Perhaps no Catholic theologian has been as influential over the past one hundred years as Henri de Lubac SJ. I am mostly new to de Lubac, and I am just getting to know his thought and influence. The more I consider who he was, his life, his theology, and his influence on so many others and on so much of modern Church history, I can’t help but be amazed at his brilliance. I also have been on the side of his detractors. I confess this was because of both my ignorance and because I was getting swept up in the radical traditionalist wave that’s been fomenting anti-modernist and anti-Pope Francis sentiments. I know it’s a complicated mess, but I am pulling back, reconsidering and, to my chagrin, realizing I was going down the wrong path. And this has led me to de Lubac afresh. Below are some videos that, I believe, do a good job shedding clarity on de Lubac’s thought, influence, and legacy.
Among the modern radical traditionalists, or rad trads as some like to call them (and how they proudly call themselves), de Lubac has gotten a bad rap. He is held forth as a modernist whose ideas are to blame for the apparent debacle we call the post-conciliar Church. This is too huge of a topic for this post, but this view has been gaining substantial traction, not least because of some videos by the popular rad trad Dr. Taylor Marshall. In one video, dealing with at the same time the so-called “Pachamama” debacle, Robert Barron, and Henri de Lubac, Dr. Marshall and Timothy Gordon give de Lubac a lashing. Were they fair to do so? I don’t think so, and I’m not the only one:
Note: I confess, I don’t dislike Taylor Marshall, though I can’t take much of him anymore. And I have met Tim Gordon and his family, and I like them a lot. But I can clearly see that Marshall plays well to those who love overly simplistic answers, pietistic rules, conspiracies, and right-wing politics. Consequently, he tends to produce radically unnuanced takes for those folks eager (desperate?) for easy answers and scathing judgments. Thus, he has been weaving a kind of distortion field of critiques and amassing a growing cadre of followers. In this vein, I believe, he and Gordon misread and misrepresent de Lubac – or perhaps they get him partially right but misrepresent the past decades and Vatican II. I’m still learning, and I won’t discount Taylor Marshall entirely. I do think his book Infiltration is interesting and contains many things worthy to ponder, but with great caution.
I have become increasing curious about Liberation Theology. As I continue to become disillusioned by the state of politics in the U.S., including the politics of the Church (or certain prominent sections of the Church), and as I learn more about Latin America and its rich, but also violent, history, and as I have become increasingly curious about Saint Romero and the modern history of El Salvador, I find myself confronted with Liberation Theology. Can Liberation Theology teach us, perhaps even provide a way, for the Church seeking to follow Christ is a deeply broken and anti-Catholic world?
Almost immediately I find vociferous Liberation Theology antagonists. These are primarily conservative and/or traditionalist Catholics. Liberation Theology, they say, is merely Marxism dress up in some Catholic vestments. Ironically, while many of the conservative Catholics revere Saint John Paul II, it this quote from that dynamic and “muscular” anti-communist pope that sparks my interest:
Insofar as it strives to find those just answers – penetrated with understanding for the rich experience of the Church in this country, as effective and constructive as possible and at the same time consonant and consistent with the teachings of the Gospel, of the living and the everlasting Tradition Magisterium of the Church – we and you are convinced that liberation theology is not only timely but useful and necessary. It must constitute a new stage – in close connection with the previous ones – of that theological reflection initiated with the Apostolic Tradition and continued with the great Fathers and Doctors, with the ordinary and extraordinary Magisterium and, in more recent times, with the rich heritage of the Doctrine Church, expressed in documents ranging from Rerum Novarum to Laborem Exercens . ( Emphasis added. Full text here)
Is this not an endorsement of Liberation Theology? Those who say it is actually just Marxism with a Catholic veneer seem to lack understanding. Or do they? I’m still learning.
I am reading Gustavo Gutiérrez‘ excellent and classic work, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. In it I find an excellent explanation of the Catholic faith. Thus far I find no overt Marxist ideology (thus far) and, in fact, I find a challenge to such ideas. I ought to be clear at this point for the sake of honesty: I am not against all Marxist ideas, nor am I against all aspects of socialism. I am against all the evils done in the name, or using the name, of Marxism and socialism, just as in a similar way I am against all the evils done in the name of capitalism, republicanism, democracy, anarchy, fascism, and any other ideologies or systems of political and economic organization that men use against others. Men are wicked and they will wrap their intentions and deeds in whatever language is most convenient to “justify” their actions of power over others. Men will also quickly and effortlessly excuse evils done in the name of their own systems (those they accept) and their own cultures (those in which they were raised, or into which they were adopted, and in which they find acceptance). Thus, I am still cautious. I have studied the evils of man and the systems he builds. I am not yet convinced that socialism, and there are many versions and definitions of socialism, is or must be inherently evil, or must produce evil men. I am also not convince Liberation Theology is or must be fundamentally socialist, even if it informed by Marxist methods of social and political critique.
So I proceed with my research. I am curious.
Cardinal George was once asked about Liberation Theology and he gave a quick answer. It think his answer represents a kind of thoughtful middle ground that I feel I can get behind. However, I also wonder if he, and Cardinal Ratzinger whom he references, had an adequate understanding of Liberation Theology. Thus, I don’t completely buy into it, yet.
I do not think modern Americans (U.S. citizens) can quite fathom the context in which Liberation Theology developed. I certainly have never lived within a context like those in which Liberation Theology developed, arguably, out of necessity. In fact, U.S. citizens are rather notorious for having strange and perverted ideas about Latin American and its history, including U.S. foreign policy towards that Latin America, its governments, its resources and, more importantly, its people. We are also formed through decades of propaganda (for better or worse) to believe anything that is in any way associated with socialism or Marxism must be gravely and irredeemably evil. For most Americans this is an objective and unquestionable dogmatic truth. I am not convinced, but I am not wary either.
If we, for a moment, set aside the wrangling over theories, over political and economic systems, and about the examples of evil men, and simply consider what we Christians are called to do as we live out the Kingdom of God in tangible actions, we might find a calling to change the world. Pope Paul VI gave us some perspective in his encyclical Populorum progressio, an encyclical that informed Liberation Theology’s development, in which he wrote:
It is not just a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not just a question of fighting wretched conditions, though this is an urgent and necessary task. It involves building a human community where men can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, free from servitude to other men or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily. It involves building a human community where liberty is not an idle word, where the needy Lazarus can sit down with the rich man at the same banquet table. [full text here]
Liberty must not be an idle word. Is that not the foundation of Liberation Theology? Of course, people will argue over that notorious and wonderful word: liberty.
But when politics and faith become entangled, it can be hard to know if one is talking about one or the other. And yet, how can the gospel not also be political? In God there is no separation, is there? In this world there is truth, there is heresy, there are lies, there is evil, and there is love. These things are present in all aspects of human life. Does not the gospel speak to all of that? Are not politics also under the reign of Christ? And what happens when we open our eyes beyond narrow, single-issue, lesser-of-two-evils, U.S. politics and begin to wonder if others, in others places also have eyes to see and hearts that long for justice? What do we do when they see things differently than we do and speak in foreign tongues and use words that frighten us and yet still call us brothers and sisters in Christ? What ought we to do then?
Still, the history of Liberation Theology and its proponents is interesting and, at times, perhaps troubling even for many in Latin America. But it is also fascinating. And there are, naturally, different perspectives.
This short Religion and Ethics piece gives a brief overview and some perspective, and not without moments that will give a traditionalist Catholic conniptions, make a conservative Catholic cringe, and make a liberal Catholic pause:
Is the Church today under Francis more attuned to Jesus? I don’t believe it is. But I also cannot buy in its entirety the critique of traditionalist Catholics (mostly Americans) who demonize Francis and the Church hierarchy today. There is so much that is bad, but there is so much that is good, and there is much good (I firmly believe) going on in the world beyond the horizon of American Catholics and their limited understandings and their historical prejudices. Perhaps that is where most of the good is happening.
One aspect of Liberation Theology, or at least as something clearly linked to it, is the fact of Catholic priests and bishops renouncing their vocations for political action in the name of Liberation Theology. For example, Fernando Lugo, who was a Catholic priest and bishop, then became president of Paraguay, gave up the priesthood for politics:
Lugo resigned his ordinary from the Diocese of San Pedro on 11 January 2005. He had requested laicization in order to run for office. However, the Holy See refused the request on the grounds that bishops could not undergo laicization, and also denied him the requested canonical permission to run for civil elected office. However, after Lugo won the presidential election, the Church granted his laicization on 30 June 2008. [from Wikipedia]
This bothers me a great deal. Why must they do this? I don’t know. Have they lost the faith, turned from God, or have they made the right choice? I have my opinions, but I’m holding off judgement until I know more. I first came across Lugo in Oliver Stone’s fascinating documentary film, South of the Border. I have a hard time faulting Lugo for making his decision, though i’m bothered by it. I am in no place to criticise him. I also sense that his position became somewhat untenable as he found himself between the Church that tends to side with those in power and Christ’s call to help the poor. And yet, I don’t like the decision he made and I am curious about his eternal destiny. What will Christ do with him and others like him?
Similarly, one of the more prominent theologians of the Liberation Theology movement is Leonardo Boff. Also a former priest and a sharp critic of the Church, he gave up the priesthood for social activism. This documentary gives a rather good picture of Boff and his views:
I am not sure what to do with this. Is Boff’s direction the right one? I’m inclined to think not, and I feel about him much as I feel about Fernando Lugo. And yet, I do agree with the general direction of some of his views, up to a point. I am also concerned about any movement where men give up the priesthood for the movement, or stop wearing traditional clerical clothing. However, I don’t know enough about Latin American history and culture to know the meaning of all that. I also think there is a generational element to it. Older, baby-boomer, 1960’s radicals might have thrown off their religious garb because that was the spirit of that age, whereas younger priests and religious today might insist on wearing more traditional religious clothing for, ironically, similar reasons. I can’t say, but it would make some sense to me. We are all far more children of the zeitgeist than any of us want to admit.
Still, I firmly believe that it’s all too easy to get pulled away from Christ and His kingdom by the enticements of the world and worldly politics, and thus lose one’s soul. I believe Liberation Theology is, at its heart, an attempt to avoid that, but clearly many questions still remain about many of its adherents. I am inclined to read some of Boff’s books eventually.
In summary, I know very little at this point, but I am inclined to believe Liberation Theology is a good thing and ought to be taken seriously, perhaps re-thought and re-addressed, by more Catholics. I also am beginning to think the Church (once again) dropped the ball in a big way by not more fully embracing it and thereby helping guide it rather than leave priests and faithful Catholics essentially on their own, sometimes feeling abandoned by the Church. This, I think, was a huge missed opportunity at a crucial time in Latin America. In a sense, I believe the Church “lost” Latin America, in a sense, because of this.
I welcome any comments pointing me to more resources.
Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president (pres. 1977-1981) that oversaw the giving of military aid to the government of El Salvador during the bloody Salvadoran Civil War. Carter was the first American president that I became aware of as I began to pay attention to the news as a boy. The first American president I voted for was Ronald Reagan (pres. 1981-1989), who came immediately after Carter. The Reagan administration increased the giving of military aid and support to the Salvadoran government. In 1980 the Salvadoran government was behind the brazen assassination and martyrdom of the then archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, now a saint of the Catholic Church. Thus, my first vote as an American citizen, though not for Carter, and actually for Reagan’s second term which happened years after Romero’s death, is nonetheless indirectly but forever linked to the death of a saint. I only just realized this. Unfortunately, this is the reality of being an American voting for candidates who then go on to promote questionable and sometimes terrible foreign policies. Of course I plead ignorance, but we’re all ignorant of many things, and that doesn’t mean we are not complicit at some level, even if not actually guilty. Perhaps its “structural complicity?”
Anyway, I am learning more about one of the Church’s most recent saints, Óscar Romero. I believe Romero’s concerns were ultimately spiritual and heavenly, but they played out within a volatile political context, and he was martyred for them.
The battle lines of politics are always much more than politics. There are narratives competing with narratives, ideologies with ideologies, and almost always class struggle. In the U.S. we are not allowed to talk about class struggle or the structures of economic inequality or we are immediately labeled a socialist or communist. There is a powerful narrative in that labeling, and that narrative and the hegemonic forces behind it drive a great many other narratives. Human beings, being sinners and fearful, will all too readily kill other human beings for the sake of the narrative they hold dear, often for very selfish and ignorant reasons. From Cain until now we have been killing our brothers. But Christ calls us to love our brothers, our neighbors, and even our enemies. Saint Paul tells us our battle is not against flesh and blood, but is against spiritual forces of darkness. The entire narrative of salvation being written by God in the very fabric of creation tells us to trust in Him and that He will fight our battles. We forget this every day. They forgot that in El Salvador too. But many, including and perhaps especially Óscar Romero, did not forget it.
I know very little about the Salvadoran Civil War, but that is the historical context of Saint Romero’s assassination. I perhaps know only a little more about Saint Romero than I do about the war, which is to say almost nothing. Here are three contemporary news reports on the war, its brutality, and role of faith and the Church.
This 1983 documentary takes a look at both sides of the war and provides an intimate overview of the attitudes and perspectives of each side:
Made by the same filmmakers as the above film, this is an excellent documentary from 1983 on the religious aspects of the war, in particular the ideas of Liberation Theology:
Here is an in-depth documentary about the Salvadoran civil war and the life of Óscar Romero. It was made before he was canonized a saint.
Here is a great lecture by Michael Lee (Fordham University) on the life, legacy, and meaning of Saint Romero’s martyrdom and case for sainthood:
I suppose little seeds were planted in my life along the way to prepare my heart and mind for caring for and wondering about the life, legacy, and meaning of Saint Romero’s martyrdom and case for sainthood.
In 1984 (the same year I voted for Reagan) a largely unknown, but with a passionate fanbase, Canadian singer-songwriter and brilliant guitarist released a song that became a surprise hit. I vaguely remember that song, but I was so politically, geographically, historically, and socially unaware that I didn’t get what the song was about, except for the fact that I felt as much as anybody that we all need a rocket launcher sometimes. But the song was specifically about the brutal wars in Central America, the dictatorships that promoted and leveraged them, the support those dictatorships received from the U.S. government, and the terrible havoc they wrought on the lives of the people. Here is Bruce Cockburn, 30 years later, performing live and acoustically his song If I had a Rocket Launcher:
Below is an excellent lecture on the history, characteristics, qualities, and purpose of Gregorian Chant. I too have a love for Gregorian Chant and I sing it as part of a men’s Latin Schola in my parish for the 7:30 AM Sunday Mass, which is Novus Ordo, but is more solemn and traditional. I view it as a step to help our parish move towards traditional Catholicism — or just Catholicism. However, although my love for chant continues to grow, I am rather ignorant of its true riches.
Not long ago I had the opportunity to read an email that had been sent by a parishioner to his priest and also to members of that parish’s pastoral council. The parishioner’s name, the name of the priest, and the name of the parish was removed for reasons of confidentiality. I believe there is something important in this letter and I feel the need to pass it on. In particular, I believe the sentiments expressed are common to many Catholics, and not merely older Catholics, the so called “boomer” Catholics who lived through the changes after Vatican II. Here is the letter:
Dear Fr. [REDACTED],
I have made the decision to leave [REDACTED] Parish. Please accept my resignation from the Pastoral Council, the Lectors, and Sunday Hospitality. Additionally, please stop my Sunday envelopes.
I am sixty-six years old. I was an altar boy during the sixties. I remember the pre-Vatican2 church. It has been over fifty years that the institutional Church , as we know it, has functioned in the light of the Second Vatican Council. Yet, since coming to [REDACTED] and belonging to [REDACTED], I am slowly watching the institutional Church in our Parish retreating backward as demonstrated in the frequent Latin Masses, the men’s Schola, the effort to re-locate the tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary (at an exorbitant cost, I might add), and … now you speak of reinstalling the communion rail. I don’t see myself participating in any of it. I happen to appreciate the Church for what it is. I considered doing research to dissuade you from the path you are on but then I realized the voices you are listening to are louder than mine. In my opinion what you are doing is not in the spirit of Vatican 2 and that grieves me.
Thank you for the rich homilies; they offer the Parish more that you may think.
There are many Catholics, especially those older Catholics who lived through the changes of the post-Vatican II era, and who are still active Catholics (of course, so many left the Church too), who look back fondly on that era and still believe to this day that those radical changes were the best thing to ever happen to the Church. As they see it, the spirit of Vatican II is wonderful, and they love that the barriers came down, the stuffy altar was replaced by the communion table, the priest finally turned to face the people who could now see what he was doing, and they even love its music, fondly humming its insufferable tunes. Many of these Catholics are looked down on and summarily dismissed as “boomers” (a term used pejoratively) by members of the so-called traditionalist movement. And many traditionalists are waiting for that generation to die off so the Church can become more traditional again. I think many older parishioners, like this man above, probably feel that sentiment aimed at them and that their voices are ignored.
I believe this parishioner’s frank frustration, blunt verbiage, and his sudden resignation is exactly the kind of reaction that many tradition-leaning priests fear. There are very few parishes in the world today that are not fundamentally “spirit of Vatican II churches,” that is, they have been built on the modernist traditions of the past 50 years. It is what they know, it is their life as it were. This means that any priest who tries to bring changes to his parish in light of Catholic tradition is likely to have at least some parishioners reacting as this man did. Or perhaps the frustrated parishioners don’t leave the parish; perhaps they even don’t let the priest know how they feel. They may instead just work to undermine his efforts in any number of ways. I imagine this email cut to the heart of the priest and was grieved over. I do not know the outcome of what happened next. I hope reconciliation can happen. I doubt it will. But I do appreciate his forthrightness.
I am a Catholic who believes the Traditional Latin Mass is fundamentally and in every way far superior than the Novus Ordo. I am even inclined to believe the Church has been under various punishments since and because of the Novus Ordo’s promulgation. However, I am not a radtrad as some traditionalists call themselves positively and are called by others pejoratively. In fact, I go to both the TLM and the Novus Ordo for various reasons. And I have never been someone who loves tradition either merely for aesthetic or nostalgic reasons. I’m not into tradition as some men love 1957 Chevys. I came to a love for tradition because my life’s journey took me through the world of Christian classical homeschooling, which begins with the nature of man and his purpose in relation to God. I began to critique my presuppositions in light of my experience of living in a post-modern world, growing up Baptist/evangelical, and being curious about history, philosophy, and the arts. Within the Protestant milieu I experienced the anemic stance towards holiness, the personally fashioned image of Jesus, and profoundly false anthropology of modern American Protestantism. I experienced worship redefined as pop-music and sentimentalism. Then I came into the Church (God be praised!) and I saw this same modern Protestant and American culture was thoroughly infused syncretically throughout the local parishes I visited. The leaven of the modernist world had worked its way into so much of the Church.
I also noticed both a mix of blindness to the syncretism and a thorough love of it. Parishioners were not chafing under the weight of modernism corrupting the Church, they were loving it. Or, at least, that’s how it looked to me.
I felt like the bank teller who has learned to identify counterfeit bills by becoming highly familiar with the real thing, but in this case I knew the counterfeit all too well and was only coming to learn of the real thing. The thing is, I was just so happy to be in the true Church that I let a lot slide for a while — and I still do, and I’m still happy. I love being Catholic, not merely for the joy I find, but because Catholicism is true. Also, I am no expert. And who am I anyway? Still, I feel that God has given me the eyes I have, formed on the journey I’ve traveled, to see some things that others might not; perhaps especially so-called cradle Catholics. I believe that the long tradition of the Church, especially that old “stuffy” Latin Mass, lived out in love and relying on the Holy Spirit, is an antidote needed for the world today – not just the for the Church, but for the world.
Thus I am bothered by the letter above. I see it run through with problems, false assumptions, ignorance, and immaturity. I want to be dismissive.
And yet, and yet…
I (and we) must have compassion for those who love the New Mass and its music and its culture. For that’s what it is, a culture. Culture arises from cultus. How we worship, including the nuts and bolts of our liturgies, form us. What direction the priest faces works within us at such a deep level and in such a precognitive way that the simple fact of orientation teaches us about God and man, saying one thing or another thing. How we receive the Blessed Sacrament, whether on the tongue or in the hand, whether standing or kneeling, teaches (instilling within us) us at a deeply subconscious level knowledge (true or false) of Christ and our relationship to Him, saying one thing or another thing. At the end of Mass, when we are told to go out into the world, we take with us our cultus which has formed deep within us, formed even minutes before, so deeply that much of it is subconscious and intuitive, and works on our minds to such a degree, that what seems right to us seems so as though from the foundations of the earth. But this is not the same thing as being right. And that Catholic cultus has to contend with the world’s cultus, which smothers us nearly every minute.
The power of formation is not primarily at the conscious level. Much like the bank teller intuitively knowing a good bill from a false one, the well formed Catholic recognizes truth and error, depth and shallowness, beauty and mediocrity, faith and sentimentality, in an almost precognitive manner. Overwhelming evidence declares that Catholics can be poorly formed. Our sensibilities can lead us to wrong understandings, poor interpretations, and misguided evaluations. And our conclusions will feel absolutely right. We almost can’t help it; no one knowingly believes falsehoods, we can only believe what we believe is true. Therefore, we must have compassion and empathy for others. We must seek humility. Our true battle is not over liturgy, or tradition, or theology. Our true battle is again Satan and his devils, against the sin within us, and against the temptations of the world. We are in a profound spiritual, physical, and metaphysical battle for our faith, the Church, and our souls. That battle, of course, plays out much of the time within the physical realm, including the realm of liturgy, culture, and even politics, but we must seek eyes that see and ears that hear, we must seek soft hearts and and sensitive souls, so that we may know where the real battle lies, otherwise we will miss it — perhaps even joining an enemy who tricks and begiles us.
If you watch documentaries about the 1960s, such as Ken Burns film The Vietnam War, especially the parts that focus on the homefront in the US, or the PBS documentary Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, you can’t help but feel for the youth caught up in the spirit(s) of the age. There was little chance of any young Catholic at that time, living in the midst of that culture, who would not have also interpreted the post-Vatican II changes, especially those done under the spirit of Vatican II mantra, as utterly comprehensible and necessary. Many of these young Catholics supported refocusing the Church towards the burning issues of the day and, more importantly, defining the approach to those issues in the same terms used by the campus radicals, the feminists, the neo-socialists, and especially those of the anti-war and civil rights movements.
It wasn’t just a matter of getting rid of what was old, it was believing what we call traditional Catholicism as being fundamentally incompatible with the modern age and, thus, being a barrier to spiritual growth, a meaningful relationship with Christ, evangelization, and even authentic Catholicism (nevermind the saints, great and small, who knew nothing else but traditional Catholicism because it was just Catholicism). Traditional priestly garb and religious habits began to look more and more like anachronistic costumes, almost laughable; Latin like a language mummified.
However, with time and statistics we have come to see that a great deal has been lost, not least are numbers of faithful catholics in the pews and vocations to the priesthood and religious life. But also so much depth and richness has been lost. It was, in effect, the Church declaring that the Real Presence was still dogma but not really true, and that faith was merely a matter of personal preference after all. Our priests, by not having the Traditional Latin Mass available to them, perhaps have suffered the most — no longer being fed daily on the more nourishing food of tradition but rather “eating” a less spiritually enriching fair that is bound to leave one at the very least rather anemic. And if one has never eaten from the sumptuous feast’s table one will neither know the riches available or the true depth of satiation.
The Novus Ordo is a culture, and it produces sons and daughters of itself. I believe that many priests have gone into the priesthood thinking and hoping that in the Novus Ordo culture they will become men that only a TLM culture can produce. I know of a similar experience coming into the Church as a convert. Many, many things went terribly amiss during the frantic hubbub of the radical sixties. Much has been lost or destroyed. In one generation enough destruction and spiritual darkness was unleashed that it may take five generations to recover. The “good” bishops and popes have been trying to fix it ever since – tinkering here, adjusting there, moving slowly out of caution? concerns? fear? Of course, I don’t have the answer, and who am I anyway?
The “boomers” and the rest of the Novus Ordo crowd (I also frequently attend the Novus Ordo and just missed being called a boomer by only one year, and not all boomers are pro-Novus Ordo culture) are not the enemy. Even if you are a staunch traditionalist you ought to see them as our brothers and sisters in Christ. One might chose to “fight” for the great traditions of the Church, and especially the Traditional Latin Mass, to return in a big way, but one must not fall into a hardened “us and them” mentality. And you ought to love them. They have been taught and formed by the Church and their culture, just as we all have. Their formation, good or bad, falls largely upon the shoulders of the bishops who had that responsibility and who eagerly welcomed the spirit of the age into the Church, calling it the spirit of Vatican II, though often veering wildly beyond the councils documents. Regardless, our job is to love God and each other. We are to seek unity in love, with humility, and with total faith in God — which means we know that it is God who fights our battles. But the older crowd are not the only ones who love the Novus Ordo more than the TLM. Even many younger folks do so as well, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. People love things for different reasons. And they don’t love other things for different reasons; sometimes merely out of ignorance, sometimes because of their formation, and sometimes for good reasons. But this is a larger topic.
I feel for the man who wrote the letter above. I believe he wrote from his heart. I believe his grievances came from real grieving. I also wonder, without wanting to psychoanalyse him, if his grieving doesn’t come from having had a kind of “mountain top” experience in his youth, being caught up in the spirit of the age and feeling like he had received a “new pentecost,” which has stayed with him and sustained him for many years, and now he feels it’s being taken away.
The Crucifixion of St. Peter, etching, 1685 by Jan Luyken
Κύριε, ἐλέησον Χριστέ, ἐλέησον
There are so many reasons why a Protestant would consider becoming an Eastern Orthodox Christian. I nearly did myself. My own journey into the Catholic Church included searching in various directions, but mostly in the direction of history and mystery, which led me to Orthodoxy, but also in the direction of authority and unity, which finally led to Catholicism.
I am no theologian or Church historian. My mind works more like a poet than a philosopher. I am not a logician nor am I a stickler for the minutiae of dogmatic disputes. Nonetheless, Truth (capital T truth) is important to me. And loving Christ, obeying His commandments, seeking holiness and perfection and theosis is everything to me — all things I am sorely bad at doing. My journey, and the decisions I have made along the way, are not criticisms of dear friends who have made different decisions. The best I can do is try to reasonably do my homework, be as humble as I can, and trust God. I believe I am right, or I wouldn’t believe what I believe, but I also know how easy it is to be wrong. And so I humbly offer here my reasons for becoming Catholic rather than Orthodox. I do not claim wisdom, only that by God’s grace did I find the true Church.
I’ve written many posts on this blog about my journey. You can find them by searching some of the topics and tags on the sidebar. One described my visiting a local Orthodox church; a visit that truly inspired me and moved my heart. I have friends that are members at that church. I also found the writings of some Eastern Orthodox authors amazing, especially those of Alexander Schmemann, and especially his book “For the Life of the World.” And I wrote about my struggles with Protestantism and my seeking something far more rooted in tradition than the anemic Evangelical culture I experienced. Finally, being a bit of a cinephile, my favorite filmmaker is the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, an artist deeply influenced by the Christian faith of Russia Orthodoxy. His aesthetic and artistic philosophy comes from that faith, it resonates deeply in my soul. Consequently, I was drawn very much to the Orthodox Church.
Eastern Orthodoxy offers a powerful antidote to some of our western culture’s religious ills. But, in the end, I could not make the leap. I had, instead, to first deal with Catholicism head-on. I realized that a key attraction of Orthodoxy for me was that I could get an ancient liturgy, the Church fathers, all the smells and bells, icons, mystery, penance, history, and on and on, and I could still fundamentally be Protestant. In other words, I could get most everything I was seeking (or thought I was seeking) without having to submit to the Pope. I had to confront this and find out what the Catholic Church taught, and if it was the better choice than Eastern Orthodoxy.
I was raised within and formed by a very anti-Catholic culture. I had a lot of fears of even getting slightly close to Catholicism. But I also realized that every negative thing I ever heard about the Church came from enemies of the Church. How would I feel if someone refused to give me a chance to defend myself against slander, claiming they already heard everything they needed to hear from my enemies? I felt convicted that I was being unfair. Even more so, I came to see that the final step was not the logic of an argument, rather it was the attitude of my heart. I began to see that I first must submit to God in all humility before I could sort through the various claims. In short, I realized the fundamental issue, the very crux itself, was whether I was willing to submit or whether I was going to continue to demand my own authority. The last thing I wanted to do was to continue to define and demarcate my faith, based on my own authority, as disunity with other Christians. I needed something transcending my own person to hold me accountable. I also realized I was no longer “protesting,” and therefore I found it absurd to be a Protestant. Rather, I had to turn to God and ask Him to lead me, even in a direction that scared me. My will, not my rationality, was the problem — a problem of the heart forged within me by the Protestant (and American) culture that made me.
In the end, the Catholic Church won me over. In fact, I believe it was God, through Mary, who led me to the Church in spite of my many worries, fears, and struggles. I am not an apologist. As I stated earlier, I am no theologian or logician. I’m a relatively bright guy, but my reasons for becoming Catholic are probably more poetic than apologetic. Catholicism began to form a kind of song in my soul, a resonance that called me home. The question I had to answer was if I willing to hear that tune and follow it. But I had to be clear to myself why I could not settle for Eastern Orthodoxy when it offered so much of what I was looking for, and when so many of my friends found a home there.
Following are some of my reasons. Needless to say, these are very personal reasons. I say this because I know each of us is on a journey and the big decisions we make in life, though often of a universal nature (Truth, Faith, Religion, etc.), are also uniquely played in each of our lives. Therefore, I can only speak for myself and not for anyone else.
In Protestantism, there is no true authority. As anyone who has taken a critical look at Protestantism knows, Sola Scriptura can only, finally, mean that an individual’s opinion is authoritative, which of course it is not. Every Protestant pastor establishes himself or herself as the authority, offering their interpretations and “applications” of scripture, and church members shop churches like consumers search for restaurants — some search for cheap drive-throughs and others for fine dining, but they all are merely searching according to their preferred tastes and immediate interests. Christianity in America, and much of the world, has become a kind of marketplace complete with producers and consumer, sellers and buyers. It’s a free market economy driven by marketing and business plans. But the Catholic Church has the magisterium, with its Pope and Bishops, handing on and defending the faith. Because it is a hierarchy based on a monarchy it demands submission to its authority which it claims is given by Christ our King. The Catholic argument for the primacy of Peter makes a great deal of sense to me, especially since it seems so clearly based on scripture. Doesn’t the Catholic Church’s interpretation of those scriptures, elevating Peter to the position of primacy, seem best? Individual Catholic churches will have small differences, and many bishops argue with each other over various topics, but they are all in communion with Rome. Every aspect of this is radically foreign to the Protestant’s heart and mind. Both Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism hold to Holy Scripture and Tradition as the sources of Truth and Revelation, but Eastern Orthodoxy, while demanding more authority for itself than any Protestant church, has no true living magisterium, or teaching authority that can supersede and arbitrate between reasonable but different positions on faith and morals, and continue to do so as history unfolds itself. Only the Catholic Church has the living magisterium. Any former Protestant will certainly experience a stronger sense of institutional authority within Eastern Orthodoxy than he did within Protestantism. And that might feel like more than enough; I’m sure for many that was already a tough pill to swallow and I don’t want to downplay that experience. Eastern Orthodoxy certainly has more substantive guardrails than the local Bible church on the corner, but the Orthodox Church is still, at best, a loosely unified church, and at worst a church falsely claiming unity, and perhaps self-deceived in that regard. This is the problem with not having a living magisterium. I came to realize that the question of authority was a huge issue for me personally; bigger than I ever imagined. God was calling me to submit to the authority of His Church on earth. Eastern Orthodoxy was attractive to me precisely because I wouldn’t have to submit in such a total way, perhaps not unless I wanted to become a deacon(?), but even then it would only be submission on a local and/or ethnic/national church level; just another particular church, not the universal Church. I could continue to avoid the pope. Some might take issue with this position, but it seemed clear to me then, and it seems clear to me now that there is no final source of authority in Eastern Orthodoxy, merely submission to one of the self-headed churches and their traditions and interpretations of scripture (however unified they can seem to someone from Protestantland).
To sum this up, because I realize I could be misrepresenting the Eastern Orthodox view (perhaps challenging its self-view) of authority, the real crux of the issue for me was my pride. I was wrapped up in my pride and the Catholic Church more than the Orthodox church confronted me on my pride. I need to be radically humbled and the Catholic Church does that for me. This fact I took as a key piece of evidence.
The question of authority, as stated above, is inextricably linked with unity. Although some try to claim that Eastern Orthodoxy is unified, it is not. In fact, it is quite fragmented and has been for centuries. Eastern Orthodoxy has divided along numerous ethnic and nationalistic lines; different but also similar to Protestant denominations. In my own town, I was faced with whether I would join the local Serbian Orthodox church or the local Greek Orthodox church. They are different churches, not merely different parishes. As a Protestant, I was used to having such decisions before me, but my soul was longing for something else. As a Protestant, Eastern Orthodoxy offered more unity (or seemed to) than I was familiar with, and therefore it attracted me, but in the end I wanted even greater unity. I couldn’t settle for partial unity. I didn’t believe the Holy Spirit would abandon the body of Christ to so much disunity for so long on such a scale. (Of course, I could be terribly wrong.) I didn’t want to sort through the battles between Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox. I didn’t want to accept the αὐτοκεφαλία of a hydra-headed animal as a work of the Holy Spirit. I realized that Protestantism had trained me to accept disunity as a “natural” way of the Church, and I absolutely wanted no part of it. I felt the need to flee from disunity. Perhaps I was oversensitive, but I wanted a Church that could contain various rites and expressions of the faith, but was still in total unity with itself, transcending and judging national and ethnic boundaries, structurally bound together by a visible Vicar of Christ. I just found Eastern Orthodoxy far less unified than some try to present it (see the video below for more details). Of course, Catholicism has a lot of issues, a ton of internal squabbles, and many Catholics do not get along, but we are in communion nonetheless. We share in the table of our Lord, in His body and blood, and in our shared creed and dogmas regardless of the many other ways we can find ourselves struggling to be in unity. I also realized that most Catholic liturgical rites are, in fact, much like, or even exactly like those of the Eastern Orthodox churches. If I wanted, I could go to a church not too far away, pastored by a friend of mine, that uses the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It is an Eastern Rite Catholic church in full communion with the Pope. It’s possible to have something quite “eastern” within the Catholic Church if that’s one’s preference.
Although many Catholics today, including many churchmen, take a very lax view of divorce, remarriage, and receiving Holy Communion while in a state of grave sin, the Catholic Church does, in fact, officially teach that divorce and remarriage is forbidden, and that receiving Holy Communion in such a state is a mortal sin. The Orthodox Church, however, officially has a less strict position. It’s not uncommon to say the Orthodox Church blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth. I have come to believe this position contradicts the direct teaching of Christ. I do not mean to speak lightly of the real struggles many couples have in marriage, but I believe the official position of the Catholic Church is far superior to that of the Eastern Orthodox; it is, in fact, orthodox while the Orthodox position is not. In fact, there are even different positions within Easter Orthodoxy given the lack of magisterial unity. But marriage may just be the defining issue of our age. Attacking marriage and the priesthood have become, I am convinced, the number one targets in the overall game plan of the Evil One to destroy the Church. Marriage was instituted by God as the means by which He educates mankind about His relationship with us. Marriage is fundamental to the story of salvation. God is the ultimate educator and marriage is His great analogical example for us. In this light, it is the Catholic Church that has the best chance to be the bulwark against these attacks of the Devil. There are many faithful Christians within the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy, but institutionally it is the Catholic Church that is the primary instrument on earth in Christ’s hands to do battle against the principalities of darkness and evil. It is also the one institution most clearly under attack on every front, including from within. This alone should be a testament to the primacy of the Catholic Church, and was one of the clear and visible signs that finally drew me through its doors.
Authority, unity, and the profound issue of divorce and remarriage stand as primary touchstones for why I didn’t jump into Eastern Orthodoxy. But there are other reasons. The Catholic Church is truly catholic and global, it is also western in western countries. I am a child of so-called western culture. There is a fascinating and mysterious element to Eastern Orthodoxy that I find attractive because of its foreignness. But there is a kind of false fit with who I am. I felt my curiosity with Eastern Orthodoxy was due, in large part, because it felt extra mysterious to this west-coast white-toast American, and thus it felt radically non-Protestant. That attracted me, but I needed more substance than feelings. The Catholic Church has been more readily able to culturally adapt as it has spread around the world than Eastern Orthodoxy. This means I can be in unity with Catholics around the world, sharing in the same liturgy with them any day of the week, and yet find an appropriate cultural fit between the cult and the culture in which God placed me, and they with theirs.
Also, the Catholic Church more fully and properly venerates the Mother of our Lord. Mary has become an increasingly important person in my faith, drawing me closer to her Son. Eastern Orthodoxy tends to see Catholics as taking this devotion too far. I disagree. Catholic teaching on Mary is the clearest, most biblical, and most meaningful to the lives of the faithful than any other teaching.
Another issue that seems to come up is the filioque. This is a theological and historical issue having to do with the creed, and it’s easy to find overviews of the issue online if you’re curious. In looking into it for myself, I found it not only thin in substance but it strikes me as a rather cheap excuse for any Eastern Orthodox Christian to cling to as a reason for not becoming Catholic.
And then I found interesting that whenever people think of the “Church” they think of Catholicism. If our society has issues with Christianity, with its positions on marriage, sexuality, gender, etc, it always looks to the Catholic Church to see what it says. Our world so desperately wants the Catholic Church to change its positions on nearly every dogma and doctrine. For the most part, our society doesn’t care about what the Eastern Orthodox think, on any topic really. And few Protestants care all that much if another of their fold converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, perhaps they slightly tilt their head in confusion, but they practically foam at the mouth if that conversion is to Catholicism. This says a lot, strongly implying that in the grand design, and deep within the hearts of even the most unrepentant men, it is the Catholic Church that stands as the visible body of Christ in the world, even to those who deny every one of its claims, and the world knows it has to deal with that. If they hated Christ first, they will hate His followers even more, and they hate the Catholic Church more than any other institution on earth.
Finally, if I am honest, I did not choose the Catholic Church. Rather, and not to be trite, but it chose me. I was called, impelled, and even compelled into it. If I had chosen Eastern Orthodoxy I would have been merely fleeing Protestantism. I no longer wanted to be a heretic. Yes, I wanted a truly apostolic Church, and I do see the Eastern Orthodox churches descending from the apostolic tradition, but this longing within me wouldn’t let me settle for second best. In the end, my choice was no choice but to become Catholic. And continuing in honesty, it has not been easy. The Catholic Church is filled with sinners (me included) and has been ravaged by modernism, wicked bishops, unfaithful priests, sexual abuse and institutional coverups, financial corruption, rank idiocy, and numerous devious attacks by the Evil One, but this has only convinced me that the Catholic Church is the true body of Christ, for these hard facts merely confirm her core teachings through and through. We are truly sinners in need of a savior. We are a wayward bride continually being called back from harlotry to the all-loving bridegroom. More than any other church, and more than any institution on earth, the Catholic Church relentlessly experiences the most persecution from without as well as from within. This can only come from the Devil who wants to destroy the Church. And only this level of attack, combined with the Church’s resilient survival, could be part of God’s ultimate plan of salvation, presented to us in the prophetic words of scripture and the words of Our Lady. The Catholic Church is both the earthly means of our salvation and stands as the greatest visible example of why we so desperately need salvation from our sin, the world, and the Devil.
Do all these reasons for why I personally chose the Catholic Church over Eastern Orthodoxy mean all Eastern Orthodox Christians are wrong? I can’t say. Or I don’t want to say. I’m sure some are wrong, but perhaps not all. Each person’s journey is different, and where God has them is His prerogative. For many converts it was a huge personal decision to leave Protestantism and enter the Orthodox Church. I certainly do not doubt their faith. I would just say to former Protestants who made the big move to Orthodoxy that you might want to consider if you have truly moved far enough. Could it be that you changed the form without actually changing some core Protestant positions? Did you get history and mystery but are avoiding authority? Are you holding on to a desire for your own authority and wanting, perhaps subconsciously, to retain the “right” to your own biblical interpretations? Was the move to Orthodoxy the easier choice than Catholicism? If yes, why? Are you still clinging to your own authority, or perhaps to more of an aesthetic change, or now you don’t want to give up your community, or could it be you’re still basing your decision on that funny inner feeling so common to Protestants? I am not judging but seriously asking because all these reasons I had to wrestle with myself. And I realize any kind of change, especially this kind of change, is extremely difficult, complex, and fraught with all sorts of issues.
And I ask for forgiveness if I have misrepresented the Orthodox Church. I do realize there is far more complexity than I am able or willing to deal with in this post. Although, at this point in my own journey of faith, I have no interest in arguing about it. I’ll leave that to others. I am working too hard, and failing too often, at just becoming a good Catholic.
May God bless you.
Lastly, this post was sparked, in part, by this video below. It’s well worth taking the time to listen.
Recently I stumbled across the brilliant philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. I have been reading some philosophy lately, and my focus has been mostly on phenomenology. I studied a bit of phenomenology in college, along with structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, I now find myself diving back into these areas of thought.
Jean-Luc Marion is particularly interesting to me, in part because he is an unapologetic Catholic. I recently posted a video in which he answers the question of why he remains Catholic. I love his answers. (I guess one could say he is, in fact, apologetic because he provides an apologia for his faith.)
Below are two of his lectures. Though he is a philosopher and, therefore, brings his deeper thinking to the topics at hand, I find these talks very accessible. His very French accent is quite thick, but one gets used to it. I have now listened to each a couple of times. They are excellent.
Years ago I wrote a post about my searching for the true Church. I was heading towards the Catholic Church and I knew it. And I did enter the Church later that year. I “came home” as so many converts from Protestantism say. That was a little over six years ago. I do not regret my decision. In fact, I am so glad I became Catholic, and then that my wife and kids entered the Church.
But all is not well in the Church today. It never has been, I realize that, but it seems far, far worse now than in recent centuries. Personally this is a struggle. I know it is for many Catholics as well. My the struggle is not about whether I feel I made the right decision. I am convinced I did, by the grace of God. I applaud (and pray for) any becoming-Catholic person standing on the threshold today, perhaps in RCIA, who is hanging in there and not being deterred by the actions of evil men. For me, however, the struggle has to do more with how I raise my kids, how I and my family become more Catholic, how we move closer to God, and if we end up in Heaven.
I now look back on that post and I realize it was written two months before Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis. Since that time a lot has happened. A lot of water has flowed down the Tiber, a river I “crossed” later that same year. And then this year a couple of faithful Austrian Catholics threw pagan idols into that same Italian river, idols that they removed, no less, from a Catholic church, idols used in honor of demons and that had been worshiped by both pagans and Catholics together in a ceremony in the Vatican gardens at the feet of the Pope who gave his approval, on video, for the whole world to see. I don’t really know what’s going on, but this seems crazy–truly crazy, like antichrist crazy. (Pray, pray, pray for the Pope)
Sometimes I feel like one of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the storm and wondering why Jesus is asleep.
Thus far I have not talked to my kids about these, and many other, dark things in the Church. I only say a few things about them to my wife. In light of it all she has asked if I want to remain Catholic. Honestly, more than ever. This is one of the most exciting times to be Catholic. There is a war for the faith that is evident, palpable, and existential. It’s hard to be lukewarm in times like these, and that’s good.
Over that last couple of years my eyes have slowly opened. I have learned about Fatima and related prophecies, I have witnessed (from afar of course) scandals both theological and moral perpetrated by many close to the Holy Father, I have heard the Pope say a number of highly questionable statements, and the list goes on and on. But there’s so much more. Back in the 1980’s Saint John Paul II (the great?) let a buddhist idol be placed on a Catholic altar in Assisi during an “ecumenical” prayer meeting with leaders of other religions. Earlier the Mass given to us by God was changed by men in the 1970’s into something less than excellent, and with it churches were destroyed with altar rails thrown into alleys, altars crushed and replaced by tables, and the glorious music of the Church replaced with crap, utter crap. And there’s so, so much more to complain about. The list is nearly endless. It’s been going on for decades at least. And it’s clear all this could only come about by the hand of Satan, the willful folly of prideful churchmen, and the eager acceptance of a laity awash in the worldly currents of a modernist, consumerist, distracted, self centered society. (Some have blamed the so-called boomers, and there’s some truth to that, but they are not all to blame.)
This has been an interesting couple of years of eye-opening discoveries for me.
In the meantime I have also discovered something of traditional Catholicism. I have gone to several Extraordinary Form masses. I have a TLM missal (1962), and a couple of much older French versions as well. I have ready many articles and some books on the topic, and been studying it a bit. I have also dug a bit into traditional Catholic practices. Over and over I am struck by what has been abandoned and lost, and by what an enormous amount of knowledge I don’t have. A vastly beautiful religion has been largely gutted with barely a shell left. We are left with an anemic Mass and recourse to whatever we can summon from within ourselves of faith and piety. Modern Catholicism is nearly identical with modern Evangelical Protestantism — a faith of feelings and personal truth. I gather most Catholics today are also mostly ignorant of what has been lost. And most don’t seem to care.
But I must confess that for how much I would love the simplicity of merely raising the flag of Catholic traditionalism, I think the answer is more than that. More than traditionalism, it’s orthodoxy. I believe that ideas have consequences, and that beliefs come before action. Or, perhaps better, actions arise from belief. Traditionalism is fine, but we must be very cautious not to be caught up in the aesthetics, even for all their beauty. We must first go back to the fundamental truths, to orthodox truths. Our actions, whether they look traditional, or a mix of traditional and new, or sometime else, will follow. We must find a way back to the profound truth of Tradition without falling into the ideology of traditionalism. Perhaps it will look like the traditional Church of past generations. I would love that. There is so much that was lost or forgotten that is worth bringing back. But we must make sure we aren’t just larping in the garb of a non-modernist cultural past. Whatever we end up with must first and foremost be based upon, be run through like leaven in dough, with the Truth of Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
And this brings me to the struggle I have today, and one of the reasons I long for the Church of the past. For all its faults (because every age has it faults), the Church of Tradition, of the past, was at its best a kind of totalizing culture. Catholics were trained in all aspects of the faith. Kids were taught the catechism, traditional prayers, Latin, and so much more. Catholic schools were actually Catholic. Religious vocations were a real option. Boys were altar servers and learned the Mass, and even wondered if they might become priests someday. (I believe that boys who learn the Mass become better fathers. Perhaps not necessarily, but I think it’s a good theory.) But I don’t want to romanticize the past. I actually know very little of the past, and certainly almost none of Catholic cultural past. But I can’t help but long for it.
As a new Catholic (it’s only been six years) and as a parent I need a Catholic culture. My family needs a truly Catholic, truly orthodox, saturated, rich, and encouraging culture so that our faith can grow and we can become more conformed to Christ. I want to know how to be Catholic. The examples available to me are not great. Social media doesn’t cut it. Cradle Catholics have no idea what it’s like for a Protestant to enter the Church. They have no idea what it’s like to know nothing of Catholic prayers, practices, and the million little things that Catholics take for granted. It’s like there’s a complete lack of understanding that there anything called “culture” in the minds of most Catholics. RICA courses often range between the pathetic and the heretical (the one I attended was some of both). And, on top of that, the modern Catholic culture is so anemic compared to what it could and should be that in many ways it’s nearly an embarrassment, or should be, to those few Catholics who still go to Mass and don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s the heresy of formlessness, as one author so eloquently put it. So many Catholics who seem all too happy in the midst such great losses, are utterly nonplussed by converts who stare aghast at the crumbled ruins. They sometimes blame the converts themselves for an imagined and caricatured fervency held-over from the ex-Protestant’s former faith. Rather, the truth is more mundane and spiritually dark than that. A great, bland blindness has settled on the Church like radiation fallout over the past few decades. Nearly everything is affected and infected. The reasons for this are legion. But I’m ranting. (And I’m saying nothing new.)
By way of encouragement, I want to say to my fellow faithful and open-eyed Catholics, and to those still considering entering (or re-entering) the Church, hold fast. Hold fast to Christ. Hold fast to His Church, which is His bride. Regardless of what you see around you, and especially regardless of what some scandalous bishop or heretical priest might do or say, hold fast. Hold fast regardless of the meagerness of the cultural feast presented to you. Remember this key truth, culture arises from cult (cultus), that is from worship. If we have a bad or anemic culture it’s because we have a bad or anemic cult. We see this is at play in our larger cultures (American culture is based on what and how Americans worship – money, distraction, sex, power, ideologies, things, themselves, etc) and we see the process at play in the Church subculture. The Novus Ordo Mass, though valid, is an objectively lesser Mass than the Traditional Latin Mass, and thus it produces a lesser culture. It says the Real Presence might not be all that real. It says it’s about us more than about Christ. It says it’s not that important to bring and do our best when worshiping out Lord and King. It claims symbolism more than Truth. If you wonder why it seems we live in a “power of myth” kind of church, begin by examining the Mass.
A faithful Catholic can cut through all that and still worship Christ in Truth, and still be moved and called to holiness, and still be deeply blessed. I certainly have. But when compared to the TLM, the Novus Ordo not only is a sad shadow of the TLM, it often works against itself, presenting strange and unnecessary challenges for priests, music ministers, and laity alike.
Okay, so a lot can be blamed on the past, and certainly on the Novus Ordo Mass and the “spirit” of Vatican II, but that’s the past (though, of course, still present). Let’s not be too emotionally burdened by the past. We must push forward for a better cult. Let’s us be like the Poles who shouted, “We want God!” Let us be like the Israelites who, upon hearing the forgotten and then rediscovered words of the Torah read to them by Nehemiah, wept for what was lost of both knowledge and culture. Then let us weep no more, but rather work towards the culture we need, based on right cult that is based on orthodox truth and that, sadly, must be demanded. Dive into you parish. Put your hand to the plough. Help with the logistics, with the maintenance, with what you can. Support your overworked priest. Don’t be the person who just points out what’s wrong and waits until someone else fixes it. But then claim your voice. Earn the respect in all authentic humility, and then own that respect and speak up, out loud.
We might have to be like the boy who said the emperor has no clothes. We just might need to point at the crap we see and call it crap, out loud. We just might need to tell our priests and bishops that communion in the hand dilutes the faith, and laity in the sanctuary is confusing, and bad music degrades the Mass, and that it’s not working anymore (and never did). We must, as servants of our Lord, demand a better cult. It just might be one of the most loving and humble things we can do.
And pray every day for the pope, your bishop, and your priests.
Here is a video tour (in French) of the cathedral before the fire. At minute 9:05 they enter the roof area. You can see the wood structure and a couple of fire extinguishers. This is where the fire raced through the building. After watching the fire destroy the roof so ferociously, those fire extinguishers look more like ornaments than useful implements. I have to say, though, this is an amazing video. One gets a great inside, behind the walls as it were, tour of this great cathedral. Even if one doesn’t understand French.
Some video showing what the firefighters were up against:
Some images that caught my eye:
[*Note: I don’t remember where I found these images, so my apologies for not giving proper credit.]
Before and after:
Many are pointing out the fact that the aesthetically strange and seemingly out-of-place modernist altar designed to suit the Novus Ordo/Spirit of Vatican II modernist church has been destroyed under a pile of rubble while the traditional altar designed to suit the Traditional Latin Mass (the Mass for which this church was built) still stands. Some see this as highly symbolic, perhaps even prophetic. I tend to agree, or at least I want it to be true, but I don’t want to read too much into it.
Most every day I pray to St. Pio for a special request. His faith staggers me. I wish I could be such as he was, and I fear it too. What would that look like for me?
This documentary on the life of Padre Pio is remarkable. I so wish for films of such depth and quality for other saints as this one. So many seem thin and sentimental. This one seems honest and artful.
And here is another excellent documentary:
One thing that strikes me while watching these films is noting the contrast of a Catholic culture compared to the non-Catholic culture I experience every day. How amazing it would be to live in such a world. I pray everyday for the return of Christendom. On the other hand, I am grateful that I live in such a time that it is nearly impossible to take for granted moments of true Catholic culture. Christ be praised at all times and in all situations.
Not all of us can regularly go to Mass in a cathedral of great beauty. Most Catholics have available to them rather humdrum works of architecture for their local parish. But it’s still possible to find beautiful small churches where careful attention to detail and the meaning of form went into their design. And yet, that still relatively rare.
The following video is an excellent look at one of the crown jewels of Catholic cathedrals, Chartres Cathedral in France. This comes from the “Smarthistory. art, history, conversation” YouTube channel. As you watch it, consider how much thought went into this building, and then consider the church where you regularly go to Mass. My point here is not to highlight the great beauty of Chartres compared to the humble local parish, but how carefully the design and the details were thought through and realized in Chartres. Can we achieve such excellence again? And can we achieve something of this in our local parishes? I believe we can and should.
Of course, very few parishes have the resources to build large and lavish churches, but often a church that achieves the right virtue of proper “churchness” is not a matter of resources, or size, or expensive materials, as it is of basic understanding and will. What I mean is that having the right understanding of what a church is and ought to be, and applying one’s minds carefully to its design, even a small church in a small parish can be a work of architecture worthy of worshiping Christ and elevating the faithful to Heaven.
I am surprised at how apparently ignorant so many Catholics are, including many in the hierarchy, about basic church architecture–or seem to be so. Churches are where we celebrate Mass. This is no small matter. Although, perhaps most Catholics are not as ignorance and not caring about such things, believing they are unimportant. However, the church building itself, though not absolutely necessary for celebrating Mass is, nonetheless, the normative place of worship. In it we meet the Real Presence of our Lord and savior, the King of Kings. If we take worship seriously then we should take church design seriously, including for the humble local parish Church. Catholics used to. But we haven’t for some time now. We must again.
I have frequently posted on this and related topics, for example here.
I also love how the speakers in the above video, Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, don’t shy away from orthodox Catholic dogma. This is not a video where the information presented has a condescending tone toward faith and believers. I have no idea if they are Catholics or not, but they just say things as though they are relating how Catholics ought to think of these things. I think this is the best way to present something like Chartres Cathedral. The viewer can make up their own mind, but at least one should know what the builders of Chartres believed and what led to make the kinds of decisions they did.
I have also been reading an excellent book, Visions of Mary : art, devotion, and beauty at Chartres Cathedral by Rev. Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion. She is a scholar, photographer, and Episcopalian priest who has come to love Chartres and Catholic history. (I pray she takes the leap and become Catholic–perhaps not easy for a woman who is an Episcopalian priest. She would have to give up some things precious to her.) This book takes a look at aspects that speak directly to the Holy Mother, her role in the life of the Church, and how Catholics (especially in times past) think of Mary. It does so by focusing and meditating on specific details of the cathedral. This book makes me want to go to Chartres and spend some significant time with the Cathedral, taking pictures and making sketches and just attending to it.
As I see it, architects should look at Chartres, and similarly excellent Catholic churches, as inspiration to how they should think about church design in general, and then apply that understanding to every Catholic church building, even the most humble and simple of churches. I also believe the faithful should know these things too, being encouraged in the faith, but also demanding churches actually be Catholic in their designs.
Of course, church design tends to flow from intended use, thus a church designed to serve the needs of the Traditional Latin Mass will necessarily look different than one designed to serve the needs of a Novus Ordo Mass. This is why, when the Novus Ordo was promulgated, so many older churches had their altar rails removed, altars brought closer to the nave, and other changes because the Novus Ordo felt wrong in a traditional space. And this is also why the Novus Ordo still feels out of place in a traditional church even after those kinds of changes have been made, because arches, stained glass, cruciform floor plans, and other harder-to-change elements don’t fit the New Mass. The contemporary modernist church needs a more Protestant style, entertainment hall. Thus, it’s more than merely the architecture that often needs to change.
Is this a good church? Does it properly serve the purpose of a church? Many would say no. In fact this church is frequently presented by traditionalists as a prime example of terrible church design. Why?
Michael Rose had some thoughts on this topic. The basics are presented here. In short, the idea is that there is no journey towards God, from the profane to the sacred, in a round church design. It is, rather, made for a celebration of community and not the Eucharist. Though perhaps providing excellent acoustics for singing prayers, it is arguably not designed for proper worship in terms of offering sacrifice by a priest to God on behalf of the Church. Of course, in our Novus Ordo world which is focused more on the “people of God” in communion with each other more so than on the Bride of Christ worshiping God, many would argue with this argument. A round church, one supposes, serves better the idea that the faithful are gathered around a table for a meal.
Also, the church was completed in 1962, before the council had done anything, and long before the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated. These architectural ideas had been around for some time before the council.
Perhaps what I found most telling in the video linked above is the moment when Fr. Timothy says, “neither the architect nor we knew what we were doing.” I find this particularly emblematic of that era. It was a time when so many felt the strong need to throw off the past and create the future, but then discovered they didn’t know what to do. It made me think of this famous passage from G. K. Chesterton:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
There’s nothing wrong with asking if the way we have always built churches is the best. There is nothing wrong with exploring other possibilities. But, at the end of the day, we always discover our experimentations come from someplace, and the more we are unclear in our own minds the more likely other forces, spiritual or otherwise, will rule the day, and us. My take, and this applies to the “spirit” of the council and all that means, is that a great deal was done, including a great deal of destruction and deformation, because people had grown tired of the old ways and of old things. And I believe they grew tired because they ceased to truly know what they meant and what they were for.
Nonetheless, I pose the question: Is this a good Catholic church? Is it a proper design for what a Catholic church is meant to be?
Below is a time capsule Mass celebration in the church made for television:
I may be somewhat of an anomaly. On the one hand I am an advocate of Traditional Catholicism, including Traditional Catholic architecture designed to serve Traditional Catholic worship. (If you search through this blog you will know this.) On the other hand I love much of modern architecture. I love many buildings that many others do not like. I grew up in a modernist house, I studied modern art and architecture in college, and I have been a fan of early twentieth century and mid-century modern art and design. With this in mind, I found this lecture about one of the more famous (infamous?) modernist churches to be quite fascinating, not only for its informative content, but also because the lecturer gives a highly (almost ecstatically) positive perspective on exactly the kind of church design many would deride without hesitation.
This lecture below is by monk, educator, and artist David Paul Lange, OSB. Whether you agree with his assessments or not, this is an excellent overview of modernist principles in architecture, especially at the mid-twentieth century point, and why it made sense to people at that time to build a church according to those principles. It is also an excellent “unpacking” of the design, and the ideas behind the design, of a particular church, the Saint John’s Abbey Church:
I find Brother David Paul Lange’s speaking style to be a bit too breathless for my tastes, but he is a great evangelist for the modernist perspective in architecture, and for this church. But I have some questions:
Is his understanding correct about both modernist architecture and his interpretation of this church? I think absolutely.
Is this church a good representation of modernist architecture? Yes.
Is this church worthy of praise? As an example of modernist thinking, yes. As an example of excellent construction, yes. As a place for worship, you tell me, but I think no, at least not within a proper understanding of ideal Catholic worship.
Therefore, does this church represent a different ideal of worship than traditional Catholic worship, I think so. But you tell me.
Notice a few things:
He speaks of praying more than worshiping. This makes sense given this church is for a monastic community which is focused a great deal on prayer, but it is also significant. The focus is more about the nature and needs of praying than offering a sacrifice to God. Praying in a church is a good and normal thing. However, prayer is a part of worship, but not the only part. Many spaces can be prayerful. Only specific kinds of spaces serve the needs of worship.
He speaks a lot of his own feelings. In a sense this entire talk is an explanation of his personal experiences of this church, and his feelings during and about those experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that up to a point, but as a Catholic would it not be better to also foreground the Body of Christ as a corporate entity a bit more? In that sense he would then speak more of the nature of man in general and his relationship with God. And then tie it back to this church and how it functions.
This is more about a “modernist space” than a church (hence the title of the lecture), even though it is a church where the Eucharist is celebrated. He points out the way the outside comes into the church interior, reminding those inside of the connection with nature, what time of day it is, what weather is outside, etc. In this sense I gather the space functions a bit like stepping into a forest and praying. I like this in a sense, but when I think of celebrating Mass I wonder about the idea of Heaven on earth and the traditional way churches close off the outside world and creating a space that is more heavenly than earthly.
He speaks of the honest use of materials, and how older churches seem dishonest somehow, using paint to create false impressions and faux marble, etc. This is a particularly important part of the lecture. I too love the modernist focus on materials. I also don’t believe such focus is necessarily bad for church design, but a church interior should be (traditionally speaking) a kind of three-dimensional icon of Heaven. Rough, earthy materials that evoke nature have their place, but they should serve a heavenly image, no? Here’s something I might explore in another post, but consider this: Is not a statue of St. Michael (for example) fake because it is not actually St. Michael? Same for the Holy Mother, etc? Would not any church that aspires to create a sense of the heavenly liturgy within its walls be a dishonest use of materials? Maybe. But perhaps that’s a “dishonest” use of the word dishonest.
The bell tower, he argues, with its horizontal lines, points to (or mirrors) the horizontal earth rather than to God. He claims it reminds him that God is everywhere and in all things, and perhaps that’s a good reminder, but this is a curious claim and raises the question, in my mind at least, what is the purpose of a church? To call us to the earth or to call us to Heaven? Do we not minister to each other (horizontally) because we have first sought out and worshiped God–a vertical action? If we do not begin with the vertical does not our horizontal orientation eventually become skewed?
He also mentions that the population of monks used to be 350, but now are only 150. They don’t need such a big church anymore. Only by way of correlation, but still interesting (and troubling): They commit themselves to modernist ideas, they build a modernist church to symbolically represent that modernist spirit, and not long after they lose 60% of their members. Apparently modernism doesn’t need monks. Perhaps modernism doesn’t really need man either.
At the end of the lecture, just before questions, he jokingly apologizes for going a bit long and keeping the Downton Abbey fans from their show — a show whose popularity arose from a longing for an earlier time, represented, in part, not by modernist architecture, but very traditional architecture, and clothing, and customs, etc. Will future generations swoon over the modernist mid-twentieth century in the same way? Perhaps Mad Men did some of that, but that is an awfully dark show.
The first question at the end, by another monk (I believe), is exactly my question, and worth the time for watching this lecture. I have never been in this church, so I have no way of saying what my thoughts would be, but I also wonder if such a place is naturally conducive to prayer, or liturgy at all for that matter. And I truly get the experience from having studied art and swooning over art that others think is stupid or meaningless. And I also find the questioner’s reference to the new cathedral in Los Angeles being obvious a place of prayer puzzling, since it also has been roundly derided for its modernist and non-Catholic design. The answer to his question included: “Do people get modernism? I think the answer is no, by and large,” and “Until I explain this…” In other words, modernist art and architecture requires explanation in order to appreciate it. This is one of the attractions and weaknesses of modern art. I have experienced exactly that feeling of “getting it” after studying it. And yet, I think this may be why modernist architecture is not a good choice for Catholic churches. He also says we are not actually living in a “modernist” society. In terms of art and architecture this may be true specifically in light of design principles–modernism, from an art historical perspective occured at a time in history which is now past. However, the spirit of modernism as a philosophical and theological undergirding of society and the Church is still very pervasive. How modernism in ideas and modernism in design interrelate is a fascinating topic too big for this post.
In the end I find the Abbey Church a beautiful and amazing space. However, I do believe it is probably best suited as a performance space than as a church. I would not advocate a church being built along these lines. Rather, I think we should be informed more by the needs of the Traditional Latin Mass with its focus on God rather than man, uniformity with the Church through history, and creative use of new and old materials that look to the past for inspiration and the future for permanence and authentic timelessness — which can only be done by beginning with a true understand of both God and man.
Finally, I wonder if much of the problems with using modernist design principles and materials for Catholic churches could be solved if the liturgy was the Traditional Latin Mass. In other words, imagine if Vatican II never happened, and the Novus Ordo Mass never promulgated, could churches have been designed in somewhat contemporary and modernist fashion and still fulfill the needs of the TLM? Can architects build “honest” churches and still be Catholic? I think so. But also keep in mind that the St. John’s Abbey church construction began on May 19, 1958, and lasted until August 24, 1961 — well before the council even began, and long before the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated.
If you want to know a bit more about the architect Marcel Breuer:
If you want to know a bit more about the building of the church:
I think it is fair to say that I read my way into traditional orthodox Catholicism but then, to my surprise and chagrin, I ended up somewhat disappointed in modernist Catholicism. How can this be you ask? I am a convert to the Catholic Church. I came from a very non-Catholic “version” of Christianity (anti-Catholic really), and I felt nervous going to Mass on my own (and I knew no Catholics at all to hold my hand and guide me). So I didn’t go the Mass. Rather, over a period of several years I read my way closer and closer to entering the Church. I read books, blogs, and articles. I also listened to podcasts and interviews. Again and again the theological answers given to my questions made sense. I also heard many attractive things about the Church.
I heard of the magnificent history or the Church, and of the glories of Catholic art and architecture. I knew something about that already because I had been an art history major in college, and in those courses I studied some of the great paintings and cathedrals of Europe. I heard of the glories of Catholic music. I heard of the Church’s amazing intellectual history. I read more amazing histories of the Church, its battles, its saints, its universities and how it created what we today call science and modern medicine, and I was amazed at all that it has done in the world.
I also studied its theology, comparing it to the Protestant theology in which I was raised. I grew to love the doctrine of the Real Presence. I learned about the sacraments, the role of priests, the value of Tradition, and more. Again and again I was overwhelmed at the riches that had been kept from me by my ignorant Protestant culture, and at just how ignorant I myself had been. I came to see the Catholic Church had better answers to my questions, and a better grasp of Scripture. I also came to see that the Catholic view of man corresponded to both scripture and my experience than what had previously been articulated to me. I began to shift towards a sacramental view of reality. I began to long deeply for the Eucharist. A song was singing to my soul, calling me to the Church. I knew the Church was the home I longed for.
In my mind had growing visions of cathedrals and richly decorated churches. In my mind I heard chant and I smelled incense. I saw old manuscripts and ornate vestments. I sensed history, depth, and a profound connectedness to a cloud of witnesses. This was not a longing for merely a different style or for some medieval live action role playing experience. I longed for an antidote to the ravages of modernity and the false, modernist view of man. And the Church seemed to offer just that. Noted apologists for the Church would tell me to look at the riches of the Church, and I did.
But I also heard stories of clown Masses, and terrible music, including playing bongos in Church. I heard about the indifference and even anger of some Catholics towards their rich heritage. I heard about the focus of the new Mass being on the priest rather than on Christ. I did not really know what “new Mass” meant, but I thought it couldn’t possibly be so bad. I read that some Catholics didn’t like to hold hands during the Our Father, or didn’t like to receive the Eucharist in their hands while standing, or even refused to sing some of hymns because those hymns were terrible musically and, gasp, theologically bankrupt or even heretical. How could this be I thought? I didn’t know a thing.
All of this I heard about and I knew nothing of the debates about Vatican II. I knew nothing of the traditionalists and the radtrads. I knew nothing of Marian apparitions and her prophecies. I just didn’t know much at all. I really had just fallen off the turnip truck in front of the Catholic Church and thought this is the place.
Then I started going to Mass. And there, at my first Mass, was literally a bongo player amongst the guitarists and bassist. And everyone held hands during the Our Father. Parishioners walked all the way across the nave to hug people during the Peace of Christ (sometimes it seemed this was the moment that brought them to Mass). And the music was terrible, terrible, terrible. And the neighborhood Novus Ordo church building was anything but beautiful and glorious. Everything was so ho-hum, so bourgeois and American, so suburban, so blah. And I knew it wasn’t just a question of money. Like when we see a person who decides to buy ugly clothing for the same price as beautiful clothing because they have bad taste, what I saw seemed a reflection of something wrong at the heart of the Church and culture.
And then I looked around some more. I came to realize that all those Catholic glories of art, architecture, music, and all that culture building of Christendom, and all the influence in the sciences and education, were essentially historical realities of past ages and no longer contemporary activities of the Church. The Church had become a poor shadow of its past.
And yet I still loved it. Once I came into the Church I fell even more in love with Catholicism. I love the Eucharist. I love the Real Presence. Sunday Mass is the highlight of my week. But it was still hard. Hard for me and hard to drag my family along to the sappy Mass in the ugly church with of lousy music. I sometimes felt embarrassed and self-conscious about having them with me and knowing I had been promoting the Catholic Church for several years and now abject mediocrity is what they were getting. (Eventually they all entered the Church as well, thanks be to God.)
So I fell back on two things. First, I still got the Eucharist. That, I have to say, has been my sustenance. Second, I thought a lot about a recommendation from J. R. R. Tolkien. I took solace in the reality that most of us live humdrum lives anyway, that Mass is about Christ and the Eucharist, that we shouldn’t get caught up too much in seeking some kind of perfectly celebrated Mass with dynamic homilies and gorgeous music, and that I just needed to do my best to trust in the Church. We also began attending a more conservative Catholic parish (with more traditionally minded priests) that, while still Novus Ordo, nonetheless sought greater reverence in worship — and has a much more traditionally beautiful building, one that is inescapably a church.
I have also met a number of Catholics who have had similar experiences as I have, and are now working towards changing the Church by incrementally steering it back to the traditions of centuries past. This encourages me.
But, the truth remains: Modern (modernist) Catholic culture is radically devoid of almost all of its great riches and depth that, perhaps, were taken for granted in those past centuries. What greatness is still there is like a dwindling bank account of an inheritance assumed to be inexhaustible. But this modernist church’s art, its modernist church buildings, its modernist worship, even its prayers, are poor copies, and at times outright repudiations, of past riches. Modernist Catholicism does not create a true Catholic culture. In fact, it tends to create a somewhat bland culture that does not propagate itself very well. It is only by reaching into the past and bringing forward those riches that we have any at all with us today. This is why, I believe, Traditional Latin Mass parishes (SSPX, FSSP, especially those with noNovus Ordo option available) tend to create richer, more integrated and more complete local social cultures than the modern Novus Ordo parishes. Or so I’ve heard, I have yet to witness that first hand. But I wrote something about it here, based on what I saw in the video of a Traditional Latin Mass in Paris. And I’ve heard others say it is true. This is what I hope. Show me that I am wrong.
When I say integrated and complete I mean more than social programs and a “happening” Sunday evening “youth” Mass. I mean an alternative way of life that sees the family as the domestic church and the fundamental unit of society, the parish as an actual community made of and for believers, the Mass as the central activity of that community, and an unabashedly Catholic aesthetic permeating every aspect of the parishioners’ lives that is born out of a shared way of worshiping rooted in deeply orthodox Catholicism expressed in timeless praxis. I also mean a recognition that Catholicism and the world are inherently incompatible, and thus the culture of the parish must act in light of that truth, forming good Catholics, supporting the struggle of parishioners to be in the world but not of it, and creating meaningful alternatives to the allures and seductions of the secular society that pervades nearly every aspect of our lives.
But all too often we instead get namby pamby bishops talking psychobabble, “listening” rather than preaching the Truth with which they have been entrusted, swooning over an emotions-based modernist faith and the possibilities of a youth-led Church, and making the social-crisis-du-jour their primary concern. Far too often the hierarchy seems to live in a self-congratulatory bubble while showing almost no regard, let alone recognition, of the profound destruction the Church has experienced in the past 50 years.
Perhaps I’m dreaming. But here’s a basic fact: Adults who come into the Church, whether from Protestantism or something else, are often looking for a way of living that is distinctly (historically, traditionally) Catholic, and instead they all too often find something rather thin and bland; aesthetically more like a half-hearted 1970’s experiment to which the person in charge hasn’t had the courage (or balls) to say “times up;” and which is often more an expression of a culturally bourgeoise Americanism (or western Europeanism) than authentic Catholicism. And what’s perhaps most disheartening is that so many Catholics don’t see this. But I think more are beginning to. I hope so. I pray every day we all see it more clearly.
The simple truth is we are going to have to create the culture we want, by God’s grace. It is going to take effort, and some hard choices, and tenacity. It’s going to be a battle just like it was for the early Church. We are going to have to root out modernist ideas and presuppositions. This will be harder than we think. In many way modernism is essentially invisible to us. And if we want a Catholic culture with depth and longevity and substance beyond our own whims, we are going to have to get at it with a vengeance. But also with joy. We must always keep before us that one does not start building a culture by trying to build a culture. Rather, we begin with what (or who) we love, and with how we worship. Culture is the product of cultus, and cultus is not merely a Sunday thing, not merely a TLM thing, although that’s huge for many reasons. It’s a totality that encompasses our whole life in one way or another. Let us then turn our hearts and minds towards God and worship Him as we ought. Let us pray in the manner of the historical and orthodox Church. Let’s live as Catholics are called to live.
So, let’s get to work. Consider this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this. And remember, the Traditional Latin Mass is not great so much because it is traditional, but because it is timeless. Maybe we should call it the Timeless Latin Mass. Also, I hear often of bishops not supporting the TLM, and even trying to shut it down in many parishes. But many bishops are vain and may succumb to increasing pressure if enough Catholics make enough noise. In my parish some parishioners organized a 40-hour adoration event and got good support in our community and from our priests. We also have a great bishop who gets it. There are many things to do other than strictly the TLM. Bit by bit, inch by inch we can take back the precious ground that had been tilled and planted in centuries past.
Of course it is God who creates the culture ultimately. We just do the best be can in fear and trembling, and He does the real work. We, the Church, are His handiwork, and He honors those who honor Him.
Saint Francis, pray for us that we might rebuild the Church.
In a similar way that the Counter-Reformation, as its name describes, countered the Reformation, the Church must again counter a new “reformation.” But this new reformation has really been more of an internal revolution of modernism that has cause enormous damage within the Church as well as outside. Many have felt strongly that some kind of rediscovery and return to the rich architectural traditions of the Church, much like the return to the Traditional Latin Mass, should play a major role in this new counter-reformation. I agree.
Duncan Stroik is a practicing architect and devout Catholic who specializes in church design. He has been on a crusade of sorts to bring back to the foreground the traditions of church design that were once taken for granted and then largely lost (but, of course, not really lost, for we still have many examples). He is a leading voice in the return to beautiful and properly designed churches “movement,” if that’s the right word for it. He is also an author and Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame.
Here is a recent lecture he gave, along with numerous examples, on twelve points of this new counter-reformation. This was part of the Catholic Artists Society’s 2018 Art of the Beautiful lecture series at New York University’s Catholic Center:
I recently posted some videos on the topic of sedevacantism. Please know I am not a sedevacantist. Still, I do find this somewhat of an interesting topic, and for some it’s particularly timely because of a plethora of criticism of Pope Francis and the current state of the Church. I imagine the sedevacantists are having a field day with all of the scandals, and perhaps getting more inquiries than normal.
John Salza is an author who has taken on the sedevacantists. Here is a two-part interview he gave to Brother André Marie on that topic, which I think is pretty good.
Again, I know very little of sedevacantism, and I’m no canon lawyer, so a lot of this is over my head. My take is to generally dismiss the sedevacantists as crackpots, but I can’t entirely deny some of their concerns, and I assume many of them have some integrity. But I just can’t accept their position. Salza and Siscoe, co-authors of the book True or False Pope? Refuting Sedevacantism and Other Modern Errors, have been challenged by a number of sedevacantists. I have not really examined those challenges, but you can find them online. However, me sense is that those challenges are likely rather thin or outright silly.
The fact that Archbishop Lefebvre never gave into sedevacantism speaks volumes regarding the sedevacantists’ claims. Even when Lefebvre stood in strongest opposition to Rome, he always believed the Pope sat on his chair.
Should we be building (or restoring) beautiful churches when there is so much poverty in the world? Shouldn’t the Church sell all that it owns and give the money to the poor?
I am a simple man and I do not have a complete answer to that question. But I ask you to consider the story of the feast of Simon the leper, or more appropriately the story of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment. Does this story have a lesson for us that applies to the questions above? I think so.
In the Gospel of Matthew, verses 26:6-13, we read:
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, “To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”
In the Gospel of Matthew this woman pours ointment on Christ’s head, in Luke it says she pours it on His feet and wipes them with her hair. I think it is fair to say she did both, and to do so fits with Christ saying she did it for His burial. But here’s the question I think we should ask for ourselves in light of this story: Do we not, very specifically and uniquely, have Christ with us at Mass, truly present? Are not our churches, in fact, both temples and palaces: places for worship and sacrifice on the one hand, and places for monarchal reverence and pomp on the other? Yes, we must help the poor, but our love for our neighbor goes forth from our worship of our creator and our savior. We proceed from Mass into the world, conforming our lives to Christ in our actions. And churches are for all who come, rich and poor alike.
The poor, above all else, need salvation of their souls as does everyone else. Certainly we must not forsake the poor with cheap excuses that our monies are tied up elsewhere. Christ chastised the Pharisees for that as well. But we must not turn away from proper worship in order to, instead, focus on the poor. When we do, we put our souls at risk, and theirs.
[I realize I risk saying all this because I am not poor. My apologies for any thickheadedness and offense.]
I believe the state of the “new Church” today, with its numbers plummeting, its thin gruel of RCIA programs, its horrible music, its new Mass with namby pamby vestments and shallow prayers, and all its staggering and ravaging scandals, is all of a piece with its degraded and ugly churches. To forsake right worship, which includes, if at all possible, beautiful places of worship of sufficient design and beauty to glorify the King, is to lose the forest for the trees. It is, in a sense, to lose Christ.
This is one reason why churches that focus only on helping the poor all too often become churches where soup and blankets becomes their gospel and not the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins, saving us from Hell, and leading us to eternal life. Raising Lazarus was an image of the gospel, but Lazarus was raised to die again. His true salvation came because Christ died on the cross, and then rose from the dead, then ascended to the right hand of the Father, and then Lazarus believing in that truth.
Therefore, I believe that a gospel which says we should do away with fancy churches and instead give that money to the poor is, in fact, a substitute gospel. It has some appeal because it has some important truth (we truly do need to help the needy and lay down our lives for others), but it elevates one truth inappropriately above another. The poor (and the downtrodden, and those in prison, and widows & orphans, and the hungry, and the naked, etc), whom you must love, will always be with you. But if you are to see Christ in the poor you must first see Him in the Eucharist, and bend the knee, and bow your head, and worship Him. Should you sell all you have and give it to the poor? Maybe. Should the princes of the Church live simple lives of poverty? I think they probably should (certainly many today should be brought low). Ought the Church as the body of Christ celebrate Mass in plain sheet-rocked or concrete-tilt-up boxes instead of beautiful, ornate, and more expensive churches? I think not (if at all possible). Give glory as and to whom glory is due.
Does this mean that if we focus once again on building more beautiful churches all our problems with go away? No. But we must not be afraid to build beautiful churches. To do so will feed and inform our souls in surprising ways, and help us become more holy, more fully human, more like Christ. This goes hand in hand with helping the poor. The stunning churches of old, those that are still with us, are memorials to those who built them in a similar way that the story of the woman with the alabaster box is her memorial.
You will meet her if you get to Heaven. And, perhaps, you will bow to her and thank her for showing the way.
Finally: Arvo Pärt, the brilliant minimalist composer from Estonia, set the words from Matthew above to music. Listen to this and read the words as you do. This is, I believe, a stunning example of what setting the words of scripture to music can be.
It’s sad to see a beautiful Catholic church building destroyed. The video below shows some demolition moments from a church destruction earlier this year in France. But for how sad the video is, the churches demolition is really just a symptom of many other factors.
Those factors include such things as:
The French government and not the Church itself owns all the Church buildings. And many of these buildings are old and in need of major repairs, and are unsafe if not repaired — the one above was going to be quite expensive to repair. And though beautiful, they don’t attract enough tourism to warrant their survival.
A Church whose membership numbers have been in free-fall for decades. Thus there just are not the numbers to keep the churches filled with parishioners and, consequently, financially supported. There are a lot of reasons for this, but certainly they include: Too many priests and bishops who no longer believe in the faith, but have found careers essentially live action roll-playing being priests and bishops. Modernism and all its mutant children, including bad theology, a lightweight view of marriage, and rampant sexual immorality seem to have replaced a hearty and robust faith — and few are interested anymore. And many Church leaders often seem eager to dismantle the Church.
Consequently very few Catholics are left who have the means and are willing to save these old churches. It’s easy to bemoan the loss on social media, it’s another thing altogether to step up and contribute where needed, even to fight for it.
And the list goes on. The point is, however, that we should not be surprise at all about the destruction of this church. What we should be is sad. But not so much for this building as for the Church itself, and for the world that is so actively and happily rejecting Christ. If anything, the above video is a powerful reminder of how the Church has been, and is continuing to be, assailed from within by a Catholic leadership who no longer has faith, and a laity who follows suit.
This is the text from the video* notes:
This is the last moments of Église Saint-Jacques d’Abbeville (St. Jack’s Church Abbeville). France is paying for 2,800 Cathedrals & Churches to be Demolished across France. The Saint-Jacques church was a neo-Gothic parish church located in Abbeville The building was constructed from 1868 to 1876 at the site of 12th century church which was rebuilt in 1482. It gradually deteriorated for lack of maintenance at the beginning of the 21th century and was demolished from January to May 2013. Architect Victor Delefortrie was responsible for the design of the church. The church contained two bells, Jacqueline from 1737 and another, mute, dated 1645. Inside, there was a particular organ called Mutin Cavaillé-Coll from 1906. During World War I , Abbeville was bombed but Saint-Jacques church was not affected. Only impacts shattered the windows. It also survived World War 2. In 2008, it was estimated that it would cost 4.2 million euro to restore the church from weather damage and disrepair. In 2010, an association was created to safeguard the church and a petition was launched. In spring 2011, while deciding on its fate a crack was noticed which had caused stone to fall from the church. The 31 January 2013, Nicolas Dumont, the mayor of Abbeville, issued an order to demolish the church as a safety hazard. The next 7 February, the city council voted to demolish the church at estimated cost of EUR 350 000. On April 27, the foundation stone was found and preserved by the city. In November 2013, the rubble of the church are used by two artists to create a work of contemporary art entitled Build/deconstructed. A town square was proposed for its replacement. The project was the work of an architect in the city, Jean-Marc Demoulin, who accommodated the desires of the residents. A lawn of grass covers the church’s location, taking its shape and orientation. Two pathways form a cross. At the site of the choir, a memorial will be erected to honor veterans and Achilles Paillart, the pastor responsible for the church’s reconstruction in 1868. A small pond will occupy the site of the altar The conversion also included the creation of forty-two parking spaces on the perimeter of the square, including three for people with reduced mobility.
The story as told above doesn’t seem as horrible as the video images first seem, but it’s still a terrible situation. I do not know if it’s entirely true about how many churches France is paying to demolish. 2,800 seems rather high, but my gut says it’s probably true. Is there hope for France and its churches? Can these buildings be saved? Can the Catholic Church in France rise from the ashes? If Christ returns will He find faith in France?
I pray every day for the Church in France.
∗ The original source for the video has disappeared. I found another source, posted above, but it does not contain the text in its notes.
The Church calls her a saint. I looked for prayers to, or associated, with her, but found little. I’ve been wondering about creating a prayer to her for the sake of the Church in the world today, that is, for the Church in the midst of its battles with modernity. She is a warrior after all.