Saturday, March 1, 2014

Understanding Context and Reading the Grand Narrative.

There are times when it seems the landscape of Western or Latin Christianity resembles that of a post-nuclear wasteland. Much is evaporated, survivors are mangled or mutated, and the promise of a land left inhabitable appears to be dwindling.

It is a bleak context, but context is everything.

I have frequently lamented that the scope and goal of the original liturgical movement has been lost to history, it's moment having passed without any firm capitalization upon all of its many promises. The end results in  Roman Catholicism were the imposition of the Novus Ordo Missae and Liturgia Horarum of Pope Paul VI. Mixed bags to be sure. On the one hand, Roman Catholicism's numerical growth in Africa and Asia coincides with the thorough revision of its substantially ancient liturgy. On the other hand, it's decline in the West and the development of fissures in its Latin American stronghold are ignored only by means of the most strenuous form of intellectual acrobatics. Context is everything, but delusion oftentimes makes reality.

The common argument is that the reform of the Roman liturgy translated into Catholicism's catastrophic decline in the West. Sometimes, the argument is more broad and instead Vatican II's flirtation with modernity is considered the impetus of decline. About a decade ago, I would have been sympathetic to either argument. Although I cannot fathom how the Missale Romanum of Paul VI can be thought to be an improvement  over what came before it, especially when there was a brief period of time during which the old Latin liturgy proved it could achieve the aims sought by Sacrosanctum Concilium, I will not go so far as to argue there is something intrinsically deficient in it. And although it is near impossible to deny that Vatican II produced texts fraught with ambiguity and deliberately structured so, there are large portions of the global Roman Church that have made it worked, evidently oblivious to modernity's impact upon the documents.

The Latin Church, it seems to me, was on a long path to its present collapse. The Church of Rome, however much it railed against modernism, was not immune to it. This applies to its most characteristically anti-modern popes. Alcuin Reid, I believe, had pointed criticism of the liturgical changes of Pope Pius XII in The Organic Development of the Liturgy. His criticisms are echoed in Geoffrey Hull's The Banished Heart. Much has been written regarding the slippery slop Pius XII walked upon with his reforms to the Roman Holy Week in 1955. However, it was Pius XII's dogmatic definition of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the following revision of its Mass and Office that reflected a solidification of a liturgical tendency in the West. As, I believe, Hull argues, the change in the ancient Mass and Office of the Assumption reflected an inversion of the notion "Lex orandi, lex credenti."

The change can perhaps be best demonstrated by contrasting the Secreta of both Mass sets.We read in the pre-Pian Mass,

Subveniat, Domine, plebi tuae Dei Genetricis oratio: quam etsi pro condicione carnis migrasse cognoscimus, in caelesti gloria apud te pro nobis intercedere sentiamus.  (Missale Romanum 1930)

The secret is changed to,

Ascendat ad te, Domine, nostrae devotionis oblatio, et, beatissima Virine Maria in caelum assumpta intercedente, corda nostra, caritatis igne succensa, ad te jugiter adspirent. (Missale Romanum 1955)

The Secreta in the pre-Pian Mass set reflects the ancient belief in the Dormitio, or falling into the sleep of death of the Virgin Mary before her body is translated into heaven. After the definition of the dogma of the Assumption, the Mass and Office were thoroughly revised so as to make the issue of Mary's physical death ambiguous. The significance should not be lost to the reader. I would refer any interested parties in Stephen J. Shoemaker's The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption. Pius XII was well aware, I presume, of the weight of ancient text leaning towards the death of Mary before she was taken into heaven. Yet, the previous dogma of the Immaculate Conception, defined by Pius IX in 1854. Here again, a Mass and Office were entirely recast. The Immaculate Conception created a problem for the ancient Latin observance of the Assumption: if Mary was entirely conceived without sin, how did she experience Dormition?

Now, the Immaculate Conception itself raises a host if theological issues and pinpoints one of the more profound gaps between Byzantine and Latin theology, none of which shall be addressed here. My concern is the alteration of the liturgy. Pius IX set the trend that the Roman liturgy could be subject to arbitrary, if not artificial, modification. Pius XII's changes left no doubt on the matter. Although, ultimately, Pius V set the precedent. Whatever the legitimate reasons were for Quo Primum in the face of the radical alterations made to the Latin or Western liturgy by various Protestant groups, and whatever the many strengths of the old missal compared to the product of Vatican II, one cannot ignore that Pius V's papal bull had the consequence of denuding Latin Christianity of much of its great liturgical patrimony. The immediate consequence was the loss of many sequences and local customs. Shortly there after, pressure was placed upon numerous religious orders and dioceses to drop their liturgies in favor of the "Tridentine Missal."

With a broader perspective in view, it is not hard to see how Paul V's Missale Romanum follows in a trajectory that had been going for at least 400 years in the Roman Church, one which reflected a broader tendency in Latin Christianity, demonstrable in both Catholic and Protestant forms. Rather than being an ancient and experiential wellspring which plays a crucial role in the formation of dogmatic or doctrinal definition, the liturgy was conceived as a "thing" that was to be molded by the final results of intellectual exercise or, perhaps better understood, exercise of authority. One cannot, it seems to me, understate the importance of this shift. Christianity begins with experience, specifically with the apostolic experience of Jesus Christ, culminating the Resurrection. However murky the earliest years of the Christian liturgy are, liturgy, and we can glean this from such documents at the Didache and the apparently liturgical pieces dispersed in the New Testament, liturgy was the means by which the experience of the Resurrected Christ was communicated. If the apostle Paul is any authority, and given his place in the Biblical Canon, it seems he is, then we also find textual evidence that liturgy was employed as evidence in the earliest statements of Christian doctrine. I won't bother citing the hymns of the Pauline corpus as I believe they are common knowledge at this point. I think it fair to say that when such hymns are employed, they provide the most clear exposition of who Paul ultimately thought the Resurrected Christ he encountered actually was; whatever ambiguity was present in his own ruminations could be oftentimes mitigated by the citation of a more precise hymn. Of course, one also has to consider the compositional purpose of the gospels themselves. These are documents that were designed for liturgical use, not necessarily private devotion as they commonly utilized in later centuries. Indeed, the liturgy is and was the functional sitz im lieben of the gospels and removing them from this context. These are not concise doctrinal treatises, rather, they narratives written for the purpose of worship. Whatever intellectual exercises they are later employed for does not change the fact that their first function is liturgical.


This is not to say that liturgies do not develop. Liturgies, including the liturgies of the Orthodox tradition, have undergone varying degrees of change. This being noted, I would caution from adopting the theory of "organic development." It is to say that simple solutions, contrary to popular belief, are not always the best. Simple solutions are concise, although by necessity they often require that we leave much data unaccounted for. It is easy enough to claim that Paul VI promulgated a missal that constituted a break with Tradition. It is easy enough to argue that the missal promulgated by Paul VI represented the Roman Church's acceptance of the modern worldview in what is supposed to be its most sublime expression. It is even easy to go back to Pius XII's Holy Week reforms and claim that the principle of lex orandi, lex credenti had been turned on its ear, or that Pius X essentially promulgated a psalter schema for the Roman Breviary that rejected the Roman Office as it has been attested to in the textual tradition currently available.  I would not deny any of these propositions. I would however question the intellectual integrity of the persons who cite them while ignoring proper context. Since the counter-Reformation, the Roman Church has not had a problem subvert the principle of lex orandi, lex credenti, especially to the will of papal authority. In fact, as early as the thirteenth century we find alterations in the rubrics of the Roman Canon that reflect the pre-Tridentine emergence of the concept of Transubstantiation. Again, however, context is everything. By at least the thirteenth century, the unity of Latin Christianity was coming undone. The Reformation left little doubt that a homogenized Latin Christianity had vanished in the West. So, there was a need to have the law of faith determine the expression of prayer. The modifications of the Conception or Mary and the Assumption were just as egregious and propelled by the heavy hand of papal authority as any subsequent development. But, if a tendency has been present for so long, five or perhaps six centuries. It doesn't really suffice to focus on specific historical events, especially if one is trying to say a particular event is the watershed, pivot, or breaking point.

I have no problem with accounts of well organized cliques pushing an agenda through during and after Vatican II. I have no problem with this not because I believe in a sort of Manichean ecclesiology that sees the Roman Church as the stage for a war of the sons of light and the sons of darkness. Rather, it is because the Roman Church has spent a considerable portion of its existence being the stage for major power brokering in Western culture. Yes, a group probably manipulated a system and pushed its agenda through at the Second Vatican Council. Subsequently, that group of Churchmen, that was such a product of modernity, split among itself, until we saw the agenda of Benedict XVI's papacy. Yet, this is no different than previous centuries. The Roman Church is a place where larger agendas go through. At times, these agendas are epic in scope. This is something that I think is often ignored or glanced over with pious eyes. The Roman Church is often discussed as though it is somehow immune or opposite to Western culture. In reality, the two are intimately connected, even if these days the culture increasingly wants to go in different direction. Long before Paul VI or Vatican II, long before there was such a thing as modernism, the mind of many leading figures in the Roman Church had begun to reflect the shifting currents of Western culture. It may reach or hold different conclusions, but much of its though process is the same as the surrounding culture. As such, the Roman Church, much like the West itself, had long ago begun migrating to more rational, cerebral conception of reality.

Perhaps this is why Catholicism still "works" in Asia and Africa. Whatever the changes, these areas have not adopted the Western worldview, a view established portions of Roman Catholicism struggle to extract themselves from. Catholicism, as is appropriate for a religion that has played such a formative influence, has followed the general trajectory of the West, and the Roman Church in particular stands in a very nebulous place. Over the course of centuries, not decades, it has participated in the development of West as we know it. In so doing, it long ago severed itself from its genius, a Catholicism that was Latin and Orthodox. It now struggles to define itself, to choose from carving a new identity, re-establishing the old counter-Reformation identity, or rediscovering something it lost long ago. To some extent, I imagine the reform of the Roman liturgy thought it could successfully hold all three in balance. But amid the grand narrative, one must make very concrete, perhaps very pragmatic decisions. The grand narrative can be read until one is exhausted. Reading, however, does not solve the problem of actually having to do something, to find some model of life that reflects the conviction that reality is not merely the quantifiable, that our greatest purpose for existence far exceeds the limitations of sense perception. Towards that end, we may one day view the decades leading up to Vatican II, the Council itself, and even the promulgation of the reformed Roman liturgy, as a series of missed opportunities, as sequence of chances to strike at a reinvigorated Catholic practicos, that was repeatedly missed in the Western world. As I've said, one would be hard pressed to tell those members of the Roman Church in Africa or Asia that there is a problem with the liturgy that has come to define their experience of Catholicism. More than likely, they would retort that we "just don't get it." Perhaps they would be correct. Perhaps the fundamental characteristic of our context is a series of missed opportunities because we just couldn't "get it;" the best we could do was reduce a once rich religious expression to "liberal" and "conservative"....and re-establish some good ol' Gnostic dualism into our ecclesiology while we were at it.

The situation in which Catholicism finds itself is complex.