Category Archives: Liturgy

Modernism and the Church

modernism octopus

Fundamentalist cartoon: “The Octopus”, by E. J. Pace.

Postmodernism has been a common term for at least three decades. Because of that fact the term modernism may seem to refer to a thing of the past. Modernism has also been used to describe certain concrete developments in the history of art, architecture, literature, and other areas of human creativity. Thus we can speak of modernism in architecture with specific start and end dates, preceded by pre-modern architecture and followed by postmodern architecture. But in the area of ideas it is different, especially in relation to theology and Church history.

Modernism began before the industrial revolution, really earlier with the Protestant Reformers and the embracing of nominalism, and it continues today. In fact, it is so pervasive that one can fairly say modernism is the defacto set of beliefs held by most people, including most Christians. Sadly, I am a modernist in many ways, not because I want to be so, but because it is the ocean in which I swim and its tenets and presuppositions have become second nature to me. In fact, I don’t really see them, and when they are made evident to me I am often surprised. Thus, I have been digging into modernism with the purpose of eradicating it from my life and faith.

I also believe it can be argued that, for the most part, when we look at the Church today what we see is largely a modernist institution rather than a truly Catholic one. Whether that argument can be adequately countered I do not know, but I do think Catholics are very often unaware of modernism and its effects, and thus, because of modernism’s allure and its malleable nature, we are inclined to accept its ideas into their understanding of the faith. In short, modernism appeals to the natural “bent” of human nature, and is thus appealing to all of us if we are not on our guard.

1200px-Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922

Fundamentalist cartoon: “The Descent of the Modernists”, by E. J. Pace, first appearing in his book Christian Cartoons, published in 1922.

Below are some excellent lectures and discussions on the topic of modernism. Each covers much of the same territory and terms, but each is also different and together they help form a complete picture. For those who love the Traditional Latin Mass, the first video is especially excellent.

Although understanding modernism, including where it came from, what it is, and how it has affected the Church, is an important task, Catholics are then faced with the question of what to do now? How does one combat the leaven of modernism within the Church?

Question: If modernism, the synthesis of all heresies, was significantly at play during Vatican II, and if it clearly influenced the formation of the Novus Ordo Mass, and if the so-called spirit of Vatican II is better called the spirit of modernism dressed in Catholic garb, and if the papacy of Pope Francis seems to be a thoroughly modernist papacy, then what are orthodox Catholics to do?

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Church of the St. Louis Abbey: Modernist Icon of Sacred Architecture

Church of St Louis Abbey Elevation

Here is a video on the design process and construction of the famous (or infamous) St. Louis Abbey Church.

Is this a good church? Does it properly serve the purpose of a church? Many would say no. In fact this church is frequently presented by traditionalists as a prime example of terrible church design. Why?

Michael Rose had some thoughts on this topic. The basics are presented here. In short, the idea is that there is no journey towards God, from the profane to the sacred, in a round church design. It is, rather, made for a celebration of community and not the Eucharist. Though perhaps providing excellent acoustics for singing prayers, it is arguably not designed for proper worship in terms of offering sacrifice by a priest to God on behalf of the Church. Of course, in our Novus Ordo world which is focused more on the “people of God” in communion with each other more so than on the Bride of Christ worshiping God, many would argue with this argument. A round church, one supposes, serves better the idea that the faithful are gathered around a table for a meal.

Also, the church was completed in 1962, before the council had done anything, and long before the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated. These architectural ideas had been around for some time before the council.

Perhaps what I found most telling in the video linked above is the moment when Fr. Timothy says, “neither the architect nor we knew what we were doing.” I find this particularly emblematic of that era. It was a time when so many felt the strong need to throw off the past and create the future, but then discovered they didn’t know what to do. It made me think of this famous passage from G. K. Chesterton:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

There’s nothing wrong with asking if the way we have always built churches is the best. There is nothing wrong with exploring other possibilities. But, at the end of the day, we always discover our experimentations come from someplace, and the more we are unclear in our own minds the more likely other forces, spiritual or otherwise, will rule the day, and us. My take, and this applies to the “spirit” of the council and all that means, is that a great deal was done, including a great deal of destruction and deformation, because people had grown tired of the old ways and of old things. And I believe they grew tired because they ceased to truly know what they meant and what they were for.

Nonetheless, I pose the question: Is this a good Catholic church? Is it a proper design for what a Catholic church is meant to be?

Church of St Louis Abbey interior

Below is a time capsule Mass celebration in the church made for television:

 

 

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Michael Davies Four-Part Lecture on Vatican II

Michael_Davies

Michael Davies

Though not without his critics even among traditionalist Catholics, Michael Davies is one of the giants of the traditionalist movement. He was both prolific and masterful in conveying the key issues at stake for the Church in the 20th century and up to our own day. He brought a tireless passion to his studies on what many have described as the debacle of the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass. He was a tireless crusader for traditional orthodoxy and right worship. He also brought a “punchy” straightforwardness to his delivery that I find refreshing in a Church that so often talks in loquacious circles and cautious euphemisms. He passed away in 2004.

Here is an excellent four-part lecture series by Davies on the machinations and troubling influences that were at play during the council:

I realize that the council was such a behemoth undertaking, and so complex, that any one perspective, even one as in-depth as Davies’ is, is bound to miss a lot. Regardless, if much of what Davies says is true, and I have no reason to doubt the content of any of his lectures, then what a profoundly troubling council.

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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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Calling for a New Counter-Reformation in Sacred Art and Architecture

Christ Chapel drawing Duncan Stroik

Architectural illustration of Christ Chapel in Hillsdale, Michigan by architect Duncan G. Stroik (source)

In a similar way that the Counter-Reformation, as its name describes, countered the Reformation, the Church must again counter a new “reformation.” But this new reformation has really been more of an internal revolution of modernism that has cause enormous damage within the Church as well as outside. Many have felt strongly that some kind of rediscovery and return to the rich architectural traditions of the Church, much like the return to the Traditional Latin Mass, should play a major role in this new counter-reformation. I agree.

Duncan Stroik is a practicing architect and devout Catholic who specializes in church design. He has been on a crusade of sorts to bring back to the foreground the traditions of church design that were once taken for granted and then largely lost (but, of course, not really lost, for we still have many examples). He is a leading voice in the return to beautiful and properly designed churches “movement,” if that’s the right word for it. He is also an author and Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame.

Here is a recent lecture he gave, along with numerous examples, on twelve points of this new counter-reformation. This was part of the Catholic Artists Society’s 2018 Art of the Beautiful lecture series at New York University’s Catholic Center:

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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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The Church is Haunted by the Golden Calf

Golden calf Arthur Boyd

The Golden Calf, (detail) painting by Arthur Boyd.
1946, oil and tempera on composition board, 84 x 89cm. Art Gallery of Ballarat Collection. (Boyd set the story within a contemporary Australian landscape. A modern setting for universal and timeless story.)

The Israelites became nervous. Moses had been too long on the mountain. The people lost patience. They worried. They felt God was distant. They turned to Aaron and he made an idol and presented it to the people. They worshiped the Lord via this idol.

Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. (Exodus 32:5a-6)

Aaron, because of his role and authority as priest declared this false worship as valid and licit. He made the idol, he declared the day a feast day, he gave the people what they wanted and, one has to assume, the kind of worship they were familiar with in Egypt. But God was not pleased. Through Moses God brought judgement upon the Israelites. God was even ready to utterly destroy them with fire. Remember God is willing to do this.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10)

Keep in mind the people were worshiping God (“Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord”), not some other god, at least in their own minds. What they did was invent a religious expression of their own making, including a false depiction of God. They did not wait for God to reveal both Himself and the proper form of worship. They did not trust that God would provide the worship He demanded. They were in the wilderness. This event has haunted the Jews ever since, always in their past as a kind of specter reminding them of God’s will and the importance of true worship to their Creator.

At some point in the relatively recent past the people of the Church (laity, clergy, and religious — but mostly the episcopate and theologians) began to turn away from “the way” God had given them, perhaps feeling that He was distant, feeling the old way wouldn’t work in the new age. Perhaps they grew impatient. Certainly they were in the wilderness of the modern age. Evidence shows their faith had become, like with nearly all Christians, increasingly feelings-based (the modernist turn) and they wanted a new Pentecost — something that would speak to them in their own language. It could be argued they felt could no longer trust in the old Pentecost, and that the Church needed a new and different Pentecost for the new and different man of the modern age. So the Church took things into their own hands. A Pope called a council and the people of God fashioned a new way to worship.

I have heard it described that this Pope hoped to create a new Pentecost, which sounds to me like a kind of “conjuring” of the Holy Spirit (some might even dare to say this is probably not so far from something like witchcraft, right?) Is that too strong a way to describe it? Perhaps, nonetheless no one can control the Holy Spirit. And man does not change. But I want to be cautious here. It’s easy to get emotional and carried away with interpretations and judgements about the Second Vatican Council, or “spirit of Vatican II,” or the new Mass. It’s easy to fall into conspiracy theories and the like.

Still:

“Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost.” (St. Pope John XXIII, 1962 prayer in preparation to opening the Second Vatican Council.)

So, what we got instead of a new Pentecost was the new Mass, and the so-called Spirit of Vatican II, and destroyed and whitewashed churches, and staggering losses of Catholics, including clergy and religious, fleeing from the Church. We also got liturgical abuses upon liturgical abuses. Innovations upon innovations. Confusion upon confusion, and terrible music. We did not get a new Pentecost. We got the opposite. We got a false Pentecost of a different spirit. Could this be the spirit of Vatican II? In their authority the episcopate declared the new Mass valid and licit. That was their right. It is our obligation to accept that (up to a point). And they will stand before God and answer for their decisions, right or wrong. That is the burden of headship. A burden perhaps some no longer believe exists.

Does this not seem a fair understanding of the past seventy-five years? Have we not corrupted ourselves as the Israelites did at the foot of the mountain? Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. I recognize these words are very strong. Who am I anyway to judge those who came before me, whom the Church raised up to positions of authority? My desire is not to actually challenge anyone, but to ask questions in light of profound troubles that have plagued the modern Church.

Here is a question: At Vatican II, and especially with the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass, did the Church turn aside quickly (it all happened so utterly fast) from the way which God commanded them (the Traditions handed down to them, given to them, received by them), and did they make for themselves something new, akin to a golden calf? Do they not again and again claim that the Novus Ordo is both valid and licit? But why do they need to continue repeating that? Does the Church sense something is not quite right about the whole affair? Could it be that, while the episcopate can declare it so, they cannot, in fact, make it so? I’m no expert in this, so I can’t say, but I do wonder. Regardless, have they not put the Church in a terrible, terrible bind?

I once wrote: “It has become increasingly clear to me that most of the changes and innovations of the Novus Ordo era were promulgated not by men who loved the Church and thought they knew a better way, but men who hated the Church and sought to destroy it.” And for that I was publically called a blasphemer for speculating on the motivations of those men. Am I? I don’t think so, but someone does.

Questions upon questions. I am not a sedevacantist. I will still regularly attend a Novus Ordo Mass and go to the TLM when I can. I accept the Novus Ordo as valid and licit because if it’s not, then condemnation will fall on other’s heads and not mine. My desire is to be true to the Church, an obedient son, to honor what God is providing for me. But I also work towards changing it for the better from the inside through prayer. I pray every day for a renewed sense of holiness in the Church, and a return to right worship, and a proper anthropology. I pray every day for the Pope. And I have hope change is coming for the better.

I believe the Church is, in a sense, haunted by the Golden Calf. It is haunted by the fear that the Church took a wrong turn 50 years ago regarding its worship. If lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi is true, then we can work backwards and say the life of the Church today is the result of the beliefs it holds, and those beliefs it received from the way it worships and prays. Look at where we are and then trace it back to the roots. If you don’t like what you see today, then trace it back.

God was merciful to the Israelites. He did not destroy them, but disciplined them severely such that they would turn back towards Him, and they did, and then they didn’t. We know that God disciplines those whom He loves. He had to discipline the Israelites many times, and similarly He has disciplined the Church at various times. I know He has disciplined me.

So, are we a stiff-necked people? Is God disciplining us? Will some be consumed by fire from Heaven? Yes, for sure, and we were clearly warned by our Lady at Fatima, and all the related appearances and messages given to the Church. We have most certainly been a stiff necked people. And God has looked upon our iniquity.

Now is the time to destroy the Golden Calf, to remove all false worship and wickedness. Now is the time for a contrite heart, for penance, and for right worship. This means we must, as a Church, identify the wrong worship in our midst. We must call out the Golden Calf for what it is and destroy it or it will destroy us. Go back to the root and pull it out. Root it out from our hearts and from our parishes and from the Church. Are we a people willing to do that?

Κύριε ἐλέησον
Χριστέ ἐλέησον
Κύριε ἐλέησον

adoration of the lamb ghent altarpiece detail

Adoration of the Lamb (detail), Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, 15th century. This is the only right sacrifice.

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