As I have said before, I knew that Pope Francis was going to have problems with the so-called traditionalists right from the start, when he knelt down to wash the feet of young prisoners, some of them women, some of them Muslims, at his first Holy Thursday liturgy.
When he was criticized for violating the rubrics in this vivid act of evangelical beauty I figured he had his work cut out for him.
And it hasn’t gotten easier, not least because he has provoked ‘traditionalists’ by criticizing forms of religion that are more attached to the ephemeral than the eternal. Most cuttingly, in Evangelii Gaudium the pope spoke of:
…the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.
This insidious worldliness is evident in a number of attitudes which appear opposed, yet all have the same pretence of “taking over the space of the Church”. In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few.
I admit that I was among those puzzled by the phrase “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism” to describe ‘traditionalists’, but further thought makes the use of the term clear.
I have been shaken in the last few years by the convergence of many things: the realization that I really do not know much about much, especially raising children, disappointment regarding the state of the Church, disillusionment with what I once saw as an emerging Catholic counterculture, questions about things that once were certainties. And much more that I will not go into.
I know a lot of my good Catholic friends are worried about me, just as a few years before they worried that I was going to convert to Orthodoxy.
But so far, I am not losing faith. I am going deeper.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my new affinity for apophatic spirituality, for the reality that the incomprehensible holy Mystery we call ‘God’ is beyond our ken.
Not that we don’t ‘know’ anything, as Reason can discern some things and that mysterious holy Being we call ‘God’ reveals others to us. But knowing how little of the ‘physical’ universe we can discern -something like 1% of the visual spectrum is perceptible to the human eye, and maybe 5% of the audial- it would seem clear that we know about as much of What Is as a child playing in the sand on the beach knows of the Sea.
Or far less, when one considers that the Sea, vast as it is, is in fact finite.
When faced with this ineffable mystery, with even a physical universe that is eternally incomprehensible in any real sense, it is entirely natural to grasp at human constructs, structures for understanding Reality.
Not that there is a thing wrong with this; even ‘God’ when revealing ‘God’ to us uses human constructs; that is inevitable. Christ, the Revelation of Mystery incarnate, taught us in homely parables and stories tailored to our understanding.
‘God’ is nothing if not condescending.
To the point that it appears to me that ‘God’ has pretty low standards. Not that the demands of holiness are anything but daunting. “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”, Jesus said. But if you look at those deemed ‘righteous’ in the Old Testament? Well, not exactly the sort of people, most of them, one would want as neighbors, let alone as enemies.
And even in the age of the New Covenant, Christ tolerated the 11 blockheads he named Apostles (I deem St John to have been of a higher caliber, though he had his dense moments as well). And the Church has canonized various assholes, given their other virtues, such as they were.
Which I find hopeful.
So it is understandable that this dense but holy thing, the Church, being human, would inevitably grasp at the relative as absolute, the ephemeral as eternal.
I think it is this tendency that the pope is criticizing, while calling us to something higher and more eternal.
Do not get me wrong; I love beauty above all things, and will drive a good long way to avoid banal liturgy. I used to attend the Latin Mass, when I lived nearer to one, with some regularity. And I prefer Byzantine worship these days. I am not indifferent to the concerns of the traditionalists; not at all.
But every form of worship is, besides a means of grace, a human construct. Let us readily grant that Beauty is important, even essential. Still, one should not absolutize any particular human construct, however lovely it is and however efficacious we may find it.
I thought of this recently when I came across an article on The Remnant website (and isn’t a ‘remnant’ the same as the ‘select few’ of the pope’s criticism?) In it the author decried the decline of the old form of the Mass and linked that decline to the perceived malaise of the Catholic Church. I said, in response, that this would explain why no one has converted to Catholicism since 1965.
And then said, oh, wait. Hasn’t Catholicism grown exponentially in Africa and Asia? And isn’t it possible that the new liturgical forms, with their flexibility regarding cultural incarnation, may have aided in this missionary explosion? And even in the US it does not seem to have impeded the steady flow from evangelicalism and Anglicanism into the Catholic Church.
Or for that matter, from Calvinism, a distorted human construct of the gospel if there ever was one, a sort of theological sociopathy.
(There, I got to say it).
I doubt very much that this growth would have occurred if the Latin Mass was the only form of worship for the missionary Church.
Grasping tightly to one historical form, one human construct, however shot through with grace, is indeed a sort of ‘promethean neopelagianism’, as it holds as absolute what is merely a human structure.
And surely anyone who has spent time around so-called traditionalists and is honest can verify that it is indeed true that there are people who:
…ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.
I know because I recognize myself, for much of my life as a Catholic, in these words.
Lord, have mercy, and thank you for Francis.
Art by Cory Ench