Monday, January 24, 2005

Random Thoughts

This article got me thinking about why unfaithful liturgies bother conservatives. When priests and parish nabobs decide to "inculturate" (and I use this term loosely, and not as intended by the Church) the liturgy, they usually create a conflict situation, especially in diverse countries like the United States. One of the hallmarks of great liturgy, IMHO, is that it creates a heavenly environment where everyone is suffused with an experience with holiness that doesn't obliterate their individuality or raise it to the level of a universal ideal. In a culture where everyone dances, and expects dance, in celebration of the holy, then the "inculturation" of dance won't violate that tenet. But in a culture like ours "dance" means a hundred different things at once not to mention the fact that, in a Catholic liturgical context, "dance" is inherently identifiable as the emblem of a certain, shall we say metier, of Catholic experience which is definitely not shared by many Catholics. To use dance, therefore, in an American parish is inherently alienating and divisive, because it opposes one vision of culture to others.

It is no answer, I think, to say that once a practice is made part of the liturgy it experiences the universal transformation mentioned above ipso facto. The very definition of "inculturation" describes the intrusion into the liturgy (or, if you will, the liturgical "frame") of things which arose outside of the liturgy; the act of intruding the practice is not a sufficient guarantee of its eventual authenticity within the rite. If it were enough the Mass could literally be anything and, as the most exreme liturgical abuses remind us, actually becomes so in the hands of people who do not understand this critical "gap" between intention and result. I don't know what accounts for that pollyannish perspective, save for a sort of quietist idea about Christ redeeming anything willy-nilly, as though He were not a person with necessary conditions for happiness[**] but some sort of "life force" whose rejuvenating power can be unleashed on anything and everything. Paradoxically, the vision of the divine as a salvific blessing to everything directly abandons the universality of the person of Jesus Christ and, when applied to the liturgy, causes the Mass to disintegrate into a hodgepodge, parochial expression, losing in catholicity whatever transient gains it may make in its appeal to local enthusiasms.

Liturgically-conservative Catholics inherently recognize this fact, even if the present climate of antipathy to their efforts obliges them to describe it in terms of liceity and law. Even in that attempt, the appeal to the law of the universal Church, their efforts hint at a sort of catholicity which transcends the competing definition that underlies most liturgical abuse. There's a regular column in the Wanderer where a priest answers questions about liturgical abuse. I read one column, long ago, wherein the the parishioner's complaint question didn't involve the "usual suspects" such as lay homilies, group-grope signs of peace, etc. No, the subject of the complaint was a parish's practice of praying, out loud and as a group, the Rosary during communion. Now people who write the Wanderer for advice are not the sort of people who glom onto the latest hip fad. They are, so far as I can tell, just about as "conservative" on Church matters as you can get without also subscribing to the Angelus. (That makes all the difference, BTW, in case any fellow Wanderer subscriber might take umbrage at my imagery). Here was one, complaining about the improper use of a truly- and time-honored Catholic devotion during Mass. And there was a "conservative" priest writing the column, every bit as disapproving as the letter itself.

Yeah, I know I just took about 600 words to say, lex orandi lex credendi. But in an ecclesiastical climate that forbids the public use of Latin in our liturgy, it's worth taking the extra words to say it. Within the context of the Novus Ordo, fidelity to the GIRM is not a factional issue. It is an unalloyed question of catholicity. I think it very dangerous, in the long term, to promote in the Church's public worship, in the summit and end of all the sacraments, the idea that catholicity is the ability to negotiate and compromise with competing sub-cultures. When Catholics like the author of the article I'm discussing leave, as he did, for the Tridentine rite, the self-styled champions of Sacrosanctum Concilium ought to question themselves about what they're really doing.

[**] It strikes me that the difference between us and our God, Jesus Christ, in this respect is that as pure creatures, the conditions of our happiness are dictated. But He, as God and Man, shares with us conditions of necessary happiness which He Himself creates. Not to mention the fact that, as perfect God and perfect Man, He Himself is perfectly happy, the Gospel an appeal and instruction to share the conditions necessary for that happiness with mankind. The basic idea of "human personhood," however, remains -- human beings have necessary conditions of happiness which cannot be transgressed without causing unhappiness. Thinking of God as a person, therefore, radically limits one's ability to contemplate the array of human possibilities with an easy attitude.

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