Our Unchangeable Faith: Catholicism as a Cultural Force

San Xavier Del Bac Mission April 2010 353c-2

Yesterday, I read with interest the essay from Paul Harvey written after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. Entitled, “What Catholic Tradition Means to a Protestant”, his opening three sentences are particularly captivating:

This is none of my business, yet I am unexplainably compelled to address myself to a most sensitive subject however many or few read it, heed it, or resent it.

The Roman Catholic Church, from the outside, has symbolized authority since my earliest recollections.

Great institutions might erode away, towering individuals reveal feet of clay, nations be reduced to ashes or decay—yet the steeple with the cross on top remained, timeless and unchanging.

Reading this, I sensed a fear in Harvey’s words that something so steadfast, so taken for granted as a constant of the known universe, was suddenly and quite unexpectedly subject to change. And the 20th century brought nothing if not a zeitgeist of sweeping change. From the breathtaking emergence of communism to two World Wars to the sexual revolution and nuclear detente, the 1900s were trying times, where the world as it had been seemed altogether different. I am reminded of Paul Johnson’s description in Modern Times of how the publication and testing of Einstein’s special theory of relativity unintentionally led to the tide of moral relativism which became the ideological scourge of the century:

At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

Johnson describes Einstein’s distress at the way his theory was twisted into something that unmade the established order of things:

He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker. The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.

When absolutes are suddenly and radically altered, the consequences can be profound. In his brilliant work on the anthropology of liturgy, The Heresy of Formlessness, German writer Martin Mosebach argues that arbitrary and unconsidered alterations within the context of worship changed the very nature of Catholic belief:

If, however, we think correctly and historically, we should realize that what is an expression of veneration in one period can be an expression of blasphemy in another. If people who have been kneeling for a thousand years suddenly get to their feet, they do not think, “We’re doing this like the early Christians, who stood for the Consecration”; they are not aware of returning to some particularly authentic form of worship. They simply get up, brush the dust from their trouser-legs and say to themselves: “So it wasn’t such a serious business after all.”

There is a true danger in diminishing a sense of what is sacred in the pursuit of the latest trend. Originally published in May of 1966, Harvey’s was not the only voice of concern from a non-Catholic about what was going on in the Church. A similar examination of the changes happening in the Church from same time period was published in 1971, when Pope Paul VI received a letter with signatures from prominent figures in the arts and academia, urgently pleading the case for preserving the centuries-old form of Catholic liturgy. After the creation of the Novus Ordo Missae, this liturgy — now known as the “Extraordinary Form” – was already in the process of being dismantled to make way for the new Mass.

“If some senseless decree were to order the total or partial destruction of basilicas or cathedrals,” the signatories of the letter wrote, “then obviously it would be the educated – whatever their personal beliefs – who would rise up in horror to oppose such a possibility. Now the fact is that basilicas and cathedrals were built so as to celebrate a rite which, until a few months ago, constituted a living tradition. We are referring to the Roman Catholic Mass. Yet, according to the latest information in Rome, there is a plan to obliterate that Mass by the end of the current year.”

Unlike the iconoclasts of the French Revolution who defiled Catholic churches as stables or as shrines to the goddess Reason, these luminaries recognized the central cultural and intellectual role of not just Catholicism, but its liturgy, in the life and history of Western Civilization. The text of the appeal continued:

The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts – not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians. In the materialistic and technocratic civilisation that is increasingly threatening the life of mind and spirit in its original creative expression – the word – it seems particularly inhuman to deprive man of word-forms in one of their most grandiose manifestations. The signatories of this appeal, which is entirely ecumenical and non-political, have been drawn from every branch of modern culture in Europe and elsewhere. They wish to call to the attention of the Holy See, the appalling responsibility it would incur in the history of the human spirit were it to refuse to allow the Traditional Mass to survive, even though this survival took place side by side with other liturgical reforms.

Yes, there were Catholics on the list of 57 signatures, like Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge, but there were others as well. Some of whom, like Sir Harold Acton, were clearly no followers of Church teaching. And yet they recognized that Catholicism’s influence “belongs to universal culture”, and they were proud to claim it. In fact, they seemed mortified at the idea of losing the influence of the Church’s liturgy in Europe.

There is something essentially reassuring about things that are unchanging. Be they forces of nature, institutions, or truths, whatever persists against the relentless tide of the ages becomes a stalwart force within the world. Even to those who stand in opposition to the teachings of Catholicism, there has often been a certain respect, perhaps even a sort of comforting knowledge that the Church will still be there tomorrow, unflinching as it ever was.

As Catholics, we believe that the Church stands alone in the world as an institution divinely inspired and protected by her Founder. We believe that the gates of hell will not prevail against her. This does not mean that the Church will not experience turmoil, or even danger. During the time of St. Athanasius, much of the Catholic world had submitted to the Arian heresy, and Athanasius himself was excommunicated by Pope Liberius despite leading the charge to defend orthodoxy.

But the Church always prevails.

And given time to flourish, surviving, as it does, the heresies that flare up and the periods of tinkering and updating that come and go, the Church doesn’t merely engage with the culture, it creates and inspires it.

It’s been a while since the Church was viewed by the non-Catholic world as such a central force for good, and so worthy of protecting. But there is nothing to keep it from becoming such again. We need merely to remember our incredible story, and the story of our Savior, and tell it to the world through not just apologetics and essays, but art and music, architecture and film, liturgy and devotion. We have more tools at our disposal to be creators of culture than ever before, and the power of Catholicism lies not merely in the present, but in the past. It lies in the hands not simply of the Church militant, but the Church triumphant. Like any family, we draw strength not only from our works, but from our customs and traditions. We cannot flourish if we do not remain connected to our history.

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton offered one of the noblest explanations of tradition that I have ever read. He wrote:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

Marked with a cross. As Paul Harvey said, “the steeple with the cross on top remained, timeless and unchanging.”

It is the cross which roots us in history, it is the cross which intersects the present and the past. The Tradition of the Church is not just the Incarnation, but the Passion, a redemptive sacrifice which is unchanging and yet made present anew with the dawning of each day. It infuses us, it grounds us, it propels us. And the world still needs its message: that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

That man, no matter how fallen, can be redeemed.

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6 thoughts on “Our Unchangeable Faith: Catholicism as a Cultural Force

  1. Steve Skojec says:

    Tradition, qua tradition, doesn’t exist within the Catholic Church. Catholics believe not only in sacred Scripture, but in sacred Tradition. Comparing a historical fact like race lynchings or a historical institution like Jim Crow to the liturgical or devotional traditions of the Church is crass, and more to the point, it’s ignorant.

    Your comments on the old Mass show a similar lack of understanding. Worship is, by its very nature, an external action that creates a corresponding interior disposition. But the act of worship exists as something public, something outward. Inasmuch as Catholic worship is an oblation, a holocaust offering to the Father to atone for our sins, this makes an orientation that is, as you say, “outward and away from the congregation” entirely appropriate. The priest leads the people in prayer, facing East (where Christ will rise again) offering the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary made present through the miracle of transubstatiation as a sin offering to the Father. He does it on behalf of the congregation, for they are unable to perform what he can, as alter Christus.

    There will never be a way to “safely abandon” the rite which nourished the Church for 1500 years. Not only did Pope St. Pius V grant access to it in perpetuity in Quo Primum, but Pope Benedict confirmed its perpetual legitimacy in Summorum Pontificum.

    Our faith, properly understood, is certainly Trinitarian, but I would argue that it’s Father-centric, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Still, if you want Christ at the center of our churches, you’ll get no argument from me. That’s why He belongs in a central tabernacle on a high altar, which is a most fitting place.

    1. ErnstThalmann says:

      “Tradition, qua tradition, doesn’t exist within the Catholic Church. Catholics believe not only in sacred Scripture, but in sacred Tradition. Comparing a historical fact like race lynchings or a historical institution like Jim Crow to the liturgical or devotional traditions of the Church is crass, and more to the point, it’s ignorant.”

      Its never ceases to be entertaining to one who has studied theology for roughly twenty-five years to be lectured on theological questions by an insurance man. Lets see if we can get past the ad hominem and be helpful. When I referred to “tradition qua tradition” never for one minute had I the 2000 year theological tradition of the Church in mind. Here, at best, I was referring to practices common among Catholic women years ago, wearing veils to Mass, for example. And, yes, such a practice possessed no more intrinsic sanctity than the practice of excluding Negroes from drinking at White water fountains, something considered inspired of God for decades in the American South. Both were traditional, and both lacked sacrality. So please with the outrage.

      “…this makes an orientation that is, as you say, ‘outward and away from the congregation’ entirely appropriate.”

      It took us some time, but, happily, the Catholic theology of the 20th century was able to assist materially in reconfiguring some of the misleading thought forms that had governed liturgical practice in the period of the Counter Reformation. Chief among these was the regrettable externalization of the divine in the Mass of Pius V, of course. Infused with the unfortunate theism so typical of the neo-scholasticism of the day, here one was left with the impression of worshiping a sterile, inert God set over against the people at some considerable distance from them and not really among them at all. The correctives of the Congars, du Lubacs, Ratzingers, von Balthasars, and Rahners prior to Vatican II made possible the introduction of a life-giving Christological dimension into the Mass. With the Novus Ordo, God is more obviously among us, and we are more clearly held in Him. The distance inherent with yesterday’s neo-scholasticism had been breached in a revived trinitarian liturgy.

      “Our faith, properly understood, is certainly Trinitarian, but I would argue that it’s Father-centric, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

      Now, just a comment or two about your Patricentrism, if we might call it that. As it so happens, every created thing has its being in Christ (Acts 17:28), and only derivatively in the Father (John 14:9) All attention directed to the divine in this world is appropriately Christocentric, (1 Timothy 2:5). Perhaps its time for you to consider a more immanent God, Steve, a Christ at the center rather than at the apex of Creation.

      1. Steve Skojec says:

        “Its never ceases to be entertaining to one who has studied theology for roughly twenty-five years to be lectured on theological questions by an insurance man.”

        Spare me the patronizing tone. I’ve been studying theology for 20 years myself and earned a BA in the subject. This isn’t an argument over credentials, but rather over the substance of our faith. Further, it is a fundamental disagreement of the interpretation of what all the knowledge we may possess actually means for the Church and the life of the faithful.

        And not to put too fine a point on it, but I work in real estate these days, not insurance. You’re not impressing me with your ability to read a given text (like my bio) and retain pertinent information. You’ll have to forgive my skepticism when it comes to what I can only guess is a similar faculty for reading Church documents.

        “When I referred to “tradition qua tradition” never for one minute had I the 2000 year theological tradition of the Church in mind. ”

        I would argue that this is precisely the problem with your position.

        “Here, at best, I was referring to practices common among Catholic women years ago, wearing veils to Mass, for example. And, yes, such a practice possessed no more intrinsic sanctity than the practice of excluding Negroes from drinking at White water fountains, something considered inspired of God for decades in the American South. “

        Absolute nonsense. The chapel veil finds its origins in sacred Scripture (Corinthians 11:1-7):

        “Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that in all things you are mindful of me: and keep my ordinances as I have delivered them to you. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying with his head covered, disgraceth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head not covered, disgraceth her head: for it is all one as if she were shaven. For if a woman be not covered, let her be shorn. But if it be a shame to a woman to be shorn or made bald, let her cover her head. The man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man.”

        To compare this practice of humility, of covering the glory of God’s most beautiful creation while in His presence to separate water fountains born out of race enmity (however they tried to baptize it) is, again, remarkably crass.

        “It took us some time, but, happily, the Catholic theology of the 20th century was able to assist materially in reconfiguring some of the misleading thought forms that had governed liturgical practice in the period of the Counter Reformation. “

        The so-called “tridentine” Mass isn’t simply a product of the counter reformation, or of Trent. While the missal was codified by Pope St. Pius V in an attempt to suppress regional accretions to the missal and standardize worship, the essential form dates back to the era of Pope St. Gregory the Great. This is why one of its proper titles is “the Gregorian rite.”

        “Infused with the unfortunate theism so typical of the neo-scholasticism of the day, here one was left with the impression of worshiping a sterile, inert God set over against the people at some considerable distance from them and not really among them at all. “

        This is a highly subjective claim. I’ve attended this form of Mass almost exclusively for a decade now, and this is not the impression that I get. In fact, I never feel closer to God than when I attend a Mass of the old rite. The blatant humanism of most Novus Ordo experiences is jarring to any sense of the numinous in the liturgy and almost completely distracts from the sacrificial aspect of Mass, which is its primary purpose: an oblation in atonement for sin.

        Conversely, the heightened sense of importance of what is going at the altar in the traditional form, the supplications at the foot of the altar, the posture and gestures of the priest, all of these lead to a much stronger sense of transcendence and a proper relationship between God and Man. Jesus became a man, but He is not our peer or our equal. He is our king, our creator, and our God.

        “The correctives of the Congars, du Lubacs, Ratzingers, von Balthasars, and Rahners prior to Vatican II made possible the introduction of a life-giving Christological dimension into the Mass. “

        Your pantheon of heroes, with the exception of Ratzinger, were all in hot water with the Church at some point or other because of their theological adventurism. This, combined with your choice of a pseudonym belonging to a German communist leader, explains much about your theology and ecclesiology. That you still associate Ratzinger with his Nouvelle Théologie counterpart Rahner (even if he did have more in common with the thinking of de Lubac and von Balthasar) is a bit of a reach, considering how drastically the two parted ways. Ratzinger was, by his own admission, a progressive at the council. But his thoughts on the liturgical development that happened there (and after) are no secret, and in his own words, “I did not change; they changed.” His dismissal of the new rite as a “a fabrication, a banal, on the spot product” which defied the proper organic process of liturgical development and his subsequent decision to issue the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum show that he is really not the champion of liturgical revolution and ressourcement you may wish him to be.

        “Now, just a comment or two about your Patricentrism, if we might call it that. As it so happens, every created thing has its being in Christ (Acts 17:28), and only derivatively in the Father (John 14:9) All attention directed to the divine in this world is appropriately Christocentric, (1 Timothy 2:5). Perhaps its time for you to consider a more immanent God, Steve, a Christ at the center rather than at the apex of Creation.”

        I have no dispute with an immanent God, but immanence and transcendence are not mutually exclusive. Our faith is Christic, but our orientation is (to borrow your word) Patricentric. Christ comes to bear the Father’s wrath, to make atonement for the sins we cannot, to be offered up as the paschal lamb that spares us from the angel of death. He comes to intervene, to take on our flesh because only he has the strength to bear the curse of our broken covenant with the Father and to redeem it by His blood. Everything He does, He does on behalf of the Father and gives back to the Father. “For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father who sent me, he gave me commandment what I should say, and what I should speak. ” (John 12:49)

        1. ErnstThalmann says:

          Regret the delay in answering. Will have an appropriate response within a few days.

        2. ErnstThalmann says:

          Have finally gotten out from under things and will have a detailed reply for you this evening.

  2. ErnstThalmann says:

    Tradition, qua tradition, has, in my view, nothing of necessity in the way of nobility to recommend it. Nothing that would deserve this awe-struck paen, certainly. To the contrary, the lynching of blacks in the Jim Crow South was considered “traditional”. Are we to ensconce that kind of thing in bronze?

    The old Mass which externalized worship, directing it outward and away from the congregation in a kind of theistic distortion, can be safely abandoned at this juncture. Our faith, properly understood, is Trinitarian and Christocentric. The Novus Ordo captures this aspect best by placing Christ at the center – not above – our worship. What deserves maintaining, is the beauty and solemnity of the old. That should be timeless and isn’t unfortunately.

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