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.
I find this discussion posted below wonderful. Neither Jordan Peterson or Slavoj Žižek are Christians, but they are both influenced deeply by classically Christian concepts. In this discussion , which was billed as a debate but turns out much better, begins with each speaking formally for 30 minutes, then each getting 10 minutes to respond to the other’s intro speeches, then it goes into a back and forth series of questions and responses. Both of these men have lively minds and that kind of humility that undergirds the search for truth. In effect what we have here is a modern version of a Platonic dialogue.
I have been somewhat of a fan of Žižek for years and more recently of Peterson — not an unqualified fan of course. In the end, at least in terms of this “debate,” they constitute, or at least lean towards, a kind of Christian balance but, I believe, without the full realization they are doing so. Peterson lays out his path, a kind of stoicism as it were, of pursuing the good life, and Žižek responds with a deep pessimism. My immediate thought was of St. Paul writing to the Romans about how he does the things he ought not to do and does not do what he ought, thus finding within himself the principle of sin acting against him. We might agree with Peterson’s path but find ourselves repeatedly incapable of staying on that path. In this sense the biggest lacuna in this particular discussion, and I believe in both men’s general work about the human condition, is a complete understanding of sin and its effects, though they both seem to have a better understanding than most. Nonetheless, this dialogue between these two original (especially Žižek) and deeply cogent (especially Peterson) thinkers is an incredible opportunity to have one’s mind creatively engaged.
I’ve been on somewhat of a phenomenology kick lately. In that time I’ve come across the brilliant French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. I have posted several of his videos already. Here are two more. The first one below I find is quite brilliant, in which he works through the logic of giving, gift giving, receiving a gift, and the nature(s) of the gift.
If I understand his explanation of “the gift,” I can’t help but think of the following passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew 5:38-48
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
At the 2020 Grammy Awards the progressive rock band Tool won the award for Best Metal Performance with their song 7EMPEST from their album Fear Inoculum. When two of the band’s members came to the stage to accept the award, the first to speak was the tall, blond drummer Danny Carey.
Although I did not see their acceptance moment when it happened, I read that Carey had said a short tribute to the recently deceased drummer, Neil Peart of the mega prog band Rush. Peart was one of the greatest rock drummers in history, a true phenomenon in the music world, and one of my favorite musicians. I first heard Peart play in the early 1980’s when I bought the album “Exit… Stage Left” and and nearly wore the grooves flat joyfully playing it ad nauseum.
Hearing of Carey’s mention of Peart, I checked out Tool, and especially their latest album. I had heard of them years ago, but never really listened to their music, so much of what I write here will already be well known to some of you. I discovered they are very, very good (they did just win a Grammy, and have won others), and I liked the first several tracks a lot. In particular I focused on Carey’s drumming, and he is amazing; a true master of his craft. Part way into the album I decided to learn more about Tool and about Carey.
What I discovered disturbed me.
Danny Carey is a gifted, world class musician. From his Grammys acceptance speech he also seems like a great guy, a loving husband and father, and I would assume he is a kind and gentle man. I have nothing against him and, in fact, wish him all the best. Of course, as a Catholic, I also wish him the grace and mercy of God, things we are all in desperate need of.
But here’s my concern: Carey is into the occult, and it appears he does not merely dabble, but takes it quite seriously — is a practitioner of some expertise. In fact, his father was a master Freemason. Since Carey was a child he has been deeply fascinated with the occult. His drumming is an extension, in a way, of his occult practices; even a way to channel demons. Read his bio below to learn some of the salient details of his occult studies and their role in his music.
Danny grew up in Paola, KS. Relatively normal, an element of mystery was added to Danny’s childhood when one day he spied his father with a large sword conducting a Masonic ritual. Danny would later notice himself performing similar movements when he began playing drums at the age of thirteen. As Danny progressed through high school and then college at the University of Missouri in Kansas City he began supplementing his studies in percussion with speculation into the principles of geometry, science, and metaphysics. A commitment to life as an artist brought Danny to LA where he was able to perform as a studio drummer with projects like Carole King and play around town with Pygmy Love Circus. He would later find an outlet for addressing a fuller scope of his potentials in Tool and another project operating under the title of Zaum. Despite not becoming a Mason or aligning himself with any other school of religion, Danny has maintained his heritages interest in occult studies. Endeavors into this realm have manifested periodically, such as the time he achieved insight into a hidden aspect of the unicursal hexagram utilizing an astral journey initiated through meditation and DMT. Danny then set up his drums into proportions utilizing the circle and square of the New Jerusalem and uttered a short prayer relating to the principles of the ace of swords from the book of Thoth. He then performed a ritual utilizing his new found knowledge of the unicursal hexagram to generate a pattern of movement in space relating to Fuller’s vector equilibrium model. The resulting rhythm and gateway summoned a daemon he has contained within “the Lodge” that has been delivering short parables similar to passages within the Book of Lies. Danny recommends as a device of protection and containment a thorough study and utilization of the underlying geometry of the Temple of Solomon for anyone purchasing their next record.
[Note: This is from 2011 from the band’s website. I could not find or access a more current bio. However, this recent article seems to validate the older bio.]
When I read Carey’s bio I immediately stopped listening to Tool’s album, quickly pulling the earplugs out of my ears. I suddenly felt the need to distance myself from the music and the band. I was mad that I liked the music, knowing that it has certain qualities I find attractive. I had to turn away. But I also couldn’t stop wondering about Carey, who seems like a really nice guy who’s into really dark things. And I realize that I may be the last person to know about Tool and its fascination with the occult.
People are into all kinds of things that are dangerous, foolish, and sinful. This has always been typical of us humans, but I think having and interest into dark things, specifically the occult, is growing by leaps and bounds today. I know that the world is crazy and has little interest in Christ the King. Certainly, many people don’t believe Christ has already conquered the devil. And I know perhaps sometimes we just might have to roll our eyes or shrug our shoulders at some of the things we see. We can’t get worked up over every evil in the world. None of us have that kind of stamina or bandwidth. But the Devil is real. Demons are real. And this is not a little thing.
Specifically, I was struck by two things in the bio above. First, the way he sets up his drums and has played them summoned a demon that is somehow currently active in his playing. Carey say it’s “contained,” but I doubt it. We don’t contain or control demons. Rather, they fool us, and play us, and use us, and eventually abuse us. Second, he recommends that anyone buying their album should have a “device of protection.” This is truly frightening. I doubt Carey consciously intends any harm (I could be wrong), but I believe he is not only playing with fire, rather he has become, and has unleashed, an actual threat to the well-being of potentially thousands or even millions of listeners. His Faustian bargain has won him a Grammy, but the Devil plays for keeps. The Devil wants more than a Grammy. I fear that listening to their album could bring (channel?) demons into one’s own life. In fact, I’m sure of it — and I’m a feet on the ground, level-headed guy.
Demons are real. Demons are truly evil and powerful. Demons ought not to be played with.
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
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.
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:
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.
We homeschool and participate in Classical Conversations, the organization behind this video. Latin is not easy to learn or to teach. I have tried to learn it. I once led a seminar for homeschoolers part of which meant I had to address the question of how one teaches Latin. Fortunately I recruited several people to help me. I still don’t know Latin. But I agree with everything in this video. It’s a good thing to learn Latin and to teach your kids Latin.
If you know someone who is thinking of learning Latin, or adding it to their homeschooling curriculum, or struggling with either learning or teaching Latin, share this video with them.
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.
Here’s a fascinating time-capsule from a key time in the feminist movement. Certainly it is dated, and some of it may seem a bit corny to us today, but the core message is still powerful and shocking — and not surprising too.
From a traditional Catholic perspective one can easily see why feminism, at least as it is presented here, was seen as incompatible with Catholicism — it has at its core the destruction of the traditional family. On the other hand, consider how much feminist thinking has entered into our culture and, in many ways, become the de facto position. Something about feminism captivated the collective consciousness of vast swaths of western culture and beyond, and has stayed with us and continued to influence and shape our culture.
In many ways this video is so sad — so much heartbreak beneath the surface of power posturing and strident demands. Consider where our society had to gotten to in order for these women, and so many others, to feel as they did. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to consider how such a radical change in attitudes may have also had a demonic element. I think it’s likely a lot of different elements and motivations were at play, some good and some bad.