January 2014

Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Rubrics & Superstition

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A priest friend of mine from the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, is wont to say, "ritual frees us to pray." In my own experience of trying to pray and participate in the Mass, this quip has proved true again and again. When a priest simply follows the rubrics, says the words as they are written, and doesn't worry about trying to be entertaining or engaging with me, I feel at ease and am able to put my mind and my heart to work in offering the Sacrifice with him: I am free to fully, actively, and conciously participate in the mystery that is taking place. However, when the priest adds, removes, or changes things, I immediately become distracted and worried: "what is he doing?"; "did I miss something?"; "why is he doing this?". Instead of an experience of Christ in the liturgy, changing the ritual of the Mass provides me with an experience of the personality and whims of a priest. I avoid judgment of the priest's intentions, but I can't help but feel that something is not right when such deviations occur. Some might be inclined to dismiss my experiences as examples of unbalanced rubricism, pharisaical punctiliousness, or neurotic scrupulosity. A balanced liturgical sensibility, so the reasoning goes, does not fret if this or that phrase is changed, if the priest extemporaneously interpolates prayers, or other such things. It may come as a surprise to this contemporary sensibility, however, that the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas place the utmost importance on rubrics and the ars celebrandi (art of celebrating) as safeguards that ensure proper, worthy, and participatory worship. 

That priests do not have the right to change rubrics is not a matter of debate. The Code of Canon Law 846 §1 states "In sacramentis celebrandis fideliter serventur libri liturgici a competenti auctoritate probati quapropter nemo in iisdem quidpiam proprio marte addat, demat aut mutet," that is, "In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one's own authority." Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council document on the liturgy, states "Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop...Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority"(SC 22). The General Instruction of the Roman Missal #24 states, "the Priest will remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass." Moreoever, Pope Benedict XVI expresses very clearly in his exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (#38) that "The primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself. The ars celebrandi is the best way to ensure their actuosa participatio. The ars celebrandi is the fruit of faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness; indeed, for two thousand years this way of celebrating has sustained the faith life of all believers, called to take part in the celebration as the People of God, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-5, 9)." 

On top of these objective facts and rules, St. Thomas Aquinas provides a very compelling reason for following rubrics in his large treatise on the virtue of Religion in the Secunda Secundae. Worship, he explains, is the proper act of the virtue of Religion (cf. II-II.81) and the proper response of human beings in relation to God. Religion, moreover, is the most important moral virtue, since it draws people nearest to God while being distinct from the theological virtues. Worship, therefore, is one of the most important actions that human beings have the dignity and duty of performing. Citing St. Augustine, Aquinas argues that the greatest lies or offenses are those that are against Religion (II-II.93.1). The more important an action or virtue, the greater is the offense against it. To express an untruth against the worship of God is especially grievous. Aquinas argues that when a priest does something external that is not in accord with the ritual, he is performing such a lie insofar as he deviates from the given order of the rite: "even as he would be guilty of falsehood who would, in the name of another person, proffers things that are not committed to him, so too does a man incur the guilt of falsehood who, on the part of the Church, gives worship to God contrary to the manner established by the Church or divine authority, and according to ecclesiastical custom" (II-II.93.1co). The essential principle of Aquinas' assertion here is that the priest during Mass acts in persona Christi. As such, he should no longer act for himself but for Him whom he serves, and the Church, which is His Body. To depart from the rubrics of the Mass is to be a bad representative of Christ and the Church. And since offenses against important people are more serious, to depart from the rubrics is a grave insult to Christ and the Church. That is why Aquinas places such actions under the vice of superstition, which is any form of undue worship of God. Superstition is the vice against religion whereby worship is offered, not in excess or with too much solemnity, but rather "to whom it ought not, or in the manner it ought not" (II-II.92.1co). Therefore, to depart from the rubrics or the solemn and proper ars celebrandi of the Mass is an act of superstition.

Can St. Thomas Aquinas and the official documents of the Church magically solve all the problems of supersititious celebrations of Mass? Not easily, quickly, or perfectly. What can help, though, is for more lay faithful to become informed about what the Mass is, how one is to participate in it, and why it is so important for us in the era of the New Evangelization. With better knowledge, the lay faithful will begin to desire more ardently, and seek from their priests more effectively, an ars celebrandi that frees them to worship the One True God who has called us into communion by the bonds of faith, hope, and love. 

*picture from http://www.blurryphotos.org/episode-6-superstitions/

Br. Cody Jorgensen, O.P.'s picture

The Jealousy of Numbers

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"He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him. He had cured many of them and, as a result, those who had diseases were pressing upon him to touch him" (Mk 3:9-10).

Word about Jesus spreads so quickly. How fast does the Word of God move in our lives and in our hearts! If today you knew of a man who, by merely touching him, would cure you of your most afflicted disease, would you not travel far and wide? Yet this man isn't of folklore or some newspaper headline; he is real, it is the Lord!

The crowds, the huge throng of people seeking Jesus for healing is reminiscent of the first reading. When King Saul and David walk through the cities of Israel after their victory, the people acclaim them for the thousands they have slain. Numbers. How interesting that numbers can incite jealousy within our hearts. "That other person did more than I. Is he better than me?" Were not both King Saul and David doing the will of God? I can easily count in my own experience the number of times I've been tempted to take an unholy pride in mere numbers: "Look! We had ten Baptisms at Easter Vigil this year!" Rejoicing in the work of the Lord is a beautiful thing, and yet how easily can the heart be tempted to quantify His work; tempted to think not of God's power, but of "our" work and rejoice in "our" accomplishment. It is good to rejoice, and yet how easily can we be led to jealousy!

In His mission, Jesus isn't preoccupied by a human jealousy of numbers. His mission is to do the will of the Father, a mission that because He is the Word, compels Him to preach the Gospel. Just as with King Saul, the leaders in Jerusalem will become wildly jealous because of the massive crowds that follow Jesus. Ultimately the ugliness of human jealousy will rear its head and again cry for death. Jesus however, as the Son and Word of God has the power to redeem us, to bring about the powerful manifestation of God's love in the Triumph of the Cross.

We must always seek to confirm one another in faith, and encourage each other in the work that God has given us to do in His Name. It is through the saving power of the cross that all our jealousies can be transformed. Let us be like the townspeople that heard of Jesus, Let us repent and flee to Him who has the power to save us.

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Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Bad Religion, Good Read

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Though Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was published almost two years agoBad Religion (Douthat) now, I just got around to reading it over Christmas. It is one of those books I could hardly recommend more to sincere Christians who are trying to sort out the role of Christianity in the public square today. Douthat is an op-ed writer for the New York Times (one of the two token conservatives on staff), whose first two books and multitudinous articles have established him—young as he is—as a prominent cultural critic and observer. Douthat has been praised especially for his balance, which is on rather remarkable display in his most recent book. He sets forth his own positions incisively and with an engaging writing style, while mindful of the weaknesses within the groups he represents; yet is also able to see the strengths and potential good in his opponents' positions. In other words, he betrays a genuinely Catholic sensibility.

Every Christian in America today is aware, on some level, of the ideological battles that rage between and within different communions, the various camps often (and unhelpfully) drawing their vocabulary, attitudes, and posture towards the world, from the clunky categories of the American political scene. As a Generation X convert to the Catholic faith myself, I often have to work very hard to figure out how battles that were fought in the 1960s and '70s—over, say, formal or informal liturgy, abandoning or sticking to traditional theological vocabulary, whether clerics should wear distinctively religious attire or not—are still relevant today. Many have noticed that these post-Vatican II battles, or at least the language and set of cultural assumptions within which they emerged, seem even more remote to the generation following mine, the "Millenials."

The first great service of Douthat's book is to familiarize someone like myself with the "world" of 1950s American Christianity, then the various historical and social forces that, in the ensuing decades, led to the quite complex and varied situation we have today. This is the burden of the first half of the book. The second half goes on to detail a set of "American heresies" Douthat sees operative in the minds and hearts of most average American Christians today. The first half, though, begins by drawing off political trends, social scientific data, theological movements, and broader cultural features, to paint a picture of what Douthat calls the "Lost World" of the 1950s. It is not a lament for a pristine era—to my mind the author is careful not to fall prey to false idealization, despite what some reviewers have said. Rather he sets forth, for the sake of comparison, a broad array of features that characterized the American Christian scene circa 1960.

He points out, for example, that in the 1950s Christianity had a—startling to even utter—strong public presence in the United States that was, on the whole, respected by politicians and intellectuals alike. Having grown up myself in the 1980s in what is known as the "mainline" (as opposed to evangelical) wing of American Protestantism, I was astonished to see that the mainline denominations—Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.—actually experienced growth in the post-WWII years. (Since the 1960s they have experienced an almost universal decline in numbers.) The public prominence of such figures as Fulton Sheen, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr., bore witness to a Christianity that was, though confessionally varied, intellectually respectable, politically engaged, and strong enough to wield significant cultural influence. Thinkers, writers, and scholars forged within a Christian worldview abounded, able both to engage and win respect from the highest levels of academia, as well as assert a public presence that shaped Christian thinking and consciousness: W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Flannery O'Connor, from the literary side; Christopher Dawson and Arnold Toynbee as historians; John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain as theological-philosophical minds who summoned their impressive abilities to political influence.

And then came the '60s. Douthat suggests five factors that, taken together, contributed to the deep fractures American Christianity experienced in the ensuing decades: (1) political polarization, and an increasing politicization of religion; (2) the sexual revolution; (3) globalization; (4) the religious consequences of increased wealth; and (5) class. Politically, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement sparked generational conflicts between an older Eisenhower-era generation in favor of change, but the slow and gradual type; and the younger leftward-leaning generation who demanded more confrontational "shake things up" tactics. Religion within this atmoshpere became increasingly wedded to political agendas, a trend Douthat illuminates by contrasting two pairs of leaders, one from the "old" and the other from the "new" order. In the 1950s and '60s, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., though coming out of politically opposite constituencies, managed to transcend their political affiliations, and remain effective Christian witnesses. Graham grew to respect and eventually support King's work; and King would have been, as much as Graham, recognized as a Christian clergyman of public import. By the 1980s, on the other hand, an unseemly picture emerges: Pat Robertson, in a Billly Graham & MLK, Author-Billy Graham (www.billygraham.org); Source-Wikimedia Commonsmanner the heir of Graham's largely white, conservative constituency, intentionally allying himself with the Republican Party vis-à-vis the Christian Coalition; and Jesse Jackson, on the left, summoning his religious clout to the full support of the Democratic Party platform. Each makes a bid for the 1988 Presidential election, a spectacle almost inconceivable for their 1950s and '60s forbears, who seem to have come out of a less-partisan, and hence relatively more united, Christian milieu.

In turn, the sexual revolution, globalization, and a burgeoning post-War middle-class, confronted America's Christian leadership with a juggernaut of issues it could hardly have foreseen, and had little idea how to effectively address. From the radical shift in sexual ethics and moral reflection brought on by the availability of contraception; to the seeming relativization of Christianity's uniqueness in light of a "global world" that seemed to draw Asia and alternative religious experiences nearer; to the slough of problems the gospel associates with wealth flooding into an upwardly mobile Baby Boomer generation; to theologians like Harvey Cox and James Pike who seemed altogether cheery about Christianity's capitulation to, and merging with, the rising secular state: all these amounted to a perfect storm for America's Christian leadership, who found themselves increasingly on the outs with the trends and direction of mainstream culture.

Douthat classes the responses to these challenges into two broad categories: accommodation and resistance. In the accommodationist camp one found men like Cox and Pike (mentioned above), along with Protestant mainline, and the lion's share of influential Catholic thinkers and bishops. If the world is speaking of progress and political action, and is tired of "old fashioned" ways of doing things, then, well, the Church ought to abandon these old ways as much as possible, since modern man finds them so displeasing. Jesus was interested in social justice and challenging the existing authorities; so ought we be. Jesus met people where they were at; so we ought to be less concerned about formality in liturgy, and adopt a more folksy guitar and tambourine approach, in line with what young people are "really" interested in. One very interesting section along these lines draws comparisons between the language of men like Cox and Pike—who came to positively and unashamedly deny central Christian truths—and the language of the 2nd Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, whose optimism about the possibilities of the "City of Man" often seems, at best, anachronistic, and at worst, almost incoherent. Exemplary of his detachment, though, Douthat reminds someone like myself—who, in the year 2014, finds himself on most points in favor of re-implementing in a new context, the "more traditional" ways—that in 1965 the accommodationist approach was altogether arguable, reasonable, and even compelling. Christianity faced an array of issues that were unprecedented in Christian history. Why not tinker with the way doctrine is couched, and the manner liturgy is done, in order to draw more souls to Christ? The real effects of accommodationism, needless to say, were another question. Douthat quotes James Hitchcock to summarize (107):

"Progressive clergy shed their vestments on the sacristy floor, threw their incense in the trash, and sold their golden vessels to antique dealers, only to discover that somehow the puritanical young men and women who had marched with them on the picket lines had got hold of all these discards and more besides—tarot cards, Ouija boards, Tibetan prayer wheels, and temple gongs. The Latin had been eliminated from the Mass so the young could comprehend it, but they preferred instead to chant in Sanskrit. Campus chaplains had ceased trying to sell prayer and were selling social action instead, but their former constituents were hunting up Hindu gurus and undertaking systematic regimens of meditation and fasting. Some clergy lectured the Church severely about the evil of sacral liturgies which are "escapes from life," but the young increasingly preferred drug-induced euphoria and hallucinations."

The fruits of accommodationism were increasingly smaller congregations, who seemed increasingly less committed to traditional Christian truths, from the theology of God, who now was to be "nearer" to me and so grow and change and learn things like me; to moral and sexual issues, which on any number of points contemporary Christians were either indifferent to or positively rejected; to recognizing any substantial need for "institutional religion" at all.

First Things Cover, Author-JoeCarter888; Source, Wikimedia CommonsOn the other side was the "resistance" approach of evangelicalism and a smaller group of Catholics, who found themselves unlikely allies in an emerging "culture war" against the rising tide of secularism. The journal First Things came out of this improbable alliance (first issue, Spring 1994), as did the increasingly politically aligned pro-life movement. Though generating a significant amount of internal strength and sense of purpose, and doing what no other post-1960 Christian community seemed capable of, winning converts, weaknesses emerged almost in lock-step with the growth. A certain strain of anti-intellectualism emerged in debates over evolution and biblical inerrancy, and an often too-close-for-comfort political association with "old time Reagan republicanism" made the claims of the emerging "Christian right" less credible. Their culminating victory almost became the defining defeat. With the election of George W. Bush to the White House, a convinced and assertive evangelical had finally made his way into the Oval Office. Yet Bush's administration was hardly against using government power to effect cultural change (a supposedly forbidden practice for conservatives), and the unfolding debacle of American intervention in Iraq, whatever the original intentions, dealt repeated blows to the American Exceptionalist camp's vision for a Judeo-Christian America, and a Representatively Democratic World. "Among young people, in particular," Douthat writes, "Evangelicalism's appeal waxed among Generation X...but then waned as the Xers gave way to the Millennial Generation. A quarter of Americans under thirty identified as Evangelical in the middle 1980s, but by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that number was below 20 percent and dropping" (138).

The Resistance movement, particularly its Evangelical base, tended to thrive on a "para-church" approach that rejected the establishment institutions and sustained itself through high-profile personalities and leaders: from Billy Graham to Chuck Colson to Francis Schaeffer to Jerry Falwell. But, Douthat writes,

"[T]hough the 'para' groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren't as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations. They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith...organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of a comprehensive, intergenerational community that both Mainline churches and Catholicism had traditionally offered. You couldn't spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughter as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle. For that kind of staying power your needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders. Instead, Evangelicalism became dominated by empire-building megachurch pastors whose ministries often burned brightly and then just as quickly burned out."

One could find, I would further assert, parallel trends in the Catholic neo-conservative cluster that defined themselves against the mainstream Catholic leadership: effective in important ways at gaining adherents and martialing forces, yet ultimately with little to show in culturally-shaping influence.

The first half of Bad Religion gives an important, even vital, context to Christians today seeking a place to move forward. But the second half of the book is even more rewarding, and more practical. Douthat's thesis here is that, contrary to popular belief, we do not live in an un-religious or absolutely un-Christian America. Rather, any number of social scientific studies and other cultural indicators show that Americans are more religious now than they have ever been. Instead, Douthat argues, we live in an age of Christian Heresy. If a "mere Christianity" (to borrow Lewis' phrase) is conceivable, a Christianity whose fundamental affirmations Christians through history would recognize—be they Protestant or Catholic—fewer and fewer Christians today believe in it. The heresies Douthat pinpoints, in turn, are:

(1) the historical Jesus heresy, which explains away the historicity of the Gospels, while holding up pseudo and Gnostic versions of the Nazarene as somehow more to be reverenced; it is the Christianity of Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan, on the scholarly side, and Dan Brown on the popular side;

(2) the prosperity Gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, whose pervasiveness Douthat sets forth in frightening terms—who knew there were so many, or how much influence they have?—Douthat actually points to authors who have argued, almost convincingly, however far-fetched, that the housing bubble of recent years was virtually caused by prosperity preachers (!);

(3) the "God-within" heresy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, where God becomes identified with my own inner-feelings and primordial instincts, whose Divine Voice might tell me to abandon my marriage vows (as Gilbert claims the Voice told her), and go on a spiritually narcissistic romp through Italy, India, and Indonesia in search of "self-actualization"; it is the god which denies original sin, and identifies the Deity with human nature, as well as trees, rocks, streams, sentimental romantic flings, and good Italian espresso;

(4) the "City on a Hill" heresy of American Exceptionalism; it is the God of, on the right, Glenn Beck, Michael Novak, and R.J. Rushdoony, who would see America as the culmination of God's divine plan for the human race; and, on the left, of the secular messianists of the Woodrow Wilson stamp, who believe America to be the standard-bearer for all things properly good, progressive and democratic, as the Lord of Heaven rightly wills it, and wills it inevitably for the whole world.

Douthat concludes with four possible options for the Christian world of contemporary America, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses: (1) the "postmodern opportunity," which exploits the cultural breakup of recent years to fashion "emerging churches" and "para-" groups that seek change society from the "ground up"; their temptation is to simply become, as Douthat puts it, "warmed over accommodationism"; (2) the "Benedict option," named after the monk and saint, which operates on the principle that Christianity must contract—if necessary into sub-cultures that retreat from the mainstream—before it grows; the danger here is to risk "paranoia, crankishness, and all the other pathologies of the religious ghetto...effectively giving up on those co-believers who aren't capable of opting out" of mainstream social engagement; (3) the "Next Christendom," which recognizes and builds on the strong emerging presence of Christianity in the "global south," reckoning within the borders of the United States with the continued influx of immigrant populations from the developing world; here Douthat makes the understandable observation that "not every form of cross-pollination is healthy," for the newly arrived representatives of Christianity from outside America's borders may import as many faults as positive and fresh emphases; and (4) to simply lower expectations as to the possibilities for Christian public and cultural influence.


By any reckoning, Bad Religion is an impressive and formidable effort. It would make excellent study material for a parish group. For sheer breadth, it's one of those books that is an education in itself, drawing together statistics, names, and social and cultural trends, into a richly informative overview of the state of Christianity in the United States in 2012 anno domini. What is more, Douthat manages to articulate—as I mentioned at the outset—highly controversial and complex social, political, and ecclesial trends in a manner both accessible and balanced, giving the reader much to mull over, whatever his or her personal ideological posture. I came to agree with almost everything Douthat argues in Bad Religion. Where I disagreed it tended to be a matter of emphasis here or there, or where I wanted him to better explain some unstated assumptions (e.g. the existence of a "mere Christianity," or the concept of "heresy," apart from the Catholic Church); assumptions of which I knew he was aware, but which lay outside the purview of the book. In any case, for the Catholic, Christian, non-believer, and everything in between, Bad Religion is worth the time, and is sure to reward the interested reader with much fruit for reflection, discussion, and debate.