Guéranger and Newman

9 08 2010

Scattered jottings on historical theology

From this site:

Directly and indirectly he helped assure definition of the two great dogmas that were defined in the nineteenth century, that of the Immaculate Conception and that of papal infallibility. After championing for decades the substitution of the Roman liturgy for the hodge-podge of local rites that existed in France — the legacy of too many years of rampant Gallicanism — he saw his desire fulfilled before leaving this world in 1875. Above all, he presided over the rebirth of French monasticism, and, through it — even if he did not live to see the further development — the rebirth of religious life elsewhere. This last achievement can be seen as it ought only if it is recalled that less than 15 years before his birth in 1805 the practice of the Faith had been made illegal in France by a revolutionary government…

Yet, not long afterward, Bishop de la Myre would grant Fr. Guéranger permission to use the Roman Missal and breviary, a privilege that perhaps was not enjoyed by any other priest in the Diocese of Le Mans. Rome’s liturgical books enabled him, he tells us, to “enter ever more deeply into the inmost consciousness of the Church.”

When reading this essay, it became evident to me that much of what people consider “tradition” in the Western church is a product of rupture. What, for example, would drive the young Fr. Guéranger to want to say the Mass as used in Rome as opposed to the local missal? Perhaps it was the idea that the Gallican liturgies were less pure, that they had been meddled with by the Jansenists and rationalists, and so forth. But the Tridentine missal, while based on antiquarian sources, was not much older than they were. So authenticity does not seem to be a valid reason.

The more convincing argument is that he saw Rome as the one place in Christendom that was incorrupt and could not be corrupted. His writing of such books as The Papal Monarchy and his disdain for the Eastern rites of the Church are perhaps further evidence of such an attitude. Because of the shock and crisis of post-revolutionary France, where the State no longer unconditionally patronized the Church, figures like Dom Guéranger began to question the ecclesiastical order as it was handed down to them. In Guéranger’s case, this meant going “back to basics” in terms of the monastic life. As the essay continues, he found that even the old monks who had been Benedictines before the Revolution were too lax and secularized for his taste, and seldom did they make good monks in his newly founded monasteries.

There is no doubt that many of the readers here would defend Guéranger’s reforms in that what emerged from them is the militant, inward-looking Catholicism we know today. I am merely asking if this is really tradition. It may look better to the person who reads the Imitation of Christ on his coffee break, but is it healthier? And where does the slippery slope end? Dom Guéranger helped “restore” Gregorian chant since it was a more “prayerful” form of music than romantic Masses or Baroque arias. But where does that particular predilection end up? I for one happen to think Gregorian chant is prayerful, but wouldn’t words that everyone understands be even MORE prayerful? It is the real important people in the Church (i.e. people not reading this blog) who seem to think that it is Marty Haugen and the St. Louis Jesuits who have written the most prayerful music of all. Personally, I prefer sacred music to be performed rather than “prayed”. It seems more “God-centered” that way.

I know that “micro-traditions”, the ones that are passed down to us by our parents and grandparents, are not at all pure, and they may be less meaningful than our interpretation of them. However, they probably don’t need to be. They promise little, and most of the time they deliver, whether it’s a traditional food, a novena, a story that seems superstitious and backwards, and so on. In my own life at least, they seem far more reliable than any Catholic mega-narrative of the past two hundred years, as the Church, in her infinite wisdom, has deemed it fitting to change these every generation or so to sync with the “signs of the times”. Dom Guéranger’s reforms may then be far more edifying to us than what came before, but I still see them as houses built on sand.

Moving on then, more Fr. Komonchak on Newman’s modern turn towards inward religiosity:

[A Newman quote:]

Every consideration, the fullest time should be given to those who have to make up their minds to hold an article of faith which is new to them. To take up at once such an article may be the act of a vigorous faith; but it may also be the act of a man who will believe anything because he believes nothing, and is ready to profess whatever his ecclesiastical, that is, his political party requires of him. There are too many high ecclesiastics in Italy and England, who think that to believe is as easy as to obey–that is, they talk as if they did not know what an act of faith is. A German who hesitates may have more of the real spirit of faith than an Italian who swallows.

That sort of summarizes the whole essay for me in that it encapsulates the ambivalence that I feel about many of Newman’s and Komonchak’s points. Newman was unpleasantly surprised when he arrived in Rome to study for the priesthood only to find a cabal of ignorant bureaucrats that barely taught the doctrines of the towering intellects of the Church (Aquinas, Augustine, etc). What Dom Guéranger saw as the musical problem of the Church is what Newman saw as her intellectual problem. They both wanted a reditus ad fontes: a return to the very heart and center of the faith. Laudable, yes. Romantically distorted, probably.

From the essay, what Newman seems to have found most unsavory about the Catholicism he encountered both in England and Italy was its tribalism. People were Catholic because they didn’t know what else to be. Even James Joyce some decades later would best summarize this sentiment when he puts into the mouth of one of his characters the following rejoiner to the idea that he had become a Protestant: “I said I lost my faith. Not my sanity and self-respect”. One wonders what Newman would have thought had he read these lines by a fallen away Catholic. For Newman, an Italian swallowing meant that he believed in nothing more than his tribe. It is only a tribe that must be obeyed, not a church of grown individuals. Those with a healthy sense of skepticism, the proto-modernists and converts like himself, were the people who constituted the “real Church”. As I have read elsewhere, and as this essay goes on to explain, Newman’s real fear was that those around him had no sense of assent properly speaking and thus weren’t real Catholics to begin with.

As a non-joiner, I sympathize very much with the idea that to agree has to be more than to obey. I do believe in the power of rationality in the face of a cruel and seemingly absurd cosmos. However, I am perhaps much more willing than Newman to acknowledge a scale of degrees of belief and assent (I am just going by what I have read so far. After all, these are nothing but jottings). Here I think of the pagan philosopher Iamblichus’ idea of the proper hierarchy of prayer:

Each man attends to his sacrifice according to what he is, not according to what he is not; therefore the sacrifice should not surpass the proper measure of the one who performs the worship.

From this essay, at least, I have very little sense that Newman could appreciate the profound emotional depth that even “superstition” could have at the service of the Gospel, or even the profound mystical depths of everyday “uncatechized” life. It is evident that he felt that such things would not pass the test of skeptical modernity, that such a “childish” faith would be eaten alive by the ethos and anti-culture of modern science. The demographic implosion of the Church in Europe seems to support this premonition. The other side of the coin, however, is that the “turn to the interior” (cor ad cor loquitur) doesn’t seem to be an effective option either. When modern man turns inward, when he hesitates rather than swallows, he doesn’t necessarily find true assent, but the abyss of absolute skepticism.

I do not know if Komonchak had “conservative” Catholics in mind when writing this essay, but for me at least these people when thinking of these isssues want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to end up in a church where it seems that everyone has “swallowed”, but only after a theoretical period of hesitation (chewing?) that always has the exact same result: everyone agrees with the Pope, the Vatican, the local bishop, the president of the Ladies’ Altar Society, and lives happily ever after. Many progressive Catholics will see this as equally problematic as the Catholic who just “goes along to get along”, all the while not really caring about the issues at hand. The tribe must survive, no matter what.

Obviously, I would like to study this question more. The way Fr. Komonchak writes about Newman is fascinating, and his version of things removes him from being a pawn in anyone’s game. I don’t know if I will ever be comfortable with Newman’s anti-tribalist Catholicism. Deep down, it seems counter-intuitive to me. In the end, I suppose I will always prefer the local to the universal, and to find the transcendent in the mundane. When many speak of religion, they seem to speak of some parallel dimension, while I would much prefer just to live in this one.



8 responses

19 09 2014

It’s hard to come by knowledgeable people in this particular topic, but
you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

11 08 2010


[…] they [“micro-traditions”] seem far more reliable than any Catholic mega-narrative of the past two hundred years, as the Church, in her infinite wisdom, has deemed it fitting to change these every generation or so to sync with the “signs of the times”. Dom Guéranger’s reforms may then be far more edifying to us than what came before, but I still see them as houses built on sand. (my brackets, ellipsis)

This paragraph pinpoints one logical inconsistency of Gary Potter’s placement of Guéranger’s movement as an apology for the social Kingship of Christ. Potter upholds Guéranger’s liturgical project as a figurative return to Papal privilege as a antidote to revolution, rationalism, Enlightenment. Potter’s article contradicts itself: he notes that the rationalist Gallicanist rites fostered sanctity and sainthood in 19th century France. Micro-traditions were able to achieve what a vision of God-Man kingship could not: the sanctity of persons through the rituals of their period, regardless of the ritual provenance. Potter’s attempt to make a sand castle out of Guéranger’s sandbar misses the point: micro-liturgical trends do not necessarily operate within the grand social shifts that swirl about the piety of individuals.

Arturo, again:

They want to end up in a church where it seems that everyone has “swallowed”, but only after a theoretical period of hesitation (chewing?) that always has the exact same result: everyone agrees with the Pope, the Vatican, the local bishop, the president of the Ladies’ Altar Society, and lives happily ever after.

Fr. Komonchak cites Cdl. Newman’s indictment of “liberalism” as the disintegration of the idealized medieval social Kingship of Christ into the divergence of Church and state. I agree that a facade of individual thought within conservative/orthodox groupthink ironically thwarts Newman’s intended response to “liberalism”. I argue that Catholics do not need to return to a conjectured relationship between the medieval academy and the Church. Rather, the “liberalist” academy is the agar for spiritual growth, provided that a scholar is cognizant of both the strictures of the faith and the freedom to express faith through diverse intellectual channels.

So many devout Catholics have bought into the pitiful education that Newman saw in his time. Rather than engage “the age” with rigorous classical and theological education clothed in modern language, students at “orthodox Catholic” colleges merely regurgitate facts (again, per Newman) and startle in the headlights of earnest academic discussion.

11 08 2010
Arturo Vasquez

When the Spanish first came to evangelize Mexico (granted, by force), the only thing they felt they needed to teach the people was the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Doxology. Aside from baptism, that was it. On the other hand, many of the friars thought the newly minted Catholics to be little better than pagans, even though the situation back in the home country wasn’t much better. Indeed, much of what people think is “pagan” in Mexican Catholicism was not left over from the Aztecs, but brought over by the Spanish. (Like belief in the evil eye.)

As for “catechesis” as a means of making the Church holier, I am not so sure these days. The holiest people I have known have been holy by accident. In other words, they were surrounded by sinners, even in their own families. They have been ex-sailors who cussed too much, women who finally left bad relationships, and recovering drunks. A lot of people who were pious and “good Catholics” have lacked street smarts, common sense, and just general sensitivity towards others. As I was saying to my wife coming out of Mass this Sunday, I think there is an especially nasty place in Purgatory reserved for a man just for being a dick in church.

10 08 2010
Jared B.

After a lot of sermons and essays, I only recently read Newman’s Apologia. I concluded that if Newman ever gave anyone a reason to doubt his intellectual sincerity, it was his plain obsession with his own intellectual sincerity, God bless him. 🙂

They both wanted a reditus ad fontes: a return to the very heart and center of the faith. Laudable, yes. Romantically distorted, probably.

Reading most any lives of the saints, so many of their short bios mention (usually without elaboration) that the saint “worked for the reform of the Church” or similar phrasing. Even the Golden Legend gives one the impression that there never has been a time in history when the reform of the Church wasn’t necessary, whatever that meant in their times. Wanting (and finding) a return to the heart and center of the faith could almost be a functional definition of holiness when and if it is applied to the public [i.e. political] life of the church. If anything is different about the Modern era, it’s that ‘working for the reform of the Church’ is a self-appointed task of far more scholars—and a vocation from God, for saints, far fewer by proportion. I’m not saying Newman or Guéranger weren’t saints — but even if they were, their enterprises may’ve been followed by others because of their intellectual strength and not their sanctity. I think that’s the real test of whether Guéranger’s work was a house built on sand, and it depends as much on his advocates as the man himself. With intellectual correctness as the sole guide, I can imagine one might zealously anathematize those Baroque arias. We can be thankful the Church does not canonize people — or their programs or ideals — based on intellectual purity but on holiness and virtue.

10 08 2010


Great comments. And profound ones, too.

9 08 2010

Being a Catholic means accepting the Church’s authority. When I go to the doctor he says take this pill. Behind that instruction is a plethora of scientific study and medical knowledge. I am for the most part not privy to it nor do I care to be. I take the pill. What I need to know he tells me. I accept the same situation in the Church. The Church speaks and I listen. I don’t need to be a junior theologian any more than I need to be a junior doctor. Both situations I feel are a little dangerous. A little knowledge in the wrongs hands as they say. A totally ignorant population is always troubling but equally so is a population of people armed with half truths. The question becomes how much knowledge does the expert supply in order to equip people without over complicating the issue.

9 08 2010

This reminds of the tendencies which I observed, while I was still Reformed, to equate knowledge (or erudition, or correct parsing) with faith. I eventually came to the point (as a Reformed Christian)where I told people – you are justified by faith, not by believing in justification by faith. The doctrine or practice cannot, and should not, superced the childlike faith of the beleiver, no matter how much ignorance there is. I think one can make this statement irrespective of whether the individual is Catholic, or Orthodox, or Protestant.

9 08 2010

There is I think a desire to over educate which often means to half educate the Catholic population. In my reading I have often come to realize just how ignorant I am and how much there is to know. I think the real issue is how much we really need to know in order to live as Catholics. I would say we need to know less than men like Newman would believe. When I was young I was an amateur fighter of sorts. I came to realize that I could pulverize people with just the basics. Nothing fancy just stick to the basics. Much of popular, local, ignorant Catholicism is just that, the basics. In my humble view it works quite well. There are often eccentricities mixed in but the workable basics are always there. I have often seen uneducated Catholics live their faith in a profound way utilizing just the basics. It is for most men as simple as that. Of course it gets tougher for the educated and the professional religious who are always thinking. For the common run of the mill Catholic it is rather simple. For an educated Protestant like Newman the masses of uneducated Catholics might have seemed a project in need of renewal. The faith has existed among such people for centuries. Tradition, habit and custom are as valid a means of guarding the faith as education. The tribe is simply an effective means of maintaining all things human and often things divine. Sometimes modern smart guys are bothered by that. I guess it is because they didn’t think it up.

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