Sunday, April 22, 2007

Liturgical dialectics?

I'm so sorry to harp on this subject, but this movie called "A History of the Mass" (2001, Liturgical Training Publications) really seems to have set off some sort of mental firestorm for me (blogged earlier about it here). What puzzled me most was its implied notion of history--a meta-theory of history really--that seems to have been decided upon long before the narrative was written.

The one yardstick by which the terms progress and regress are measured here is summed up in the theme "full, conscious, and active participation" - a quote from the 1963 Constitution that has been drummed into our heads as the one and only message of Vatican Two. In this film, as with so much progressive literature out there, that is the one and only theme---and it must be external participation--that seems to matter.

The argument (very slickly made so that it is far from being this overt) is that the early Church consisted of happy, sharing, caring Christians who lived in a kind of utopian togetherness, sharing all things in common and caring for the poor. Yes, echoes of Rousseau. Then Constantine institutionalized everything and hence began the decline, which is aided by a theological error that emphasized Christ's divinity more than his humanity. The decline continued until the abyss of Trent, which ruled with an iron hand until 1969, when the people finally rose up and took back their liturgy, leading to the current happy days.

There is no discussion of the influence of the Mass on society or culture, the advances made in music or architecture, much less any reflection on issues of grace and sanctity. There is only one theme in fact: in the glorious primitive days, the people had their Mass. It was stolen from them--symbolized by pompous music, altar rails, Latin, high falutin' building, domination of the poor by the wealthy, communion under one kind, unleavened bread, gold chalices, etc.--until the uprising of the postconciliar period when at last power belongs to the people and their progressive leadership. And so now we gather around the altar, eat regular bread and share the cup, dance around the altar, sing faux-folk muzak, and the like: here we see the people on the move, marching alongside leaders who champion their causes and interests.

So I've been wondering over the last several days where I had heard that general theme before, this idea of an ongoing struggle between two groups whose interests are always antagonistic. Where does this single-minded philosophy of history come from? What is the source of this apodictic certainty that the relationship between the people and the ruling Church elites can be characterized by unrelenting conflict? Why must every bit of history point in this direction and this direction only? What kind of ideology can reduce something as glorious and transforming as the Mass into a simple-minded struggle of this sort?

Well, you probably already know the answer, but it took me a few days. The answer, I think, is Marxism. Now before you dismiss this idea as fanciful or conspiratorial, consider that Marxism has had more influence on a century of social science and literary criticism than perhaps any other mode of thought. Marxism is far more than a policy program; that is the least of it. Its most important contribution has been to provide a theme by which to understand the broad patterns of the evolution of civilization. Its theory of history and analytics of the underlying structure of the stuff that makes history: this is its true legacy. Marxism represented the popularization of the Hegelian dialectic that gave intellectuals a lens through which to understand the full sweep of world events, and sports-like drama with good guys and bad guys, and this theory has stuck. It animates the subconscious of vast swaths of the intellectual world, long after the Marxian program for political revolution has been discredited.

Marxism is not as fashionable today of course as it once was. No one reads Capital anymore, and I'm not saying that the makers of this film are communists. But it does seem like the underlying theory of social movements within Marxism has been applied here to liturgical studies. And that's not surprising given how prominent liberation theology has been in Catholic circles. It might have made inroads to liturgical studies as well. In this instance, instead of capital vs. labor as the conflict-lens through which to view history, we get the people vs. the clerical class and their intellectual defenders.

With Marxism, the goal of any struggle should be to expropriate the expropriators, and set up a revolutionary vanguard of rulers who identify with and understand the core struggle, and then rule in the name of the people (the "dictatorship of the proletariat"). And so this theme applied to liturgical studies similarly sides with this abstraction called the "people" (add "of God" if you so desire) against the ruling class and its values. It matters not whether actual people desire beautiful buildings, gorgeous music, inspiring texts, and etc. The "people of God" is a social force that need not have an actual embodiment in any particular time or place.

Are the makers of this film conscious of this underlying theory? No. And they would laugh and dismiss the idea if confronted with it. Still, it strikes me as that this is the core of the error that has made them so sure of themselves and blind to any facts which contradict the theory. It is also how it can be that the progressive liturgists can remain completely aloof to how badly they have failed real-world people with such pathetic art and music, and an liturgical agenda that actually ends up alienating people from their history and driving them away from their Churches. The progressives are serving an ideology, a theory of history, not the Christian faith and not real people.

How tragic it truly is to see the words of the Council concerning participation of the people distorted in this way!

In any case, if this post is far-flung, forgive me. If I'm wrong here, I'm glad to know it. But I just can't seem to find the source of the error here apart from deeper reflection on the underlying ideology that seems strangely familiar.

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