Spring 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 63-70.

David K. O'Rourke:
      Current Trends: Religion in the Land of King Comfort

Father O'Rourke, O.P., has an extensive background in writing and lecturing and is a professor of Theology at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California. He has graciously submitted this guest reflection while Clare Wagner is on a sabbatical year of study.

SEVERAL years ago I was involved with the funeral of a man who had died accidentally in the mountains. He was an unpleasant individual, prickly and caustic. He was estranged from his family, and he did not have many friends. My connection with him, needless to say, was not close. I knew him. That was about it.

I knew his family much better. For their sakes I have changed the identifying details of this story. The reasons will become obvious.

His inability to cope with the demands of social intercourse made life in the city painful. So he fled into the mountains whenever he could. He usually went alone. I suspect that these trips were more in the form of solitary suffering than a desired respite, for he always went well supplied with alcohol. We pieced together the course of his last hours from information supplied by the sheriff and the undertaker. Late in the year, when the warmth of summer had already given way to occasional snow showers, he left his office for a mid-week trip into the mountains. He parked his car near the summit of a mountain pass and went walking along the shore of a small, shallow lake. Apparently looking for a narrow stream that cut a low ridge and connected the lake with a larger one, he lost his footing and fell. He fell only about five feet. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he slipped and rolled, for the bank was low and shallow. But he rolled swiftly enough that the large stone which halted his fall at the bottom cracked his leg. The break was bad and incapacitating enough that he was able to drag himself only about half the quarter mile distance to his car.

Injured, half drunk, and not dressed for the freezing temperature at night he lasted, according to the pathologist, about fourteen hours. He struggled fiercely. The red gritty sand was found inside his lower eyelids and his fingers were dug into the ground like claw-shaped garden tools. The sheriff commented that his lower lip and mouth filled with sand as he scraped like a bulldozer along the ground.

This incident could match many a contemporary picture of a pointless life and meaningless death, certainly one of the most common impressions we face in our lifetime. Seemingly ultimate inadvertence is a powerful force. I would have approached the preparation of a homily for this funeral knowing that I had a difficult task. The family's sense of missed opportunities was strong; there was an undercurrent of failure relative to their father and husband, yet there was also a basic Christian belief that, whatever his life, he was now in God's hands.

The actual preacher, however, decided to set a tone of good feelings. He would comfort the family. The events had to be stripped of their cruelty and given a more benign presentation. So glossing over the details which the undertaker had shared with him, he painted a picture of a beautiful death. What a blessed way to go, with the God-given grace to die cradled by the mountains he loved so well.

I hoped, I told him afterwards, that the beauty of the death he was experiencing had managed to comfort the deceased in his last hours. Well, he said by way of defense, and with absolute conviction in the rightness of his belief, what is faith for if not to bring comfort. In that comment, I believe, he summed up the functioning goal of much of American religion. Many Americans, and that increasingly includes Catholics, view religion as a means to lend comfort to the current moment.

In my part of the world, and I admit California is not always typical, comfort often becomes the measure against which moral stances and pastoral practices are measured. A parish council was discussing the pros and cons of adopting a resolution on an immigration bill before Congress. The discussion proceeded back and forth, getting nowhere. Finally the pastor delivered the quietus. "It's obvious that we're not comfortable with this issue."

A couple comes into a rectory for marriage preparations. The priest talks with them at some length. He tells them that he would prefer not to witness their marriage. Miffed, they contact the bishop who asks the priest for his reasons. He replies, "I'm just not comfortable about this whole thing."

I have heard this statement, and all its kith and kin, repeated on more occasions than I can count. How do we reach consensus? "O.K., are we all comfortable with this?" Comfort becomes the measure for what is right and for what is to be done. I recognize that this focus on how we feel is hardly modern. The word consensus, after all, means to feel together and comes from antiquity. We are not the first to make comfort king in the land.

I would like to challenge this view, but I do so recognizing that it has become the hallmark of American religion. What may come f as a surprise is that, the antiquity of its roots notwithstanding, it was not always so. And according to our Catholic tradition, as I read it, it should not be so.

But first let us establish the accuracy of what I am suggesting. Are we really all that focused on comfort? Advocates of the social gospel within American Protestantism a generation ago poked fun at the "He walks with me and He talks with me" view of religion, and did so as though they were burying a part of America's religious past. The preachers of personal reassurance were creatures on the fringe. Catholics, of course, had little expectation that their faith would make them feel good.

Yet according to some of the country's leading sociologists this view has come to characterize American religious life, including that of many Catholics. What was on the fringe has now moved to full center. What are the characteristics of this American religion? I would like to summarize some of the findings of the sociologists, but first I want to present a reason for doing so. I believe that our current religious views are such that I should probably present a rationale for bringing sociological findings into what is ostensibly a context of spirituality.


There is in the American Church a tremendous gap between religious research and pastoral practice. The American Catholic Church has been studied at length, its functioning beliefs categorized, its religious practices described, its population measured from the viewpoints of education, income, social class and religious stance. In some instances this information has been put to work, and the effort has made a significant difference in pastoral practice.

The area with which I am most familiar is family ministry. Following upon studies indicating a crisis in family life, the American bishops published their "Plan of Pastoral Action for Family Ministry" in 1978. Among other things, the plan recommended solid marriage preparation for all engaged couples. At the time only a minority of couples were receiving substantial preparation. The recommendation was implemented, policies requiring substantial preparation were established for nearly all dioceses, and now the large majority of couples being married in the church take part in serious marriage preparation.

This is an example both of how sociological studies can be put to work in the church, and also how that effort can bear fruit. This kind of success story, and I use the phrase after abstracting from religious evaluation of the results, I believe to be the exception rather than the rule. There are many studies whose findings rest unapplied.

For example, I continue to hear that one third of married Catholics under the age of thirty are married outside the church. Why? What does this fact say about our marriage policies and the accessibility of preparation? We haven't bothered to find out, and I think the reason we haven't is tied in directly with the new shape of American religion.

The point I wish to make is that any serious approach to questions of values and spirituality requires a thorough examination of what these words mean, a description of the life and priorities of the people who use them, some indication, at least, of the effect they have in the lives of people, and a critique of the values and spirituality using solid principles. This is obviously an enormous task. Who could undertake such an effort you may ask. The answer is that this enormous task is being undertaken, the effort is being made, principally by our universities, the results are coming in, and a lot of knowledge is being obtained about the shape and functioning of American religion.

I am drawing on some of this information in this article. I am looking at the place that comfort plays in American religion, as it has been described at some length. Consequently, what I am doing here is no more than summarizing the findings of others.

Recently a group of scholars led by Professor Robert Bellah of the University of California, Berkeley, published their findings about religion and commitment in American life. Their study, "Habits of the Heart," has been recognized for the thorough picture it draws of our functioning religious principles. There are three aspects of our American religion I want to emphasize as the supports to primacy of comfort: the importance of subjective feelings, individualism, and a sectarian definition of religion.

I admit that I am surprised at how strongly the authors assess the role that feelings play in our moral choices. First they establish that, in our culture, we expect the individual self to be its own source of values. These values are determined largely by how we feel: "Acts, then, are not right or wrong in themselves, but only because of the results they produce, the good feelings they engender or express," an almost classical statement reminiscent of texts on ethics [p. 78]. Here it is not made in that context, but in the context of a sociologists statement describing the values of people in America.

The authors take on the very notion of values itself. "It should be clear by now that 'values,' a term we heard constantly from almost everyone to whom we talked, are in themselves no answer. 'Values' turn out to be the incomprehensible, rationally indefensible thing that the individual chooses when he or she has thrown off the last vestige of external influence and reached pure, contentless freedom" [p. 80].

I think an argument could be made that in our single and communal use of comfort as a criterion for judging what we should and should not do we, too, are throwing off "vestiges of external influence." We use what we have left -- how we feel about it.

Granting our focus on subjective feelings, is our religious sense really all that individualistic? Religion, as the anthropologists tell us, is commonly seen as a social phenomenon. But, as our authors again point out, "a 1978 Gallup poll found that 80 percent of Americans agreed that 'an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues"' [p. 228]. As they note in comment, "this is a strange statement [because] it is precisely within church or synagogue that one comes to one's religious beliefs" [ibid.].

Americans are as individualistic in their religion as they are in other aspects of life. This quality can be seen if we contrast a sectarian view of church with a communal view, a task that the principal author of this book did for the meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America a few years back.

Using categories developed by the turn of the century German sociologist Ernst Troeltsch, Bellah contrasts the church defined in terms of the Pauline image of the body of Christ with the church defined as sect. In the organic view of church, membership can be the principal means for bringing about a life of faith. It is within the context of living with other people who believe that the individual comes to his or her own beliefs.

In the sect, by contrast, the experience of grace and faith come first. These are essentially personal, individual experiences. The church community comes about as a result of these essentially individual experiences. And the purpose of the church is to preserve and support the saving religious experience that the individual had on his or her own.


Now, I want to tie this together with the notion of comfort, and look at its primacy in our religious sense. We have seen that comfort is a commonly used phrase in the church today, as in secular society. It is a commonly used norm for assessing what is right. We have also seen that feelings, in general, as opposed to rationally defensible principles, are the principal means by which we Americans establish standards in matters of right and wrong. We have also seen that this process of determining how our feelings, and which feelings, will guide us, is essentially individualistic. I also made the point that these statements come out of the descriptive work of the social scientists in our universities. We are describing the way things are, not how they ought to be.

Now we arrive at the point I wish to make. It is a question rather ,than a point, and it can be asked in part by referring back to the example I gave at the beginning of this commentary. And it requires a shift from the descriptive to the normative, from the way things are to the way things ought to be. Today we often speak of spirituality, and talk of spiritual goals and spiritual values. What does this mean? How are our statements about spirituality different from the talk about values by the admitted non-religious secularists quoted in "Habits of the Heart?" To look back at the story at the beginning, how was the preacher's desire to establish a context of comfort in the name of ministry, a feeling of which he, himself, was the obvious beneficiary, any different from the desire of the secularist to do what makes him feel good?

I am asking these questions, as should be obvious, because I suspect that what we think of as our own particularly Christian spirituality is a very American phenomenon. To say that it is more American than Christian is to enter upon a non-helpful course, since faith must be incarnated and that means nation and culture.

But, like all peoples trying to live their faith, we Americans must parse our incarnated faith in order to establish its authenticity. There are objective standards, there are norms for social commerce and individual conduct derived from God's self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ.

Where and how does comfort fit in? It seems to me that the key role we have given to comfort, making its presence almost a sign of God's presence and favor, is gratuitous and deceitful. This is not to say that it has no role, but its role is very ambiguous. The prophetic tradition is founded as solidly on the need to afflict the comfortable as the pastoral tradition is on the need to comfort the afflicted.

Does this mean that we have to look completely beyond the context of good feelings for moral guidance? Not completely. The affective coming together in consensus, for example, is some indication that striving and aggression are under control. Even the scholastics recognized that the affective response, being the integral part of human nature that it is, will convey a sense of physical congruence. If it feels good, they would say, then some natural appetite good in itself, is being fulfilled.

But our desire to feel good still has to be submitted to moral norms. In what have we reached consensus? The Sanhedrin, so St. Mark tells us, reached a consensus that Jesus should be put to death. They may even have been comfortable with that decision for all we know. But that affective congruence can be intellectually contentless. Because we are humans, and intellectual by that nature, we have to review and assess with clarity of process and fairness in our norms. The mind must critique what the individual wants to do.

There is nothing spiritual about comfort. Feeling good is probably as physically fulfilling an experience as many of us have. Yet in times of comfort we can somehow manage to wax poetic, speaking of spiritual experiences with great fervor, when what is really happening to us is that we are feeling good.

Whether we should be so pleased is a question that has to be examined using objective norms. This brings us into questions of ethics and morals. And short of wrestling with God, wrestling with questions of ethics and morals is about as spiritual as we can get.