"I take historic Christianity with all its sins upon its head; I take it, as I would take Jacobinism, or Mormonism, or any other mixed or unpleasing human product, and I say that the meaning of its action was not to be found in asceticism. I say that its point of departure from paganism was not asceticism. I say that its point of difference with the modern world was not asceticism. I say that St. Simeon Stylites had not his main inspiration in asceticism. I say that the main Christian impulse cannot be described as asceticism, even in the ascetics."
The claim set against Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular is that these are too harsh and ascetic. There are a few people who deny this religion because they deny the transcendent, the Trinity, or the triumph of Christ. But there are a great many more people who would prefer to refuse the demands that these things inconveniently place upon them. That is to say they deny the morality inherent in any religion which supposes that God not only exists but actually condescends to interact in some manner with us.
Deism seems an attractive alternative to Christianity for those who chafe under the perceived rigor of those religions' moral codes. Deism is the same thing to theism as agnosticism is to atheism, which is a contrived intellectual cover to pretending that one's beliefs about the transcendent do not matter. And just as a great many atheists are really agnostics, there is an overabundance of theists in general and Christians in particular who are really deists. "We believe in one God...almighty, Creator...earth." This is their preferred creed, and it may add only "He is distant and removed from us, and cannot be offended by our actions, nor can we live in a manner which brings us closer to Him." This is the God Who has only to exist, creating the universe and then discarding it, a forgotten work of art with a few living and self-conscious elements, crying out to Him only in vain.
This God is in some ways easier to accept than the Christian God, because we will not meet Him as defendants on Judgment Day, will never experience His awesome and awful wrath. The God who allows Heaven but not Hell is a more personable version of this deity. The implication for either is that that we need not live according to any particular commandments, so we need not obey any particular moral order. All moral orders are the same if there is no danger of damning ourselves by them.
Such a God is not, however, especially convincing. A God Who creates must do so for either Love or Malice, and the sufferings of the world are not enough for malice to be a proper motive. Far more suffering might be easily inflicted on every living thing--indeed, more suffering is at times inflicted--by cruel men than by the supposedly cruel God. Moreover, a God Who creates a universe without meaning is frivolous, and if that universe brings forth life which is intelligent enough for introspection--driven practically mad with the question "Why?"--is a cruel God, if only inadvertently. Thus, we are left with a God Who loves, or none at all.
If we have a God Who loves, then He cares specifically about us, and thus desires our greatest happiness and highest good. But our greatest happiness is union with Him, and the highest good is to love Him, to adore Him. Since He gave us the Will to choose between good and evil, we have the ability not to choose Him, that is, to choose evil. We might finally reject Him, and lose union with Him in Heaven, so that for us His very presence is not eternal bliss but instead eternal sorrow, sorrow at having rejected the very thing which we were made to embrace.
It is this that forms the basis of any good Christian morality. There are countless complaints about how Catholic moral teaching is oppressive on whichever issues the people of the day have decided they prefer. Today it is the "pelvic issues," from homosexuality to contraception to adultery and fornication; and also the issue of abortion, which our society insists is needed, lest contraception fail. Our society is susceptible to every one of the deadly sins, but it is most saturated in the sins pertaining to lust and to pride. In previous ages, it has been each of the other deadly sins, a gauntlet running from gluttony to greed.
The modern man cries "asceticism" against the Church, meaning that she is too restrictive in her morality. Previous generations decried the Church's laxity--her relative debauchery--as in the Manichaean and Donatist heresies. The Church admires a proper and holy asceticism in her saints, but she does not demand it to great lengths of her average followers. The way of deprivation is self-made, even if she encourages some to take it up, and it is only one means of not becoming to attached to worldly goods at the loss of the Summom Bonum, the Supreme Good. We are not the Manichaeans, the Donatists, or the Cathars, forcing an impossibly ascetic morality on every believer. Rather, we have a morality which reveals to us who we really are, and which prepares us for communion with God in the next life*.
The charge is mistakenly made, for example, that the Church is ascetic as regards matters of sexuality, that she is puritanical. The puritans would certainly agree with some of the moral precepts, e.g. that fornication is bad. But the puritanical prude would find himself at odds with, for example, Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, by no stretch a prudish work. The late pope in fact condemns prudish legalism as the wrong approach to morality, for the prude rejects the body every bit as much as the gnostic Manichaeans did; in fact, springs from that very same heresy which teaches that the body is bad.
The modern "neo-pagan," as Chesterton called them, does not so much reject the body as say that it is unimportant. It is the Christians, and specifically the Catholic Church, who teach that the body is not bad but rather good. It is so good that it is explicitly mentioned in the conclusion to our earliest historical Creed. Thus we hear, and with the Church exclaim, "Credo...carnis resurrectionem, et vitam aeternam." Heaven--communion with God--is enjoyed not only by our spirits, but by our whole beings, which includes our bodies.
*Which is not to say that we view morality as "optional" or "extra" either. It is, however, much more than a list of "don'ts" or even of "do's and don'ts." Yes, it is evil to break the commandments, but it is because these go both against God's will and His Love for us and against our design, our own nature and purpose, that sin is wrong. Sin turns us away from God, which is horrible; it also turns us away form ourselves, from what we were meant to be, which makes it all the worse, like adding an insult to an injury.
If you enjoyed this post, here are some related ones:
On Canonizing Chesterton, Heroic Virtue, and Everyday Life
Vocations and Graces
A Sort-of Review of Chesterton's Heretics (Book Review)
Chesterton on Saints
Chesterton on Dogma
Chesterton on Dogma (again!)
Chesterton on Ceremony and Science
Vocations and Sanctity (Thirty Minute Musings)
The Gargoyle Code: A More Substantive Review