Monday, December 18, 2006

On what it means to be Catholic and living in the U.S. approaching the year 2007

It’s no secret that practiced Catholicism in the U.S. is a bit of a mixed bag. With the demise of urban immigrant communities and the Catholic ghetto, Catholicism in much of the country, in middle America, has become Protestant in both belief and practice. Items of the faith that we were once picked up through experience no longer exist, because those rituals that provided the non-verbal teaching are no longer practiced. Catholics are poorly catechized (there’s a thesis here about the Catholic Church not having made the transition into literate society yet and what that means pastorally) and many adult Catholics are spiritually immature; this is often why they find Protestantism enticing.

“Well, at least we have the real sacraments!” is an oft-heard cry, but with it carries a smidgen of triumphalism and something more pernicious – that it doesn’t matter what they or we believe, as long as our sacraments are valid. We then give a point in argument to our critics: that all that holds us together is what the Catholic Church teaches about itself legally – that as long as one is tied to the pope, one is doing just fine in the spiritual sojourn.

Is it enough to believe one is receiving the sacraments? Sure, but it fails to acknowledge that when we experience God, that experience is also, necessarily, sensual: through our eyes and ears, in sounds and smells and light. We have to face this embarrassing fact: our current Masses in places in this country may not provide spiritual nourishment for the well-catechized Catholics (or any Catholics for that matter). Of course, the ultimate nourishment is Christ himself, but the regard and treatment of the Eucharist that can occur in some Catholic parishes is so irreverent that it is difficult to see the Groom offering Himself to His bride in such practices.

Honestly, I worry less about the sins committed by the members of the Church, including her hierarchy, than about the issue above. If one believes about the Church in the way I do, it makes complete sense that she would be attacked by Satan in the worst possible ways, and I am glad we have grievous sinners in our midst – they and I need the Church more than any other. I also am fully aware that the Church Militant has been and will be afflicted by any number of diseases and rot fitting our fallen world until the Second Coming, none of which takes away from her holiness and her continual renewal in Christ.

That Catholics (and all Christians) should embrace suffering, the suffering of the Cross, in their earthly journey is nothing new. If the great suffering in one’s life that one must endure is bad liturgy, than that’s one of the easier crosses to carry. But can the scandal of our modern Catholic practices (or non-practices) actually cause spiritual deadening? I have gotten up and left Masses at some Catholic Churches; others I’ve vowed to never attend again. But viewing this as an “all-over” problem, a disease within the current Church, is it so? Or is that perception shaped by the Internet and other media sources? Are we showing how American we are when we bitch and whine about how the liturgy isn’t up to par? (I once had a clinical engineering professor who often said that Americans could never accept a universal health care system – we are much too particular and demanding.) And what were things like before these liturgical problems?

I see a great number of Catholics who failed to sufficiently teach their children in the faith, even pre-Novus ordo. People stayed Catholic (and the so-called cafeteria Catholics still do) because it was part of their culture and heritage (or they would no longer get the thrill of rebellion if they joined a Protestant denomination more to their liking). I’m not sure an improved liturgy would correct that, nor should it: I don’t think the liturgy is necessarily meant to be informational, but experiential. It should be where we meet God and that occurs in our entire body and soul, not just in our brain. There’s a good argument to be made that the Catholic Church has given up points to Protestantism since the Reformation: that Catholics, especially in America, have adopted Protestant liturgical practice, Protestant belief in sola scriptura and sola fide, and anyone who unquestioningly adopts the American way as The Best is working under some heavy Protestant presuppositions.

Yet there is always hope. Two major weaknesses in Protestantism, the appeal to private judgment and the principle of revisability, have become more exposed due to the antics of some of the Lutheran and Anglican denominations, and the rise in Catholic apologetics has led to the conversion of many spiritually mature Protestants to the Catholic faith. The latter tend to desire a reversion to the fullest expression of the Catholic faith possible, hidden in the modern world. There is also hope to embrace a friend’s considerations: we must face the fact that we are at odds with the currents of this world, and look to the example set before Constantine, before the possible great mistake of combining the secular with the religious, for guidance.

An afterthought: it is a signpost to me that when the major Protestant denominations began to embrace the use of artificial birth control is when they began to become increasingly heretical to the point of unitarianism in belief. A similar phenomenon has happened in American Catholicism. There is something fundamental in the denial of the existence and participation in the Trinitarian life and its model in marriage that occurs in the use of artifical birth control that allows heresy to eat away from within.


AG said...

A recent essay titled "Why Do Catholics become Evangelicals"

J. Kotinek said...

AG, I really enjoyed this thoughtful piece. Having made the journey from my Baptist roots to Eastern Orthodoxy, I have a real appreciation for the importance of experiencing the faith in practice handed down from the Apostles.

In discussions about the accessibility of the Liturgy, the notion that there is (or shoudl be or has been) a divide between how worship occurs for literate and non-litearate populations seems absurd to me. There is now in Orthodox liturgy (and also in the Masses that your post pines for, I imagine) a layered complexity of meaning that nourishes mature and infant Christians. I share your grief that the Catholic Church has in many places catered to the lowest common denominator in worship since Vatican II, most especially since I believe that if the full richness of faith had been retained my father wouldn't have left his Catholic upbringing.

I think that you are on point when you question whethr or not liturgical dilution is feeding a general spiritual malaise. Considering the phrase Lex Credendi, Lex Orandi that both Catholic and Orthodox share, one wonders what exactly is the core of belief if the form of worship has changed so drastically.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful and true post, and touching on more than one of the threads of direction that IMO, are somewhat unraveling Catholic epxerience and understanding today (at least in America, seems less so in places like South America).

Particularly notable is this quote: "That Catholics (and all Christians) should embrace suffering, the suffering of the Cross, in their earthly journey is nothing new. If the great suffering in one’s life that one must endure is bad liturgy, than that’s one of the easier crosses to carry. But can the scandal of our modern Catholic practices (or non-practices) actually cause spiritual deadening? I have gotten up and left Masses at some Catholic Churches; others I’ve vowed to never attend again. But viewing this as an “all-over” problem, a disease within the current Church, is it so? Or is that perception shaped by the Internet and other media sources? "

My guess is this is part of it, but another factor is the very emphasis of just the mere fact of being able to say "well we have the true sacraments". I think this has led to a dangerous and harmful "taking for granted" attitude that has helped fuel the poor catechisis problem. IMO, the Internet if anything, has triggered something of a revival, not decline, in discussion and understanding, let alone interest in, of theological matters.

Instead, it seems part of the answer lies in something more basic. Drawing a parallel with some Washington's ills these days, part of the problem is an abysmally poor public relations awareness and if you will `encapsulation' of doctrinal and sacramental truths in accessible form.

As you said, the liturgy is intended to be experiential, is an actual congress with God's grace, and not strictly `informational'. However, the catch-22 here is that the congregation should, probably must, *understand* the meaning and lore of the liturgy in order to get the most fruit from its cycle connecting us over time to 33 AD and the institution of the Eucharist. Likewise, doctrine and particularly that of the Incarnation and the Trinitarian participation need to understood and embodied to receive its full communion. Far, far too many Catholics these days, (and arguably Protestants as well), go to church, listen, then leave, week in and week out without a sense of real connection. For Catholics and Orthodox without being aware of the invisible truths the sacraments embody. One reason this appears so is a signal neglect of trying to `language' or make relevant in more day-to-day terms. In order to compete with some of the more off-cuff and self-appeal of megachurches and the like.

It so happens that this kind of thing has occurred before in history. In 4th century Byzantium, an interesting situation unfolded whereby the Arians and other heretical sects had taken to having processions and special dedicated days of the liturgical year to `showcase' the faith. In response, the Orthodox Church, especially under St. Chrysostom, came up with its own liturgical observances and celebrations to strengthen participation while at the same time not neglecting a powerful new means of establishing connection for the laity. It comes as a bit of a surprise, if a pleasant one, to learn that some of the festivals in both West and East were designed specifically to help keep the memory of the lessons of that particular saint, or truth of doctrine (like the Exaltation of the Cross, and Immaculate Conception) accessible and forefront. A modern example could be argued that in direct proportion to the decline in celebration of the Nativity and religious content of the Christmas seaons in secular society, the Catholic Church needs to `step up' its celebration and keeping of the season, possibly to medieval pagentry, to effectively `be heard ' over the "competing" message of the malls. That is one example.

What might be helpful today is precisely such an awareness and response. The need to re-instill, and yes, `re-promote' or `put out there' the meanings of the sacraments and the importance of particular doctrines in forms that utilize both the new technology and the new emphases of the present. To make things old new again, which has even been the Church's strength.

A personal example may suffice here; I had a rather deficient and almost secular view and understanding of relationship and marriage until recently. Yet this is not due to a lack of splendid writing on the subject -- there are papal encylicals such as Arcanum and Casti Connubi which speak in strong, indeed prophetic terms of the result of neglecting the sacramental and Trinitarian aspect of matrimony. What was missing is an effective `day to day embodiment' a way of calling attention to these teachings, this outlook.

Which returns to the example in Constantinople cited above. The need to put the Catholic perspective in clear, and yes, `competitive' highlight and form, just as it was once necessary to meet and compete with the challenge of the celebratory style of the Arians and heretics of the 4th Century.

I have written elsewhere, and shall again, how a larger issue is at work in this `contest for attention' of believers. Namely, that essentially, Christians once again inhabit an essentially secular, even pseudo-page, nation state. The way to secure and properly witness to the timeless and transformational teachings and witness is to take pains to not let them get lost in a sea of banality, or worse, let them become too blended with and indistinguishable from the secular culture's habits and outlook lest it start to share its transient nature and values.

Recognizing that the liturgical participation is also experiential, and ramping up its its ways and importance in giving sensate and visual reminders and embodiments of this truth, is one clear way to safeguard this.

- Aurelian