Monday, 23 June 2008

On minimalism...

In response to my post urging a campaign to restore Holy Days of Obligation to their proper date a few days ago, a commenter, Peter pointed out that in reality, feasts such as Corpus Christi tend to be poorly attended by traditionalists.

Perhaps that isn't true everywhere, but it certainly accords with my observation. It set me to wondering about other aspects of traditional practice that are now largely voluntary such as the Eucharistic fast, abstinence on Friday, devotions and so forth.

Saving the liturgy is not enough

Fr Zulsdorf has been running the line, save the liturgy, save the world. I do agree with this.

But my suspicion is that if we want Catholicism to regain (practicing) adherents - and here I mean targeting the 86% of those who tick the box on the census form claiming to be catholics, but rarely darken the door of an actual church - restoring the sense of the sacred in the liturgy is only a necessary but not sufficient step.

My theory is that we also need to persuade the hierarchy to bring back some of the traditional disciplines. Not to mention insist on some orthodoxy.
In short we need not just to restore the 'cult', the way we worship, but also also the creed (what we believe) and the code (how we act). Restoring the cult will go a long way to achieving this of course: lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). But I don't think it will be enough by itself.

Why asceticism was dropped

The move to make practices largely voluntary back in the 1960s reflects, I think, some very bad psychology, sociology and anthropology. The rationale at the time, as far as I can gather went something along the lines that the rules reflected a kind of minimalism - encouraged people to do only what they had to, but didn't really encourage anyone to strive for perfection.

So, the argument went, take away the minimalist requirements, urge them to strive to do more, and everything would be great! Giving up meat on Fridays, for example, seems pretty trivial at one level. Surely if we were all striving for perfection, we would do so much more!

The only problem was, so the defenders of this view go, that the rule changes coincided with a time of self-indulgence, when asceticism itself began to seem pointless. And this view was compounded by a failure to actually take up the Vatican II agenda of educating the laity.

In reality such an approach was surely always doomed to failure. It missed the point that practices like fish on Fridays help create a sense of community solidarity, supporting the Catholic culture. It missed the point that it is easier to do something penitential if everyone else around you is doing it too. And most of all, it it assumes that not only are we all striving for perfection, but that we actually a good way along the path.

The reality, unfortunately, is that despite our best intentions, we all tend fall back to doing the minimum at times. And for many of us, those times can last a lot of the time!

Religious communities (at least the ones who haven't completely lost their way) understand this - though they demand a lot from their members, they have authority and support structures, not the least of which is the other members of the community, in place to help everyone meet the requirements of a demanding day-to-day life. But for the laity, those structures have been broken and not replaced as yet.

Towards a sociology of religion

John Senior's book on Catholic culture made one observation that rather appealed to me, and that is that the particular genius of the Rule of St Benedict is that it recognises that in Plato's division of the world into judges, soldiers and farmers, most of us are farmers, notionally with lead in our souls rather than silver or gold! St Benedict's Rule, he argues, is a spirituality of the ordinary life, aimed at the farmers of this world: for most of us need frameworks for times of prayer, for ascetic practice, for silence.

In every age, one might argue, some few are called to the ascetic extremes of practice, and given the grace to carry it out - depending on the exigencies of the times, they will be the martyrs, the desert monks, or Carthusians. The majority of people, however, need a lot more help to achieve holiness, and it is for this group that practices are important.

The sociologist Rodney Stark adopts an economic rationalist approach to much of his analysis that needs to be overlaid with the concept of vocation and grace. Nonetheless, I do think there is something in his argument that religious groups can essentially be classified into three types, high, medium and low tension. Religions that are at a 'high tension' from their surroundings demand a lot of those who adhere to their creed, and are inevitably pitched at a small elite (essentially sects).

Those religious groups whose tension is set too low, however, not demanding enough from adherents, inevitably secularize, with adherents becoming indistinguishable from the general population. A religion, he suggests, must require sacrifice from its adherents: the easier it is to be a member, the less desirable being a member is!

Stark's analysis points to one of the reasons why the dumbing down of catholicism - including the failure to insist that moral teachings actually be followed - has led to such a dramatic collapse in the number of people who actually turn up to mass.

The challenge ahead

And Stark's work also has some lessons I think for traditionalists in this transitional time.

Up until now, being a traditionalist has been toward the 'high tension' end of the scale - there was a stigma attached to being a traditionalist, and many traditionalists adopted practices such as longer than the minimum fasts, wearing head coverings for women, and so forth as a badge of that identity. But the increased acceptance of the TLM since Summorum Pontificum could easily lead to the loss of that sense of tension.

Now if our increased acceptance can be channeled so as to become a force for the re-evangelisation of the rest of the Church; for increased insistence on the practice of what the Church teaches, for example, and a rebirth of orthodox theology, we could turn that acceptance into a strong positive. The Catholic Church could once again be seen as a medium tension religion edging upwards on the scale.

So far though, I haven't seen much evidence of an evangelising spirit coming from traddies.

Sure we applaud when the Pope gives communion on the tongue. But do we demand that right in our local non-trad churches?

We claim to like the idea of celebrating feasts such as Corpus Christ on their actual date - but do we actually turn up at mass on the day?

There seems to me a real danger that we will all let out a sigh of relief that going to our local mass is no longer quite as hazardous to our spiritual health as it used to be, and traditionalism as a force will fizzle out.

Why, after all, join the FSSP to become a priest if you can say learn the TLM at your local seminary and say it regularly?

And for the lay person, if your local TLM doesn't promote traditional values and theology as your old 'ghetto' community used to, at least it is more convenient.

So the challenge for us at this time, is, I think, to use the increased acceptance of the traditional mass as a lever for evangelisation. A means of bringing the Catholics estranged by the events of the last forty years back into the Church before it is too late for them. An approach to persuading young people that despite the twaddle they were fed at school, Catholicism is actually truth. And of using the introduction of the traditional mass more widely as a means of catechizing a generation who missed out on learning about the practices of their religion.

This won't be an easy task.

But we really are all called to perfection.

And it is the difficult times like our own that God typically calls forth great saints. One of those from an other such era, St Teresa of Avila, urged everyone to strive to be a great saints. We all need to consider then, what we can do, whether small or large, for the cause of building up the Church and converting Australia.


Cardinal Pole said...

I would love to agree with your idea of “the increased acceptance of the traditional mass as a lever for evangelization”, but I have grave doubts that either the TLM will enjoy a significant long-term increase in acceptance or that it will be a ‘lever for evangelisation’.

Virtually the entire Australian hierarchy is hostile or indifferent to the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, and the Holy Father is, though healthy, a very old man. The modernists just have to hold out for a fellow traveller to assume the Throne of Peter and it’s game over for the Motu Proprio. As for the laymen, the 14% or so who actually turn up to Mass on any given Sunday seem content with the situation of every Mass being a Folk Mass and are keen to accommodate secularism wherever possible; they don’t want to be reminded of the rich, distinctive Catholic heritage and its adherents.

As for the TLM as a means of evangelization: Stark makes sense regarding religions needing to demand sacrifices from adherents, but Churchmen of the post-War generations just do not get this. The TLM is totally oriented towards God, towards adoration and propitiation of Him. But Vatican II’s vision for bringing people into the Church was through a re-orientation from God towards man, and the Novus Ordo is the Liturgy of the Cult of Man. On the surface, then, it should be the Novus Ordo that appeals most to ‘lapsed Catholics’ and non-Catholics. And so rather than hard truths about God and the sacrifices that He demands, the trend in Catholic evangelization has been, in line with Vatican II’s teachings, in favour of pandering to man’s selfishness and accommodating secular humanism—just look at the pathetic, grovelling Pastoral Letter from the Bishops this last Sunday! (Are you going to blog on that?) The Novus Ordo is the perfect vehicle for this: God and sacrifice are hard, ‘table fellowship’ is easy. But why bother joining, or staying with, a religion if its teachings are diluted and its practices undemanding?! Very few people will stick with that sort of religion, about 14%, one might estimate.

So, if I may draw my rant to a conclusion, I predict that the situation will become a LOT worse before it becomes any better.

Cardinal Pole said...

Corrigendum: the newspaper advertisement entitled "Catholic? Been Away?" was what I meant to call pathetic and grovelling, not the Pastoral Letter. If you have a strong stomach then you may read it at:

Terra said...


First thanks for the tip on the pastoral letter, perhaps because I live in a ghetto, we didn't get it (and it doesn't seem to have made the various websites other than Wollongong as yet either)!

On the TLM, it will be a lever for evangelisation only if we make it so!

It is easy to look at the situation with the hierarchy etc, get depressed and sink into pietism. And it is true that on some things we just have to hope and trust.

On the Pope's longevity (and his successor), we can only pray. Very hard. And put our trust in God.

But there are some things we each can do. My view is that if we only listen, we are being called to do them!

I don't think the novus ordo and watered down practices will attract back those addicted to the cult of man - frankly the secular world does it much better than we do, hence the 14% figure!

So we have to be out telling the potential returnees about the TLM. This is going to need leadership from traditional priests I think. But there are things the laity can do - introduce friends to the mass, organise chant workshops in their diocese, welcome visitors, etc. I'll blog more on this, you've inspired me!

Cardinal Pole said...

Interesting that you mention the Wollongong website. Whoever runs it can get a mere Pastoral Letter up online in days, and the website has Papal documents as recent as Spe Salvi, but there is no trace of the most important piece of Church legislation since the new CIC, namely, Summorum Pontificum. I could go on about the situation in the Diocese of Wollongong, but I might become uncivil so I will restrain myself.

I look forward to your suggestions on the TLM and evangelisation. How does one get someone like my mother, who says the Novus Ordo is 'fine the way it is', to even check out the TLM? And my mother is a weekly Mass attender; how does one pique the interest of indifferent, nominally Catholic friends and workmates?

Anonymous said...

Somehow, the TLM has got to be a means of evangelisation. Not everyone is attracted to the Cult of Man--several Catholics I know who were called to an ascetic monastic existence of tradition and discipline didn't know where to find it in the modern Church and left to become Tibetan Buddhist monks. I really think we could have kept them if there was mainstream respect for traditional orders and encouragement of those who want to live penitentially, contemplatively, seeking the soul's perfection. Instead, the modern Church insinuates that anyone who is called to this needs a shrink, not a solitary's cell. How sad to have cold water poured on an authentic vocation by those in authority (and, by doing so, having fewer and fewer monks and nuns who live in constant prayer for the Church and for all souls). Not everyone seeks to be a utilitarian religious--a social worker, teacher, administrator or pastoral worker. Corporal works are fine, but spiritual works are greater, I think. It is sad that Buddhists, who are seen in the West as exotic, but not Catholics (and the Buddhists are welcomed as a visible sign of contradiction--they didn't give away their habits!),are admired for leaving the world behind.