Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is there a way to trudge out of the mire?

Any proposals about what can be done on an institutional or ecclesiastical level to retrieve Traditional Catholicism from either its Tridentine confines or post-modern tomb must contend with (and thoroughly respect) reality. If for no other reason, than that it will help any concerned party acquire an adequate survey of the land. Granted, it is a much too sobering view, however, the first necessary step involved is to rouse oneself from the daze of neo-Traditionalist romances. If solutions exist, they are not going to be found by towing the standard party lines, regardless of presence or absence of a biretta.

If one confesses Roman ecclesiology, namely, if one earnestly believes in juridical superiority and infallibility of the bishop of Rome, then one is constricted by solutions that keep one in communion with Rome. Towards that end, one may seek out well formed monasteries. Doubtless, most if not all, will utilize some form of the Latin liturgy that takes the fully modernized Roman Rite as its starting point. Even the Carthusans made modest reforms of their rite which incorporated elements of the Missal of Paul VI, such as the four Eucharistic Prayers. This is unavoidable; if one accepts the juridical superiority and infallibility of the bishop of Rome, then one appears inconsistent if one does not follow the liturgical norms established under his authority, especially in a moment of massive promotion and application of those norms, and bearing, by virtue of his authority, the mandate of a major council of the Roman Catholic communion. One will find that there are numerous monstaries that have tried to make the best of the template they have to work with. Typically, this will be found in the celebration of the office. There are a number of monastaries that have attempted to follow the liturgical reform but keep a sensible psalter arrangement. In such cases, one often finds the corpus of ancient hymns has been preserved and is utilized. This solution provides some stability. Any monestary worth its weight in gold thoroughly propagates genuine monastic spirituality, theology, and ecclesiology. In this respect, they can be a refuge from Roman Church, in so far as the experience refrains from liberal, conservative, or traditionalist leanings. Monasticism is monasticism; in its authentic form, devoid of deformation wrought but saccharine Roman piety, it perpetuates a model of Christianity that has largely dissappered. This is not say monasticism is comprehensive of Christianity. It is to say, however, that while much of the ancient Christian praxis has suffered attrition through the centuries, monasticism salvages what is left of the ancient Latin Church.

The above being considered, one cannot ignore that a monasticism is not a total solution. Most of us are not monks and will not live a monastic life. Furthermore, the ability of monastaries to minister the sacraments are restricted in the Roman Church. Out of necessity, one would, particularly if one is in the married state, need to return to parish life. If one has children, this will necessarily invest a majority of one's time during the year to the parish as one's children fulfill the requirements of sacramental preparation and initiation.

Thus, if one is Roman Catholic, one is often forced to take what one is given. More often than not, this means making the best of the Novus Ordo as is possible. Certainly, it is not impossible to find a "high" Pauline Mass in most major metropolitan areas in the US and Europe. However, if one has a particular interest in preserving the Latin corpus of prayers and hymns, one will be challenged to find Latin utilized beyond a requisite Credo or Agnus Dei. In response, one may pivot to traditionalist communities, although this option has its own pitfalls. There is definite marginalized status traditionalist communities have in the Roman Church. Ecclesia Dei communities are irrelevant, as the Roman hierarchy, though tolerant of them, refuses to put the bulk of its institutional weight behind them and the majority of Roman Catholics view them as an odd curiosity or throwback at best. The SSPX is its own story, and one must take care when discussing it, avoiding extremes of lionizing or demonizing it. Indeed, both are possible due to combination of external actions (the group's proximity to Catholics with Nazi sympathies cannot be ignored), and its own inner life (it suffers from same general decay that afflicted the Roman Church prior to the Second Vatican Council, although it refrains from adopting piloted papal course). Criticisms being noted, the SSPX is an ecclesiological phenomenon in the Roman Church. It has, on the basis of the charismatic authority of its founder, adopted the 1962 books. The SSPX, like most any of the major players in contemporary Roman Catholicism, accepts the modernization of the Roman Church, at least in part. In so doing, it refuses to ask a critical question that concerns any serious student of the Latin liturgy: Are the 20th century reforms of the pre-Vatican II Roman Missal part of the problem? Various reasons make this an unutterable question among Traditionalists. Yet, any serious student of the Latin liturgy and anyone with a genuine background in the history of Latin Christianity and its long decline will find himself compelled to ask the question. I once had a fairly detailed exchange with an individual over the Holy Week reforms of Pius XII, focusing on the redaction of the 12 prophecies down to 4. I've written on this particular topic elsewhere. Whatever the circumstances of behind the formation of the lections, the original 12 prophecies retained a very ancient layer of the Christian kerygma. A simple but profound response was put to me, "Well, this couldn't have been passed down very efficiently if it could so easily be removed."

The 20th century reforms demonstrate how much in decline the tradition was in the Roman Church. To this point, I would refer back to my previous post and the problem of papal infallibility. It is arguable the 20th century reforms and decline of the tradition that they represent are symptoms of a decline that metastized with the dogma of papal infallibility. Infallibility ushered in a new epoch in the Roman Church in which the Tradition was isolated to the will and discernments of one man; operationally, the bishop of Roma has become tradition unto himself the Roman Church as a consequence of that definition of that dogma. This event was the tipping point towards modernization, as adherence to an observable external tradition was subjugated to the papacy and the principle of lex orandi, lex credenti was increasingly nullified in support of later dogma. Yet, the papacy is so identified with the Tradition in Roman Catholicism, it is almost impossible to engage in any meaningful discussion, regardless of the amount of historical data that argues against Roman ecclesiology and points towards the cultus of the papacy being the result of ecclesial and linguistic isolation of the West.

All the while the Western tradition is squandered. I won't say that it is on the verge of extinction, although it is in a precarious spot. Precious little is left, most of it being suffocated under an ecclesiology that has identified the papacy as the essence of the tradition, save for a few rogue dissidents who appear unable to acknowledge the incoherence of affirming Roman ecclesiology while simultaneously deflecting the exercise of papal authority.

Again, it is a matter of coming to terms with the reality of our contemporary context. No practical good results from dreams of conservative or traditional resurgence in 20, 30, 40, 50, or however many years time, or the canonization of St. Marcel of Econe in a century, or even that long held up hope of neo-conservatives that the church in Africa would come and re-evangelize the West. The most probable scenario is the Africa will come to eventual muscle the West out of its positions of influence. Even this scenario, however, would not mean the retrieval of the Western tradition. It would mean that the very unique beast that is African Catholicism would be in such a place as to potentially influence the rest of the Roman Church. In all honesty, I do not think that we have an adequate understanding of African Catholicism in order to grasp the potential magnitutde of change it would bring to Roman Catholicism if it continues to avoid mainstream Westernization. Indeed, it is, at this moment, easier to say what African Catholicism is not, as opposed to what it is. It is not a liberal, conservative, or traditionalist form of Roman Catholicism. It is not something most Westerners would likely feel comfortable with. So what is it? I think it would take an African to aptly describe it. I am sure, so far as they are concerned, it is the sum total expression of the Tradition, if not its future model.

The future of the Western tradition may well be non-Western. Such a possibility couldn't be seriously considered if there were not some serious vacuum waiting to be filled. That there is a vacuum is a contentious position. For those for whom "the system works" there isn't a problem. Ideological liberals and conservatives (who largely make up the levers of power in mainline Western Christianity) largely see the problem as a matter of ideological dissent. We see this illustrated in the recent history of the Roman Church. Every post-Vatican II pontiff has either represented an ideological extreme in the Roman Church. The exception being perhaps Paul VI, whose early adherence to aggiornamento later gave way to a sober realization that the Roman Church initiated a process for which it was ill prepared. Granted, Ratzinger spoke openly of the problems of the Roman Church, but Paul VI is perhaps more honest. He abandoned a canned solution and, depending upon who you read, reached a point of paralysis when confronting the mammoth disorientation that had been catalyzed by the council and its aftermath.

Returning to our point, those for whom the present state of things works do not see a problem. On one level, it seems audacious. Yet, it is hard to prove it really is audacious. When I was younger, I used to argue that theological comprehension was abysmal and this was a clear sign of decline. In retrospect, it is highly debatable if theological comprehension was ever particularly widespread among Roman laity and clergy. Arguments that the "Tridentine" liturgy somehow mystically instructed the faithful need to be abandoned when realizing how much lay belief was comprised of distorted piety. If Vatican II's plethora of intellectual garble has any merit, it is that it detonated a bomb on Roman Catholicism's excessive piety. Unfortunately, it failed to find a replacement to fill that chasm. One can argue a myriad of points designed to demonstrate that the new order of things is terribly insufficient, but if the way things are work for someone or some group, then one can hardly expect to make much progress. It was, I would argue, presumptuous of Rome to enact the radical changes it did some fifty years ago. It is equally presumptuous to now claim some form of liturgical or spiritual (or the like) superiority over those who find in the reforms (liturgical and ecclesiastical) of the Roman Church a satisfactory praxis for life.

Admittedly, I speak as much for my own past faults as I do in observation of contemporary tendencies. Truth be told, it was only within the last five years, when I began my migration to Orthodoxy, that I've sort of reached a point of acceptance about things which, ultimately, I, nor most anyone else, has much control over. Among all things, we cannot (nor should we seek) control over anyone else as pertains things that would normally fall into the category of spirituality. I would argue, one's appreciation, or lack thereof, of the modern liturgy (or modernity in general) falls into this category. The subjective experience of religion, ritual and liturgy needs to be respected, especially when there is no demonstrable (to any sane observer) blatant moral or dogmatic aberration.

This being noted, such understanding is a two-way street. There is a new-wave of amateur crackdown on any dissent from the Pauline liturgy in liturgical circles, largely in the West and galvanized by the liberal or progressive obsession with that most unfortunate article of Roman Catholicism, papal primacy. The desire to retain old forms stems from the desire to find a praxis that yields the presence of God. Which is not to say that such desires cannot be ill-formed and misguided. Plainly, my own experience through the circles of post-Vatican II Catholicism led me to the very sober conclusion that much of the Traditionalist current is woefully ill-formed and misguided, largely governed by conspiracy theories, neurosis, and quasi-Gnostic or apocalyptic belief in themselves as the faithful remnant, amid a blind mass of lesser faithful. Be this as it may, until one accepts that the experience of religion, ritual, and liturgy is not an objective event, that the subjective experience codifies the reality of it, there can be little chance of understanding how one assents to or dissents from the current state of things in Western Christianity.

Is the pursuit of older forms of Western worship valid or of any real use? It has been at least a decade since I had the gall to claim I could answer that question. Personally, I suppose I would answer in the affirmative, but, either due to fatigue with the issue or because it is no longer relevant to me, nowadays I haven't the will to argue the point to any great degree. But there are enough people out there, in diaspora, who raise the issue and they are not the SSPX types, but rather the types who want to go down the rabbit hole into the depths of the Western tradition. If mainline churches do not offer a satisfying forum for these people, then what viable option is there?

In truth, not many.

One option is to form a new religious community, if only revolving around the office. New religious communities have become a staple of post-Vatican II life, mostly around the Catholic Worker model. There are resources available if one wishes how to get one's community off the ground. However, any new religious community faces a myriad of challenges, the most pressing of which is developing a reason for existence, a clearly defined philosophy that guides mission. It is easy enough to start a community of some sort. It is more difficult to develop a coherent body that has focus and attainable goals. On a more practical level, any liturgical mission involving the pre-modern books of the Western tradition starts off at a disadvantage. Let us be clear: anyone wishing to use the pre-modern books (the pre-Pius X breviary for instance), immediately confronts scarcity of resources. These are not in bountiful supply and their scarcity highlights the greater problem any mission to re-established the earlier books faces - the lapse in liturgical memory. By this I mean that we are living in a time when the parameters are nearly at the point of being immovably defined as pertains to Western liturgy (and the corresponding self-understanding of the Western Church). The older liturgy of the West is being consigned to obscurity and confining the discussion to no earlier than 1962 does nothing to ameliorate the eventual disappearance of the traditional Western liturgy. Anyone with any real sense of liturgical history should stop and reflect upon this point - its implications have yet to be thoroughly grasped.

Another option is Western Rite Orthodoxy, although this is a mire one should think twice before stepping into. There are more "academic" critiques of the movement. The proposal of a Western Rite liturgy is often based on artificial reconstructions, and redacting existing Western liturgies to be in conformity with developments in Orthodox liturgical theology does not genuinely respect the integrity of the Western liturgical tradition.

The view of Orthodoxy towards the Western liturgy is complex matter. The Western rite itself is not an issue in the historically Orthodox countries. It simply has no relevance. It is only a topic in Catholic or Protestant countries where the Orthodox Church makes headway with converts. Furthermore, there is a distinct difference between the American experience and the European experience. Cultural context dictates that what follows will be based upon the American experience, in which a ethnic dissolution, a hallmark of American culture, has exercised a formative influence on Orthodoxy in the United States. As a consequence, Orthodoxy in the United States is not unfamiliar with the Western liturgy in so far as individual members have experience with it. However, Orthodoxy's competency is not in the area of the Western liturgy. Ultimately, the Western liturgy is viewed (among liturgical circles) as being the responsibility of the Patriarch of Rome. The Orthodox patriarchs do not have the competency to intervene if there is a dereliction of duty on his part.


  1. "We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed: forsake her, and let us go every one into his own country," Jeremiah 51:9.

  2. Another fascinating and thoughtful post. On a practical note I would beg to differ slightly with you regarding resources. One of the great advances in the last decade has been the digitalising of inter alia liturgical books. Modern chant notation programmes too are a great help for any possible revival. Your posts do highlight a fundamental problem with regard to the Roman rite in that 99.99% of those using it are using modernised forms together with a modern model of ecclesiology.

    1. Point taken, re: resources, although, I am biased towards a physical book.

  3. Our Continuing Anglican Churches don't claim to be the "true Church" (thank God), and they are not perfect. We have very little money, and we have to train priests as best we can. They may well fulfil this role as a "vehicle" for the western liturgical tradition. Roman Catholics and Orthodox can trash us by saying we don't have valid orders. We also have enough "critical mass" to have achieved stability and to have overcome many of the problems caused in the 1990's by men who were manifestly unsuitable for the Episcopate.

    1. I think it is possible. I've gotten to the point of accepting that interest in western liturgical tradition will likely remain an obscure stream in the general Christian current. I believe you've noted on your blog that Christianity in the West seems to be developing in a more mega-church/charismatic direction. However it develops, I don't see much of what was typically western carried along with it.