makes sense, sin-wise, and what doesn’t.
So, if religion is making you miserable, give your face a holiday and smile.
Because God loves you. He really does. That’s what it’s all about.

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  1. Oh the sheer superficiality and banality of this piece to someone who has come from the tragic funeral of a young man gruesomely murdered in his prime! Oh the passé nature of it all! When will the representatives of a dying breed ever realise how hollow their optimism is in the face of the reality of the devil’s hatred of the human race, and the precious blood poured out in the agony of Calvary to redeem us?

  2. Cyril North says:

    Excellent article. I couldn’t agree more, though I don’t see how this church is ever going to purge itself of its attachment to fostering guilt and fear as a way to control people’s minds.

  3. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh says:

    “the very essence of the Christian faith…God loves us beyond all our imagining. And he loves us regardless of what we do or what we fail to do.”
    Thank you for this article. It is so hopeful at a time when there seem to be so many in the church who want the church to be their way and they want others who do not believe as they do to find another church, be it conservative or liberal, a unity due to orthodox uniformity, or a unity based on diversity. How did the church ever become so intolerant of its brothers and sisters in Christ? Whatever about Ciaran’s acknowledgement of the devil’s hatred of the human race, I hope and pray that Ciaran will come to realize that the devil will never win in the end, and that can give us all hope and an optimism based on what Jesus has done for us all.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago

  4. Undoubtably there are many complex factors that historically have played a part in Irish Catholics sometimes not expressing their religion (belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in a joyful uplifting way. Also there is no doubting that Pope Francis has a very special gift for communicating the love and tenderness of God to all of mankind..
    However to attribute to Pope Francis the supposed belief that we are all automatically going to end up in heaven “anyway” is surely bordering on a serious misunderstanding of, and misrepresentation of our Catholic/Chistian beliefs. Where for instance does this leave our God-given free will which is core to our lives as Christians. Of course Pope Francis, as we all should, desires that everyone will end up in heaven but if it was to be taken for granted then the whole point of Christ’s death and resurrection becomes unnecessary. People often wonder how can a loving God allow evil to happen in the world. It is because He loves us so much that He does not impose Himself on us and gives us free will. Each of us has to give our own ‘yes’ to his unending reaching out to us. And thus God does not will that any evil happens but He allows it, knowing that nothing, however evil or wrong, is outside His providence

  5. And there you have it; a classic example of the disconnect alluded to in Brendan’s contribution – Looking but not seeing; listening but not hearing. Happy to be miserable, locked into a self-perpetuating destructive cycle of cynical pessimism and joyless ‘faith’.

  6. Willie Herlihy says:

    I am a Catholic by accident of birth.
    I am now an old man, but still a practising Catholic.
    I loved your article, the theme I interpreted, was GOD is love.
    The reality of the church that I and my parents were born into was very different.
    We were born into the era of the one true church, all that was required, was the catechism and the precepts of the church. (The Bible was for Protestants). SEX WAS THE ONLY SIN.
    I quote as an example, a story my mother once told me.
    One Sunday at Mass, a woman sitting in the same seat as her, was berated by name, by the priest from the pulpit, for bringing disgrace to the parish, because she was pregnant when she got married.
    This was the culture fostered by the catholic church in my youth, by no stretch of the imagination was God seen as love.

  7. John O'Neill says:

    Ciaran’s comment proves the point Brendan is making.

  8. Anne Forde says:

    Brendan thank you for this article.
    It so reassures me. God is indeed, I trust, more at ease with a smile than many of his followers.
    Poor Ciaran.
    Even coming from a funeral the hope of the resurrection failed to touched his heart.
    How sad to start each day seeing ‘the face of the reality of the devil’s hatred of the human race’.
    What have we done to religion.

  9. Seamus Ahearne osa says:

    A very sad comment indeed by Ciaran and understandable in the context. Murder colours every feeling and decides reactions. However, and nonetheless, those words were full of ‘non sequiters’ and totally inappropriate to Brendan’s piece. Brendan was simply talking of what the ‘Good News’ can and might mean in our lives and how the Church has to reflect that. What did Francis say? He asked that we didn’t go around as if we were coming from a funeral. Ciaran was coming from a funeral – however, he cannot generalise from that particular context. By the way and in conclusion, I write as someone who been involved with twenty such funerals and their aftermath. I share his upset, anger and almost despair but not his response to Brendan Hoban. Seamus Ahearne

  10. Dick Walsh says:

    Brendan raises a vitally important issue: Why are we attracted more to a God who punishes than to a God who loves. One of the saddest looking priests I ever knew gloried in the fact that he preached on sin every Sunday. Not only was he perpetually sad of mien, he was a deeply and pathologically angry man and obsessed with sexual sin. People would ring up on Saturday to find out which Mass he would be saying the following so they could avoid him.

  11. I would suggest that it is not religion that makes people miserable, but rather a false religion that leads to misery. As stated above, God is love. God loves us, in fact He loves us so much that He desires to spend an eternity with us. But let’s not turn our Faith into a fairy-tale. Let’s not ignore the realities of our Faith and our relationship with God.
    In recent times there has been a change from the so-called ‘hell fire and brimstone’ attitude towards a focus on God’s love and mercy, unfortunately this has led to a denial of God’s justice. God loves us, and he showed us the extent of that love by stretching out His arms on the altar of the Cross on Calvary. He suffered the most vile, humiliating and degrading death for our sake. It was truly a brutal and violent display of true love. But why did he do this? He done this to atone for our sins. Yes, our sins offend God, so much so, that only a sacrifice of His Humanity and Divinity could atone for them. It is not ok to pretend that we are all good. We are sinners. We offend God’s Divine Majesty when we turn our back on Him and turn to a life of sin. It is sin that leads to misery. It is a reality that the evil one, the devil, is determined to lead us into sin, to lead us away from God’s love, and lead us to eternal misery in Hell.
    But the real Good News is that God loves us, and forgives us if only we turn to Him in humility in the confessional, and through His minister, the priest, we are absolved, healed, restored and forgiven. We return to the Father, our Father and have the right to be truly called sons of God.
    It is perhaps uncomfortable to admit that we sin. It is perhaps uncomfortable for our priests to admit this, especially as they have spent the past 30 or 40 years trying to convince us that sin and Hell do not exist, or at least have played down the realities of it. Sin leads to death, misery and eternal damnation. God’s forgiving love in the Sacrament of His great Mercy, leads to life and a share in the eternal joy of the Resurrection.
    Dear priests, please make yourselves available to us, the flock entrusted to your care, please listen to our confessions, heal us and restore us to life. Pray for us, offer penance for us and dedicate your lives to the salvific mission of Jesus.
    Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for your sons, our priests.

  12. Con Devree says:

    John 16:33
    “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

    Passages such as this are the basis of the Pope’s joyous demeanour. But he is not a simple formula man.

    In his first homily, on March 14th, Pope Francis cautioned “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.” Since that day, he has spoken often of the one he has called the “prince of this world,” and the “father of lies.” And, in the book, “On Heaven and Earth” he as Cardinal Bergoglio devoted an entire chapter to “The Devil”, warning that Satan’s fruits are “destruction, division, hatred and calumny.”

    It is unusual to experience the revival of the language of sin. Commenting on Satan and other demons (Matthew 12:22-27) on October 11, the Pope said “there is a battle, and a battle where salvation is at play, eternal salvation.” “The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the victory of God over the devil.”

    He also said: “Some may say, but, Father, you’re too old fashioned. You’re frightening us with these things.’ No, it’s not me! It is the Gospel! And these are not lies: it is the Word of the Lord. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to take these things seriously. He came to fight for our salvation. He won against the Devil. Please, let’s not do business with the Devil. He wants to come back home, to take possession … Don’t accept relativism, be vigilant. And always with Jesus.”

  13. Sin is simply missing the mark. As long as we don’t start campaigns to have the target moved or resized, we have all the love and mercy we need from God to begin again when we fall. And we do fall, right? I know I do. Every day.

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    It is very annoying that Dawkins-style “new atheists” constantly caricature the God of the Hebrew Bible by focusing on the more bloodthirsty texts, which are generally omitted from church lectionaries or toned down by judicious omissions. The central, defining characteristics of the biblical God are emeth wa hesed, faithfulness and loving-kindness. These are enduring qualities in which one can place total trust, and which establish one’s life on a joyful foundation. These qualities of God are made richly and effectively present through Jesus, even more so than through the Torah (instruction) of Moses (see John 1:17, where “charis kai aletheia” correspond to hesed and emeth). The new atheists caricature the death of Christ as some bizarre blood-thirsty even, yet what is it but a demonstration that even death does not divorce us from divine faithfulness and loving kindness, but can be the occasion of their fullest realization?

  15. Further to Joe O’Leary’s ‘take’ on the kindness and faithfulness of the Hebrew God we need to take seriously René Girard’s insistence that the most careful reading of the whole of scripture will exonerate the same God from all taint of violence also.
    For Girard it is our own violence that tends to put violent intent in the mind of God also – and it took time for the writers of scripture to receive fully what the source of all truth was revealing to them on this. Girard’s theological interpreter, Raymund Schwager, agrees – arguing that this is the only sensible conclusion to draw from Jesus’s parable of the rebellious vineyard tenants (who killed the son of the owner). Despite the prediction of Jesus’s listeners, Jesus own death was not followed in the scriptural telling by vengeful divine retribution. We are left with the conclusion that Jesus’ forgiveness was echoed by that of the Father.
    For Girard all violence arises out of rivalrous mimetic desire and, since the Bible’s revelation of this is supreme in all world literature, we are left with a question: why do we attribute violence to God? Biblical literalism is one reason, but underneath that lies our own violence – revealed by our intense attachment to the plot of all Bond movies, by nuclear deterrence theory, and by the intense hold that ‘first person shooters’ have over the minds of video game players.

  16. Thank you Brendan Hoban. You article is worth more than you will ever realiseP

  17. Paddy Coady says:

    Brendan Hoban, Inspiring article thank you. Helps me to skip the translated Mea maxima culpa at Mass.
    We attended Mass in a neighbouring parish before Christmas. The sermon was ‘Back to the confessional” and how he spends hours in the confessional and no one comes and that we all have to go before Christmas!

  18. Paddy, you make it sound so negative and dreary, but Penance is a great Sacrament when used properly (not used as a torture chamber for the scrupulous for example): the forgiveness of all post-baptismal sins when we need it. I often dread going, but am glad when I do. Confession is very good and very necessary to the spiritual life. It has suffered some neglect though in the last several decades. I would like to see the return of the anonymous confession for those who desire it. In my own parish, there is a ‘screen’ but it is basically mesh you can see through. Not very anonymous at all. Anyway, I’m rambling.

  19. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I’m from a different generation and when I read this, it wreaks of fancy. When I read about Pope Francis, it wreaks of deception. How can someone so committed to the life of the poor sit where he does. At what point in his life did he realize that it would be within an organized religion so mighty and hierarchical that he would find solace. Does the Pope not, by sheer virtue of simply being the Pope, contribute to a greater world wide inequality? There is where you will find much spirit and happiness; among them normally. With so much wrong in the world today and disparity between the rich and the poor ever widening, I hope the Pope’s happiness is a mask and that underneath his glistening appearance lies a spirit who is willing to make the means necessary for the “unequal” to inherit their share of the earth. If we all concentrated more on what we are leaving future generations and less on where we go in this afterlife, we might all smile a little more. I agree that religion shouldn’t make people miserable. Religion should make people combat misery in all its forms. Reality as it is today should be enough to make people miserable.

  20. Con Devree says:

    Sean o’Conaill

    Could you please provide the name of the “book” or otherwise re René Girard’s treatment of the love God. Gura maith agat.

  21. Mary O Vallely says:

    “If we all concentrated more on what we are leaving future generations and less on where we go in this afterlife, we might all smile a little more.”
    “Religion should make people combat misery in all its forms.”
    Well said, Lloyd @19. 🙂

  22. What surpasses all religious understanding is the Golden Rule….Love the Lord Your God with your whole heart, mind, and soul and your neighbour as yourself…

  23. Yes, Darlene@22, but the big question now and since forever has been, how is that to be done? Isn`t that why there are so many disagreements, even among passionate believers? Loving your neighbour, for example, may not consist in approving of everything they do or subscribe to. In fact, love for others may at times have to be expressed in plain disapproval of what they do, or of the values they endorse, though any expression of disapproval should always be temperate and proportionate as possible. But surely, even allowing for the injunction not to judge others, we must nevertheless allow ourselves to judge actions, attitudes and values, when their consequences can be identified?

  24. Fr. Kieren says:

    Hi Con,
    I think Sean is referring to Girard’s book “the Scapegoat”. It is well worth a read.

  25. René Girard is probably best known as an anthropologist of religion – i.e. someone who studies from a scientific perspective why we humans ‘do’ religion. His own major writings tend to be directed at academics rather than the beginner who wants a clear introduction to who he is and what he is arguing, in the simplest possible way.
    I would advise ‘first timers’ to look first at his best interpreters before tackling e.g. Girard’s ‘Violence and Sacred’ or ‘The Scapegoat’ or ‘Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World’. (The last would actually be a bad place to start because Girard has himself subsequently criticised his own ‘mistake’ in that work, in arguing that the Gospels give no justification for seeing Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice.)
    I became hooked first when I read Gil Bailie’s ‘Violence Unveiled’, but by far the best account I have so far found of Girard’s theory and how it relates to the western philosophical tradition is ‘René Girard’s Mimetic Theory’ by Wolfgang Palaver (Michigan State University Press) 2013. It’s a bit expensive for a new paperback, unfortunately, so a good compromise might be ‘Discovering Girard’ by Michael Kirwan (Darton, Longman and Todd) 2004 – at less than half the price of Palaver’s marvellous book.
    There’s also quite a good Wikipedia article on Girard at:
    Girard is a practising Catholic who has strongly supported Benedict XVI’s verbal assault on ‘the dictatorship of relativism’. He may not have dealt as compassionately as I would wish with our tendency to borrow one another’s desires, but his exposition of the biblical revelation of that tendency is truly gripping and important, I believe. In 2004 I heard him give a reading of the story of Susannah and the Elders (Daniel) in London that was maybe the best lecture I ever heard.

  26. Joe O'Leary says:

    I was just rereading the CDF’s 2003 document, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons”, and it indeed induces sensations of misery. Has Francis shaken off this mentality? Der Spiegel has a fine piece on him this week, and says that Cardinal-to-be, Gerhard Muller plays bad cop to Francis’s good cop. It is somewhat reassuring that Francis’s friend Cardinal Maradiaga publicly told Muller to lighten up.

  27. Martin Murray says:

    Sadly for many the ‘Good News’ is too good to be true, so we put human conditions and limitations on it and call it being realistic.

  28. Joe O'Leary says:

    The CDF talk as if they were YHWH thundering from Sinai. But their finely calibrated tautological discourse seems to be as tangential to their erring flock as Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is to the conversation of ordinary humans.

  29. Con Devree says:

    Thank you to Sean O’Conaill and Father Kieran

  30. Ned Quinn says:

    Two reasons for optimism in the current issue of The Tablet:
    1) Pope Francis is in regular correspondence with Hans Kung.
    2) Cardinal Schonborn admits Austrian bishops had lacked the courage to speak openly on controversial issues such as the problem of re-married divorcees. They had also been “too hesitant” on the necessity of decentralisation and allowing local Churches greater independence. “I beat my own breast here. We certainly didn’t have sufficient courage to speak out openly” he said.

  31. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Thanks Ned for those two reasons to be merry. On the last point, about promoting the periphery over the hub, while the Cardinal’s beating his breast I feel like beating his head. If this man had let the firstlings of his heart be the firstlings of his tongue a little more often, he might well have become Pope Francis, or Pope Stephen X, last March, and I’d have had a few quid to donate to the poor. Having spent Holy Week & Easter 2012 at all his Masses and Services in Stephansdom, I’d concluded infallibly, despite my complete lack of German, “That’s my man!” – and back in London I put £10 on him with Paddy Power. After the Conclave eleven months later Paddy banked my tenner, I licked my wounds – put not thy trust in nobly born Bohemian princes – and now Francis has left Christoph out of the C8 Team and told him to help him keep an eye on the Vatican Bank.
    Still, there’s always another time. This Dominican, Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert Scho:nborn, has just turned 69. His is still the nearest thing we have to an Irish Red Hat in the ring: he’s the great-great-great-great-grandson of Richard Meade, 2nd Earl of Clanwilliam. So maybe now’s the moment to put another tenner on him with Paddy Power.
    Incidentally, has Helmut Schuller and the Priests’ Initiative gone a bit quiet lately – or maybe I haven’t been paying attention ?

  32. Joe O'Leary says:

    I caught a glimpse of Cardinal Schönborn in stately procession in the Stephansdom once and he seemed to me to be an other-worldly apparition in the style of Pius XII. What an incredible list of names! He has been one of the most outspoken cardinals, though less so than his precedessor Franz König, and held back no doubt by the weight of ecclesial and aristocratic respectability.

  33. Des Farrell says:

    This article really nails the real question. If religion isn’t helping people to lead a happier, more joyful life then they will not just stay away but advise others to do so. This article about joy in the gospels is the most important topic, bar none. If we don’t understand the meaning of the Incarnation and the meaning of the Resurrection then all we are doing is irritating others. Again and again the Church must see itself as a field hospital, and the sacraments as medicine. Pope Francis gets it and this author gets it. The other view of the church, as a palace or hideaway for the elite sinless who can reward themselves while dismissing the godless world, is over, it’s dead, finished. This article is not just essential. It’s more than than that. If anybody who speaks publicly as a Catholic, be they a priest or a member of an institute, who speaks to rte or the papers or to anybody, and they don’t understand the urgency of this article, then they are just doing further damage.

  34. I meant to add a further thanks to many of the comments such as Seamus Ahearne, above!

  35. Ronan Coghlan says:

    One of the things I have noticed about certain Evangelical Protestant groups is the joy they have in their religion, which is manifest in their ceremonies where there is merriment on all sides. Perhaps a more fluid catholic liturgy would help us to view religion in another perspective. Unfortunately, some – and I emphasise only some – of these evangelicals are so joyful is they believe that, as Jesus died for our sins, they can now do anything they like and get away with it. I heard this view expressed by a former Christian missionary who was helping to run a brothel.

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