On the Church and Language

3 12 2009

Or: On Pizza, Beer, Machine Guns, Transliterated Greek Words, Argentine Sedevacantism, Taxi Cabs and Other Attractions of My Theological Freak Show

This essay was originally posted here

Sometimes I think that there is no such thing as Roman Catholicism. Rather, there are Roman Catholicisms. My religious experiences with Mexicans and Argentines seem so far removed from any conversations about religion that I have in this country among “non-Latins”. There is an antiseptic, dry quality to everything that is said in the United States about the Roman Catholic Church. This quality even penetrates to the fringes and extremes of any Catholic phenomenon in this country.

When we were occasionally let out of seminary in Argentina, I would sometimes be able to go into the actual city of Buenos Aires to see the sights and take a break from the usual diet of gruel and water. A few times, I went out with my best friend Nico, another bohemian who had no business being an SSPX seminarian, to spread clerical terror in the land of the porteños. One of my favorite things to do was to go to San Telmo, the old part of the city, and have some beer and pizza. Now, Argentine pizza is different from the pizza we have here: it is much less greasy, the crust is thicker, and it has less of a sense of being a type of fast food. And it goes wonderfully with a nice Argentine beer.

During many of these conversations, Nico would fill me in on all of the ins and outs of Argentine Roman Catholic traditionalism. One thing you have to understand is that Argentines become traditionalists for an entirely different set of reasons than Americans do. For them, it is more an issue of political ideology than anything else. Nico would tell me about how his family had a friend who though always a civilian, still found a way to participate in all of the coup d’etats from Peron’s first fall in 1955 onward. (I think he said that this man had a jeep with a mounted machine gun on the back in his private garage.) These were the type of people who became traditionalist: people who thought the Patria was going to hell in a handbasket and that the Masons and those hijos de p%#a leftist bishops were spreading Marxism in the pews.

Like all Catholic traditionalism, there were factions, and among those factions, there were many sedevacantists. (Indeed, the seminary at La Reja divided in two during the early 1990’s, with the old rector and many seminarians who held the sedevacantist position leaving in order to form their own seminary. They are still kicking around somewhere at the foot of the Andes.) Nico told me once that there was a type of sedevacantists who often never went to Mass at all, sort of like the Old Believers in Russia:

“Son disandristas”, he said.

Disandrists, he explained, are followers of the great Argentine classical philologist Carlos Alberto Disandro (pictured above), and unlike the vast majority of sedevacantists, his objections to the legitimacy of the Roman Church coming out of Vatican II centered not just on Thomistic arguments, but on his readings of the Greek Fathers of the Church. Admittedly, this was all just a cover-up for his pseudo-fascism and anti-Semitism, but some of the reasons he gave were rather fascinating. And, hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And while I was there, I read the polemics of the SSPX against Disandro saying that his ideas bordered on Gnosticism and crypto-paganism.

Being a nosy inquirer into all things strange, recently Disandro has been on my mind. To my surprise, the library here in Berkeley has a few of his works, mostly on classical Greek poetry. But there is one book that I found in storage of Disandro, a compendium of three works he put together under the title, The Judeo-Christian Heresy. I have recently read through much of it, and I will comment here mostly on the second essay, “Saint Stephen, Protomartyr: A Reply to Cardinal Danielou”.

The book begins with a bold statement in the introduction:

Firstly, the founding base of the Church is the Mysteric Cult, the Sacred Act, not the Bible. The Bible is the least significant level of the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos, and therefore cannot govern the life of the Church.

Thus, a Biblical philology that is of Jewish inspiration, or Judeo-Christian, such as the one that the Sacred Councils neutralized and unseated up until the eight century and beyond, as well as the Holy Fathers in the same vein, is a powerful poison against the life of the Church.

The central essay on St. Stephen was a response to a visit of Jean Cardinal Danielou, S.J. to Argentina. For Disandro, Danielou was one of the major representatives of a new Judaizing tendency that had taken over the Church. The compelling argument in the essay was that, unlike the ecumenical talk of the validity of the Old Convenant coming out of Vatican II, the recounting in the Book of Acts of the first martyrdom of St. Stephen represented a much more radical break from the Synagogue than many contemporary theologians care to admit:

…in the interpretation of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine the martyrdom of the Hellenic deacon Stephen posits itself as a theological paradigm and announces the profound mystery of the metanoia of all men, especially of the obsolete fate of Israel, whatever it might be. That announcement prefigures the attribute of katholike for the Ecclesia that has no need of an Israel, nor of a Zarathustra, a Socrates or a Gandhi, since it has another principle of historical growth that is not corrupted by a decadent priesthood, a ridiculous and abject eroticism, nor the cultic fornication with all the demons of the vast and awe-inspiring air.

In the convoluted prose of the Argentine scholar, an indictment shines forth of modern approaches to looking at the world. If one can only cut through his reactionary posturing, one sees a man who has profoundly thought about what it means to think, act, and believe. Although there are all sorts of problems with his arguments (he’s a sedevacantist for crying out loud!) there are many passages that challenge our views of things in his rather pithy and polemical book. One such long passage I will translate here for the sake of my American readers:

Such as there exists the absolute Incarnation of the Logos or the Son of Man that cannot be substituted, nor completed, nor perfected, and even though it occurs in human history, it overflows, fulfills, and transfigures anothen(as St. John says), thus there exists a holy semantic model that cannot be substituted, or completed, or perfected, and even if it occurs in the heart of linguistic history, it assumes that meaning of the highest level of concrete sacredness. This Greek semantic model is congruent with the trinitarian mystery and is manifested in the cult… and since the New Testament is the light of the Old, Greek sacredness is superior to that of the Hebrew, insofar as the latter corresponds to the ministry of the angels and the former corresponds to the reality of the abyss of celestial Theantropia… No language can be of greater significative profundity than Greek and none can express better the trinitarian depth of Revelation.

So much for that, Origen! But our Argentine sedevacantist has a profoudly Neoplatonic view of what it means to know. Doctrine is not just a series of lessons to be learned, but an initiation into a series of transfigurative truths. So it is not just about what is said, but how it is said. And in that sense, some means of communication are much more privileged than others. You will have to excuse me, but I must include as well one final long quote:

…the Church as Sacramentum Trinitatis is not founded on the letter, nor does it need the Letter; but insofar as the Logos is the vicarial assumed event that incorporates the semantic breath of man, it assumes all of its concrete structural instances. The letter of the Gospel is thus a sacramental sign of the theandric breath, a sacred respiration from its divine bridge, a holy semantics from an inviolate Greek that reassumes according to the capacity of the letter the mysterious movements and shadows of the Trinitarian life. Before this text we fall in worship not to adore nor to Judaize the letter as the fount of Life, but rather to listen to the breath, to journey in its ways, live in its dwellings, and to recognize the celestial sound of the humanized Logos.

No wonder he’s a traditionalist: he has just undermined the entire epistemological base for the Vatican liturgical reforms of the 1960’s. The Word is not Letter. It is not something to be “read” and “understood”, but rather it is something that must be heard and worshiped. Thus, why not chant the Word in Latin or Greek rather than try to understand “what it says”? The idea of a “Liturgy of the Word” as opposed to a “Liturgy of the Eucharist” is a reversion to the letter, to the simulacrum and to the shadow. For the letter:

…is also to be transfigured, and for this reason the inviolate Church receives the inviolate letter, in expectation of that mysterious creature that contains in a perfect manner the abyss of divine-humanity.

(Of course, what I don’t understand about his argument is why he would defend the Mass in Latin. While he praises the Hellenic mind, the “cult” he advocates is not in “theandric” Greek. Maybe, in another context, he would have become Orthodox, but that would have opened up another can of worms.)

What I find interesting is how these arguments could be applied to some of the Catholic blogs that I read. Most of them are involved in the rather Sisyphean exercise of trying to convince Protestants that Protestantism is not Scriptural. But, if we consider the premises of our sedevacantist philologist, the Christian Faith does not have its primary basis in Scripture: it resides rather in the “Mysteric Cult”, the Eucharist, and the power of God. Indeed, it has been refered to me several times that primitive Christianity may have spread not primarily through the persuasive preaching of the first followers of Christ, but rather through all of the miracles of the early Church. Early Christianity may have been more shamanistic than we would like to concede. Indeed, as Disandro points out, the primary presence of God in Israel during its Golden Age was not the presence of God in the Torah or the word, but rather in the Shekinah of the Temple, the Light of Glory:

Quam dilecta sunt tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum…

Thus, trying to persuade people that Catholicism is the true “religion of the Book” is a bit like trying to make an atomic bomb out of gum wrappers and rubber bands. The real foundation of our religion is elsewhere. (And not, as I would say, in ecclesiastical authority either, as some would wish to believe, but that is the subject of another post entirely, and it is past my bedtime.)

It’s funny to read a sedevacantist who sounds more like a porteño Alexander Schmemann than Cardinal Cajetan’s mentally handicapped cousin. But those are just the people you meet. What do you expect from a country whose middle class intelligentsia has few ambitions to use their book learning for anything useful? As my friend Nico once told me when he left seminary at the same time I did:

I can either study something I like and end up driving a taxi, or I can study something useful and still end up driving a taxi.

Last time I heard, he was going to law school just to have something to do. I wonder if he’s a good driver…



8 responses

15 12 2009
Dick Rolwing

Many arguments exist that early christians were pentecostal, exorcistic, and healers.

Words cannot be heard unless they are prefaced by, surrounded by, and followed by, silence. Every word is an implicit plea to “Think!”

5 12 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think the “cult of the Word” is a misnomer. More like the “cult to churchy Yapping”. Or better yet, the “cult of ecclesial information technology”. Because if we talked at people enough, they’ll become holy. That at least is what the post-Vatican II church thinks, or how it regards catechesis.

4 12 2009

Perhaps this is why so many Catholics have had an attraction to Zen Buddhism: the cult of the Word in the post Vatican II Church left them hungry for silence and spiritual experience beyond words and letters.

4 12 2009

the cultic fornication with all the demons of the vast and awe-inspiring air

So he believed in the aerial toll-houses! 🙂

3 12 2009

This goes with what I’ve always thought Catholicism: that it is the most human of all religions because there are indeed so many and that it is only Christianity (maybe the Orthodox too) that can accomodate the human tendency towards “shamanism.”
Somtimes it takes a pagan, sometimes an anti-Semite I guess…

3 12 2009

“It’s funny to read a sedevacantist who sounds more like a porteño Alexander Schmemann than Cardinal Cajetan’s mentally handicapped cousin.”

Well, hey, in a sense, the Orthodox are the original sede vacantists.

Thanks for reposting this. It’s a good, though-provoking read. Part of the problem, of course, is that “word” is an inadequate translation of “logos” which is basically untranslateable. Further, it would seem to me that the religion of the crucified, resurrected, incarnate God the Logos sublates both Judaism and Hellenism more or less equally, while, of course, being thoroughly rooted in the covenant with Abraham, Moses, etc.

3 12 2009


The Word of God is not a book. He is not an arrangement of letters on a page.

3 12 2009

The History Museum pages at http://www.netzarim.co.il are particularly relevant to your article.

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