Wednesday, January 11, 2023

“Catholicism or Post-Catholicisms?” — Part 2: Ritual Trauma

We continue the publication of Dr. Tomasz Dekert’s “The Effects of Catholic Liturgical Reform Considered in the Light of Roy A. Rappaport’s Theory of Ritual.” (For Part 1, see here.)

Revealing Ritual Trauma

In my view, the approach that enables some initial light to be shed on these consequences is one that sees the liturgical reform through a metaphorical lens, as comparable to the experience of trauma. This psychopathological metaphor is, of course, not intended to refer to the mental reactions of individual believers, but to illustrate the objective reaction of the Church as a collective organism to the radical change of one of its constitutive systemic components.

In addition, while such change came not from outside, but from the inside, it nevertheless occurred in a way that was by no means organic, relying instead on bureaucratic and administrative decisions and an expectation of obedience towards these. Elaborating the metaphor further, it is therefore not a trauma resulting from the experience of a cataclysm or some external aggression, but rather one that stems from the action of “significant others,” involving a whole range of additional variables such as respect for authority (and its enforcement), personal and structural relations between various levels of the hierarchy, and so on.[14]

The concept of trauma is usually associated with the reaction of the psyche to events and experiences that generate a huge amount of negative stress, causing “a breach in the continuity of normal experience and the individual’s previous adaptation mode.”[15] Researchers dealing with the issue of working through trauma at a cultural level, which arises when some experiences are of a collective nature, point out that it concerns not only drastic situations (violence, rape, war, genocide, etc.), but also “sudden and unexpected, sometimes even a not particularly ominous experience of social transformation or change.”[16]

If we bear in mind that in traditional communities (of which the pre-conciliar Church can be regarded as one, even if we allow for all possible reservations in this regard), ritual functions as a tool that, under changing historical conditions, enables “maintaining the continuity of experience and self-reproduction of the system,”[17] a situation where the entire Catholic liturgical system undergoes a radical transformation can certainly be described as traumatic. At this level, it could even be said that the line between metaphor and reality starts to become blurred.[18]

Trauma affects the subject, with various consequences for the latter as it redesigns and redefines his or her cognitive sphere, motivations, emotions, and attitude to both the world and himself/herself, while also generating a need to justify and rationalize the new system as a whole, including its source. It remains an active factor long after the triggering event itself, shaping behavior and conditioning reactions, even when the memory of what triggered it has become blurred or been lost.

Additionally, in invoking trauma as a metaphor for the effects of a change to the basic elements making up the identity of a given collective grouping previously governed by its ruling elite, we may point to certain natural “defense mechanisms” arising in the form of attempts by ordinary members to understand and position themselves in relation to the situation, followed by the entire system’s legitimization and rationalization as this unfolds both from above (within the hierarchy of power) and along a more horizontal structure (due to the activity of “linear” activists—in this case liturgists and pastors).

Coming back to the metaphor, in the case of trauma resulting from the actions of “significant others” (as with, for example, the results of domestic violence), the actions of the traumatized subject who tries to adapt to the situation, including their various defense mechanisms, are additionally influenced by dependence on, pressure from, and interpretation on the part of these “others”. This creates a situation in which the actual impact of the change—what caused the subject’s profound transformation (our “trauma”)—comes to be thoroughly hidden beneath the seemingly polished surface of the status quo.

Even if we allow for the various possible reservations that might be entertained about employing a metaphor of this sort, its appropriateness becomes apparent when viewed in the light of what has occurred in the wake of Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontifucm. Given the papal orders, or rather the way in which a large part of the Church has reacted to them, it becomes clear that after several decades the post-conciliar change of ritual is still (with regard to our metaphor) a psychologically active factor in the Catholic community. For, by affirming that the pre-conciliar liturgy had never been abolished, and by formally equating it with the post-conciliar liturgy,[19] these orders in fact brought to the surface and re-posed the problem of the change itself, and disavowed, or at least questioned, most of its theological and ecclesiological rationalizations and legitimations.

The former catalyzed the emergence of deep and fundamental contradictions and antagonisms present on many levels—and by no means only with regard to the liturgy—in the seemingly homogeneous image of the post-conciliar Church.[20] The latter, on the other hand, prevented the possibility of covering up (i.e. “denying” or “forgetting”) this fact by, for example, classifying the circles critical of the reform and the shape of contemporary Catholicism as in some sense or other pathological (e.g., as instances of maladaptation, sentimentality, morbid nostalgia, theological and historical ignorance, detachment from reality, integralism, disobedience to the council and the Pope, etc.), as was standard for a long time.[21]

Somewhat separate, yet nevertheless closely related to the above issue, is the activation and radicalization of certain ecclesiastical circles on both the left and the right, where what this reveals is just their already existing deviant and separatist tendencies—ones which, at the level of their own interpretative formulations, are motivated, however paradoxical it may sound, by mutually contradictory “orthodoxies.” In other words—to invoke our metaphor once more—the course of action prompted by such defense mechanisms, in aiming to suppress the latter, revealed, in the Church, the subcutaneous developments connected with the sheer fact of change to the ritual and the current state of the processes that this had initiated.[22]

In the light of the above phenomena observable in the Catholic community, which in the period since the announcement of SP have shed their mask, it can be argued that Catholicism is in a state of deep disintegration. This is not a matter of organizational or institutional decline, but concerns instead a much more fundamental, and at the same time subtle, state: or, rather, a continuing process of dissociation with respect to the collective foundations of the identity of the Catholic religion. Paweł Grad diagnoses this problem, on the basis of Alasdair McIntyre’s theory of tradition:

His [McIntyre’s] message about the role of virtues, traditions and a holistic vision of a good life is very relevant at a time when inconclusive and bitter disputes over fundamental issues continue not only in the world, but in the Church itself. This is what it seems because, despite apparent institutional unity, the divergences in the ways Catholics live turn out to be impossible to agree within one tradition. Meanwhile, the unity of the visible Church imposes on the debaters the requirement of such agreement. Many seem to fail to notice that the disputes in the Church today are not normal disputes within the Church, but disputes over the very principles of faith and morals. In this situation, MacIntyre's lesson allows us to realize that the inconsistency of these disputes results from the disintegration of the common form of Catholic life, starting with the basic practice of worship and liturgy, through the ways of realizing the Catholic vocation, and ending with everyday customs.[23]
But is the claim that the Catholic liturgy is disintegrating really justified? Does the Catholic Church not have a specific liturgical system, devised by the most eminent experts in history, in theology, and in pastoral care, and made obligatory through the authority of the Pope himself? Is this system not—from the Catholic point of view—canonically legal and sacramentally effective? Has a whole host of authorities within the hierarchy and specialists of all kinds not made every effort to explain why the creation of this system and the replacement of the previous one was necessary and salutary? Have there not been created entire libraries of theological justifications and interpretations to demonstrate the more perfect character of the new form of the rite in this respect? Even if it were to be recognized that the reform has brought about the destabilization, and in some places even the destruction, of the “common form of Catholic life,” can this not be blamed on something other than itself, as resulting from the lawlessness and inventiveness of some people and circles, their faulty understanding of the reform, and their exceeding the limits of the official changes? And finally, last but not least, can it really be said that the system is not working, or is malfunctioning, if many Catholics at all levels of the Church hierarchy are engaged in pursuing and deepening their religiosity by participating in the reformed liturgy? Can we, in that case, speak of such disintegration at all?

I am convinced that we can, though the answer to the above doubts must, of course, be an appropriately nuanced one. The basic intuition underlying these considerations is compatible with Grad’s observation: the internal crisis of Catholicism is in a literal sense fundamental, as it involves the dissociation of the axiomatic foundations of its essential identity (“the very principles of faith and morals”), and this process is closely related to its current liturgical situation (i.e. since the post-conciliar reforms).[24] The question is what this relationship amounts to, and how it can be described. Why should changes in the ritual ordines of the Catholic liturgy, along with their context, have such consequences?

In this case, the above-mentioned sociological observations regarding the impact of the processes of reform on the credibility of the Catholic system and the abandonment of religious practices and Church affiliation constitute an important point of reference. They point to specific mechanisms of social and individual reaction to radical change in the ritual and a prolonged phase of liturgical indeterminacy, both of which have resulted in the breaking off of ties with the Church on the part of some of the faithful.

At the same time, however, precisely for the latter reason, they do not explicate sufficiently the issue of the dissociation of the principles of faith and morals, and the relationship of this to the liturgical system, as an intra-Church problem. They describe the reasons why some of the faithful have abandoned or lost their relationship with the Church since it changed the liturgy, but do not explain why those who remained in it have an increasing problem with the basics of effective communication within their own system.

Attempts to approach this issue from an “internal”—canonical, ecclesiological or theological—direction seem doomed to failure. First of all, this would require a decision from individual parties to the current dispute over the legacy (and not only the liturgical one) of Vatican II, which is the point at which we run up against just the sort of sterility and inconclusiveness already mentioned above. Taken en bloc, these explanations would constitute a Tower of Babel: a collection of statements that are mutually exclusive at the level of their fundamental assumptions.[25] All such internal approaches are, of necessity, caught up in the “traumatogenic” impact on the Church of the liturgical reform.


[14] The psychological effects of this type of trauma (which most often affects children) include: changes in one’s level of concentration and awareness, manifested in problems with memory (including amnesia) and the occurrence of dissociative and depersonalizing episodes, changes in self-perception (chronic feelings of guilt, responsibility and shame), disturbances in one’s relationships with other people (loss of the ability to trust, inability to enter into a closer emotional relationship), and, finally, changes to one’s semantic framework (cf. Borys 2004, 102).

[15] Harold Kudler, “The Limiting Effects of Paradigms on the Concept of Traumatic Stress,” in International Handbook of Human Response to Trauma, ed. Arieh Y. Shalev, Rachel Yehuda, and Alexander C. McFarlane (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2000), 5.

[16] Jeffrey C. Alexander, Trauma: A Social Theory (Malden – Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 7; cf. Piotr Sztompka, “The Trauma of Social Change: A Case of Postcommunist Societies,” in Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernard Giesen, et al., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (Berkeley – London: University of California Press, 2004), 157–8. It is worth noting that in the context of Alexander’s interactionist approach, “cultural trauma” is a socially created narrative structure in which an experience is expressed (told, captured, etc.) in traumatic terms. Certainly, such an understanding could prove applicable when considering descriptive accounts of the liturgical reform, or even of the entire post-conciliar reality, from the point of view of most traditionalist Catholic circles. My metaphor, though, concerns something different. I am not (or at least not primarily) interested in the representation(s) of the events of the liturgical reform in the Catholic community, but rather in its real impact on the latter, in respect of that community’s worldview, and meta-worldview, construed in fundamental terms that pertain to the ideological basis of Catholic identity. The trauma metaphor is supposed, on the one hand, to reflect the depth of the “shock” that changing the ritual caused within the “organism” of the Church, and, on the other, to point to the problem of both top-down and bottom-up ways of administratively managing the effects of this shock, where these have resulted in an appearance of adaptation that nevertheless masks unresolved internal problems.

[17] Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, “Przemiany,” introduction to Arnold van Gennep, Obrzędy przejścia. Systematyczne studium ceremonii, trans. Beata Biały, (Warszawa: PIW, 2006), 13.

[18] This approach to ritual corresponds in a highly interesting way to Yves Congar’s theological conception of the liturgy as a “monument of tradition.” According to Congar (Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay, trans. Michael Naseby and Thomas Rainborough [London: Burns and Oates – New York: MacMillan, 1966–1967], 429), thanks to its ritual character and its stability, the liturgy acts as “a powerful means of communion in the same reality between men separated by centuries of change and affected by very different influences” Elsewhere, Congar writes that “The conservative character of the liturgy makes it possible for it to preserve and transmit intact the values whose importance one epoch may have forgotten, but which the next epoch is happy to find intact and preserved, so that it can live from them again. Where would we be if this liturgical conservatism had not resisted the late medieval taste for sensory devotions, the eighteenth century’s individualistic, rational, and moralizing imperatives, the nineteenth century’s critique, or the modern period’s subjective philosophies? Thanks to the liturgy everything has been retained and transmitted. Ah! Let us not expose ourselves to the reproach sixty years hence that we squandered and lost the sacred heritage of the Catholic communion as it is deployed in the slow flow of time. Let us keep a healthy awareness that we carry in ourselves only a moment, the tip of the iceberg in relation to a reality which is beyond us in every way.” Yves Congar, “Autorité, Initiative, Coresponsabilité,” La Maison-Dieu 97 (1969), 55, as cited by Innocent Smith, “Vagaggini and Congar on the Liturgy and Theology,” Questions Liturgiques 96, no. 3–4 (2015), 206 note 72. For more on the Congar’s conception of the liturgy, see Johan te Velde, “Congar on Liturgy as a Monument of Tradition,” Questions Liturgiques 95, no. 3–4 (2014): 194–215.

[19] See Apostolic Letter Given Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum on the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970, 1,

[20] In this context, what is surely symptomatic is that the main objection put forward by opponents of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio is that it causes detriment to the unity of the Church, introduces chaos and confusion among the faithful, creates divisions, etc. (see, for example, Andrea Grillo, Beyond Pius V: Conflicting Interpretations of the Liturgical Reform, trans. Burry Hudock [Collegeville: Liturgical Press,  2013], 94–118.) What is striking about such reactions from theologians or pastors is their failure to even consider the possibility that the confusion they observe, and the escalation they warn against, are not primarily the results of a violation of the status quo resulting from the granting of equal status to rites that differ in kind from the post-conciliar liturgy, but rather the lifting of the veils previously masking the reality of the disintegration of the Church’s unity engendered by the post-conciliar reform and the manner of its introduction.

[21] Obviously, the announcement of SP did not silence this type of treatment, but it does seem to have influenced the choice of polemical tools used. In the current discourse, for example, we encounter some quite new suggestions to the effect that turning to the old liturgical forms results from a consumerist approach to religion, in the postmodernist sense of choosing to take from it “a little of this and a little of that” (see Nathan D. Mitchell, “The Amen Corner: Summorum Pontificum,” Worship 81 [2007], 549–65; Baldovin, Reforming the Liturgy, 130–3).

[22] By the time I was finishing this article (July 2021), Pope Francis had issued the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, in which he abolished the SP, introducing restrictions stricter in some respects than those previously in place (i.e. in the period between the indult Quattuor abhinc annos (1984) and the decree of Benedict XVI). This caused another large change in the liturgical situation of the Roman Catholic Church, which in my opinion is an attempt by the Roman authorities to force the restitution of the post-conciliar “order,” correlated with a mechanically understood “unity.” However, since this is a fresh situation, it is difficult to comment on it in any greater detail.

[23] Paweł Grad, “Po katolickich śladach (5): Alasdair McIntyre,” (my translation).

[24] One contemporaneous aspect of this phenomenon is the controversy over the issue of giving Holy Communion to divorced and remarried persons, and the general disputes surrounding the pontificate—meaning certain statements, actions and documents—of Pope Francis. What is striking about the latter is the overwhelming sense of disagreement amongst their main protagonists as to the basic criteria for determining the “Catholicity” of specific concepts or actions, and the arbitrary, accidental and nominal nature of their legitimation.

[25] Perhaps most interesting would be to reach out to theological approaches of a kind that do not try to enter into the issues of reform at all, while at the same time convincingly describing the key and central place of worship, such as David Fagerberg’s postulate (based on the earlier intuitions of Alexander Schmemann and Aidan Kavanagh) to the effect that we should understand the liturgy as a kind of “first theology”. See David Fagerberg, Theologia prima: What Is Liturgical Theology? 2nd ed. (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004). If, as he says, the liturgy is a case of this being present in the very structure of the rite, and one that is also the faith of the Church in ritual motion, then it certainly provides grounds for reflection on whether—and, if so, how—a radical change of rite can affect Catholics’ understanding of the foundations of faith and morals. Fagerberg himself, at least in the work mentioned here, does not deal with this problem; indeed, one may even get the impression that he has not noticed it, or has deliberately chosen to ignore it.

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