Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"A Necessary Conversation" About Ideologized Liturgy

The other day Amy Welborn posted a thought-provoking question involving this picture, depicting either a Mass of the Extraordinary Form or a Novus Ordo Mass celebrated Ad Orientem:



Amy asked people for their reactions to the photo, and the reactions were themselves thought-provoking and revealing. What they seem to reveal is something I have noticed before in many of the negative reactions to Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio and to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, otherwise known as the "Tridentine" rite. What is apparent to me is that many of the objections are ideological rather than theological or spiritual. Here are a list of some of the words and phrases used in the negative reactions to the photo, or other objections and complaints about Summorum Pontificum and/or the Extraordinary Form that have appeared in the media since last July:

"too complicated"
"put off by all males in the sanctuary"
"a period piece…"
“stuffy,”
“elitist”
“inaccessible”
“extreme"
“antiquated”
"medieval trappings"
"nostalgia"
"hierarchical"
"staged"
"Latin is a dead language"
"the priest has his back to us"
"a step backward"
"exclusionary"
"sexist"
"liturgy should be simple"
"clericalist"
"passive"

These words and phrases, and others similar to these, characterize much of the opposition to and complaints about Summorum Pontificum and the resurgence of the Extraordinary Form. And what is remarkable is that none of these words and phrases are, properly speaking, either theological or liturgical. Rather, they are ideological. And they illustrate that the post-conciliar liturgy, at least in the United States, has been invested with a rather heavy ideological burden.

I think that the ideologies represented by these terms can be roughly divided into three categories. They are:

(a) Egalitarianism or Democratism
(b) The Ideology of "Progress"
(c) The Ideology of "Authenticity"

The first ideology, egalitarianism, can be seen in such terms as "stuffy", “elitist”, "hierarchical", "the priest has his back to us", and "clericalist". Egalitarianism, of course, is the ideology that seeks to level all differences and distinctions, and asserts radical equality. The problem is that Catholic liturgy is intrinsically "unequal". Liturgy is about we humans, who are not God, worshipping God, who is God. Sorry to belabor something that should seem obvious, but, unfortunately, many have worked for the last 30 years to obscure that obvious fact. Catholic Liturgy is intrinsically hierarchical: In it God comes to us in an act of condescension, witnessed by the angels and saints who are quite literally above and beyond us, through the ministry of a priest who is at the time of the Eucharistic Sacrifice alter Christus. One commenter at Amy's asserted that at Mass we "no longer have an alter Christus". If that's the case, then we no longer have a Mass or Eucharistic Sacrifice; we have something else. Fortunately, the commenter's assertion is wrong: Both Vatican II's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) make clear that the priest offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice "in the person of Christ" (in persona Christi) and that his priesthood differs from the common priesthood of the faithful "in essence and not merely in degree". In other words, the priestly essence and action in the liturgy is hierarchical. To complain that the Mass is "hierarchical" is to complain of a tautology.

But there has been a great effort to downplay and even eliminate the hierarchical nature of the liturgy in recent decades. There has been an attempt to "horizontalize" the liturgy: hence all the 70's and 80's talk of the liturgy being a "celebration of community". The mindset created by such rhetoric can be seen in the complaints that in the EF, or the Novus Ordo celebrated ad orientem, the priest has his "back to the people". Of course, the assumption inherent in that complaint is that priest "should" be facing us, that is paying attention to us. Nowadays, when some people see a celebration ad orientem, they are "put off". I submit that this is because they have been subtly led to think that the liturgy is "about" us. A posture in in no way mandated by either the liturgical teaching of Vatican II or any post-conciliar document has been invested with an ideological meaning (itself nowhere taught by the Council), and has deformed the liturgical sensibilities of many of the faithful. Our expectations of the liturgy have been formed not by authentic Catholic theology and piety, but by the ideologically constructed categories of the prevailing culture.

The second category of terms can be classified as belonging to the ideology of "Progress". This ideology can be seen in such words and phrases as "a period piece…", “antiquated”, "medieval trappings", "nostalgia", and "a step backward". The ideology of Progress asserts or implies that we now necessarily know more and understand things better than our forebears, and that what is past is necessarily inferior to what is present. The phrase "the past has nothing to teach us" could well summarize this ideology. In the Church, this ideology has driven the "hermeneutic of discontinuity", which operates from the assumption that the Pre-Conciliar Church and Faith are different from the Post-Conciliar Church and Faith. But, of course, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in his essay on "The Myth of Progress", this point of view is absurd on its face. What is true yesterday will be true tomorrow. The time of day has nothing to do with it. Or, as Pope Benedict put it, "what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too...". The fact that something is old does not mean that it is therefore meaningless or irrelevant. It merely means that it is old.

Finally, the third category of negative terms falls under the heading of offenses against the ideology of "Authenticity" or simplicity. This ideology consists in the atittude that what is most "authentic" or meaningful is that which is simple. This ideology can be seen in words or phrases such as "too complicated", “inaccessible”, "staged", and ""liturgy should be simple". I have heard this attitude expressed in the assertion "surely God meant religion to be simple". Well, just why should we think that? The universe that God made is certainly not simple. I don't hear people complaining "astrophysics should be simple." Well, astrophysics is one way of approaching an understanding of a complex reality, and religion is a different way. Why one should be any simpler than another is in no way obvious. And why the worship (liturgy) of our religion, which puts us into contact with the ultimate Reality, should be "simple", is also in no way obvious.

It seems to me that, at worst, this desire for "simplicity" is but one step removed from indifferentism. For the indifferentist usually wants, in the name of "simplicity", to put aside all those complex doctrines and teachings, and get down to a common "core" which we all can agree on. "We really all believe the same thing", is the claim. Well, we don't. And that which is fully and distinctively Catholic is expressed in a celebration of the liturgy of the Extraordinary Form, or in the Novus Ordo when it is celebrated in manner which is in continuity with the full liturgical Tradition of the Church. It seems to me that, at bottom, at least some of the complaints about "simplicity" are in fact veiled complaints or difficulties about what is in fact authentically Catholic.

And the complaint that the liturgy is "inaccessible" seems to me especially to miss the point. We are talking about approaching the infinite and ineffable Mystery of God. That is inherently "inaccessible". Not "incomprehensible", to reiterate a point made by Frank Sheed. But does anyone really expect that God coming among us and uniting us to Himself, and giving us His very self as food and drink, should somehow be "accessible"? The liturgy is mystagogical: that is, it leads us into a Mystery. We can penetrate that mystery more fully, and come to know it more deeply, but it will never be "accessible" this side of Heaven. To want a liturgy that is "accessible" seems to me to want to put God into a box of our own making; to create a comfortable, tame, suburbanized God that doesn't challenge, doesn't make us uncomfortable. And come to think of it, doesn't that explain much of our parish liturgies over the past 30 years: tame, comfortable, suburbanized?

At best, the complaint that the EF is "too complicated" reveals a taste. And, as the saying goes, "de gustibus non disputandis". If your taste is for simple liturgies, that's fine. At many parishes the early Sunday Mass is the "simple" one: minimal music, quiet, etc. I like such liturgies myself on occasion. But recognize that it's a taste, and don't try to absolutize it into a liturgical principle. Let's be honest, though, is there really anything "simple" about many parish Masses, which involve a "cast of thousands" of Extraordinary Ministers, Lectors, Commentators, a "music ministry" group with all manner of keyboards, guitars, mixers, electronic equipment, etc.? If you prefer a Mass like that, your complaint isn't really about simplicity, it's about something else.

Though unintended by the Council fathers, and, I will presume, the Consilium that assembled the Novus Ordo liturgy, the post-conciliar liturgy has been invested with a great deal meaning and import that has little to do with the Catholic Faith and very much to do with certain ideological trends in American culture. And those ideologies are in large part antithetical to the Catholic faith. That has led to the phenomenon we witness today in many parts of the Church: the liturgy has been put to work against itself. And we will only have true progress (progress that is, toward holiness and deeper union with Christ) and reform when we recognize the ideological burden placed on the Novus Ordo liturgy and remove it.