La Part Maudite

18 02 2008


I will simply state, without waiting further, that the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire… It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.

Georges Bataille

I read Georges Bataille’s book, The Accursed Share as a teenager when I was on my Nietzsche tear. (Really, anyone who can read Nietzsche with a straight face after the age of twenty still has a lot of growing up to do.) I remember being fascinated by the idea that any society must necessarily produce waste; that societies that function best are not necessarily the societies that are the most efficient. One interesting fact I learned from this book, for example, was that up to forty percent of men in pre-communist Tibetan society were unproductive monastics who obviously neither worked nor reproduced. Another example of waste that Bataille goes into is the polatch of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. The idea that one throws many of society’ resources out the window, not just in the capacity of “recreation” in the modern sense, but in a burst of creative and destructive energy, has held my imagination ever since.

Recently AG and I went to San Jose just so I could show her around my old stomping ground. One of the things we were priveleged to see was St. Joseph’s Cathedral, right smack in the middle of downtown and dwarfed by the buildings that helped established the name of this region as the “Silicon Valley”. The striking contrast, then, between such an old building, on the one hand, and the modern office buildings on the other, could not help but invoke in me Bataille’s ideas about production and “waste”. To be Catholic is to be inherently wasteful. It is to spend your money on “useless” prayer cards and spend your time mumbling “useless” prayers to anachronistic saints. Ornament is useless, high domes are useless, side altars are useless, Latin is useless etc., etc. Catholic countries often have feast days off of the patron saints as well as the high holy days. Let’s face it, Mormons and Evangelicals don’t have these holidays. They’re bad for business.

I commented to AG that side altars in old church buildings make me very, very sad. If I see the reforms of the last forty years as anything, they are the capitulation of the Church to the technocratic ideas of efficiency and information. Side altars are the best example; before, numerous priests would live in a cathedral or monastery and every morning they would shuffle off to a side altar with a half-asleep altar boy and say his Mass for the intentions of the living and the dead. The reformers coming out of Vatican II saw this as “less Patristic”, medieval, and let’s face it, wasteful. What’s the point of a priest saying his Mass as if it were his possesion, his object instead of the synaxis of the people of God? Why not save everyone’s time and energy and just have him concelebrate the Mass with other priests? Let’s face it, those altar boys didn’t want to serve that Mass anyway, and now we can save a lot of time, energy, and concentration by focusing on one Mass instead of six or seven. The result: all of those side altars are empty and meaningless. They often have a potted plant or kneeler in front of them; awkward objects to accompany an awkward anachronism, a totally useless object in a technocratic age. In the San Jose Cathedral, they even put Scriptural verses where the tabernacle is supposed to be. The Reformers in Geneva would have been proud; the “Word of God” triumphs over “superstition”.

In spite of having seen some beautiful modern churches, side altars are always absent from them, as are the florid ornamentations and the crowds of plaster saints that have historically haunted the Catholic imagination. We have asked ourselves what are the most important aspects of our Faith and have trimmed the rest off as fat. We have honed the Gospel message in the spirit of applying “lean principles”; we have downsized the Catholic imagination by expelling from it all that is “fanciful” and “inaccurate”; and we have outsourced the priestly work to those (laypeople) who will do it more cheaply and efficiently so that the Church can run better as an organization. In short, in many places, we are tranforming the House of God and Gate of Heaven into God’s Cubicle and the Holy Spirit’s Shipping and Receiving Department.

It is not that I defend the old ways as a knee-jerk reactionary. I just wish that people would have given them the benefit of the doubt, that they would have spent some time contemplating why things were the way they were not just on a “theological” sense, but also on the philosophical and ontological level. Man needs waste, he needs the blissful burden of the irrational since it is the only way to articulate on this side of death the ultimate transcendence of God. God is God because He is beyond this life, He has no need of it, and sometimes His ways appear contrary to it. In this world where we are boxed into the most efficent work spaces in the history of man, we need to be reminded that this is not all that there is. From the dry desert of the cubicles and stale offices of our day to day lives, we need the Church to be an oasis of glorious waste, where information and efficiency take a back seat to beauty, wonder, and revelry in Christ. The Church in all she does must burn as “uselessly” as incense in the hands of a half-asleep altar boy.



6 responses

6 08 2010

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4 05 2009
Conviction of knowledge « The World of Monfri

[…] example, take a look at this guy’s WordPress entry. Really, anyone who can read Nietzsche with a straight face after the age of twenty still has a lot […]

19 02 2008
The Scylding

It was one of the Wilson clan (ie the Credenda crowd), I think, who once said – In the past, we built great cathedrals. Today, we throw gospel frisbees.

19 02 2008
Arturo Vasquez


The vocations crisis is part of it, I suppose, as is the cost of building churches. I wouldn’t want to underestimate the cost of building churches. However, I have been around when people in various parishes I have been part of had been talking about building a church. Indeed, I lugged bricks with my bare hands to in preparing the consecration of the seminary church in Argentina (not to mention the heavy, cedar doors). It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a pretty church. Indeed, some of the prettiest churches I have been in have been small and quite beautiful. I remember one particular church in the Cordoba highlands, made in the seventeenth century. It doesn’t take more than a few boards, paint, and a few statues to make a side altar. The point is that we are not doing it.

And the point of having many side altars in a cathedral or a religious house is precisely because the priests are NOT supposed to venture out. The canons of a cathedral, some religious, and monastics live primarily to sing the Office; it has only been with the vocations crisis that this has no longer been possible. It is a very utilitarian idea to ask oneself “what are all those priests doing there anyway?” In the singing of the Divine Office lies one of the greatest vocations man is called to: the praise of God pure and simple. It is just like the ointment poured over Our Lord’s head for his burial in the Gospel. And along with side altars, we would dare not scorn such things.

We should then rejoice, then, that Catholics were once so generous that they could have fifteen side altars in a church with the priests to say Mass at each one, even at the same time. Maybe we can’t have that anymore due to cost, but one or two wouldn’t hurt.

18 02 2008

What I thought about upon seeing all the not-used side altars in San Jose Cathedral were, “how many priests would one cathedral need, when no one lives in downtown San Jose?” Downtown San Jose looks, indeed, like a business district that is dead in off-hours. Contrast that with the thriving, sprawling, suburban strip mall jungle that surrounds San Jose, and that I’m sure requires several priests, far spread out. My point being, sometimes (though not always), economics, not ideology, is at work. I’ve attended Masses celebrated by the archbishops of Santa Fe, Chicago, and New Orleans, and at only the latter two locations did the archbishops have even one con-celebrant for an average Sunday Mass (and those were both with older or ill archbishops who probably really do need a con-celebrant). Unless they were all hiding out in some back room, I’d guess that the rest of the priests were celebrating Mass at other locations – indeed, one of the priests assigned to St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans usually celebrates Mass at my sister’s parish mid-city, since her own pastor is assigned to two parishes. The Catholic ghetto in America is long dead – Catholics do not live in small urban enclaves anymore, where multiple priests could be assigned to one large church, and all celebrate Mass at their own side altars. Catholics are much more spread out, and in the corners of America I’m most familiar with, the decision on the part of dioceses and archdioceses has been to build more Catholic churches and spread the clergy out in the suburbs and beyond.

Building more Catholic churches – do you know how much that costs? In the four church building campaigns my family has been involved with, it was prohibitively expensive to build a “traditional” church that would also be able to seat the number of families that were current members of the parish and projected members of the parish – high domes get really expensive. It’s very economic the way they tend to do things – by necessity, since the money is coming out of someone’s pocket, even if it’s not yours. Estimate how much money this family can give, and that one, then try to convince them to give that much, and from that this is the type of church we can build…. And if one wants these statues, these windows, those decorations, there will have to be additional benefactors. (Until you and/or your family has been asked to pony up the tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it, I dare say you shouldn’t talk.) And yet strangely, in a hideous, 1970ish church building in suburban Dallas, there are plaster Stations of the Cross in pastels, 8 foot fully-painted statues of saints; people building new churches in suburbia and using all the old artwork, even the stained glass windows, from churches that have had to close in urban areas. Even here in supposedly ultra-liberal Bay Area, there is only one church I’ve been in that’s obviously iconoclastic. Two cathedrals – those of San Francisco and Oakland, are obviously modern. One church – that of U.C. Berkeley Catholic Center – looks like a rock cave (strangely, it shares that in common with the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland). And all the rest have been startlingly, hmm, traditional. Maybe I’ve been lucky and have conveniently missed the overwhelming number of hideous Catholic churches, devoid of anything that would identify them as a Catholic church, that must certainly be in the area. All I can see is that this area has clearly taken pains in a number of their churches to keep them as traditional (with plaster saints and mosaic or wooden stations of the cross) as possible, with the exception of the longed-for side altars, though I’ve yet to see, other than in the nearby priory, several priests con-celebrating a Mass every Sunday.

But hey, I have the mind of an engineer (both natural affinity and trained skills for focusing on practicality and efficiency; that devious discipline developed in the 19th century) and inside knowledge on a few church building projects here and there, so perhaps that drives me to see that some of what you’re pointing out has sources other than twisted ideology.

18 02 2008

Sometimes I wonder if one reason that Divine Providence has seen fit to allow the proliferation of so many “Independent Catholic Churches” and so many “vagante” clergy (such as myself) at this time is so that at least a few of those daily, private Masses which are no longer said by mainstream Roman priests are made up for.

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