23 April 2010

Liturgical Abuse, or Let the Church say, "Make it new!"

In the early 20th century, the American crypto-fascist ex-pat poet, Ezra Pound, issued a three word manifesto that came to define the modernist movement in poetics:  "Make it new."  Reacting to what he saw as the calcified conservativism of formal verse in the West, Pound urged poets to strike out into unexplored poetical territories and bring to the art of the image and line the perpetual revolution of novelty for novelty's sake.

Pound's orders were faithfully followed by his loyal troops and the hydra-headed monster of modernist poetry laid waste to traditional versification.  The influence of his revolution of novelty was not limited to the arcane practices of poets.  Novelists, dramatists, artists, musicians, dancers, architects, all heard the call of "make it new" and went about deconstructing centuries of subtle, complex beauty with the fierce simplicity of the single, powerful image. 

As any Catholic who has witnessed the dissolution of our faith's liturgical heritage can attest, Pound's revolution had no respect for the Church or her treasures.  The central document outlining the Second Vatican Council's plan for liturgical renewal, Sacrosanctum concilium, was snatched by Poundian revolutionaries in the Church and used to dismantle the 500 year old tradition of worship in the Catholic faith.  Pope John Paul II, and to a much greater degree, Pope Benedict XVI, have mitigated, if not yet entirely reversed, the lasting damage done to the liturgical heritage of the Church by insisting on the organic development of liturgy and the need to read the Council documents with a hermeneutic of continuity.   What remains of the Novelty Revolution lies mostly in the misplaced creative efforts of priests and religious who, for whatever reason, see it as their vocation to make sure that the Church's worship remains "relevant" and "up to date." 

By placing relevance and novelty above organic development and continuity, liturgical Poundians ignore the historical and ecclesial nature of the liturgy and privilege their subjective cultural assessments above the real spiritual needs of their charges.  The widespread phenomenon of liturgical abuse is an insidious form of clericalism that encourages those with clerical power to use that power to inflict their private preferences, political agendas, and ideological quirks on congregations powerless to stop them.  Though Catholics have seen a dramatic decline in liturgical abuse in the last twenty-years, abuses still occur, and in some places, abuses are the norm.

Liturgical abuse comes in three varieties:

1).  a misplaced emphasis on the immanent at the expense of the transcendent
2).  the elevation of the purely intellectual at the expense of the affective/experiential
3).  an emphasis on the local at the expense of the universal

(NB.  there is absolutely nothing wrong with the liturgy expressing the immanent, the intellectual, or the local.  The problem is an emphasis on these aspects at the expense of their balancing opposites.)

Immanent vs. transcendent

In reaction to the over-clericalization of the medieval liturgy, Poundians worked hard to redirect our liturgical attention to the presence of the divine among us.  Initially a necessary reform, this redirection quickly became a foil for all-things-transcendent.  The most notable example of this abuse is the almost-disappearance of the notion of the Mass as a sacrifice.  In order to displace the over-hyped role of the priest, Poundians turned the Mass into a communal meal, distributing the larger portion of the priest's role to the community and making Mass all about bringing the community together.  We still see this happening in the unnecessary use of communion ministers; the priest refusing to use to presider's chair; folksy language used to replace liturgical language; and the illicit use of gender-inclusive language.

Intellectual vs. affective

Many older Catholics lament the demise of traditional devotions after Vatican Two.  In an effort to bring our undivided attention back to the celebration of the Mass, Poundians waged war against devotional practices.  Seen as private, affective luxuries, devotions were railed against as willful acts of rebellion against the need to build community through individual "active participation" in the Mass.  Modernist innovations in the secular arts always required some knowledge of the theory that produced the art.  Pollock's paintings only make sense if you understand what he is trying to do in the context of traditional painting techniques.  Poundian liturgical revolutionaries were quick to dismiss criticisms of their innovations with ringing calls for more catechesis--more education would somehow diffuse the overwhelming discomfort most Catholics felt when confronted with disruptive, alien liturgical practices.  We still see the intellectual being privileged over the affective in abuses like monologues on the meanings of liturgical symbols; an insistence on equating stark, barren sanctuaries with "noble simplicity"; the deconstruction of traditional church architecture as a way of embodying ideas about the nature of community; and the dumbing down of liturgical language so that immediate cognitive understanding trumps the more profound experiences to be found in elevated language and ritual.

Local vs. universal

As part of the effort to undermine a universally told story about the faith, Poundians began emphasizing the need for more and more local options in the celebration of the liturgy.  Citing the Council's call for inculturation, the "Make it new" crowd attacked the notion that our liturgical worship connects us to a historically-bound narrative of God's Self-revelation; in other words, their novelty revolution would not tolerate a liturgy that privileged tradition as the clearest lens through which the Church understands her historical relationship with God.  Building on the growth and spread of subjectivity and relativism, the Poundians latched onto a rarefied notion of the local church ("this church-community") and opposed it to the universal Church as the most authentic expression of catholic identity.  This move allowed them to argue for more and more specificity, more and more idiosyncratic innovations in how the liturgy was celebrated at the parish level.  It quickly became commonplace for parishes to be identified by their "worship-style," and even Masses celebrated at different times within the same parish were described in terms of style.  This abuse is most clearly seen in so-called ethnic parishes where attempts are made to accommodate the dominant culture of the parishioners (Latino, African-American, Vietnamese) at the expense of the universal story of our faith. (NB. not all cultural accommodation is necessarily an abuse; abuses are always perversions of allowable uses.)

Liturgical Poundians are on the decline.  Like their counterparts in literature, the excesses of novelty for novelty's sake have proven that the revolution has no underlying principle of restraint, no intrinsic limits.  What counts as "new" is itself subject to the whims of those deemed avant-garde enough to define the term.  Poundians have been rightly criticized for becoming staid, predictable, and highly orthodox in their privileging of a late-20th century liturgical aesthetic. Anyone who has clashed with a professional liturgist knows that the principles they espouse are as plastic as they need to be to justify the preferred worldview of the liturgist.  Rubrics, magisterial documents, liturgical law, tradition, all form a  repugnant canon to those who see it as their sacred ministry to shape the liturgical lives of the less enlightened.

Though it is not entirely clear that young Catholics will embrace the ancient liturgical tradition of the Church in large numbers, what is clear is that the age of experimentation is over.  Novelty for the sake of novelty is an exhausted project.  Deo gratis!

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11 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:45 AM

    Father, I believe that the misplaced emphasis on the immanent at the expense of the transcendent that you describe is perpetuated by some of your Dominicans in their near-worship of the totally immanent document on preaching entitled FULFILLED IN YOUR HEARING. That tired, old thing, which never enjoyed the approval of the Bishop's Conference that sponsored its creation, needs to be retired.

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  2. Anon., I agree. It needs to be updated in light of BXVI's hermeneutic of continuity.

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  3. Poundians turned the Mass into a communal meal, distributing the larger portion of the priest's role to the community and making Mass all about bringing the community together.

    Would this also explain hostility to Eucharistic Adoration?

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  4. As to this article and to "Boom! My summer plans have blown up in my face."
    Will you be in the Dallas area to see first-hand what happens this summer as a somewhat 'Liturgical Poundian' retires from a parish in the 'northern part of this diocese'?
    Stay tuned...

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  5. Fr Joseph Mack1:30 PM

    Am hoping you don't mind showing up in my next Sunday bulletin - I've been at work 're-catechizing' my parish and getting them ready for the arrival of the newly re-translated missal.

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  6. Fr. Mack, not at all. . .go for it!

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  7. Fr Joseph Mack2:07 PM

    Much obliged!

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  8. "the age of experimentation is over"

    My experience is that things are getting worse. The advent of the 'communion service' by the laity (when 'father is away') is disturbing.

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  9. I've not read "Fulfilled in Your Hearing". What's wrong with it? (Just curious.)

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  10. so does labeling the masses like this get me in trouble?

    Sat 5pm is the flip flop and jeans guitar mass

    sun 8am is the more traditional mass

    sun 10am is the quite traditional smelly mass (ie heavy on the incense)


    sun 12am is the football mass. usually shorter, wiht more people leaving early to be home in time for kickoff

    sun 5pm is the teeny bopper or HS mass. complete with bongos and kettle drums. (uh-no, I didn't make that up)

    but from what I understand you're saying. Mass should just be Mass? no differences from one to another??

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  11. Mom, the Missal allows for some variation. But I think it's generally a bad idea to have the Old Folks' Mass, the Family Mass, the Teen Mass, etc.

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