14 July 2012

Fr. Hollywood says, "Make it new!"

As a way of indirectly answering a few questions I got while teaching last week, here's a repost from 2010 on modern liturgical abuse. . .

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 almost 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!

P.S.  Here's another post on how to address liturgical abuse in your parish.

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  1. Ryan Ellis9:58 PM

    A couple of thoughts from a decided non-Poundian:

    1. Devotions vs. "Praying the Mass." I think the general thrust here was a good thing. Pius X onward had called for the faithful to, above any devotions up to and including the Rosary, devote themselves to the full prayers of the Mass while there. Now, this doesn't exclude worthy devotions, which is the Poundian error. But the emphasis of the Church is sound in this matter. The main activity of a Catholic should be a total immersion in the prayers and readings of the Mass--all else flows from this source and summit.

    How much better would the situation be if every Catholic before every Sunday Mass read the readings, orations, and chants for that day? And when at Mass, prayerfully said the Confiteor, belted out a wonderful Gloria, and contemplated how Our Lord is not worthy to enter under their roof?

    Of course devotions are dependent actions which reinforce this central grace-filled sacramental experience. The Rosary, lay recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, and Stations of the Cross most come to mind. But these are dependent, secondary acts of faith to full, conscious, and actual participation at Mass.

    2. Local vs. Universal. Here, again, the Church (not the Poundians) have it right. Ultra-montanism in the liturgy led to such stupidities as the TLM in Ethiopian to suppress the Ge'ez Rite in the 19th century. Foolishness. Here, Pope Benedict shows the way. With efforts such as Anglicanorum Coetibus, he is showing that approved local liturgical diversity is a good thing provided it takes place in the context of theological orthodoxy and organic liturgical tradition. This is a far better long-term grounding for the modern customized world than a Roman Rite everywhere all the time.

    3. Also on local, having a more national, diocesan, and even parochial focus (while maintaining communion all the way up the chain) allows for a more diversified cult of saints. Sacrosanctum Concilium called for bishops conferences to fill in the missing gaps to a stripped down General Roman Calendar--something they really never did.

    In a very tailor-made world, it's important to give people many legitimate, orthodox doors to enter the Church (Anglican Use, TLM, Latin Novus Ordo, the liturgies of the East, etc.) It's also important to give communities their own "local saints" to stand aside the most important saints of the universal Church.

  2. Grazie mille! I knew you had All the Answers ;-).

  3. Can you recommend a book? I spoke with our Pastor today, and am just more confused. What he says makes sense, at least from a spiritual viewpoint, but I'm not sure I'm buying it from a liturgical standpoint, but I can't wrap my brain around why. I have The Spirit of the Liturgy at the top of my to-be-read stack; is there anything else? Especially to answer the question of why the Liturgy should be celebrated as it is written - beyond obedience, beyond "because the GIRM says so". I really want to understand.

    1. What did he say? There are no legit reasons--spiritual or otherwise--to mess with liturgy. Sounds like he fed you a bunch of B.S. and made it sound good.

      The texts of the liturgy come down to us from ancient sources and express the faith as it has been handed on. The liturgy belongs to the Church for the use of the Church not the silly whims of pastors. We pray what we believe and believe what we pray. Changing the words indicates that he believes that there's something wrong with what we believe.

      There are hundreds of books on the liturgy, but most of them are stale historical tomes. BXVI's book is a good start. Dig in!

    2. He seemed genuinely concerned, for I briefly explained how I have been feeling regarding Mass. I do think he means well. I'll try to explain as much as I understood of what he said: In short, words change, and will continue to change - we can follow the history of the liturgy and note that the "words" will/have changed over the centuries; our early history was oral, not written - so the written words are an attempt to capture the oral traditions and also to capture the "essence" of God and our beliefs of Him. Like an eagle has a nest, we use the words as a home base from which to fly (OK, now that sounds kind of hokey). He tries to go under/into the words, to keep the same spiritual meaning, but change them so they are more understandable and meaningful for us (At 42 I am one of the youngest and least educated, with only a BA, in this parish). As long as he keeps the meaning behind the words, making them "culturally accessible", then he feels he is free to go off-script. There are two "legs" to the liturgy: the orthodox and the spiritual and the way in between is the "right" path - so he balances the two "legs" in order to find the middle way. As long as we still feel we are being drawn in by God, it shouldn't matter what the exact words are. I shouldn't get "trapped" by the words, for the liturgy is more than words.

      I do feel a pull between the orthodox and the mystical - but we need the orthodoxy, we need the base of intellectual knowledge, etc...yes? I understand we can't focus just on one to the detriment of the other....(sigh) I can't even formulate the question I want to ask -I am someone who has to process things, so it will come to me, as even writing this is showing me some things I wasn't able to figure out today.

      I'll start reading BXVI's book. Thank you!

    3. OK. Not to pull any punches here. . .I call, "B.S.!" He is setting up a false dichotomy btw orthodoxy and spirituality in order to privilege his notion of what counts as spiritual so he can alter the text at his whim. There is NO difference an orthodox faith and an orthodox spirituality. The Church has long held that the law of prayer is the law of belief (and vice-versa). If he changes the prayer, he changes the belief. "Accessibility" is a ruse that allows the presider to foist his private assessment of the congregation's abilities onto the text of the liturgy. Does he believe that he's smarter than 2,000 yrs of Church tradition? Is he more spiritual (whatever that means) than 2,000 yrs of Church tradition? His "balancing act" is his personal valuation of what counts as necessary for the congregation. That's hubris, plain and simple.

    4. Let me know how you really feel next time, OK? My own processing complete, I pretty much discounted what he said, and in recent weeks had been thinking arrogance might be in play here. It really saddens me; all I can do is pray, and I do and am. But knowing I need something more, and am in a place right now where I really need "spiritual nourishment", I guess I'll just have to ... move to New Orleans :-)!

      There's a parish run by the Carmelites only about an hour from the ferry landing, so I suppose I'll be frequenting it for more than just confession.

      Heartfelt thanks.