The Primacy of the Intellect and the Curse of Religious Sentimentalism

For decades, there has been an invasion of anti-Logos irrationalism into the Church. Sometimes this irrationalism takes the form of sentimentalism (see Brother Francis’ article, Sentimental Theology), at other times it is existentialism (“existence precedes essence”), or a host of other -isms, many of them collecting themselves into the one heresy to rule them all, (neo-)Modernism.

Those of us who wish to be counterrevolutionaries, to be loyal to the Church, her doctrines and her traditions, must avoid these dangerous -isms which are, perilously, in the very atmosphere we breathe.

Sentimentalism can be, for many, a serious temptation.

One of my favorite spiritual writers, the Carthusian, Dom François de Sales Pollien (1853-1936), has a wonderful indictment of sentimentalism in the spiritual life in his volume, The Interior Life Simplified and Reduced to Its Fundamental PrincipleIn the pages leading up to this passage, the author has explained how it is that sentimentalism has been destructive of the interior life (he writes in the late nineteenth century!). He then considered the interior life under the figure of “the rod, the root, and the flower” from Isaias 11:1-2; in his application of this messianic prophesy, the root becomes reason, the rod, faith, and the flower, the spiritual life itself.

He goes on:

15. The importance of the reason in piety.—This is why we here address the reason in the first place, and very little will be found herein for the feelings To-day so many books exaggerate in the matter of sentiment, that we may here be excused for giving it a very small place. Besides, wishing to go to the foundation and the root, we must go to the reason. In this way a simple syllogism, founded on a rational idea, will suffice to lead us to the ultimate conclusions of the most perfect holiness.

Reason, no doubt, will be enlightened by faith, the root will not be separated from the rod in producing its flower ; but it is no less true that this flower of piety appears as the full and perfect blossom of the reason by means of faith. We shall see this in the explanations which follow ; we shall see that, in order to be a saint in the strict sense of the term, it would suffice, by God’s grace, I do not say, to possess right reason, but to act in accordance with reason ; so that, if man has been defined as a rational animal, it must be added that he spends his life irrationally. Piety is the exquisite power of faith and reason ; neither reason nor faith find their full bloom except in piety.

16. Reason and sentimentalism.—No one, I think, will misunderstand the bearing of the demands here set forth in favour of reason ; it is easy to be convinced that they are in no way detrimental to faith or grace, but only to sentimentalism (I was about to say, to animalism, for the two are so nearly related). Sentiment has taken an importance in the guidance of life which does not belong to it either by nature or by grace, and in this way it diminishes both nature and grace.

The intellect is the master-faculty in man, it is this that ought to direct us. It is the intellect which prepares the paths of faith, and it is in the former faculty that dwells this great virtue (Cf. S. Thomas. 2a, 2ae, q. 4, a. 2.). When the directive functions of the intellect have been supplanted, not only nature, but faith suffers from it, and the spiritual life is vitiated. This is just what is happening to-day. Sensibility, which holds the second rank in man’s faculties, takes the first place ; it even aspires to direct out piety. Thus it is that life becomes a matter of feeling, and faith an impression. Everything becomes animal and material ; everything, even the highest of all, declines and sinks ; everything tends to become external and empty ; everything totters and falls, stagnates and wastes away. Why ?—Because the tree no longer has any roots, the building has no foundation, the mountain has moved from its basis, the body no longer has a soul.

This disorder must be remedied, and we must overthrow the usurpation of sensibility, and restore to the reason its role of being the first handmaid of faith. Hence, what we so energetically call for on behalf of the reason is still more called for in the interest of faith and piety. We aim at restoring to both their basis and root, so that they may grow in strength and truth.