Monday, July 10, 2017

The Assault on Catholic Language and the Rebellion of the Poets

Let us attempt an Orwellian thought experiment. A new government has taken the reins of power and wishes to alter permanently the character of the people and even the range of their thoughts, the range of what is conceivable or desirable, the parameters of reality. What would be their most effective weapon? They would take a dictionary of the people’s language, cross out half of the words, and forbid anyone to use or teach those words. Initially, many would slip and fall, still inadvertently mouthing the forbidden vocables. Over time, however, with enough ruthless enforcement, the language would be successfully purged. After a few decades, what would have happened to public discourse? To poetry? To the entire culture? All would have been profoundly damaged, with the damage compounding for each subsequent generation.

This is no mere thought experiment when it comes to the Catholic Church on earth, for it is exactly what happened with the Church’s public discourse, her supreme lyrical and epic poem, her divine cultus: the sacred liturgy. An abridged, expurgated dictionary of worship was strenuously enforced. The whole field of discourse contracted and shriveled up, as clergy attempted to celebrate public rituals with an emaciated vocabulary. The range of our theological ideas and religious sentiments shrank in proportion to the paucity of means with which to express them. We went from Dante and Shakespeare to The Beatles and worse.

Man becomes rational through language. For the same reason, he loses the full range of rationality through the loss of language. In the 1960s and beyond, the Church was experiencing not the energetic advancement of childhood, as displayed in her acquisition of liturgical riches over the ages, but the retrogression of “second childhood,” characterized by an accelerating loss of memory and a weakening ability to communicate.

It is no wonder that those who have rediscovered the rich, arcane, archaic poetry, the luminous and varied sentiments of the Church’s traditional modes of prayer, become enraptured over what they find. These rebellious poets have gotten hold of the original dictionary, impressive in its heft, exotic in its nuances, dangerous in its implications. The explorers — for such they are, in spite of not having left a harbor for distant lands — discover that there are twice as many colors, sounds, and tastes than they had ever known before. One could say that they emerge from a black and white world into a colored world; they step from two dimensions into three.

The Novus Ordo Missae has horizontal and vertical dimensions, but what it lacks is precisely depth. The depth has to be brought to it from the outside — from the interior spirit of the celebrant, from the accidents of place and time, from the luck of options well-chosen and well-executed.[1] As it stands, the modern liturgy does not supply that depth in and of itself. It is utterly at the mercy of the ars celebrandi, the community, the authorities, the prevailing mores of society. Even as contemporary society is living off of the fumes of traditional morality, so too the contemporary liturgy, to the extent that it is sanctifying of men and glorifying of God, is living off of the fumes of traditional liturgy.

It is true, of course, that one must bring the right disposition to any liturgy, Eastern or Western, ancient or modern. However, the traditional liturgies of East and West are demanding “schools of prayer” that offer a complete ascetical-mystical formation to those who enroll in them and submit with docility to their curricula. One could derive the entire content of the Faith, in its dogmatic, moral, spiritual, and political doctrine, from the old Roman Missal and Pontifical. It is highly doubtful that one could do the same with the Novus Ordo books. One might, perhaps, extrapolate a shallow and inconsistent dogma, morality, spirituality, and politics, a message garbled and mingled with foreign elements. In any case, one would be reminded of a teacher who tells her pupils what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

True and lasting renewal in the Church begins with an unequivocal commitment to the great Catholic tradition of liturgy, devotions, theology, and catechetics, in all its colorfulness, depth, and complexity — not with the status quo, which lies shattered in a thousand plastic pieces. Thus, while it is not a bad thing to patch up a sinking vessel and keep it in operation, it is far better to invest time and energy in the strong and fast sailing of a nobler vessel that is more beautiful and deserves to carry more people to their goal.

Think of a comparison: you can pour money into an ugly, run-down tenement building complex from the 1960s/70s, or you can invest in the restoration and inhabitation of beautiful historic buildings that are more orderly, more stately, and more worthy of human persons. Which is the better use of limited capital? Eventually, the tenement will have to come down anyway, since it was poorly built to begin with, and looked ugly due to the Bauhaus functionalist philosophy of its designers. In contrast, the old building, if slightly dilapidated, remains beautiful and admirable in every age, from the time of its creation to the present. Most people recognize this sort of thing to be true in the realm of architecture, but is not the very same contrast found in the realm of liturgy, when we compare premodern liturgy to the Bauhaus constructs of the 1960s?

It is sobering to run through the “-isms” condemned in Leo XIII’s Libertas Praestantissimum and Testem Benevolentiae and in Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis. These “-isms” have their analogues in the modern liturgy, in contrast with a traditional liturgy that opposes them on every side. If the crisis in the Church is largely a crisis of her liturgy, as Joseph Ratzinger maintains (most recently in the Foreword he wrote for the Russian edition of his volume of writings on the liturgy), then the longed-for renewal of the Church will come primarily from a renewal of her liturgy. Concretely, this will mean the recovery of the beautiful and reverent liturgy that developed organically over the span of nearly 2,000 years, not the desperate maintenance of rites constructed by liberal and rationalistic clergy in the middle of the 20th century.

We can borrow a line from Psalm 19: Ipsi obligati sunt, et ceciderunt; nos autem surreximus, et erecti sumus. “They are entangled and brought low, but we rise up and stand erect.” They are entangled in this modern claptrap and brought low, but we rise up in the strength of tradition and stand erect.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of being a traditional Catholic today is that we feel ourselves to be constantly at war, beleagured on all sides — wishing to be brothers with our coreligionists, who insist on being our sworn enemies. It may not be a consolation but it can at least preserve our sanity to know that serious disagreement is possible, even among saints: the Acts of the Apostles shows us a falling-out between St. Paul and St. Barnabas, and we learn in Galatians about a confrontation between St. Paul and St. Peter over a matter of no small importance. We should not be surprised that there are deep differences of opinion in the Church. We should not allow this fact to paralyze, confuse, or embitter us.

There have always been and will always be laymen, religious, and clerics who appear to be ignorant of the Catholic faith, who do not practice it consistently or care to transmit it, who even openly reject elements of it in formal heresy. This is all the more reason for us who do want to serve Our Lord with our whole mind, heart, soul, and strength to dedicate ourselves to knowing and living the great mysteries of our faith, to seek total consistency in our practice, and to pass on to others, in its full integrity, the gift we have received — the unabridged dictionary of Catholic life, thought, and culture.


[1] A sign of the truth of this claim was the great need for, and runaway success of, Msgr. Peter J. Elliott's pair of books from Ignatius Press, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite and Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year, which actually create a somewhat coherent rubrical and ceremonial framework for the Modern Rite, based, of course, on older liturgical books.

Painting at the head of the article by Ephraim Rubenstein.

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