Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Un-censoring the Psalms? Mons. Charles Pope Weighs In

Mons. Charles Pope, the principal writer of the blog “Community in Mission,” published an interesting article two days ago entitled “Is It Time to Restore the Full Psalter to the Liturgy of the Hours?” In it, he addresses something which has long been regarded by many as one of the most serious defects of the post-Conciliar Liturgy of the Hours, the censorship of the Psalter by the removal of the three so-called imprecatory psalms, and of specific verses from several other psalms, a total of about 120. (To this one might add the little-noted fact that three of the long psalms which one might call “history psalms”, 77, 104 and 105, are said only in Advent, Lent, and Eastertide, an entirely inexplicable feature.)

There are several grounds which render this censorship deeply problematic, first and foremost the almost unavoidable implications for the doctrine of the inspiration of Holy Scripture. (Indeed, proposals for censoring not just the Psalms, but a great many other parts of the Bible, were floated in some liberal Protestant churches long before the Catholic liturgical reform, as Scriptural inerrancy and inspiration began to fall under the Biblical critics’ axes.) Monsignor notes that the principal justification for this censorship given by the prenotanda of the Liturgy of the Hours is the “psychological difficulty” which they purportedly create, to which he answers (rightly in my estimation) “(w)hatever ‘psychological difficulty’ or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses.”

He then notes that St Thomas Aquinas gives three way to understand these imprecations: 1. as a prediction of God’s punishment, not a wish that it be fulfilled; 2. as a declaration of the justice of God’s punishment; and 3. as “an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power.” A very ancient example of the latter is the allegorical interpretation of the words of Psalm 136, in which the psalmist says to Babylon “Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock.” The explanation that the “little ones” here are nascent temptations, which are destroyed before they can grow into sin, was first given by Origen in the 3rd century, and continuously accepted by the Church Fathers after him.

To this. Mons. Pope he adds his own explanation, which I think very worthy and very much worth our consideration. “I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. ... anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. ... It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress. As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid ‘psychological distress.’ God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.”

Of course, there is still the practical consideration that if the Holy See were to decree the restoration of the full texts of the Book of Psalms (which clearly isn’t likely any time in the near future), it would necessitate yet another re-ordering of the liturgical Psalter, the third in just over a century, and the printing of a yet another completely new breviary, for the fourth time in just over a century.

Two other points in this regard which Mons. Pope does not mention. One is that the censorship of the Psalter is yet another example of the liturgical reformers going far beyond the mandate of Sacrosanctum Consilium, which spoke only of distributing the Psalms over a period longer than a week. The other is that our separated brethren of the various Orthodox churches continue to use the full text f the Psalter in their Offices, and it is difficult to imagine that they think much of the current Catholic practice in this regard.

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