The Personalist Project


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” ( 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.   

Comments (16)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Oct 29, 2013 2:44am

This is about as clear and helpful an explanation of the Pope's words as I can imagine. Thank you!

The danger of sliding into an ideological stance is especially great when true doctrine has to be constantly defended. Then it becomes all too easy to think of ourselves as the ones who know, the ones with the responsibility to set others straight. 

One reason it is so tempting to replace holiness with mere orthodoxy, is that it is so much easier.  Von Hildebrand (no slouch when it comes to defending the faith!) points this out in Graven Images. Orthodoxy is something we can easily pride ourselves on, something which sets us apart from others.

Sam Roeble

#2, Oct 29, 2013 9:55am

In other words, the moment I become fixated on something other than Personal Reality--principally: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--such as liturgy, laws, etc., then I am an ideologue rather than a personalist Catholic Christian. 

The moment I divorce impersonal ideas from personal reality, I am an idolator ("they have eyes, but cannot see. mouths but cannot speak, the works of my own hands")

Sam Roeble

#3, Oct 29, 2013 10:01am

Pharisees are good examples:

1) the sabbath becomes more about the sabbath than the "Lord of the sabbath/ Son of Man"

2) traditions become more about tradition than the "Living Tradition" of the Magisterium and Pope

Marie Meaney

#4, Oct 29, 2013 12:07pm

That's an interesting point, Jules! Would this mean that this kind of attitude would be more widely prevalent during times of crisis (the Reformation?)? I guess we don't hear about this, since the saints got the answer right and turned things around – and this is handed down to us - while the others, who simply defended orthodoxy, are forgotten.

I find Phariseism one of the scariest sins, since it is so difficult for the person afflicted with it to detect it. Furthermore, it is a great temptation for the morally awakened person who desperately wants to get everything right (while it's not really a temptation for the hedonist).

That's a good way of formulating it, Samwise. However, I wouldn't say (if that's what you are implying) that the believer who stops having a living relationship with God necessarily becomes an ideologue, be it a religious one or of any kind. He could also just drop his faith and focus on something else like his work, success, pleasure etc in his life. Idols are manifold; only those having to do with ideas are ideologies. 

Sam Roeble

#5, Oct 29, 2013 12:26pm

sorry, let me clarify:

the moment that persons become a means to an end (righteousness, ideology, etc.) is pharisaical. 

Whereas, things like the sabbath, the law, work, success, etc. are means to the end of personal reality.  Ultimately, the Trinity.

*Personalism is not an ideology because it rightly orders ideas, works, etc. at the service of persons and not vice versa. 

Sam Roeble

#6, Oct 29, 2013 12:47pm

Oh, about substituting belief in God for work, success, etc.

*Personalism could become an ideology (such as humanism "I'm ok if I'm a good person/don't harm other persons") if it fails to recognize that persons themselves are ordered toward communion with the Blessed Trinity.  

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Oct 30, 2013 3:02am

Marie, I linked your article on facebook, where my friend, Christopher, made an interesting comment.  I asked if I could paste it here, in case you wanted to address it. Here it is:

I love the essay, but perhaps it is just a question of semantics, but I do not think the word "ideology" is the right word for what we are talking about-with apologies to Pope Francis. If "ideology" resonates with others, then perhaps it is just quibbling. Nevertheless I do not think the understanding of "Faith" admits of it being reduced to an "ideology". 

I think the Biblical approach would be to speak of "immature" and "mature" faith. I think this is what the spiritual tradition of "beginner", "intermediate", and "proficient" or-"purgative"," illumanitive", and "unitive" are getting at. But because Faith is a supernatural virtue -one either has it or one does not-albeit in varying stages of maturity. Personally, I think "ideology" muddies the waters some. But perhaps my muddied water is someone else's clarity?! Or perhaps "ideology" can be compatible with "immature faith".

Marie Meaney

#8, Oct 30, 2013 4:34am

Thanks for posting this, Katie! I agree with your friend Chris that “the understanding of ‘Faith’ does not admit of it being reduced to an ‘ideology’”. The point is that if we use Catholic doctrine as an ideology, then it is no longer ‘Faith’, but an empty shell, taking on in some ways the appearance of Faith, but missing its core. It simply becomes a conglomerate of ideas (not a living relationship to Christ), a grid through which I look at reality, and where something other than God (my being right, wielding power over others with it etc) has taken center-stage.

Now, as I mentioned in the post, we are mixed bags, and we can have a certain amount of real Faith with a dose of self-righteous ideology thrown into the mix. However, the two are in opposition and contradict each other. If my Faith grows, then the ideology will lessen, for it will become ever harder to use Doctrine for my power-games. But, vice versa, I can become more of an ideologue and end up losing my Faith, but think I’m O.K., since after all, I hold on to the teachings of the Church. 

Marie Meaney

#9, Oct 30, 2013 4:35am

It is a question of who or what is at the center of my life: God or an idea. In the first case, I have faith, in the second case I am committing idolatry of an idea, and am therefore an ideologue.

I think “immature faith”, which Chris suggests as a more traditional formulation, does not express the same reality though there are some overlaps. As Chris himself says, immature faith still means having the faith, while if Doctrine has merely become an ideology to me, then I don’t have any faith left. Hence being a doctrinal ideologue means I don’t even have immature faith, but no faith at all.

However, if I have some faith, but also use doctrine for ideological purposes, then I guess one could use the term “immature faith”; though “immature faith” covers a multitude of sins which are not just of an ideological nature: for example, lacking trust in God in times of crises, thinking that if God loves me He will fulfill all of my wishes, thinking that a bit of spiritual dryness is already a full dark Night of the Soul etc.

Marie Meaney

#10, Oct 30, 2013 4:35am

Hence I still think it is helpful to speak of ideology in the context of misusing Doctrine and not just of “immature faith”, since it pinpoints exactly what is amiss while the latter is a much broader term.

Sam Roeble

#11, Oct 30, 2013 8:20am

I agree with Marie

Here's something from Benedict to back it up:

(04/14/10 General Audience)"This is the function in persona Christi of the priest: making present, in the confusion and bewilderment of our times, the light of God's Word, the light that is Christ himself in this our world. Therefore the priest does not teach his own ideas, a philosophy that he himself has invented, that he has discovered or likes; the priest does not speak of himself, he does not speak for himself, to attract admirers, perhaps, or create a party of his own; he does not say his own thing, his own inventions but, in the medley of all the philosophies, the priest teaches in the name of Christ present, he proposes the truth that is Christ himself, his word and his way of living and of moving ahead"

Plus,I heard this on the radio this morning:

"Before Jesus, St. Joseph was oriented to the impersonal God of his fathers.

With Jesus, St. Joseph's faith became oriented to a Person, the person of the Son of God."

Sam Roeble

#12, Oct 30, 2013 8:38am

In my opinion, this is the necessary difference to be built upon the 'culture of life'(JPII) by the 'culture of encounter'(Francis), namely, the re-orientation from the ideas of pro-life philosophy to encountering the living person of Jesus as the wellspring of life.

In other words, what Francis may be doing is drawing those whose righteousness is based on the integrity that comes from being pro-life (itself a good, but not God) into the 'culture of encounter' which rests on being motivated by faith in the Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to 'do good.'

Sam Roeble

#13, Oct 30, 2013 9:51am

I'm not saying that the 'culture of life' and the 'culture of encounter' are mutually exclusive.

The 'culture of death' is the alternative to the former, and --I'm afraid to coin the phrase but--, 'culture of traditionalism' is the alternative to the latter.

Here's a quote to back up the newly coined phrase:

"In perfect conformity with the church-of-man agenda of which I have written in the past, the justification for this bold public rejection of the Catholic faith is guess what? 'The dignity and the rights of the person.'"

Sam Roeble

#14, Oct 31, 2013 9:40pm

Peter Kreeft:

"We are witnessing with our own eyes in this generation the definitive solution to the problem of division in the Church. God is solving the problem in exactly the same way he solves all our problems. He has one answer to all our needs, and the answer is a Person".

Sam Roeble

#15, Nov 15, 2013 3:26pm

A polish Dominican wrote on this very subject of faith vs. ideology in 1994's Crisis Magazine:

his name is Maciej Zieba O.P. and he quotes JPII:

"Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing sociopolitical realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom."

Marie Meaney

#16, Nov 19, 2013 5:33am

Thanks for all these quotes and links, Sam! Sorry for not reacting to your last entries earlier. We were travelling for a few weeks, and I couldn't respond.

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