Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Catholic Imagination and Catholic Dementia

The great advantage of the blog as a medium is the ease with which one can include pictures, videos and hyperlinks in an article; and a picture, as they say, is worth 1000 words. I am not, however, going to include here any pictures, videos and hyperlinks of the spectacle which recently took place in New York; you can find them easily enough on the internet, along with a variety of articles about it. The funniest take on it I have seen thus far comes from a priest friend who wrote on Facebook that the whole thing looked like a party in District One during the Hunger Games.

I will, however, hyperlink and quote this superb piece by Ross Douthat, opinion columnist at the New York Times, “Make Catholicism Weird Again.”
It was the church’s own leadership that decided, in the years following the Second Vatican Council, that the attachment to the church as culture had become an impediment to the mission of preaching the gospel in the modern world. It was the leadership that embraced a different approach, in which Catholic Christianity would seek to enter more fully into modern culture, adopting its styles and habits — modernist and even brutalist church architecture, casual dress, guitar music, a general suburban and Protestant affect, etc. — in order to effectively transform it from within. It was the leadership that decided that much of … Catholicism’s cultural glory — the old Mass above all, but also a host of customs and costumes and rituals — needed to be retired in order to reach people in a more disenchanted age.”
This reminds me of a video published several years ago by Catholic News Service, an interview with Fr Joseph Kramer FSSP. At 0:35, he notes that “Paul VI talked about the sacrifice that we’d have to make of many things that we love in our own Catholic culture, as part of the process of adapting to the world in the ’60s. Now we’re on fifty years later, we’re realizing that it’s time to recuperate something of our heritage.”

The peculiar (and, let me say, extremely clever) title of Douthat’s article refers to the fact that our modern reforms effectively removed or downplayed a great deal of what made Catholicism “weird” in the eyes of the world: the use of a sacred language and a sacred form of music, relics, exorcisms, decidedly old-fashioned looking vestments and habits, etc. Ordinary Catholics who watched these reforms take place with trepidation, whether clergy or laity, were solemnly assured that these “sacrifices” would indeed have the most salutary effect of bringing the world back to Christ. Those who dared to pointed out that not only had the world rejected this overture, but Catholics themselves were giving up the practice of the Faith in droves, were solemnly assured that this was certainly not happening. Once it became impossible to deny, they were solemnly assured that this was all quite unavoidable in our modern secular world, as if the reforms themselves had not been enacted precisely on the grounds that they were necessary to evangelize the modern secular world.

But, as Douthat very rightly points out, it is precisely the “weird” parts of Catholicism, the parts that speak of the mysterious and transcendent, and that were ditched, which have lost none of their fascination for the modern secular world. The costumes at this gala were unquestionably exaggerations, many of them grotesquely so, such that charges of mockery are inevitable, whether mockery was intended or not. But what was exaggerated was all the best of Catholicism, the parts that speak of things which are holy and mysterious: “all the weirder parts of Catholicism that were supposedly a stumbling block to modernity’s conversion.” The worst of modern Catholicism, the ugly, prosaic, banal and boring which we as a Church inflict upon ourselves to no good purpose, was very decidely not on display. A long dress was printed with Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel; there was no print of the blank retable over the altar of the award-winning Iglesia di Iesu.

A pop singer was dressed as the Mother of Sorrows (a costume which completely justifies Douthat’s use of the verb “blasphemed”), but she wasn’t dressed like Karl Rahner. Another singer wore a tall mitre made to look like it was covered in diamonds, (perhaps in reference to the title of one of her songs); she did not wear one of the stumpy little polyester boxes on which outlandish sums of money are now spent to achieve the appearance of poverty. Or, as this wag on Twitter put it:

People instinctively know that beauty is proper to the things of God. If you go to the Gesù in Rome, you can watch all day as tourists and pilgrims alike remain fascinated by this magnificent side altar, which houses the relics of St Ignatius,
while most of them barely notice (thank God) this horror show.
The brutalist pulpit and altar of the Gesù, installed a number of years ago, also came with a very slightly less brutal presider’s chair (not pictured.) The mouse-grey platform was installed at the same time - previously, there was a plexiglass table in the real sanctuary. The shwarma under the Paschal candle is more recent.
It is high time for the Church to take this lesson to heart. Aggiornamento, which had already grown old by the early 1970s, is now in the final stage of its decrepitude, “and that which decayeth and groweth old is near its end.” Ross Douthat concludes his piece by writing that “The path forward for the Catholic Church in the modern world is extraordinarily uncertain. But there is no plausible path that does not involve more of what was displayed and appropriated and blasphemed against in New York City Monday night, more of what once made Catholicism both great and weird, and could yet make it both again.” To deny this is to keep the Church in a state of senile dementia.

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