To speak about faith becoming an ideology seems to be a contradiction in terms, at least to the faithful Catholic. For ideology is a construction, a system covering up and closing one off from reality while giving the false impression of having an explanation for everything; faith, however, is based on truth as revealed by God and is also accessible to reason (in contrast, any kind of belief is called an “ideology” these days, the underlying supposition being that truth cannot be known anyway). Isn’t faith a gift from God, an infusion of the Holy Spirit, one of the three theological virtues, based on the revelation of the Most High which therefore cannot be false? Revelation itself cannot be false, but people can obviously lose their faith. It can happen in such a way that they don’t realize it, for they might still believe in the full doctrine of the Church; but their faith can turn into an ideology, a mere belief-system which does not get them one step closer to salvation, nor others for that matter.
Pope Francis has recently spoken about the danger of faith becoming an ideology. First in his interview for the Civiltà Cattolica, and then again during his sermon on October 17th, 2013, in the chapel of Santa Martha where he says his daily mass. He is issuing an important warning to us, for “these Christian ideologies are a grave sickness” (http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/pope-francis-becoming-a-disciple-of-ideology-closes-the-door-to-faith). They close the doors of the Church to others and to oneself; hence one is in the terrible situation of misguiding others and being lost oneself without realizing it. Therefore those of us for whom faith has become an ideology (and we are all in danger of this happening to us) are like the Pharisees of old; and we know what strong warnings Christ issued against them. It is a very grave fault, worse in a way than the sins of the prostitutes and publicans, since these, at least, are generally under no illusion as to their situation. They are more likely to realize that they are in need of a doctor while the Pharisees are quite content the way they are (though those living in grave sin are in danger too if they start claiming that what they are doing is right according to their “new” understanding of the faith; for then they are also living according to an ideology, which is the Catholic doctrine fashioned to their needs, and are in no better position than their Pharisaical brothers).
But how can faith be replaced by an ideology? How is such a thing possible? Pope Francis states that faith becomes an ideology when Christ is no longer at the center of a person’s life, when she moves simply within a belief-system rather than having a living relationship with Christ. For true faith grows from this relationship with Christ. Faith is not simply a belief that certain things are true, but means believing in a person, putting one’s faith and trust in Christ, and keep trusting even when in crisis. Hence the mystery of our suffering or of those dear to us becomes a challenge in the light of faith, but not a scandal which would make us turn away from Him; it becomes a path which leads us ever deeper into His love, even if we don’t understand why He allows certain things to happen.
In contrast, ideology is a belief-system and, as Simone Weil stated, ultimately a form of idolatry. It means putting something else in the place of God, turning it into an absolute. Communism and Nazism have therefore been called political religions; their ideals (the victory of the proletariat or of the Arian race) have become gods to which everything else must be sacrificed, and their adherents turn into fanatical and willing martyrs in the process of bringing those goals about.
The situation becomes more complex however, when ideology does not differ in content from the true faith. Who or what becomes the idol? It is no longer the true God who is the reference, but the god I have created for myself; more important than God Himself is now my being right, my being superior to others and being able to bang them on the head with that “truth” which is clad in the authority of Christ, but is really my own desire for power in disguise. In reality, I have become my own god, and my pride has taken center-stage (which is, by the way, the fundamental temptation, as Genesis shows us, and which is therefore addressed in the first of the Ten Commandments).
When the true God is no longer at the center of my life, then the god taking His place is a god of “force” or power, to use again Simone Weil’s ideas and terminology. This should be our red flag, when asking ourselves whether we are people of faith or have become mere ideologues (and we might just have a bit of the ideologue mixed into our faith; it need not be 100% one way or another). We should ask ourselves if we are filled with self-righteousness, i.e. wanting to be in the right more than everything else, having the upper hand and subjecting the other to our position.
Rigidity is another feature of the ideologue, as Pope Francis points out. Rigidity comes down to a hardness of heart, and is different from staunch courage which stems from love of truth, bowing humbly down to it rather than using it as a tool to belittle others. Rigidity means not being able to be touched by the other’s fate and feeling superior to him, just like the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not sinful like the others. True faith, which combines love for the other with love for truth, does not become stiff or take on a false superiority, for the faithful understands his own brokenness and that he is not above others; because of his awareness of his own wounds and sinfulness, he can connect with others where they are, but he will not do so by watering down doctrine to sanction their disordered lifestyle. He will hence become all things to all men, since nothing human, no sin, no weakness is foreign to him.
Ideology based on the Catholic faith has the tendency to create its own momentum, not just in the person’s heart, but also doctrinally. Hence its movement is towards heresy which, in a certain respect is an advantage, since at least it becomes obvious that one is on the wrong path. Hence religious ideology can be found on all ends of the spectrum, on the left as well as on the right, among the liberal as well as on the conservative end of things. That’s why using those terms in the context of the Catholic faith is worrying, for it shows that faith has already turned into an ideology which can be “left” or “right”, rather than simply a living or dead faith, an orthodox or unorthodox one.
What is the best weapon against this insidious temptation? Prayer is key, as Pope Francis states. But it has to be real prayer which comes from the heart, not the kind of prayer which is simply the repetition of words. It has to be a heart-to-heart between God and us; then we realize our brokenness, and can become real children of God, fully dependent on Him. There is no better remedy against self-righteousness. Especially during adoration God transforms our rigid hearts of stone into loving hearts, thus turning us into true witnesses to the world. There is no greater witness than a saint, and I would subscribe to Weil’s statement that we need saints just like a city beset with the plague needs doctors. Saints, not ideologues, are the solution, and this is the choice we are all called to make.