From the Mailbox

6 09 2008

From a friend (and an expert) who gives much to think about:

Now the question of liturgy (of which some of my readers think very little!)

The historical question has a very practical aspect. Liturgy is basically an oral phenomenon only very rarely was it written down. Next, why no more “fuss” in the past? I suppose you could leave out the Old Believers, but they are very interesting. If you get a chance listen to their music (especially the 40 Gospodi pomiloi; it’s pure Philip Glass). Anyway, liturgy is the crystallization of the faith of the people (in its reception mode) and the crystallization of the understanding of faith by the doctors of the Church it in “emission” mode. Dumb doctors (i.e. Latin Church) means dumb liturgy. Dumb people (in all Churches) means that the liturgy falls on deaf ears.

The liturgy is also the collective expression of the faith of the Church and therefore it is non-subject and no one gives a rat’s arse how you “feel” about it. Feelings are personal and subjective, even an individual will one day be moved to tears by something, and the next find the same thing corny and funny. So the liturgy has to be looked at for its content first and foremost. The prayer of the individual must learn to conform to the prayer of the Church, just as the mind of the individual must conform to the mind of the Church. (Which goes light years beyond any “party line”.)

I remember telling you once that I thought that the Latin Church had abandoned the spiritual life to the field of the feminine. The guys (i.e. the Jesuits) “do stuff”, the chicks (i.e. the discalced Carmelites and the Visitandines and any other unfortunate gaggle of gals the SJs could get their fangs into) “pray and suffer for the Church”. The result of that is that the RC has no real conception of the maleness of Jesus and a lot of silly women want to become priests (because that’s where the action is.)

Spiritual dryness, dark night and all the “Dungeons and Dragons” games invented by a liturgy-less church are an insult to the intelligence, and a lack of intellectual and imaginative grasp. They are not “typical” of Latin Christianity before the Reformation. The Cistercians and the Carthusians don’t go in for them in a bigway, I don’t think even the Franciscans do either. It’s been impossible for anyone to escape the Jesuit blight but it’s not the same intensity everywhere.

Now if you are bored with the Church and Church things, I think that is only a sign of sanity. Anyone who would spend their time absorbed in the politics and intellectual life of a kindergarten is to be worried about. The Church is probably at its lowest point intellectually ever. We just have to learn to live with it. The great saints of the Middle Ages lived with an absolutely corrupt and ignorant clergy…A council of despair? If the situation is desperate what else can one give?



8 responses

7 09 2008


I enjoy coming here, it always leaves me with something to think about (much like when I used to talk to you in the monastery), not to mention pricks my conscience about my past blogging sins.

But how to write intellectually and spiritually when you have no time? My day starts sat 5:30 with Lauds, then Mass, then I teach my Latin Class, then I come home, change clothes and work my other job until 7. I come home to a myriad of look what the baby learned today, this has to get done, this bill needs to get paid, etc. Last week I had overtime, I worked one of my days off and logged close to 72 hours, and I’m still not making hardly any money. The intellectual stimulation I get is reading St. Alphonsus Liguori on my lunch break or conversing with the evangelical who works for me (who is very well read and not just another dumb prot).

Alas, I’ll have to come back and read this the next time I have a day off to regain inspiration!

7 09 2008
Alice C. Linsley

This is an interesting observation about contemporary Catholicism, especially in the USA. When I knew I had to leave The Episcopal Church, I first considered the Roman Catholic Church. I visited a local parish and found that the post-Vatican II liturgy and the liturgy of the 1979 Episcopal Prayer Book were almost identical. That troubled me since the 1979 TEC prayer book at its best is theologically vacuous and at its worse, apostate. Then I sought instruction from a Catholic sister who handed me a book to read about Modern Catholicism. It contained every seed of heresy and apostasy that I had found in TEC. I was disappointed because I had come to expect great thinking from Roman Catholics, but then I was reading great thinkers: Aquinas, Newman, Ratzinger.

You’d probably enjoy the conversations that take place at some of the more thoughtful RC sites. I find them encouraging. I enjoy Father Al Kimel’s Pontifications and Mike Liccione’s Sacramentum Vitae, here:

6 09 2008

Well, an internet confessional wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Such things do exist and they’re incredibly tacky, not to mention blasphemous. Maybe some enlightened commentary and discussion on selected passages from books like “The City of God” or “Introduction to the Devout Life” is more what I meant. Of course, you’d probably want some responsible person (e.g., a priest or trained theologian) moderating the discussion so the posters don’t spread their ignorance around to others.

6 09 2008
Matthew David Nelson

From the 20-20 hindsight of Church History, we know that it has had its highs and its lows, geographic areas of renewal and dryness, Golden Ages and Dark Ages. By accident of birth, we might find ourselves either in the “Salad Days” or the “New Malaise.”

Either way, if we are faithful, God will give us grace to cope. Long-suffering may be our cross to bear in todays North America. But, despite it all, in the Mass, eternity and time intersect, and we can find the Peace of the Lord that surpasses all understanding . . . .

6 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez

If only I could confess my own hypocrisies! However, a personal web page is not the place to confess one’s shortcomings or struggles. Such confessions would be in the same genre as pornography or titilating gossip. I will leave you only with the best way out, from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

“The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything
along with it. But how worthless are all these poor people who are
engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the
philosopher! All drivellers. Well then, man: do what nature now requires.
Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about
thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic:
but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such
an event to be no small matter. For who can change men’s opinions?
And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery
of men who groan while they pretend to obey? Come now and tell me
of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves
shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required,
and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy
heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them. Simple and modest
is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.”

6 09 2008


Your follow-up post put into words things that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but was never able to adequately put into words. It seems that for many Internet Catholics, their real religion is fusionist conservatism or in some cases New Deal style progressivism. Either way, their Catholicism is influenced by their politics, not the other way around. This is why I’ve essentially given up every blog except for this one, because this is the only one where I feel like I actually come away having learned something.

I think there are several reasons for the intellectual travesty that we’re witnessing. First, nothing is fixed anymore, meaning that there are no positions that one can assume that all Catholics agree with as a bare minimum. Of course, the catechism lays out all of the non-negotiable dogmas and such, but in practice this isn’t the case. The particulars of the liturgy are up for grabs, moral theology is constantly debated, even on no-brainers like abortion, and even the Trinity and Christ’s divinity are in doubt at “Catholic” universities. How can Catholics engage in intellectual heavy hitting when we’re still arguing over the fundamentals?

Another problem is that of the “culture wars.” Many of the cultural issues that take up ink in the Catholic blogosphere (e.g., gay marriage, abortion, home schooling) were non-issues fifty years ago. Even the most radical of communists in those days would have looked at you funny if you started discussing gay marriage. This is homosexuality is still criminalized in communist countries. Even if the right and the left battled over taxes, civil rights for blacks, the USSR, and unions, there was no one advocating for condoms in schools or that illegitimacy should become the norm. Once again, there was a common understanding of morality that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Now Catholics have to deal with groups like Call to Action and Catholics for Choice who want to completely redefine morality, but still call themselves Catholic. In this environment, the Catholic intellectual can’t consider, “What is beauty?” or “How can I become a better husband/wife?” because they’re too busy fighting with the guy who says that a crucified frog is beauty and the woman who says that to be a better wife is to be a “swinger.” I think people bury their heads in the sand with pictures of 19th century papal ceremonies and essays about why Jesus was a captialist/socialist/anarchist because it distracts them from their own shortcoming and from the reality of the hole in Church is in now.

Thus, I say that the only way to have a real Catholic intellectual culture would be if all of these cultural issues are off the discussion table and that there is a reassertion of what being Catholic means at some bare minimum. It would also mean that we would some people who aren’t wedded to a particular American ideology, but to Catholic philosophy. But given the way the political landscape is going, I don’t think that’s going to happen for quite a while. I think for many would-be intellectuals it’s more fun to write about how the heathens are screwing up the world than on how you’re screwing everybody else up by personal hypocrisy. A blog or post that addressed that would be most enlightening.

6 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I should clarify that my friend, whose identity I will not divulge to protect the guilty, has a doctorate in theology from Rome and has a functional knowledge of seven languages, so he is no dummy and has been around the block a few times. I was most fascinated by the last part of his comment, where he compares the intellectual climate of the modern Church to a kindergarten. Obviously, there are lights in the current Church who are exceptions; I think that our current Pope is one of them. But in general, I would have to say that he is right. The way most Catholics address the world around them has about as much depth as a preschool sandbox. Sorry, readers of First Things, but the Christian “intellegentsia” can’t even see past its own prejudices of the United States having a messianic mission (which is the common religion of the U.S.A., though its avatars can be very distinct from each other). So really we are only preaching to ourselves, with rhetorical flourishes to make us seem smart, but in reality we are engaged in a monologue that only makes us feel better.

I think in the end the problem is one of scope and imagination. If you look even at the Christian Neoplatonic writers of the Renaissance, you see that the common assumption was that Christianity was true and everything fit into it. Now, in many places, it seems that the modern ideology is true first and foremost, and it its the Christian message that has to find a way to fit into it. Such a subconscious assumption affects all aspects of Christian discourse, and that is why “the politics of the Church” as my friend put it seems to be an underdeveloped game of hobbyists. It has little to do with the reality in which we live; it has little to do with our surroundings. Just look at [danger: about to enter into political territory, so please stop sharpening your knives] the rhetoric of the party of abortion vs. the party of war: neither political party in this country is going to do anything to stop abortion in general or the wars that our imperialist standing in the world will obligate us to fight. Maybe if one party comes into office, there will be less legal baby killing, and maybe if the other party comes into power, the wars in which we kill innocent civilians in far away lands will have a shorter duration. But does anyone think that there will be a satisfactory solution to either issue from the Catholic perspective? And you wonder why the political rhetoric is what it is in this country?

In any event, for shear sanity’s sake, I try to keep my nose out of what is going on in the Church now, though inevitably it enters into what I write here. However, I am fully aware that the Roman Catholic Church as some conceive it, and especially in this country, is an imagined community for all intents and purposes. It is one that I chose to identify with, and it is often different from the community in which I live and even the parish to which I belong. (I have always wondered about the “I am loyal to the Pope” types. They love the Pope, who they have only seen on T.V., yet they think the rest of the Church is unsatisfactory: that is pure abstraction to say the least.) If I get too obsessed with “Papism” and all its pomps, all I am doing is wearing the individual badge of the party with which I identify. It would be best if I obsessed over such questions of “how do I become a better husband?” or “how do I become a better co-worker?”, “what is beauty?”, “what does it mean to be devout?” for these things are right before my nose. Looking at pictures of the Pope or vestments on the Internet, or having debates about minutiae of Catholic theology which one is not qualified to address, can seem puerile by comparison.

6 09 2008

A good post with a lot to think about. My main thought at this point is the contrast between the oral nature of the liturgy of the past, versus its current written form. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the notion arrived that every adult, regardless of sex, needed to be literate to function in society. Prior to that point, the vast majority of people related to the world in an oral fashion that would be almost unimaginable today. It wasn’t that “The Man” was trying to keep everyone ignorant. It’s just that there was no need to learn how to read, to be a successful farmer, wheelwright, or castle latrine cleaner. This is why the oral proclamation of the readings during mass were so important. Walter Ong wrote a book about this topic in “Orality and Literacy.” He was a Jesuit during Vatican II, but the book is pretty interesting anyway. As I’m sure many readers know, the word tradition is derived from the Latin term “tradio” or “I hand down.” In an oral society, traditions are literally handed down from one generation to another that is not done in a literate society and certainly not in a technological society.

In comparison, the liturgy today has become a textual affair. Go to a TLM and you’ll notice that almost everyone from the seven-year old child to the white-haired granny has their nose in a book. Even in Novus Ordo masses, there are still a large chunk of people looking in missals. The importance of the orality of the readings is lost, since everyone is following along in their missal. Traditions are really passed by actually living them out and by transmitting them orally. It seems like once they’re written down, the tradition becomes history, not a living thing. At least that’s what it seems like to me.

Another important thing to remember is that popular culture is now the major influence on American life, not the family or the Church. I think that the mass that arose after Vatican II, with its guitars, pop hymns, and post-modern parish buildings is a testament to this. This is why I’ve begun to fear that the current form of the Novus Ordo is the logical outcome of American Catholicism. The mass is no longer above the surly influences of human life, but is like a product that can be changed if the people want a different model.

For example, sometime ago I was reading a synopsis of the movie, “Change of Habit,” a film that known as the “socially conscious” Elvis movie. In this bold masterpiece, Elvis is a hip, with it priest(!) ministering to inner city youth and Mary Tyler Moore is a radical habitless nun (!!) who must decide between her love for God and her love for Elvis. In any event, there’s a song in the movie called “Let Us Pray” that shows Fr. Elvis rocking out in the sanctuary during mass with his band. When I first saw it this clip, I thought, “Ha ha! Boy does that look stupid!” until I realized that this is essentially what mass is like now almost everywhere in America, except that the singing isn’t nearly as good. I might actually watch the whole movie for sociological reasons, since it does seem to provide a pretty accurate picture of what was going on in the Church when the Vatican II “reforms” began to be implemented. For the strong of heart, here’s the link:

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