Saturday, January 14, 2023

“Catholicism or Post-Catholicisms?” — Conclusion: A Liturgical Tower of Babel

Today we complete 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.” (Links to Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4NB: The entire study may be downloaded HERE as a single PDF.

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous thesis, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”[71].

From the anthropological perspective of Rappaport’s understanding of language, these limits can be highly indefinite. The possibility of creating, transforming and inverting meanings, and the way in which grammatical rules are susceptible to generating implied alternatives, mean that, on the scale of the human species, language is a potentially limitless reality, open to all possible meanings and syntaxes, along with the conceptions of the cultural and social orders that adhere to them. Its limits are determined only by the competences of the ideal user (i.e. speaker-listener) of language (in Chomsky’s sense)—not counting such phenomena as the “creativity” arising within strictly private linguistic para-systems of a psychopathological sort, as with schizophrenia.[72] On a collective level, this is surely an extremely dangerous trait, as far-reaching disorder within language is bound to translate into destructive processes within the socio-cultural world.

According to Rappaport, ritual, in addition to all its other dimensions, is that element of (meta)culture that human societies have created in order to protect their own cosmos of meaning, built on the basis of symbolic language. It gives them a specific framework, inhibiting and weakening, at the level of both social and intra-personal communication, the innate openness of language to lies and artificially implied alternatives. Rappaport’s thought, then, could probably be rendered by adapting Wittgenstein’s thesis quoted above: my ritual defines the limits of my language, thereby marking the limits of my world.

It is in this light, I think, that one should view both the liturgical reform (i.e. the change to the ritual) itself and its influence in determining the shape of post-conciliar Catholicism. In itself, it was a top-down deconstruction, and an attempt to rebuild the ritually defined boundaries of the Catholic universe of meaning. It was not an action that could have remained without consequences, because regardless of the conceptual basis of the reform or the nature of the reaction of individual believers to the change, it was the change itself—its occurrence and its experience by all those taking part in acts of Catholic worship—that constituted the indisputable and most objective effect of the reform process, generating systemic “trauma.”

Rappaport’s conception, which emphasizes the importance of the “obvious aspects of the ritual,” enables us to see this more clearly. The fact that, seen from the standpoint of the specific historical perspective commonly accepted by reformers, the shape of the liturgy observed over the centuries has undergone various fluctuations, does not amount to the same as this rapid and administratively ordered transformation of the entire ritual system. Even if it is the case that the old ritual was replaced by the new one immediately, so that the boundaries were not completely disintegrated, the disintegration still took place on a different level: one reflecting the diversity of the participants’ attitudes (in the broadest sense) to the reformed liturgy itself, and the weakening of the boundaries it produced, or its having lost the ability to stabilize meaning.

To put it most clearly, the consequence of its introduction, and the correlate of how it came to be received and sometimes rejected—or, contrary to the latter, the far-reaching intensification of some of its new elements (e.g. inventiveness)—is the emergence of a series of “post-Catholic worlds,” not to say “post-Catholicisms.”

This is by no means an ordinary pluralism of local traditions: rather, the division goes much deeper, right down to the most fundamental assumptions involved.[73] The main demarcation line between them consists in the profoundly different ways in which they understand the truth of the Catholic universe of meaning (assuming they accept it at all) and how it is true. The issue of truth here is also related to the question of the meaning and translatability of this universe into life praxis, ethics, human choices, social commitment, and so on.

The Catholic cosmos has been largely stripped of its protective and stabilizing barrier of ritual—something that, because of its symbolic character (in Peirce’s and Rappaport’s sense), has now opened it up to potentially unlimited (re)interpretations, including “false” and “alternative” ones.

Of course, it was always potentially exposed to these, as ritual can only ever limit or mitigate the inherent threats to symbolic systems. Nevertheless, a situation where, on the one hand, an entire system of traditional ritual has been to some extent problematized and criticized from the inside just by virtue of having been replaced by a “newer version” (not counting many other issues), and where, on the other hand, its “renewed” substitute is strongly symbolized in itself, in the sense of being reduced to an exchange of texts, listening and verbal utterance, and generally to verbally recognizable forms of meaning (even when it comes to signs, gestures or postures), means that the stabilizing potential of the reformed rite has been radically weakened or even eliminated.

Therefore, while it has to some extent, in places where it was introduced and adopted in a non-revolutionary manner and performed as ritual (in a sense consistent with Rappaport’s definition), taken over the stabilizing dimension of the traditional system, it does not have the strength to counteract the gradual disintegration of Catholic “principles of faith and morals”—their dissolving into the limitlessness of language. It is not able to disambiguate such fundamental issues as whether Catholic truth should be seen in terms of changeability or immutability, objective reality or subjective and private beliefs, intellect and will or emotions and intuitions, as conveyed by tradition or as constructed on an ad hoc basis using individual knowledge and experiences, as open only to existential hermeneutics or also to the reinterpretation of its own contents in ways that seek to move in the direction of a reconciliation with (broadly construed) modernity, and so on.

These are not the sort of matters that can be resolved at the level of ecclesiastical texts or regulations, because those, in belonging to the symbolic order themselves, also partake of the latter’s weaknesses. In turn, solutions to these issues such as are proposed in the context of theories functioning within the framework of a reflective theological discourse devoid of ritual anchoring—and so reduced to the level of mere language—will merely serve to furnish tools for further dissociating the foundations of Catholic identity. They will function as statutes for various “post-Catholic worlds” drifting further and further away from each other, mutually incompatible and contradictory and lacking the foundation required in order to constitute a genuine community.

Here one cannot but think of the curse of the Tower of Babel: an association that, in the context of Rappaport’s theory, is by no means accidental.


[71] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. David Pears and Brian McGuiness (New York, Routledge, 2001), 68 (original emphasis).

[72] See Renata Tomaszuk-Wieczorek and Dawid Larysz, “Zaburzenia dyskursu w schizofrenii,” Logopedia Silesiana 2 (2013): 65–70.

[73] It seems that an attempt at an “ecclesiological” managing of this situation can be observed in the conception contained in the third point of Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia: “Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” Francis, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia on Love in the Family 3, Of course, this is an unclear text, open to a number of possible interpretations. However, the hermeneutics of Jn 16:13, formulated in the key of offering a description of a process that is in progress and which will find fulfillment only in the eschatological perspective, allows us to read the message of Amoris Laetitia 3 in terms of the thesis—completely new within the Catholic Magisterium—that the Church does not have access to a universal norm, or even cannot know it. According to this position, there are various local variants as regards the interpretation of teaching and the practice resulting from it, and—which is already a logical extrapolation—any possible contradictions or incompatibility between them does not result from unbelief, disobedience or deviation, but is a completely normal epiphenomenon arising in connection with the fact that the Church is “on the way”. Taken thus, it amounts to an admission that contemporary Catholicism has a problem with the disintegration of “the very principles of faith and morals,” albeit dressed up in the guise of a naturalizing theological interpretation.

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