Category Archives: Christian Life

Praying in a Modernist Space

Are modernist buildings good places to pray?

abbey church interior

source and overview

I may be somewhat of an anomaly. On the one hand I am an advocate of Traditional Catholicism, including Traditional Catholic architecture designed to serve Traditional Catholic worship. (If you search through this blog you will know this.) On the other hand I love much of modern architecture. I love many buildings that many others do not like. I grew up in a modernist house, I studied modern art and architecture in college, and I have been a fan of early twentieth century and mid-century modern art and design. With this in mind, I found this lecture about one of the more famous (infamous?) modernist churches to be quite fascinating, not only for its informative content, but also because the lecturer gives a highly (almost ecstatically) positive perspective on exactly the kind of church design many would deride without hesitation.

Abbey Church SJU_Inaguration__020

source and more images

This lecture below is by monk, educator, and artist David Paul Lange, OSB. Whether you agree with his assessments or not, this is an excellent overview of modernist principles in architecture, especially at the mid-twentieth century point, and why it made sense to people at that time to build a church according to those principles. It is also an excellent “unpacking” of the design, and the ideas behind the design, of a particular church, the Saint John’s Abbey Church:

I find Brother David Paul Lange’s speaking style to be a bit too breathless for my tastes, but he is a great evangelist for the modernist perspective in architecture, and for this church. But I have some questions:

  1. Is his understanding correct about both modernist architecture and his interpretation of this church? I think absolutely.
  2. Is this church a good representation of modernist architecture? Yes.
  3. Is this church worthy of praise? As an example of modernist thinking, yes. As an example of excellent construction, yes. As a place for worship, you tell me, but I think no, at least not within a proper understanding of ideal Catholic worship.
  4. Therefore, does this church represent a different ideal of worship than traditional Catholic worship, I think so. But you tell me.

Notice a few things:

  1. He speaks of praying more than worshiping. This makes sense given this church is for a monastic community which is focused a great deal on prayer, but it is also significant. The focus is more about the nature and needs of praying than offering a sacrifice to God. Praying in a church is a good and normal thing. However, prayer is a part of worship, but not the only part. Many spaces can be prayerful. Only specific kinds of spaces serve the needs of worship.
  2. He speaks a lot of his own feelings. In a sense this entire talk is an explanation of his personal experiences of this church, and his feelings during and about those experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that up to a point, but as a Catholic would it not be better to also foreground the Body of Christ as a corporate entity a bit more? In that sense he would then speak more of the nature of man in general and his relationship with God. And then tie it back to this church and how it functions.
  3. This is more about a “modernist space” than a church (hence the title of the lecture), even though it is a church where the Eucharist is celebrated. He points out the way the outside comes into the church interior, reminding those inside of the connection with nature, what time of day it is, what weather is outside, etc. In this sense I gather the space functions a bit like stepping into a forest and praying. I like this in a sense, but when I think of celebrating Mass I wonder about the idea of Heaven on earth and the traditional way churches close off the outside world and creating a space that is more heavenly than earthly.
  4. He speaks of the honest use of materials, and how older churches seem dishonest somehow, using paint to create false impressions and faux marble, etc. This is a particularly important part of the lecture. I too love the modernist focus on materials. I also don’t believe such focus is necessarily bad for church design, but a church interior should be (traditionally speaking) a kind of three-dimensional icon of Heaven. Rough, earthy materials that evoke nature have their place, but they should serve a heavenly image, no? Here’s something I might explore in another post, but consider this: Is not a statue of St. Michael (for example) fake because it is not actually St. Michael? Same for the Holy Mother, etc? Would not any church that aspires to create a sense of the heavenly liturgy within its walls be a dishonest use of materials? Maybe. But perhaps that’s a “dishonest” use of the word dishonest.
  5. The bell tower, he argues, with its horizontal lines, points to (or mirrors) the horizontal earth rather than to God. He claims it reminds him that God is everywhere and in all things, and perhaps that’s a good reminder, but this is a curious claim and raises the question, in my mind at least, what is the purpose of a church? To call us to the earth or to call us to Heaven? Do we not minister to each other (horizontally) because we have first sought out and worshiped God–a vertical action? If we do not begin with the vertical does not our horizontal orientation eventually become skewed?
  6. He also mentions that the population of monks used to be 350, but now are only 150. They don’t need such a big church anymore. Only by way of correlation, but still interesting (and troubling): They commit themselves to modernist ideas, they build a modernist church to symbolically represent that modernist spirit, and not long after they lose 60% of their members. Apparently modernism doesn’t need monks. Perhaps modernism doesn’t really need man either.
  7. At the end of the lecture, just before questions, he jokingly apologizes for going a bit long and keeping the Downton Abbey fans from their show — a show whose popularity arose from a longing for an earlier time, represented, in part, not by modernist architecture, but very traditional architecture, and clothing, and customs, etc. Will future generations swoon over the modernist mid-twentieth century in the same way? Perhaps Mad Men did some of that, but that is an awfully dark show.
  8. The first question at the end, by another monk (I believe), is exactly my question, and worth the time for watching this lecture. I have never been in this church, so I have no way of saying what my thoughts would be, but I also wonder if such a place is naturally conducive to prayer, or liturgy at all for that matter. And I truly get the experience from having studied art and swooning over art that others think is stupid or meaningless. And I also find the questioner’s reference to the new cathedral in Los Angeles being obvious a place of prayer puzzling, since it also has been roundly derided for its modernist and non-Catholic design. The answer to his question included: “Do people get modernism? I think the answer is no, by and large,” and “Until I explain this…” In other words, modernist art and architecture requires explanation in order to appreciate it. This is one of the attractions and weaknesses of modern art. I have experienced exactly that feeling of “getting it” after studying it. And yet, I think this may be why modernist architecture is not a good choice for Catholic churches. He also says we are not actually living in a “modernist” society. In terms of art and architecture this may be true specifically in light of design principles–modernism, from an art historical perspective occured at a time in history which is now past. However, the spirit of modernism as a philosophical and theological undergirding of society and the Church is still very pervasive. How modernism in ideas and modernism in design interrelate is a fascinating topic too big for this post.

In the end I find the Abbey Church a beautiful and amazing space. However, I do believe it is probably best suited as a performance space than as a church. I would not advocate a church being built along these lines. Rather, I think we should be informed more by the needs of the Traditional Latin Mass with its focus on God rather than man, uniformity with the Church through history, and creative use of new and old materials that look to the past for inspiration and the future for permanence and authentic timelessness — which can only be done by beginning with a true understand of both God and man.

Finally, I wonder if much of the problems with using modernist design principles and materials for Catholic churches could be solved if the liturgy was the Traditional Latin Mass. In other words, imagine if Vatican II never happened, and the Novus Ordo Mass never promulgated, could churches have been designed in somewhat contemporary and modernist fashion and still fulfill the needs of the TLM? Can architects build “honest” churches and still be Catholic? I think so. But also keep in mind that the St. John’s Abbey church construction began on May 19, 1958, and lasted until August 24, 1961 — well before the council even began, and long before the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated.

If you want to know a bit more about the architect Marcel Breuer:

If you want to know a bit more about the building of the church:

 

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Catholic Cultus / Catholic Culture: Thoughts on Building a Catholic Church

I think it is fair to say that I read my way into traditional orthodox Catholicism but then, to my surprise and chagrin, I ended up somewhat disappointed in modernist Catholicism. How can this be you ask? I am a convert to the Catholic Church. I came from a very non-Catholic “version” of Christianity (anti-Catholic really), and I felt nervous going to Mass on my own (and I knew no Catholics at all to hold my hand and guide me). So I didn’t go the Mass. Rather, over a period of several years I read my way closer and closer to entering the Church. I read books, blogs, and articles. I also listened to podcasts and interviews. Again and again the theological answers given to my questions made sense. I also heard many attractive things about the Church.

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Tradition is not a fad (source)

I heard of the magnificent history or the Church, and of the glories of Catholic art and architecture. I knew something about that already because I had been an art history major in college, and in those courses I studied some of the great paintings and cathedrals of Europe. I heard of the glories of Catholic music. I heard of the Church’s amazing intellectual history. I read more amazing histories of the Church, its battles, its saints, its universities and how it created what we today call science and modern medicine, and I was amazed at all that it has done in the world.

I also studied its theology, comparing it to the Protestant theology in which I was raised. I grew to love the doctrine of the Real Presence. I learned about the sacraments, the role of priests, the value of Tradition, and more. Again and again I was overwhelmed at the riches that had been kept from me by my ignorant Protestant culture, and at just how ignorant I myself had been. I came to see the Catholic Church had better answers to my questions, and a better grasp of Scripture. I also came to see that the Catholic view of man corresponded to both scripture and my experience than what had previously been articulated to me. I began to shift towards a sacramental view of reality. I began to long deeply for the Eucharist. A song was singing to my soul, calling me to the Church. I knew the Church was the home I longed for.

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Mont Saint Michel. We still look at this with awe. And rightly so.

In my mind had growing visions of cathedrals and richly decorated churches. In my mind I heard chant and I smelled incense. I saw old manuscripts and ornate vestments. I sensed history, depth, and a profound connectedness to a cloud of witnesses. This was not a longing for merely a different style or for some medieval live action role playing experience. I longed for an antidote to the ravages of modernity and the false, modernist view of man. And the Church seemed to offer just that. Noted apologists for the Church would tell me to look at the riches of the Church, and I did.

high altar

Why can’t all churches have this kind of beauty? This is, I believe, a legitimate question and deserves a reasonable, thoughtful, and theologically sound answer.

But I also heard stories of clown Masses, and terrible music, including playing bongos in Church. I heard about the indifference and even anger of some Catholics towards their rich heritage. I heard about the focus of the new Mass being on the priest rather than on Christ. I did not really know what “new Mass” meant, but I thought it couldn’t possibly be so bad. I read that some Catholics didn’t like to hold hands during the Our Father, or didn’t like to receive the Eucharist in their hands while standing, or even refused to sing some of hymns because those hymns were terrible musically and, gasp, theologically bankrupt or even heretical. How could this be I thought? I didn’t know a thing.

All of this I heard about and I knew nothing of the debates about Vatican II. I knew nothing of the traditionalists and the radtrads. I knew nothing of Marian apparitions and her prophecies. I just didn’t know much at all. I really had just fallen off the turnip truck in front of the Catholic Church and thought this is the place.

Blessed-Virgin-Mary-at-St.-Margaret-Mary-Catholic-Church-Wichita-Kansas

Kitsch in Wichita (source)

Then I started going to Mass. And there, at my first Mass, was literally a bongo player amongst the guitarists and bassist. And everyone held hands during the Our Father. Parishioners walked all the way across the nave to hug people during the Peace of Christ (sometimes it seemed this was the moment that brought them to Mass). And the music was terrible, terrible, terrible. And the neighborhood Novus Ordo church building was anything but beautiful and glorious. Everything was so ho-hum, so bourgeois and American, so suburban, so blah. And I knew it wasn’t just a question of money. Like when we see a person who decides to buy ugly clothing for the same price as beautiful clothing because they have bad taste, what I saw seemed a reflection of something wrong at the heart of the Church and culture.

And then I looked around some more. I came to realize that all those Catholic glories of art, architecture, music, and all that culture building of Christendom, and all the influence in the sciences and education, were essentially historical realities of past ages and no longer contemporary activities of the Church. The Church had become a poor shadow of its past.

And yet I still loved it. Once I came into the Church I fell even more in love with Catholicism. I love the Eucharist. I love the Real Presence. Sunday Mass is the highlight of my week. But it was still hard. Hard for me and hard to drag my family along to the sappy Mass in the ugly church with of lousy music. I sometimes felt embarrassed and self-conscious about having them with me and knowing I had been promoting the Catholic Church for several years and now abject mediocrity is what they were getting. (Eventually they all entered the Church as well, thanks be to God.)

So I fell back on two things. First, I still got the Eucharist. That, I have to say, has been my sustenance. Second, I thought a lot about a recommendation from J. R. R. Tolkien. I took solace in the reality that most of us live humdrum lives anyway, that Mass is about Christ and the Eucharist, that we shouldn’t get caught up too much in seeking some kind of perfectly celebrated Mass with dynamic homilies and gorgeous music, and that I just needed to do my best to trust in the Church. We also began attending a more conservative Catholic parish (with more traditionally minded priests) that, while still Novus Ordo, nonetheless sought greater reverence in worship — and has a much more traditionally beautiful building, one that is inescapably a church.

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I have also met a number of Catholics who have had similar experiences as I have, and are now working towards changing the Church by incrementally steering it back to the traditions of centuries past. This encourages me.

But, the truth remains: Modern (modernist) Catholic culture is radically devoid of almost all of its great riches and depth that, perhaps, were taken for granted in those past centuries. What greatness is still there is like a dwindling bank account of an inheritance assumed to be inexhaustible. But this modernist church’s art, its modernist church buildings, its modernist worship, even its prayers, are poor copies, and at times outright repudiations, of past riches. Modernist Catholicism does not create a true Catholic culture. In fact, it tends to create a somewhat bland culture that does not propagate itself very well. It is only by reaching into the past and bringing forward those riches that we have any at all with us today. This is why, I believe, Traditional Latin Mass parishes (SSPX, FSSP, especially those with no Novus Ordo option available) tend to create richer, more integrated and more complete local social cultures than the modern Novus Ordo parishes. Or so I’ve heard, I have yet to witness that first hand. But I wrote something about it here, based on what I saw in the video of a Traditional Latin Mass in Paris. And I’ve heard others say it is true. This is what I hope. Show me that I am wrong.

When I say integrated and complete I mean more than social programs and a “happening” Sunday evening “youth” Mass. I mean an alternative way of life that sees the family as the domestic church and the fundamental unit of society, the parish as an actual community made of and for believers, the Mass as the central activity of that community, and an unabashedly Catholic aesthetic permeating every aspect of the parishioners’ lives that is born out of a shared way of worshiping rooted in deeply orthodox Catholicism expressed in timeless praxis. I also mean a recognition that Catholicism and the world are inherently incompatible, and thus the culture of the parish must act in light of that truth, forming good Catholics, supporting the struggle of parishioners to be in the world but not of it, and creating meaningful alternatives to the allures and seductions of the secular society that pervades nearly every aspect of our lives.

But all too often we instead get namby pamby bishops talking psychobabble, “listening” rather than preaching the Truth with which they have been entrusted, swooning over an emotions-based modernist faith and the possibilities of a youth-led Church, and making the social-crisis-du-jour their primary concern. Far too often the hierarchy seems to live in a self-congratulatory bubble while showing almost no regard, let alone recognition, of the profound destruction the Church has experienced in the past 50 years.

awful vestments

Aesthetically nauseating vestments for the 2018 World Meeting of Families. If you want bishops to look like the silly gumdrops so many have chosen to be, have them wear these.

Perhaps I’m dreaming. But here’s a basic fact: Adults who come into the Church, whether from Protestantism or something else, are often looking for a way of living that is distinctly (historically, traditionally) Catholic, and instead they all too often find something rather thin and bland; aesthetically more like a half-hearted 1970’s experiment to which the person in charge hasn’t had the courage (or balls) to say “times up;” and which is often more an expression of a culturally bourgeoise Americanism (or western Europeanism) than authentic Catholicism. And what’s perhaps most disheartening is that so many Catholics don’t see this. But I think more are beginning to. I hope so. I pray every day we all see it more clearly.

Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922

You’ve seen this image before. It seems so simple and obvious, but is it really? Modernism is more than a logical set of steps, it is now our culture, and culture is more powerful and slippery than we think. Modernism is the leaven of our age, and our Church.

The simple truth is we are going to have to create the culture we want, by God’s grace. It is going to take effort, and some hard choices, and tenacity. It’s going to be a battle just like it was for the early Church. We are going to have to root out modernist ideas and presuppositions. This will be harder than we think. In many way modernism is essentially invisible to us. And if we want a Catholic culture with depth and longevity and substance beyond our own whims, we are going to have to get at it with a vengeance. But also with joy. We must always keep before us that one does not start building a culture by trying to build a culture. Rather, we begin with what (or who) we love, and with how we worship. Culture is the product of cultus, and cultus is not merely a Sunday thing, not merely a TLM thing, although that’s huge for many reasons. It’s a totality that encompasses our whole life in one way or another. Let us then turn our hearts and minds towards God and worship Him as we ought. Let us pray in the manner of the historical and orthodox Church. Let’s live as Catholics are called to live.

So, let’s get to work. Consider this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this. And remember, the Traditional Latin Mass is not great so much because it is traditional, but because it is timeless. Maybe we should call it the Timeless Latin Mass. Also, I hear often of bishops not supporting the TLM, and even trying to shut it down in many parishes. But many bishops are vain and may succumb to increasing pressure if enough Catholics make enough noise. In my parish some parishioners organized a 40-hour adoration event and got good support in our community and from our priests. We also have a great bishop who gets it. There are many things to do other than strictly the TLM. Bit by bit, inch by inch we can take back the precious ground that had been tilled and planted in centuries past.

Of course it is God who creates the culture ultimately. We just do the best be can in fear and trembling, and He does the real work. We, the Church, are His handiwork, and He honors those who honor Him.

Saint Francis, pray for us that we might rebuild the Church.

Saint Francis

Saint Francis of Assisi by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958)

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It’s Not A Question Of Validity, It’s About The Efficacy Of Grace

I have often heard the defence of the Novus Ordo Mass in terms of it’s being valid. As though all that needs to be settled is whether a Mass is valid and then all is good. Validity is truly important. Flee from invalid Masses. I believe the new Mass it is valid. The Church says it is and I am bound to accept it, and I do. I have very serious concerns related to its validity, which I wrote about here. However, this lecture by David Rodríguez gets closer to the heart of the matter of what, I suppose, I was really trying to say. For the real issue of the new Mass is not a question of validity, rather it is about the efficacy of grace.

[I have previously posted another amazing lecture by David Rodríguez, this time about the Mass and its relationship to the message of Fatima, here.]

Always, but perhaps more so now, we should be choosing those things which draw us closer to God, and which bring about the grace of God most fully into our lives. We must drive away sin, and root out evil, and cast off the world, and with passion and tenacity turn to Christ, bow before Him, and worship God with utmost reverence. If we fail to see the spiritual battle that surrounds us then we may find ourselves outside the refuge God has provided. And the winds blow strong across that wasteland. David Rodríguez argues that the refuge God has provided us is the Traditional Latin Mass. This does not mean the Novus Ordo cannot be celebrated with reverence, or that God’s grace cannot work through it (which it often does in individuals’ lives), but if one can have more or less grace available, why choose the lesser? Listen to this lecture and decide for yourself.

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Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us…

…because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us. (2 Kings 22:13)

RedNoseDay

This year I have been reading through the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The plan has me reading from three separate passages in the Old Testament, one passage from the New Testament, and a section from the Catechism. I started on January 1st and have not missed a day, yet. If I stick with it, God willing, I will finish December 31st.

Reading recently through the books of 1 and 2 Kings I am once again struck at the repeated faithlessness of the Israelites. Again and again they turn away from God. Again and again the kings go after other gods, play the harlot, refuse to tear down the “high places,” and even offer their own children as sacrifices to demons. I cannot and should not claim I am any better than they. We have been blessed with the hindsight provided by Holy Scriptures. But it is, nonetheless, remarkable how often God’s chosen people turned to other gods. What a remarkable lesson for us.

However, in 2 Kings 22 we read of the story of King Josiah, a 7th century BC king of Judah. He began reigning when he was only eight years old. When Josiah was eighteen, the high priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law, which had apparently been set aside and forgotten in some temple storeroom many generations earlier. This, of course, was the law given by God to Moses and handed on to the people of Israel to instruct them in right worship and right living before God. Hilkiah then gave it to Shaphan, the king’s secretary, and Shaphan brought it to the king himself and read it to him. King Josiah’s reaction was faithful and powerful:

And when the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes. And the king commanded Hilki′ah the priest, and Ahi′kam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micai′ah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asai′ah the king’s servant, saying, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

Think about those last words: “…for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” After this King Josiah set about rectifying the situation, reestablishing right worship, and turning the nation back to God. It’s quite a story.

Can we learn from King Josiah?

Some argue that we shouldn’t live in the past. Of course we can’t, technically, but we can go back into that dusty storeroom and find the riches that were set aside and have been gathering dust and bring them out into the light. God may be a God of surprises, but He is also a God of Tradition, of immutable Truth, and He demands faithfulness. What He has established does not shift like sand, is not not tossed about like a rudderless boat on the waves. Only the double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.

Consider the Church today. Consider the profound and undeniable destruction the Church has experienced. Today we are swamped with stories of systemic sexual abuses and the disgusting clericalism that was marshaled to protect abusers. Today we have a pope who feels he can do and say what he wants irregardless of scripture or tradition. But for decades now, under several popes, the Church has suffered greatly. The sexual abuses, as we know, go back decades and is symptomatic of a terrible spirit of darkness that descended upon the Church over the past 50 years and cleared out the pews, the seminaries, the monasteries, the abbeys, the cloisters, and driven many Catholics to abandon their faith. And it’s not just the episcopate who’s to blame. The “faithful” are culpable too. Though difficult, at any time they could have fought back, but most just ran away. They gave up their faith in Christ and blamed it on other human beings. This is a spirit of darkness.

But it’s the leadership that owns the blame the most. It is they who mostly deserve the millstones. It is the Church’s leadership that eagerly began to play the harlot, bowing down to the spirit of the age, tearing up the traditions, and dismissing the longings of the faithful as old fashioned and out of touch. Many faithful Catholics have even been mocked by members of the Church hierarchy because of their faithfulness.

Is it not reasonable, then, to think the changes in worship brought about by Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Missae have fomented much of the destruction and evils we witness today? Has not the “spirit of the council” gone hand in hand with the withering of the Church? Certainly we can argue about a chicken and egg situation, and we can debate causation and correlation, but is there not an undeniable relationship?

Those who laugh and say a change in worship has no connection to either the troubles in the Church or to their solution are woefully ignorant of Holy Scripture and the God who calls them to repentance and proper worship. Just consider the history of the Israelites and King Josiah.

Worship, faith, blessing, salvation, and all that makes up the Christian life are intimately intertwined. Early on in the story of the world God established that right worship was fundamental to human nature, human flourishing, and the relationship between God and human beings. Remember God’s reaction to the offerings of Cain and Abel. One offering was right and one was wrong, and that was important. God has not changed. Neither has human nature. Christ solved the inadequacies of Old Testament worship by fulfilling the law, but giving us His body and blood, by giving us the Eucharist. However, He did not come to do away with worship, because worship is a gift from God. The rules around worship are only a burden to those who do not love God.

But weak men change how they worship God, rejecting what God has given and replacing it with what they themselves deem appropriate, because they do not have faith and their hearts have turned from God. They fear man and not God. Many have argued this is what happened with Vatican II. Many today are arguing that the series of sex abuse revelations (and there will be many more to come) and the abject clericalism of the Church hierarchy have their connections all the way back to the council and its supposed “spirit.” They say we are seeing the “smoke of Satan” spoken of by Pope Paul VI continuing to damage the Church. They say that the Devil has been attacking the Church intensely for many years and many shepherds have gone gleefully over to the dark side.

I agree. It’s all of a piece.

laughing cardinals

“…for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

Pray every day for the Church.

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Who’s to blame? Considering Cardinal McCarrick, clerical sex abuse, and complicity

mccarrick

Cardinal McCarrick smiling (source)

This is my own poorly formed, and somewhat indirect, take on the Cardinal McCarrick story. I would like to know if I am way off base or on target, or somewhere in between. Insights, challenges, and comments welcome. My question in the title is intended to be an honest question.

A sentence caught my eye in Matthew Walther’s article, The Catholic Church is a cesspool:

When James tried to tell his parents about the things his “uncle” forced him to do, he was told that he must be lying.

I believe this sentence contains more than most Catholics want to think about or are willing to admit.

And it’s one of the saddest and most heartbreaking sentences in this whole sordid affair. And that sentence (as I have come to understand about other abuse stories) has repeated itself again and again in Catholic homes, between parents and their sons and their daughters, mostly their sons in these cases.

At every level the sex abuse scandal is horrible. Christ spoke of a small amount of leaven leavening the whole lump; in other words, a small amount of yeast spreads throughout the entire lump of dough. This is how sin works in one’s life. It is also how sin works in the Church. A little infection gets in and soon there is rot everywhere. A little smoke of Satan finds an open window or door and…

We are right to condemn Cardinal McCarrick for his wickedness. We are right to condemn the cardinals and bishops who have participated directly and indirectly in this grave scandal. We are even right to criticize the popes for being so blind and so slow to act. It is also right for us to condemn the priests who have done terrible things. But what about the laity? What about us?

When there is widespread sin, widespread covering up of that sin, and a corresponding widespread blindness or ignorance of that sin, one should expect a pervasive cultural willfulness underlying it all — a kind of unspoken subconscious “if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.” It is corruption, and it is often so subtle, that produces its own self-protecting blindness. We are all too quick to call out “good bishops” and “bad bishops.” Are we being honest? What has the laity gained by choosing to side with their priests and bishops over their own children until proven wrong? That, I believe, is a HUGE question of enormous implications.

Perhaps… perhaps there was a time for that kind of blind trust. But not for a very long time, if ever. I cannot blame Catholics for leaving the Church over this disgusting tragedy. It’s a steady and vile stench hanging over the Church, and it goes back a long ways. I don’t think they should, but I understand.

Have we not become a Church too easily given over to our precious self-images? Are we not a people wrapped up in supporting a kind of Catholic doppelgänger that has more to do with telling us what we want to believe about ourselves rather the truth? If we are to condemn bad bishops, shouldn’t we also condemn bad parents who are so in need of believing that the bishop is pleased with them that they will betray their own children. Do we need to condemn ourselves and the “Catholic” culture we have created? Perhaps I’m going too far, but I know something about the human heart because I know my own heart.

[As an aside: Someone very dear to me was repeatedly sexually abused by her father from age five until high school. Her mother was subconsciously but willfully complicit in the abuse. Once the abuse became public, her mother supported her father. Her grandmother said she was the one who enticed the abuser. She was only five when it started. Only five. He was the abuser, the adult, but the other adults were complicit. She was the child. He got away with it because he knew the world in which he lived would let him. He had power in that world and controlled it because he had willing accomplices because it was easier to not know than to open their eyes. They were all in good standing in their church community. They all saw themselves as good Christians who would never willing do or support evil. They all got what they wanted, expect the victim. Perhaps this makes me rather sensitive to cultures of complicity.]

The question is not primarily whether James’ parents knew about the cardinal, or that any parent knows about the abuse happening to their child by a priest. I believe most of them don’t actually, truly know, at least at first. (I want to believe that if any parents do find out they would actually do something about it. Perhaps I’m naive) The fundamental question is whether or not the parents (or any of us) are willing to believe. Another way of putting this is do they believe the truth of the gospel and of the Church’s teaching, or know why there is a crucifix above the altar. Do they fully embrace the Church’s teaching on sin? Can it be that many Catholics are so fundamentally unbelieving in the story of salvation that they would rather believe there are men walking around as sinless as Christ and impervious to temptation merely because they have been ordained? Do they suppose a clerical costume makes a man a sinless superhero? Can they read Christ’s condemnations of the religious leaders of His day and still not suppose our own religious leaders are just as likely to fall prey to sin and the devil? Sure, the millstone goes around the bishop’s neck, but too often the parents, and the culture they have helped to create, are complicit.

Keep in mind that even our saints do this. In her 2005 book John Paul The Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father, Peggy Noonan tried to explain why the pope didn’t take seriously enough the reports of sexual abuse by priests. In a 2014 article she reiterated the same argument. She writes:

[I]t would have been almost impossible for John Paul to understand the depth and breadth of the scandal because of his history. He had come of age under Nazism and Communism. They hated the church. Priests who fought them—John Paul was one—were heroic. Nazis and communists constantly attempted to undermine the church by falsely accusing its priests of mis- and malfeasance, including sexual impropriety. That was his context when John Paul was told of recent charges of child abuse. The idea they were true would have seemed impossible to him.

It would have been almost impossible for him to understand. It would have seemed impossible to him. I tend to agree with her assessment. It’s a plausible explanation that rings true. When St. JP2 looked at a priest he saw a hero. How could a hero abuse a child? But even if Noonan’s take is true, it still doesn’t get him off the hook. It just makes it easier to understand why he did what he did, and it’s a lot like why we tend to do what we do. He was blinded by his experiences and his desires. We are too.

I say this and yet Saint John Paul the Great is still a hero to me. But I also know he was a man.

Let’s be clear: The parents are in no way directly at fault for the abuse. Cardinal McCarrick is the one who abused. He is the one with the millstone around his neck. The bishops who knew the open secret of McCarrick probably also have millstones around their necks. And there are probably many others. The issue I’m trying to understand (and I know I’m doing a poor job of it) is about parents turning against the words of their own children (“he was told that he must be lying”) and refusing to even consider they are hearing the truth because to do so would contradict the precious image of they have of the wonderful cardinal, or the parish, or of the Church itself, or how a good Catholic should act towards the clergy, or even one’s image of the pope. But this is a form of idolatry. Some of this is certainly generational. Younger Catholics today, sadly, have become more informed, and consequently more cynical, about these things than their grandparents were. But all of us are potentially the unbelieving parent or friend.

However, I have great hope for the laity. As I witness the responses of cardinals and bishops to sex abuse revelations, and as I again and again see a group of men protecting their clericalism and bureaucratic comforts instead of, it would seem, having faith in God, I am also witnessing the rising up of the laity. Too often the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops acts like their primary job is all about program administration and publishing official statements, and not about the gospel. They put out statements about needing to have “clearer procedures” in place to handle abuse cases, etc. etc. The “good” bishops (and sometimes “bad” bishops) put out platitudinous statements condemning the abuse, but then do nothing. They risk nothing.

Are we now like sheep without a shepherd? Who will lead us?

Perhaps some of these “good” bishops should publicly identify and shame the “bad” bishops. Perhaps they should not let Rome whisk the abusers back to Rome for rehabilitation and retirement. Perhaps some of these “good” bishops should literally start punching the “bad” bishops in their faces (like St. Nicholas slapping Arius at the first council at Nicaea). Honestly, that might make for one of the best bishops conferences ever.

cardinal_farrell

Here’s a face. Cardinal Farrell: The face of the moment for clericalism.

But I am seeing the laity standing up more and more, calling false shepherds what they are, pointing out the wolves in sheeps clothing, and being less afraid to say what needs to be said because they have come to trust first in God rather than the hierarchy. And perhaps because they have social media at their fingertips. I have hope. I think we are going to hear less and less about parents refusing to listen to their children’s cries for help. I hope we hear less and less about abuse too. I am all for a massive house cleaning.

Finally, if the whole Cardinal McCarrick affair is a prime example of the “open secret everyone knows,” potentially implicating numerous bishops in a vast coverup, what about Catholic media? How many stories were not written, stories buried, leads not followed, questions not asked, and reporters told to back off? How complicit is the media? And how complicit is the Catholic media? How much did those at EWTN, Catholic News Service, National Catholic Reporter, etc., etc. know? Who knew what and when did they know it?

It was an open secret. Everybody knew, or heard stories. Are not Catholic news reporters trained in investigative reporting? Or are they merely mouthpieces for the hierarchy?

Here’s something to consider. Read some of the last lines from the film SPOTLIGHT. Remember that this award winning film is about the 2002 Boston Globe (a secular news agency of course) investigation and reporting on the story of predatory sexual activities by Catholic priests in the Boston area, and the subsequent and systematic coverup by the Church hierarchy, specifically by the revered Cardinal Law. Read this carefully:

SACHA
We’ve nailed down multiple stories on seventy priests.

MARTY
All seventy?

SACHA
Yeah. And with the confirmation from Robby’s source, we’re ready to go. We can have a draft next week.

MARTY
Robby, that source of yours, is this someone we could revisit?

ROBBY
Might be tough.

BEN
But he has no problem helping the church protect dozens of dirty priests. Guy’s a scumbag.

Matt glances at Robby. Who’s looking at Ben.

MATT
He’s a lawyer, he’s doing his job.

MIKE
He a shill for the Church.

BEN
He knew and did nothing.

MIKE
He coulda said something about this years ago. Maybe saved some lives.

ROBBY
What about us?

BEN
What’s that supposed to mean?

ROBBY
We had all the pieces. Why didn’t we get it sooner?

BEN
We didn’t have all the pieces.

ROBBY
We had Saviano, we had Barrett, we had Geoghan. We had the directories in the basement.

BEN
You know what? We got it now.

MIKE
Robby, this story needed Spotlight.

ROBBY
Spotlight’s been around since 1970.

BEN
So what? We didn’t know the scope of this. No one did. This started with one goddamn priest, Robby.

Robby looks at Sacha.

ROBBY
MacLeish sent us a letter on 20 priests, years ago. Sacha found the clip.

MIKE
Are you freaking kidding me? 20 priests?

BEN
When?

SACHA
Just after Porter. December of ‘93.

ROBBY
We buried the story in Metro. No folo. Sacha found the clip.

BEN
That was you. You were Metro.

ROBBY
Yeah, that was me. I’d just taken over. I don’t remember it at all. But yeah.

The room quiets. Gut punch. Ben shakes his head.

MARTY
Uh, can I say something?

They turn to him.

MARTY
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on, and there’s fair share of blame to go around. I can’t speak to what happened before I arrived but all of you have done some very good reporting here, reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.

The team takes this in.

MARTY
Having said that, Cardinal Law and the Catholic community are going to have a very strong response to this. So if you need to take a moment, you’ve earned it. But I will need you back here Monday morning focused and ready to do your job.

Here’s what I believe you should notice: Marty appeals to the precious self-image of the reporters to support their own coverup. Yes, we all “spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark,” but they weren’t in the dark except that they wanted to be. They had the information. They had the evidence. They chose to burry it. Marty’s words lets them get themselves off the hook. Yes, we all have to keep moving forward, and yes their reporting eventually was good and necessary, but Marty has just helped them clear their consciences. They are now “absolved” because, while everyone else is stumbling, “you have done some very good reporting here, reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.”

Precious self-image.

I see the bishops doing the same thing — giving themselves a pass again and again. They set up commissions, appoint overseers, establish new processes because the old ones didn’t work, and then walk away self-congratulated and self-absolved. No risk. No sackcloth and ashes. A brood of vipers.

But remember, we all do this in one way or another, and we support each other in our games. We’ve all got our own precious self-images. And we will protect them fiercely. We’ve all got some viper in us, so let’s be careful in our judgments. But still…

‘When James tried to tell his parents about the things his “uncle” forced him to do, he was told that he must be lying.’

Pray for one another.

Lord have mercy.

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The Church is a Monarchy — so start acting accordingly

Coronation_of_Nicholas_II

Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II (painting by Laurits Tuxen, 1898)

In the United States of American we live in (more or less) a democracy. Our country’s founding began with casting off the “shackles” of monarchy. We also outlawed the aristocracy.  That set in motion many positive things, but also some very bad things. I’m not saying if they could do it all over again they should rather have sought a compromise with King George (though I hold out that might have been the thing to do). But I will say we did lose something by doing away with a king.

We lost a powerful context within which to learn how to act before royalty.

Without a king, and the repeated experiences of seeing how a king functions, and how a king is supposed to be treated and, perhaps most importantly, how a people ought to act out obeisance and reverence to the king, then we lose a deep understanding of the language of kingship in the Bible. That language will be foreign to our ears, and if not foreign, non-visceral, non-intuitive. We will have some head-knowledge about kings, but not much more. And if we don’t have that deep understanding, then we will struggle knowing how to behave and, perhaps worse, being nearly completely clueless about our behavior.

By why does that matter now, in this life? Because we are royalty too, and Christ is our king, and we come before Him corporately every time we go to Mass.

Many have said that a huge problem in the Catholic Church today is a lack of understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I agree. I would argue that a second, and closely related, problem is that Catholics don’t know what to do with that knowledge even if they do understand it. At best, it often seems, Catholics believe the proper response to the knowledge of the Real Presence is an entirely internal emotional stance: As long as one feels strongly in some way about the Real Presence then one has done one’s part. Emotions are good, but a human person is body and soul together. What we do with our bodies does something to us at the spiritual level. This is a profound fact.

When we enter a Catholic Church we are coming before our king. Christ is really and truly present. The glowing red candle next to the tabernacle tells us that Christ is there before us. When we receive the Eucharist we are receiving the body of Christ, truly. A Catholic Church, then, is like a king’s great hall, a throne room. Jesus is our friend at some level, of course, but far more important is that He is our savior, our high priest, and our king.

The Mass is also a wedding feast. We, the Church, are His bride. He is our bridegroom. At Mass we are reaffirming our vows. The bride is married to the King of all creation. It is a royal wedding.

Wedding_of_Nicholas_II_and_Alexandra_Feodorovna_by_Laurits_Tuxen_(1895,_Hermitage)

Wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna (painting by Laurits Tuxen, 1895)

So, how ought we to act at Mass? How ought we to dress? What should the attitude of our heart be? Well.. how ought we to act before our King? How ought we to dress at our wedding? What should our attitude be?

These are hotly debated questions. I’ve seen a mix of responses. But I would argue that, in general, we can do a much better job. But here’s the real deal: Acting, dressing, and thinking rightly at Mass is not about rules, or looking good, or “being a good Catholic.” Doing what one ought to do in the presence of the King, before Whom every knee shall bow and tongue confess, is medicine for our souls. Because this is true, and because God loves us, He has given us the Mass as a gift. It is good for us to act according to our nature. It is good to accept what God has given.

Remember that the humble Mass you attend on Sunday morning, or the even more humble daily Mass, is participating in the great Heavenly Mass. The images of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra above provide a small glimpse into the kind of grandeur, unabashed pomp, and incredible beauty of a proper coronation and royal wedding. Is this the image we have in mind when we attend Mass? Is this a glimpse of what the Heavenly Mass might be like, even just a little?

If so, then let’s start acting like the Mass is actually what it is. Let’s start behaving like who we are, sons and daughters of God, heirs of the kingdom, royal subjects, the bride of Christ. Let’s come before our King as we ought.

This sounds great, but let’s not forget that we may not know how to do this. Our cultural and governmental examples are mostly democracies, and poor ones at that. Kings are gone or irrelevant. Royalty is banished or laughed at or merely entertainment. And I, being like you, am no more knowledgeable. Therefore, what I suggest is that we all begin with the admission that we have a problem. Then I suggest we begin helping each other to learn and then alter our behaviors accordingly.

Finally, something I think we all can agree upon, and one place where we can all easily start, is to dress as best we can for Mass — not letting the standards set by those around us determine our choices, but the fact and reality of the Mass itself inform our choices.

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We are not contending against flesh and blood…

satan

A lot of Christians in the U.S. publicly complain about persecution at the hands of the godless secular society. They are sued, or spit on, or yelled at, or denied service, or given the stink eye, or sent bad tweets — and they wail against the injustice. A lot of Christians fight back, protesting, holding signs, denouncing their enemies, and even using the court system to make others treat Christians better. And, sadly, many Christian attack each other too. They publicly call out their brothers and sisters before other Christians as well as the godless society at large. They do this on social media of course, but also in the courts.

A lot of Catholics also complain about the Church, about bad bishops and bad popes, about weak leadership and false doctrine. They complain about bad liturgy and poor catechesis. Why doesn’t the Church do this, or that? What’s wrong with all those other Catholics? Why are they destroying the Church?

In short, Christians look at other people and see the enemy. This is not unique to Christians but, if you are a Christian, consider these words from St. Paul:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

Do we take these words seriously? If we did what would we be doing differently?

I know Catholics who hate Pope Francis. They complain and denigrate the holy father. I’ve written before about my struggles with the pope. I understand the struggle, but who is the real enemy here?

If the German bishops have gone off the deep end and are very publicly courting heresy, are they the enemy? If Vatican II has wrought such damage, as some say, who is the real culprit? Many Catholics in Ireland just voted in favor of abortion, and then they loudly celebrate their win. Who’s victory is that really?

People have always dug wells where they believe they will find water. But why do they think water is where they think it is? Why do so many people make poor choices? Why do so many people reject God? Why is there so much evil in the world?

No human is innocent. We all have free will. We all must face judgement. But is the real battle between me, who is a sinner, and you, who is also a sinner? If we choose to love then has not the conflict ceased altogether? To battle is to seek the other’s defeat. To love is to seek their salvation. To be a Christian is to be Christ to others, and point them to Him.

We are living in a creation that is running wild with demons. Sin and Satan are the forces at work. They will have their way if we do not fight them. But it is God, in fact, who fights our battles for us. The winds of the modernist demons have swept powerfully around the globe for the past 200 years. They have caught up millions of souls, including priests and bishops and even popes, and certainly many, many Christians. The spirit of the age is the spirit of the evil one — some might argue it is also the spirit of Vatican II. I hope not, but I’ll let you judge.

Our battle, then, is not with each other. Our battle is against Satan and all his works and all his empty show. Put on the armor of God. Remember your baptism. Take up your cross. Rejoice in your sufferings. Love others as Christ has loved you. Let God and His mighty angels fight your battles.

And lean into the fight. Carry the banner. Do not be afraid. God is with you. Trust Him. Pray, and pray, and keep praying.

I write these words because I need to hear them more than I need to write them, but there they are.

St. Michael the Archangel, 
defend us in battle. 
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. 
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, 
and do thou, 
O Prince of the heavenly hosts, 
by the power of God, 
thrust into hell Satan, 
and all the evil spirits, 
who prowl about the world 
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

St_Michael_Raphael

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