Monday, November 06, 2017

The Overemphasis on “New” and “Renewed”

Liturgiam Authenticam defended the principle that the substantial unity of the Roman Rite must prevail, plainly and evidently, in and through the plurality of expressions of it allowed by Church authority. That is, the liturgy celebrated by Roman Catholics must contain and transmit a certain historical and theological identity. The progressive view of liturgy, whose partisans find support in Magnum Principium and the pope's letter to Cardinal Sarah, gives pragmatic primacy to ideological pluralism.[1] There is no concrete historical and theological identity of Catholicism: such a view is called “monolithic” and said to be outmoded in our times, having been dispensed with — or so it is claimed — by the Council.

For this reason, I was fascinated to find in the book Athanasius and the Church of Our Time by Dr. Rudolf Graber, Bishop of Regensburg, a summary of the work of the ex-canon Paul Roca (1830–1893), who, late in the nineteenth century, right around the time of the Americanist crisis, “prophesied” what the Church of the future must look like:
The divine cult in the form directed by the liturgy, ceremonial, ritual, and regulations of the Roman Church will shortly undergo a transformation at an ecumenical council, which will restore to it the venerable simplicity of the golden age of the Apostles, in accordance with the dictates of conscience and modern civilisation.[2]
Graber continues:
Roca’s dominating idea is the word “new.” He proclaims a “new religion,” a “new dogma,” a “new ritual,” a “new priesthood.” He calls the new priests “progressists,” he speaks of the “suppression” of the soutane and of the marriage of priests.[3]
Whatever may be said about Roca’s imaginary council or the actual Council that took place, it is undeniable that the past fifty years or so have presented the somewhat embarrassing spectacle of an obsession with newness. We have painted ourselves into a corner by insisting that everything be “new” or “renewed,” as if this adjective, all by itself, were the token and guarantee of the rightness of an enterprise. This places a subtle pressure on us to innovate, to change, to be different — to privilege motion over stability, acting over suffering, doing over being, work over contemplation. It somehow seems a flaw that a doctrine has remained the same for centuries, or a discipline has not been “adapted” or “updated.” Indeed, given the tendencies of fallen human nature together with the peculiar errors of the modern mentality, the insistence on new things goes in the direction of privileging ugliness over beauty, comfort over self-denial, efficiency over dignity.

Speaking of the cretinism of the liturgical reform, Stratford Caldecott wrote:
Intimations of transcendence — indeed, references to the soul — were minimized. Within the churches, walls were whitewashed and relics dumped in the name of ‘noble simplicity’. Unlike the much earlier Cistercian rebellion against the artistic extravagances at Cluny, this modern campaign for simplicity was not coupled with the asceticism and devotion that might alone have rendered it spiritually ‘noble.’ It fell easy victim to the prevailing culture of comfort and prosperity.[4]
All this has led not to renewal but to an inversion of means and ends, narcissism, anarchy, and, symbolic of all of them, dreadful art. “Many people judge a religion by its art, and why indeed shouldn’t they?”[5] The old axiom “nature abhors a vacuum” has been exhaustively demonstrated in our midst. When spiritually muscular, culturally dense religion vanishes, its place is quickly filled with feel-good sentimental claptrap, pop art, pseudo-mysticism, and bleeding-heart political advocacy. “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes anything,” as Chesterton didn’t say, but might as well have said.[6] We are left with the embarrassing spectacle of Church leaders, inheritors of millennia of wisdom and beauty, chasing after the miniskirts of modernity. One awakens in a Kafkaesque world where mitred ecclesiastics have metamorphosed into Beatles.
Why this feverish and irrational prejudice for the new? What has it got to do with the one true God who never changes; with the sacrifice of Christ, which is once-for-all; with divine revelation, which is complete at the death of the last apostle; with the principles of the spiritual life, which are perennially valid; with the greatness of the Christian tradition, which gives birth to new things conceived and nurtured by old things, and cherishes them all? We might say, inspired by St. Vincent of Lerins, that the Christian religion is a permanent wellspring of truth and holiness from which endless ages can draw fresh water, but it is always the same source, the same substance, the same qualities of refreshment, light, and peace.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings” (Heb 13:8–9). Christ died once for all. He is the only priest who offers the sacrifice of the new covenant, with his ordained minister empowered to act on His behalf. He gives us the true religion whose dogmas never change, however much the theological understanding of them grows through the ages. The Christian religion is inherently new, permanently new, yet in essence unchanging and everlasting. That is why it is capable of never growing old.

Tradition, rightly understood, shares in this perpetual youthfulness; it is not something of the past, much less an object of nostalgia, but a vital energy in the Church that carries us forward, uniting us with the entire Church outside of our age, and with the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering. Indeed, Jews and Christians in the past viewed our ancestors as our antecessores, those who have run ahead of us to eternity, and therefore as the ones we are following behind. This, of course, is the very opposite of how we tend to think about time and history and culture: we think that we are ahead and our ancestors are behind; they are behind the times, we are on the cutting edge. But that makes no sense, because our ancestors went before us: they have already lived their lives, they know the mysteries of life and death, and we are dependent on them. We are their pupils, their followers.

The sacred liturgy, the divine liturgy as our Byzantine brethren so tellingly call it, must unmistakably reflect the immutable essence of the Faith. As man remains essentially the same, so does Christ, and so does His Church, to whom He communicates a share in His stability. This is why the gates of hell cannot prevail against her—but only to the extent that she is living in communion with Him, the unassailable and immovable Rock. Our worship no less than our theology should not only mention or expound the divine attribute of immutability (including the unity of the history of salvation), but should contain and convey it. Even if, as a created reality unfolding in time and space, liturgy cannot be immutable in itself, it should signify all the divine attributes, so that in its ceremonies, gestures, texts, music, it is always a bearer of truths about God and His Christ, and not guilty of lying or misleading us. The liturgy we have inherited from our predecessors, the fruit of the slow growth of ages under the guiding hand of Providence, is admirably suited for this work of initiating us into the eternal mysteries of God and bringing us to perfect union with Him.

[1] See my interview at LifeSite.
[2] Athanasius and the Church of Our Time, p. 35.
[3] Ibid., p. 36.
[4] Not as the World Gives (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014), 180.
[5] Elizabeth Jennings, quoted by Dana Gioia in his speech "The Catholic Writer Today."
[6] See "When Man Ceases to Worship God."

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: