On two headed statues

5 07 2010

Notes on the sacred and profane

Above: Las Morismas de Bracho – Mexican Catholics having too much fun

It is public knowledge that in the town of Villar, now uninhabited, there lived a girl who had one body and two heads with complete faces, and that one spoke or sang and the other replied, and as proof of the truth of this they saw and it was public knowledge that in the chapel of Saint Dominic there was a statue of a body with two heads carved from wood, and it was there a remembrance of that remarkable phenomenon among other holy images of wood that about twenty years ago [from 1578] more or less, were taken out by permission of the Church, because it was indecent for it to be there, and afterwards the statue was lost.

-found in William Christian’s Local Religion in Sixteenth Century Spain

Is the Catholic Church finished?

Such was the question that a commenter echoed on Commonweal. In that thread, the answers from various commenters are quite informative. These people aren’t exactly the ones to give predetermined, curt answers.

My own answer is equally complicated. In many ways, the Catholic Church is not suffering because of its failures, but rather because of its success. Some will dispute this, but really, the project of Catholicism for the past five hundred years was to bring the religion more and more under clerical control. We can veil such tactics as “evangelization” or “a quest for holiness”. But really, the efforts of the clergy were seen more as trying to make people conform to its understanding of the world. From the increased control over the canonization of saints to the refusal by some clergy to celebrate local festivals, the clergy have wanted to make it clear that the only Catholicism allowed was its Catholicism.

Those who would browbeat others as “Catholic in name only” are perhaps the logical inheritors of this tradition. Make the Church smaller, make it more militant, make it clear that the Faith belongs to the clergy. Make the laity feel that their religion is only on loan to them. And when people get fed up with that, and are no longer obliged to support the Church out of social pressure, they leave. I don’t see why anyone is surprised. Especially in the United States and Western Europe, too much clerical input turned out to be a bad thing. In places like Latin America, people still for the most part feel they can be “Catholic in their own way” adhering to national religious symbols without any particular fidelity to the institutions. That may make it a church in slow decline, but that doesn’t mean it is one that is going away any time soon. The same cannot be said for the Church in many places in the “developed world”.

One of the most important aspects of this process is the increasing separation between the sacred and the profane in the early modern world. Banning two headed statues in church was only the beginning. Anything that struck the clergy as rowdy, decadent, or superfluous was to be excluded from the ecclesial ethos. The number of feasts was diminished, devotionals published, and participation in the mandatory sacraments codified. Caution, however, was still practiced. The Dominican theologian Melchior Cano was famous in writing that the mental prayer of the clergy should not be taught to the simple, rustic folk. Indeed, the other aspect in Catholicism that is not discussed very often is that when some laymen get too religious, they also get “too uppity”. This is apparently what happened in Brazil when the movement around Antônio Conselheiro in the 19th century nearly brought down the Republic.

Nevertheless, the final message was clear: the sacred is serious business, it is above your head, and you need to leave it to us to understand it. In those who finally succumbed to overly clericalized Catholicism, we encounter the dream parishioners of the traditionalist or conservative churches: modest, “mantillaed”, and soberly pious. They will never do anything to scandalize anyone else, never perform a devotion unless it is approved by “Father” or at least found in some book with an imprimatur. They see the absolute dichotomy between Church and world, and have taken a side. The Martin family in the 19th century, the one that produced St. Therese of Lisieux, is probably a good example in this regard. These people, of course, are getting harder and harder to find.

One should thus revise the assessment against such practices as liturgical dance and the use of pop music in the Mass. In reality, what is going on is not a revolution in banality, but a certain return to normalcy (with a strange twist). People were used to looking at their parish primarily as a local entity that reflected what they valued and believed. This would take the form of what images would be displayed in church, what saints’ days would be kept, what ceremonies the clergy would be called upon to perform, and so forth. Catholic laity seeing their churches primarily as a reflection of “Roman Catholic Church, Inc.” is something quite novel, and even now, quite uncommon. While there have always been certain sectors of society that were obsessed by what the ecclesiastical fashions are in Rome at the moment (just as there are those obsessed by what clothing fashions are on display on a catwalk in Milan), religion has for centuries been a local phenomenon for most people.

Thus, those crazy eighth grade kids performing a skit during a homily are just doing what regular people do when they get together to worship. The only difference is that, before, there was something that the clergy did, something important but impenetrable to the normal person, that would take place around the more important communal rites. That thing was found in books, and became known as “liturgy”. It seemed to give the clergy some sort of international identity and culture, one that the community was “plugged into”, but that didn’t shape its daily activities all that much. “Liturgy”, we come to find out, is what really mattered, though most people didn’t get that message. Because of the general decline of the Catholic community, that thing we call “liturgy” became increasingly irrelevant as well, and was subsequently abolished. Or rather, it was “reformed” to the point that it was just another set of prayer books written by really important experts with extra-special titles.

Thus, we have a particularly tangled web to sort through. On the one hand, the clerical higher-ups wanted an intensely moralized, institutional religion where all knew their place and where the international identity of the institution was primary (we see this especially in the spread in the 19th century of ultramontanism). On the other hand, we have the continual push back of localism in many places that melded with the forces of secularism and anticlericalism. In the struggle to separate and distinguish the secular and profane, we come full circle to a time when the sacred and the profane are no longer well-distinguished. The local churches will continue to enshrine their two headed statues, while the international Church will tell them to take them down, though not that firmly. The difference now is that the Church distances itself so much from the daily reality of the people that they will simply stay away.



9 responses

7 07 2010
Jared B.

People were used to looking at their parish primarily as a local entity that reflected what they valued and believed…Thus, those crazy eighth grade kids performing a skit during a homily are just doing what regular people do when they get together to worship.

This sound indistinguishable from the ecclesiology of the liberal “we are church” types who’ve dominated most of the parishes in my area. It wouldn’t sound off key coming from a low-church Protestant either. I’m serious: if I took that view of parishes, liturgy, and took seriously this supposed dichotomy between the clergy’s faith vs. the people’s faith, on what grounds could I possibly have begrudged the Reformation? — what excuse would I have not to join them, even? Luther and the rest certainly made their churches more local and a lot less answerable to Rome, allegedly more answerable to the local people and “what they valued and believed.” Nowadays the fastest growing form of Protestantism is non-denominational, with every individual local church an entity of its own, free to determine everything that goes on in its worship and devotional life. If, once upon a time, something in that spirit was normalcy even for Catholics, then why not go one step further than preferring the Catholic masses over the clergy, and finish the job by favoring non-Catholic Christianities over Catholicism?

The only answer that comes to my mind is that there is a real and solid thing called Catholicism, that it is indeed on loan to people — both laity and clergy. I sympathize with a lot of Arturo’s arguments here and elsewhere on the blog, but I still lean just a little more in favor of the clergy: with few exceptions, they’re the ones who took the trouble to show up and baptize all nations, so I can’t wrap my head around talk of “Catholicism” as if it even would exist without the clergy.

7 07 2010
Jared B.

We can veil such tactics as “evangelization” or “a quest for holiness”. But really, the efforts of the clergy were seen more as trying to make people conform to its understanding of the world.

I don’t mean to be flippant but it just seems like choosing a point of view: you either tilt slightly more in favor of the clergy or more against. Someone could as easily say “We can deride such efforts as trying to make the laity conform to the clergy’s Monday quarterback understanding of the world, but really the efforts of the clergy were evangelization and the universal call to holiness.”

The clergy have wanted to make it clear that the only Catholicism allowed was its Catholicism.

I can’t accept the idea of more than one or parallel “Catholicisms”; there is only one faith and if two different ways of practicing it really cannot be reconciled, at least one party is out of line. This essay clearly takes the view that it’s the clergy who were/are “out of touch” with some more authentic kind of Catholicism. Again, one could just lean the other way and say that it was Joe Schmo who was out of touch and really did have something to learn from the institutional church. That doesn’t take all the heat off of the clergy for losing people in droves, but the blame would be in some particular tactics not their fundamental goals. Church leadership isn’t misguided in thinking their purpose is to teach, to sanctify, to govern, and we can’t label their whole raison d’être as elitist.

7 07 2010
Arturo Vasquez

As to the original question, it is not easy to find one book that addresses the issues above, just as it is not easy to find them regarding Roman Catholicism. It is more a matter of reading the same materials and asking different questions. It is all well and good to read what the elites, who, we forget, were a very small part of any society, thought was important. The real question becomes what was the religious experience of Joe Schmo in his daily life, and why is that necessarily inferior? Or is it the same?

Anyway, a good place to start is my own essay on this question:


6 07 2010
Kevin Gallagher

Are there any books you couldd recommend in which to read about this eighteenth-century “invention of Orthodoxy”?

It’s not that I doubt what you say–far from it. I admire much in the East, but I’ve gotten tired of hearing converts to Eastern Christianity carry on about the purity of their traditions versus the evils of Western/Scholastic/rationalist theologians, and I’d like to know more about the history involved.

6 07 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I don’t think the argument changes much if we take the “Christian East” into account (again, an arbitrary construct). Really, the sixteenth century Greek village was really not that different from the sixteenth century Spanish village, except for maybe the fact that the Spanish had already cast off the Muslim yoke, while the Greeks were still suffering under it. The same beliefs in miraculous images, the evil eye, and paranormal spirits shaped both communities to the point that they would have more in common with each other than they would have with any of us.

Byzantine Orthodoxy is perhaps even more a construct out of books than Roman Catholicism. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain’s Pedalion of the eighteenth century was the foundation of modern Orthodox ecclesiology. In Russia and even on the Holy Mountain, few had any idea what the Jesus prayer or hesychasm really was. Indeed, Peter Moghila was too busy trying to “scholasticize” the Orthodox sacraments to care very much about what contemporary Orthodox obsess about now. Not to mention the penetration of Lutheran pietism into Russian monasticism (see the life of Tikhon of Zadonsk). And of course, all seminary courses in Russia at this time were conducted in, of all things, Latin.

So again, we have a lot of Monday morning quaterbacking by some clerical gatekeepers. But if you want to send me some icons with hanging trinkets to ward off the evil eye, I might hear you out.

6 07 2010

One should thus revise the assessment against such practices as liturgical dance and the use of pop music in the Mass. In reality, what is going on is not a revolution in banality, but a certain return to normalcy (with a strange twist). People were used to looking at their parish primarily as a local entity that reflected what they valued and believed.

This is an interesting point.

However, I think “orthodoxy” has always been essential to Christianity. It hasn’t always had the same institutionalized dynamic, of course. But at the heart of Christianity is the Tradere, the Tradition, the passing on of what has been received. For example, St. Paul says of women wearing veils: “If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God” (1Corinthians 11:16).

So, the faith certainly does not “belong” to the priests. I think this is clearer in Eastern Christian tradition, that each local Church, and each person in each Church, is part of the preservation and the handing on of the Tradition that has been received.

You refer to “Roman Catholic Church, Inc.” And I would suggest that perhaps your argument needs to take into account the perspective to the Christian East and its unique emphasis to “Orthodoxy” and “Tradition.”

5 07 2010
Alice C. Linsley

It is easy to blame not going to Mass on something, anything, many things. In the end people do what they want. If they want to attend, they will. When they attend and feel the Divine Presence, they will likely return. If they see, feel and experience the same thing that the world has to offer, why should they return? The Mass, the church interior, the music, the preaching, the incense, the filtered light, and the fellowship must be compelling beyond what the world has to offer.

5 07 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Perhaps I didn’t distinguish enough between the hierarchy and the post-Counter-Reformation religious orders and the lower clergy. The lower clergy have always been a problem for the people in charge. Religious orders as well have always been instruments of spreading a Catholicism more consistent with the tastes of the dominant zeitgeist. They tend to bring with them the benefits of modernity (education, health care, pastoral care), but also tend to “flatten” Catholicism along the lines of dominant modern sensibilities.

Of course, nowadays they are all pretty much dying out.

5 07 2010

I’m not really sympathetic toward the argument of clericalism is to be blame, but you have made the argument really well. I’m not sure I’m there yet. Despite what people claim, I just don’t find people personally devoted to orthodoxy. When a person says they are loyal to the Vatican, I take them just to mean that they don’t care what the USCCB and US bishops they choose not to follow have to say. The way we work priests in this country, I have difficulty concluding that we value the priesthood above all else. In practical terms, the biggest argument against married priests is parishioners having to pay for father’s children. But then again, you do make a persuasive case.

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