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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

7/13/2013 (2 years ago)

Catholic Online (

According to sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, the majority of America's youth hold a dumbed-down religious view called "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," or MTD for short.  Now the question we might propose in light of Pope Francis's encyclical on faith Lumen Fidei is this: Is MTD by any means faith, "the great gift brought by Jesus," the "risen Christ, the morning star which never sets" (LF, No. 1)?  It would appear on all fronts that it is not. 


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

7/13/2013 (2 years ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, faith, MTD, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Andrew M. Greenwell

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton introduced a rather clumsy term to describe the dumbed-down religious view held by the majority of American youth: "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," or MTD for short.

According to Smith and Denton, the creed of MTD is composed of five rather vague articles:

  1.  A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by most religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life, except when needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Smith and Denton state that this sort of belief is held by the majority of our youth regardless, it would appear, of what religion they may be affiliated, including those who see themselves as Catholic. 

Now the question we might propose in light of Pope Francis's encyclical on faith Lumen Fidei is this: Is "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" faith in any meaningful sense?  Is MTD "the great gift brought by Jesus," the "risen Christ, the morning star which never sets" (LF, No. 1)?

It would appear on all fronts that it is not. 

Let us explore each of the articles of the MTD creed relative to Lumen Fidei and see how it fails to be the faith to which Pope Francis is calling all the Christian faithful.

A God exists who created and order the world and watches over human life on earth.  This article of the MTD creed, while in a broad sense true, is false because it does not go far enough.  Reason proves that God exists, that there is a First Cause, a creator, and that there is some sort of providence.  But that is not faith in God as Lumen Fidei understands it. 

Lumen Fidei gives the journey of St. Augustine as an example of someone who has what might be called a philosophical belief in God, versus one who has faith in God.  Reason led Augustine to Neoplatonism and its notion of God.  Reason then allowed Augustine to reject his dualistic Manichaeism.  In neither instance--whether a Neoplatonist or a Manicheean--did St. Augustine have faith. 

Now Lumen Fidei acknowledges that those who "desire to believe and continue to seek," who are "sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find," like Augustine the Neoplatonist and Augustine the Manichee, may be, "even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith."  (LF, No. 35)  But being on the path leading to faith is not yet being on the path of faith. 

Similarly, Lumen Fidei says that any one "who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help" (LF, No. 35).  But this drawing near to God as a result of actual graces given by God does not yet give rise to faith in God as Lumen Fidei understands it, the central part of which is an encounter.

The "decisive moment in Augustine's journey of faith," Lumen Fidei says, occurred when he heard the child's voice in the garden telling him to "take and read."  It was then, in reading the thirteenth chapter of Romans that "the personal God of the Bible appeared to him: a God who is able to speak to us, come down to dwell in our midst, and accompany our journey through history, making himself known in the time of hearing and response."  (LF, No. 33)

"Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives."  (LF, No. 4)  Without such two-person encounter, there is no faith.

It was his encounter with the God of the Bible--the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus of Christ--and his unreserved capitulation to that reality--My God and my all!--that constituted the "decisive moment" where Augustine received the gift of faith as the Church understands it.  This faith is something altogether different from what the first article of the MTD creed means.

God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other.  This article of the creed is false because it does not go far enough.  While one might be able to say that God does want us to be "good, nice, and fair," there is a huge difference of opinion as to what "good, nice, and fair" means.

These are vague and nebulous words without any concrete standard.  Usually, "good, nice, and fair" boils down to some sort of excessive tolerance which breeds religious and moral indifferentism.  All sorts of sins can be (and are) fitted within the envelope of "good, nice, and fair."

A proponent of the MTD creed, for example, likely believes that a "good, nice, and fair" person would never suggest that homosexual activity or artificial contraception is intrinsically evil.  That's judgmental and self-righteous.

A "good, nice, and fair" person as the MTD creed sees it would never suggest that Catholicism is true, and Islam and its alleged prophet false.  That would be triumphalism and rude. 

In contradistinction to the MTD credo, faith, Pope Francis observes, is intimately tied to the Decalogue, to the natural moral law.  Faith "takes the form of a journey, a path to be followed."  It "begins with an encounter with the living God," the same God is source of law, law which ought not to be viewed as a "set of negative commands," but rather as "concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego in order to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy, and then to bring that mercy to others."  (LF, No. 46) 

To be "good, nice, and fair" as Lumen Fidei understands it, means to follow the much more rigorous and well-defined "path," the "journey," the "concrete directions" of the Decalogue, especially as understood in the "new light" from Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

The faith, moreover, is something "objective" and true, something which "points the way" (LF, No. 3), and therefore is something that can be shared with others, and something which can form the basis of life in common.  (LF, Nos. 50-51)

The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.  False.  According to Pope Francis, faith involves suffering.  "To speak of faith often involves speaking of painful testing, yet it is precisely in such testing that Paul sees the most convincing proclamation of the Gospel, for it is in weakness and suffering that we discover God's power which triumphs over our weakness and suffering."  (LF, No. 56)

Moreover, faith involves a sort of "dying" to self.  "Christians know that suffering cannot be eliminated, yet it can have meaning and become an act of love and entrustment into the hands of God who does not abandon us; in this way it can serve as a moment of growth in faith and love. By contemplating Christ's union with the Father even at the height of his sufferings on the cross (cf. Mk 15:34), Christians learn to share in the same gaze of Jesus."  (LF, No. 56)

This is not the sort of "happy" and "feel-good" religion that MTD has in mind.

The encyclical rejects the notion that faith is an emotional "feel-good" state.  Faith, it sates, is not a "blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation."  (LF, No. 3)  It is plain that the encyclical sees faith not as something involving ephemeral "feelings," but an act involving the intellect, an act of will, an act of love and total giving one's self over to the most high God after a personal encounter with him.

The encyclical does talk about "joy."  But this is not MTD "happiness."  "In God's gift of faith, a supernatural infused virtue, we realize that a great love has been offered us, a good word has been spoken to us, and that when we welcome that word, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, the Holy Spirit transforms us, lights up our way to the future and enables us joyfully to advance along that way on wings of hope."  (LF, No. 7)

This Christian joy is entirely different from "feelings" of happiness.  Indeed, the joy arises precisely from not being "happy" with one's self, but "unhappy" without one's self.  For one must be unhappy with oneself to recognize one's utter need and dependence upon the almighty God one has encountered, the God whose Word assumed flesh, and whose Holy Spirit captures us in the living flame of love.  A self-satisfied person will never be satisfied with God alone, and so he can never had faith

God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life, except when needed to resolve a problem.  False.  "The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence."  (LF, No. 4)  Every aspect.  No exceptions.  Any supposed faith that brackets God to certain areas, and leaves others for one's self is not faith, but a form of idolatry.  There must be no preserve in our life where God is not invited.

Good people go to heaven when they die.  False.  This article of MTD is intensely Pelagian.  It assumes that one can work or earn his way to heaven by being good.  Salvation by works alone.  In this view, God has nothing to do with one's goodness.  This is self-divinization, self-redemption, self-justification, and is a form of pride.

Basing himself on St. Paul and Catholic tradition, Pope Francis flatly rejects such as concept:  No one can justify himself before God by his own works.  "Such people, even when they obey the commandments and do good works, are centered on themselves."  (LF, No. 19)  They are self-absorbed moralists. 

"They fail to realize that goodness comes from God," and not themselves.  "Those who live this way, who want to be the source of their own righteousness . . . . become closed in on themselves and isolated from the Lord and from others," and so implicitly have themselves as their own idol.  (LF, No. 19)

"The beginning of salvation," Pope Francis says in Lumen Fidei, is not doing good, but rather "is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustains it in being.  Only by being open to and acknowledging this gift can we be transformed, experience salvation and bear good fruit.  Salvation by faith means recognizing the primacy of God's gift."  (LF, No. 19)

Finally, one might point out those aspects central to faith according to Lumen Fidei that are wholly lacking in MTD: (i) faith's historical nature, linked as it is to the experiences of Abraham, the history of Israel, and the coming of God the Son, his assumption of human nature, his death on the Cross, and his resurrection (LF, Nos. 8-19); (ii) the "ecclesial form of faith," which is to say, "an essential relationship with other believers" in the "unity of the Church in Christ," including the guidance of the magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (LF, Nos. 22; 36; 38-39); (iii) faith's necessary linkage with truth and love (LF, Nos 23-28); (iv) the sacramental aspect of faith, which is "first and foremost" transmitted in baptism (LF, No. 41-43), but which finds its "highest expression in the Eucharist" (LF, N. 44); or (v) its unity and integrity (LF, Nos. 47-49).

One can be sure that when Pope Francis attends the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil between July 23 and 28, he will be calling all the youth there to leave the false and insipid creed of MTD, in which there is no salvation, and will call them for an encounter with Jesus, the Son of the Living God.  It is only by placing faith in the Lord Jesus that salvation lies.  For he will repeat the message of the first Pope, Peter, whose successor he is.

He will tell them that MTD does not save, but only Jesus.  For there is salvation by no other.  There is "no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved."  (Acts 4:12).


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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