Sunday, March 29, 2020

Some Coronavirus Catch-Up

Greetings, friends. I've had a lot of thoughts over the past several weeks and every time I sat down to share them, something else drew my attention away or some other rumination caused me to pause and reevaluate my thoughts. I finally have some time today, so I intend to just throw some things out there for consideration; please forgive the scattered nature of this post.

I. I understand and support the need for cancellation of public Masses, but these bishops who are forbidding the faithful access to confessions, baptisms, and Catholic burials are simply awful. Reading their statements, it's like they don't really believe the sacraments do anything. Their approach is "Just make a spiritual communion", or "Just make an act of perfect contrition." A lot of innuendo is packed into that little word just. Of course, spiritual communions and acts of perfect contrition are legitimate things we find in the Catholic Tradition. It is not the recommendations themselves, so much as the shoulder-shrugging " can still get what you need elsewhere" attitude that has accompanied them. Their statements do not seem to adequately reflect the sense of deep grief that should accompany the suspension of public worship. "God is not bound by the sacraments"; yes of course, but this saying in context refers to the fact that God—being all-powerful—can act to communicate grace through any means He chooses, even outside of the sacraments. But that presumes also that the sacraments are the normative means for receiving the grace of God. They are the only way we know of that God has established to communicate these special graces. Using an act of perfect contrition in lieu of confession is meant for emergencies where a priest is physically unavailable, such as a plane crash. It is not meant for situations where literally all the priests in the diocese are alive and well and available but being told to not offer confessions because of fear of a virus that 99% of people recover from. And it is not guaranteed that a penitent will have sufficient contrition to perform it; and even if it is performed successfully, the requirement to still go to sacramental confession as soon as possible remains.

It has just been astonishing how little it took to completely eliminate the sacraments. It would be nice if we had more bishops like Bishop Strickland, who is encouraging his priests to find anyway they can to heroically make themselves available for confessions. Instead more are following the lead of Nighty-Night Tobin, telling his priests to forego confessions and encouraging Catholics to do less penance. What a disgrace.

II. Speaking of penance, why aren't there more clergy leading prayers and acts of penance for God to remove the scourge of the coronavirus from us? Most of us know of the procession led by Pope St. Gregory the Great on April 25, 590 pleading for divine mercy on the plague that was then ravaging the city. This was the occasion of the famous apparition of St. Michael sheathing his sword atop the Mausoleum of Hadrian, after which the plague stopped. It should be noted that many infected with the plague partook in this event; eighty infected persons collapsed in the midst of the procession itself. Though I cannot remember the context, I believe Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I led the Frankish nobles in penance on their knees for the ending of a plague that was decimating Frankish troops in Lombardy. Processions for the cessation of the plague were also held in Rome under Adrian VI in 1522, after which the plague rapidly ended. 

Church history affords many other such occasions. It is interesting that we are not seeing such petitions being made by Church authorities today. You may object that Pope Francis led a "Prayer for Protection from the Coronavirus" recently, but if you read the text of the prayer, at no point did he ask God to take away the virus from us. He asked Mary to protect us, asked that we might have the grace to carry our crosses, and conform ourselves to God's will. But he did not ask God to take away the virus. In his Urbi et Orbi speech of March 27th, Pope Francis laudably encouraged Christians to return to Christ and rediscover our faith, but he did not ask God to take away the pandemic. Why aren't we praying for God to end this virus? "You have not, because you ask not" (James 4:2). I think the answer is that to ask God to take away the pandemic implies that He is responsible for it, and few things are more verboten these days than suggesting natural disasters are a result of God's judgment. In what sense do we even believe God is "in control" if we can't affirm His will is behind the pandemic?

III. Stop saying the Church's response to previous plagues is not valid today because they didn't understand how disease was transmitted. It is true that prior peoples did not know about germs and bacteria, but they certainly knew that people who got close to the infected also tended to get the plague. People have always known this. We read that way back in 431 BC during the plague of Athens, the Spartans withdrew their soldiers from the lands around Athens to avoid contagion. During the Black Death quarantines were practiced regularly. Contagion was a concern among the authorities during the Roman procession of 1522. Pre-modern people definitely understood that disease is spread from contact with infected people, even if they did not know the mechanism. And yet, the sacramental life of the Church still continued on, as it should have. The difference in the Church's actions in bygone days is not because they did not know what we know, but because they held different priorities than we do. The Church's responses to past plagues are perfectly valid and praiseworthy templates for today.

IV. There are unintended positive things coming out of this situation though. Two weeks ago I went to the only confession I could find, at a generic Novus Ordo parish in the city. They were offering confessions around the clock all weekend. I came in at 11:30 at night and the place was packed. A CD of Gregorian Chant was playing through the PA system. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the altar. I had been to confession here before in the past and it wasn't like this. In a crisis, people shed the things that are not helpful to them and hold fast to those which provide real sustenance to their lives. Confession. Eucharistic Adoration. The Church's traditional music. These things were what these people wanted. It was very touching. It's also been pointed out that there are now less sacrilegious communions. And before the total suppression of public masses, we had reception from the chalice restricted to the clergy alone and the sign of peace removed. It was so surreal seeing American bishops reminding their flocks that the sign of peace is only optional. Perhaps it will also teach people that it's better to receive Holy Communion less but be better prepared than to receive it all the time with little preparedness. Maybe it will lead to a renewed appreciation for how important the sacraments are.

V. I do have a concern about some of the folks who have been deprived of Mass though
, especially those folks are are on the older end of the spectrum. I'm thinking of those people who have faithfully come to Mass for many years but perhaps have not cultivated a very deep spiritual life. Now they are being told to stay home and just watch the Mass on the computer. Perhaps they will settle in and think, "This is much easier than going to Mass, and it's pretty much the same," and even after the prohibition on public Masses have been lifted, they will continue to simply stay home and watch the Mass on TV, until eventually they stop even doing that. Thus the cancellation of public Masses becomes the occasion for the total overthrow of faith. Now, you will say, "A person who does that doesn't have faith to begin with"; true, but they are less likely to nurture faith at home than if they had continued their rote Mass attendance unabated. So I do think this period will lead to a further permanent decrease in the amount of people who regularly come to Mass.

VI. I have been saddened and annoyed by the small but vocal army of individuals who have come out of the woodwork to badger us all endlessly about social distancing. Some of these folks are so embittered and angry about it that they not only are supporting the mass shut down of the entire economy—which I can understand, even if I disagree with—but they are angry at you if you don't want to rejoice at the prospect of your entire savings vanishing, your job getting scuttled, and your livelihood wrecked. We are supposed to laud this and we are heartless killers if we don't. A lot of these folks are in the immunocompromised crowd. I was talking to a priest about this last week and he noted that a lot of these people seem to take pride in their illnesses; it makes them special. It's like a badge of righteousness they can hold over others. Unfortunately for them, much of the world doesn't see immune deficiency or other illnesses in this way, nor as an excuse to completely and utterly destroy our economy and society. Their pride makes them very angry people. I agreed with this priest's observation and have myself noticed that (white people in particular) are fond of claiming illnesses as a special status. It’s like, if you’re straight white you can’t get the sympathy of being a minority or LGBT, but the victim culture mentality has still seeped in through other ways, making them “proud” of being immunodeficient, depressed, eating disordered, autistic, mental health problems, whatever. Medical problems are the victim hood culture of white people. And the pandemic itself isn't as bad as the incessant, moralizing nagging of America's mommy-bloggers. 

VII. One observation I made that particularly irked some folks is that people will not tolerate this sort of lock down for too long. A few weeks? But after that they are going to get antsier and antsier about going back to their old routines. The crashing economy will crush more heavily on people, and eventually political momentum will build for a restoration to normalcy. This will be the case regardless of whether the pandemic has abated or not. What will happen is that society will collectively decide to sacrifice the well-being of the immunocompromised in exchange for getting life back to normal—"sacrificed" meaning society will settle for containment measures that are less effective in order to return to something closer to normal economic activity. Society can't simply be put on hold for months and months on end, regardless of what our government or the CDC or the immunocompromised or anybody else might want to believe. The populace at large will simply not stand for it. Not saying that is good or bad, but it's simply how people will respond to prolonged lock down.

VIII. This situation has further confirmed that the so-called "Seamless Garment" Pro-life ethic is not only misguided, but positively dangerous and heretical. The bishops who are prohibiting confession and baptism are doing so on the premise that it is necessary in order to preserve human life. The unspoken assumption is that the preservation of physical life is the highest good that precedes all other goods. I believe this errant thinking is the result of the infection of the Seamless Garment Pro-Life ethic into the Catholic populace. The Seamless Garment Pro-Life ethic holds that all killing is morally wrong; ergo, these people will argue against capital punishment from a Pro-Life perspective, and frequently suggest that if we are "really" Pro-Life we would support things like socialized medicine, entitlement programs, etc. Arguments that begin with "If you were really Pro-Life" give me a headache. At any rate, this is in contradistinction to what I would call the Traditional Pro-Life ethic, which holds that the murder of innocents is wrong. "Killing is wrong" vs. "the murder of innocents is wrong" are two vastly different positions. The traditional Pro-Lifer opposes abortion not primarily because it is killing, as much as that it is the killing of an innocent life; i.e., murder. 

This is why there is no contradiction in a traditional Pro-Lifer supporting the execution of criminals while opposing abortion; it was never about "killing" as such, but about the deliberate murder of the innocent. If we were to adopt the premise that killing is always wrong (which is not what the Church teaches, see here and here) then we are implicitly affirming that the preservation of physical human life is always paramount, which is simply not true and has never been. The Church has always taught that our salvation is more important than the preservation of physical life; even other natural virtues such as justice may take precedence over physical life (i.e., a person willingly sacrifices his life in pursuit of a just cause). But the actions of our hierarchy are sending the message that all that spiritual stuff about salvation takes a back seat to the preservation of physical life, which is not only wrong but very much a heresy. And before one of you ass hats pops in the comments saying "Oh so what, you want people to die? You think physical life doesn't matter? Because what you are saying is you want people to die"—of course physical life is important. Everybody has the right and expectation of seeking to maintain their physical existence. I am not saying it is not important, only that it is not of ultimate importance. There is a hierarchy of goods, and maintaining physical existence is not at the top. But when the faithful are cut off from confession and baptism, this is the message our leaders are sending. Seek ye first the prolongation of your temporal existence.

IX. One final thing, my father is 69 years old and suffers from Stage 4 COPD and is also recovering from lung cancer, so please don't give me any nonsense about "You wouldn't think this way if you had a vulnerable person in your family." I know what it's like to have a vulnerable person close.

Alright, that is enough of my complaining for now. Until next time. God bless you all. Stay safe. May the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

"It Was Common in the Early Church"

Education and the passage of time have given in me a healthy does of skepticism when people make extravagant claims about the antiquity of a certain custom. This is especially the case when the antiquity of such customs are cited as justifications for progressive liturgical novelties.

"This practice was common in the Early Church" is a phrase that should inspire misgivings in the hearer. Why? Because so many of the novelties we see today are fraudulently claimed to come from the patristic era. As we will see in this brief compendium, the commonalities between such customs and patristic practice is usually superficial. "It was common in the Early Church" is usually a tool used to shoe-horn some novelty into the Church under the faux guise of historical antiquity.


The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) was instituted in 1972 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The creation of the RCIA program was said to be a "restoration" of the catechumenate of the early Church. Prior to 1972, adult converts joining the Church did so through a process of individualized instruction in which the convert met privately for instruction with a priest and was admitted to the Church at the priest's discretion based on his or her progress. The RCIA program was meant to "restore" a more structured approach to conversion that took place in the context of the whole Christian community with entrance to the Church being celebrated at Easter. This was supposed to be based on patristic practice. However, the similarities between RCIA and the ancient catechumenate are only skin deep.

In the ancient Church, persons who sought admittance to the catechumenate needed a sponsor to vouch for their good life. The sponsor was not simply a person who "accompanied" them through the catechetical process, as today, but was rather more like a professional reference whose good word was necessary for the catechumen to obtain admittance. The catechumen was interviewed about their lifestyle in a way moderns would find offensive and invasive: Was the person prone to drunkenness? Did he have a good reputation? Did he frequent the gladiatorial games? Did he keep slaves? Was he chaste? Did he visit the sick or perform works of mercy? The inquiry was meant to establish that the prospective catechumen was of excellent moral character. Acquaintances might be interviewed to obtain third party verification. One can imagine the indignation of Susan from the Parish Council types if modern RCIA included an interview where a catechumen was questioned about his or her sexual activity or if one's neighbors were queried about what a catechumen did on the weekends.

The catechumenate lasted three years, unlike the one year RCIA program. Catechumens were dismissed after the first part of Mass (Mass of the Catechumens), something moderns would find exclusionary and offensive. During pre-baptismal instruction, catechumens were only given very vague and symbolic explanations about the sacraments; it was only after baptism, during the period traditionally known as mystagogy, that the literal effects of the sacraments were explained. Many of the greatest catechetical sermons that have come down to us are sermons of a bishop explaining for the first time what had already happened to a new convert at Easter. During the final stages of preparation, a catechumen was expected to keep silence, abstain from sexual relations if married, fast and pray. They underwent an exorcism, based on the belief that anyone who had not been baptized was under the direct power of the devil and needed to be freed from Satan's power (not very affirming to modern sensibilities). Furthermore, other Christians were encouraged to keep an eye on catechumens (i.e., spy on them) to make sure they were not doing immoral things in their personal time. Any indication that such was happening could result in the catechumen's baptism being delayed or being expelled from the catechumenate as being unworthy.

All of this is so foreign to the spirit and vision of contemporary RCIA that it is laughable to try to portray RCIA as a "restoration" of the ancient catechumenate.


In the debates about a female diaconate, it is often asserted that "deaconesses" were common in the early Church and were only suppressed at a later date. Thus, opening the diaconate to women would be a "restoration" of an ancient custom. This is an argument made by promoters of this idea; for example, in a 2019 interview on the matter, Cardinal Walter Kasper called the admittance of women to the diaconate an "ancient tradition" (source).

It is true that there were women called deaconesses in the early Church. St. Paul calls a woman named Phoebe a "deaconness" in Rom. 16:1. Pliny's famous Letter to Trajan (c. 112 AD) makes reference to torturing two female Christians "who were called deaconesses" (Letter 10:96).

This does not mean these women were ever sacramentally ordained, however. The confusion is on the word deacon, diakonos, which in Greek simply means "servant." In the days before the hierarchical vocabulary of the Church was strictly formalized, diakonos could refer to the ordained diaconate, or it could also refer to persons who served or assisted in the charitable works of the Church in someway. For example, that retired woman in your parish who volunteers in the parish office three days a week, sells tickets at the annual Rummage Sale, takes communion to the home-bound, and manages the food pantry? People like that could be referred to as diakonoi in the early Church by virtue of their service. This is similar to how originally the word presbuteros ("elder") could refer to the institutional priesthood (priest comes from the word prebuteros), or it could refer to any older Christian of good repute. It took some time for these titles to become standardized.

These "deaconesses" were not women who had been ordained, but women who aided in the work of the Church in various ways—distributing alms, standing as godparents for the newly converted, preparing candidates for baptism, caring for the physical infrastructure of the Church, visiting the sick, and so on. Over time, these offices constituted a sort of "order" within the early Church, perhaps with its own distinctive garb.

But as time went on and the vocabulary of the Church became formalized, it was increasingly inappropriate to refer to these women as "deaconesses." The ordained diaconate had always been male—the original seven deacons in Acts 6 were all male, and there is not a single record of a ordained female deacon.  By 325, the Church thought it was necessary to make some strict distinctions. The Council of Nicaea decreed that women working in such ministries of service were not to be considered ordained, and after this the practice of calling them "deaconesses" faded. The council's decree is in the context of persons who may think they have received sacraments but have in fact not:

"Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the Bishop of the Catholic Church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity" (Council of Nicaea, Canon 19)

"Since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity." There never was a history of an ordained female diaconate, and Cardinal Kasper and his type are being blatantly disingenuous to assert that the cries for ordaining female deacons today represent any sort of "ancient tradition."

Eucharistic Prayer 2

The reforms of the Novus Ordo introduced the novelty of having multiple Eucharistic Prayers. One of these is Eucharistic Prayer #2, which is the shortest Eucharistic Prayer and often used in daily Masses offered in the NO. It is the prayer which begins, "It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation..." This prayer is often touted as being extremely ancient, pre-dating the traditional Roman canon, and written by St, Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235).

In fact, the prayer is modern invention loosely based on a patristic ordination prayer that may have been composed by St. Hippolytus. And everything about this ancient prayer is uncertain; as Fr. Finigan at The Hermeneutic of Continuity wrote, "
The origin, authorship and dating of the document is not established with the certainty that would enable us to draw safe conclusions as a solid basis for practical liturgical proposals." It was drawn up by the liturgical committee on the inspiration of the historical text. The specific text of Eucharistic Prayer #2 is no more ancient than the other prayers of the Novus Ordo.

Communion in the Hand

Communion in the hand is another practice that is said to originate in the Early Church. The argument in support of this is usually a letter from St. Cyril (313-386). The famous passage begins with the phrase "Approaching therefore, do not come forward with the palms of the hands outstretched nor with the fingers apart, but making the left [hand] a throne for the right since this hand is about to receive the King." The passage is taken from Cyril's Mystagogical Catecheses, a series of lectures delivered to neophytes after baptism.

What is not often understood is that how persons may have received communion in the hand in the old days was not akin to how it happens today. For one thing, recipients did not receive directly into their hand, but used a special liturgical cloth known as a dominica that was brought for this purpose. But more interesting is the practice of touching the consecrated host to ones eyes. The same was done with the Precious Blood; Cyril says that the Precious Blood was smeared on the eyes, forehead, and other sensory organs. Look at the passage in full:

“In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?

Then after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth your hands, but bending, and saying with an air of worship and reverence, “Amen” and, hallow yourself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still upon your lips, touch it with your hands, and hallow your eyes and brow and the other organs of sense. Then wait for the prayer, and give thanks unto God, who has accounted you worthy of so great mysteries.

Hold fast these traditions undefiled and, keep yourselves free from offense. Sever not yourselves from the Communion; deprive not yourselves, despite the pollution of sins, of these Holy and Spiritual Mysteries.

If we are going to cite patristic practice for Communion in the hand, are we going to also insist that the faithful smear the Precious Blood on their foreheads and other sensory organs? Surely no one would argue for such a thing. This is an example of the danger of affirming a practice merely because it is ancient (see our essay on Archaeologism). Catholics should certainly never support traditions being thrown out for no reason, but neither should we mindlessly tout whatever was patristic as being superior; to do such denies the legitimate development of doctrine and praxis under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, St. Cyril's assertion that one should receive communion "despite the pollution of sins" is extremely suspect. For this reason some have questioned the authenticity of this passage. What St. Cyril describes certainly should not be considered definitive. But, even if we grant such things did happen as described by St. Cyril, they came to be viewed as an abuse by the late patristic age. This is why by the following century we see communion on the tongue is the norm, as evidenced in the writings of Pope St. Leo the Great (see Sermon 91).

Many things from the patristic age died out with time, and rightfully so. Let us give one more example from a letter of St. Basil of Caesarea. St. Basil says:

"All the solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, take the communion themselves, keeping communion at home. And at Alexandria and in Egypt, each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion, at his own house, and participates in it when he likes" (Letter 93).

Would anybody today support giving the Eucharist to lay people to keep in their house to self-communicate whenever they saw fit? Clearly not. So we see that the way Communion was handled vis-a-vis the laity in the Early Church was a world apart from the practices being promoted today as "ancient."

Now, you may argue that perhaps I am backhandedly making the case for Communion in the hand by demonstrating that the modern discipline is much more restrained than patristic custom. It undoubtedly is, at least in the sense that communicants today today rub the sacred species on their faces. But whether the modern means of receiving communion in the hand is good and whether it is patristic are two different arguments. Others more competent than I have made the case against communion on the hand eloquently; my purpose here is to merely argue that communion in the hand as practiced today is not patristic.

Mass Facing the People

The liturgical reformers of the mid-20th century asserted confidently that celebration of Mass ad orientam was a medieval development that was representative the "exclusion" of the laity from the mysteries of the altar. The more ancient custom, we were told, was the inclusion of the laity through the practice of Mass versus populum ("facing the people"), which subsequently became the norm after the Second Vatican Council for the purpose of emphasizing the Church as the family of God and the Eucharistic celebration as a "meal."

Appeals to the antiquity of Mass versus populum are riddled with difficult, however. Martin Luther famously thought that at the Last Supper, Jesus faced the disciples. Appeals to the Last Supper seating arrangement are foolish one way or another, however, because the actual seating arrangement at the Last Supper was determined by Greco-Jewish dining custom and not liturgical considerations ("Last Supper and Liturgy", USC, Jan. 2011).

The liturgical reformers cited an ancient "Roman custom" of celebrating Mass towards the people in patristic times as a basis for encouraging the practice after Vatican II. However, as Msgr. Klaus Gamber demonstrated in his excellent book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, the masses "facing the people" in ancient Rome were quite different from anything we experience today.

In ancient Church, the orientation of the liturgy was determined by the direction of East, towards which all Masses were celebrated. But the architecture of a Church was determined by the location of a martyr's tomb, over which churches were generally constructed whenever possible (see "Fenestellae", USC). Usually the architectural and liturgical demands were in harmony, but sometimes they were not. For example, in the case of the ancient basilica of St. Peter, the placement of the altar was based on the location of the tomb of St. Peter. But constructing the church upon this plan did not allow for the altar to be facing east, for topographical reasons. To face East during the liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest necessarily had to face the congregation, because East was behind the congregation.

However—and this is what the liturgical reformers never quite grasped—when the priest turned to face the East in such situations, the entire congregation did as well. Thus you would have a situation where the priest and people were all uniformly looking East, towards the narthex. The priest would actually be looking at the backs of the congregants. Thus the priest and people were united in facing welcoming the Lord during the liturgy.

So, to sum up (1) in the early Church, liturgies were always carried out facing east (2) which always necessitated the priest and people facing the same direction (3) in cases where the priest "faced the people", he faced their backs, and (4) not from reasons of "including the community" in the celebration, but in order to orient himself towards the east liturgically, and (5) this only happened in churches where topographical/architectural factors made such celebrations necessary.

Bonus: The Peace Prayer of St. Francis

Okay, this one certainly isn't something people argue is patristic, but it is a prayer that is ubiquitously thought to be composed by St. Francis but which was really dates only to 1912.

The earliest known record of the prayer ("Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace", etc) is its appearance in the December 1912 issue of the small devotional French Catholic publication La Clochette, the bulletin of the League of the Holy Mass. At the time it was simply called "A Prayer for Peace." Although the prayer was published anonymously, the texts in La Clochette were generally written by its founding editor, Father Esther Bouquerel (1855–1923), who was most likely the author. Around 1918, Franciscan Father Étienne Benoît reprinted the "Prayer for Peace" in French, without attribution, on the back of a mass-produced holy card depicting St. Francis on the front. The prayer began circulating in the United States in English in 1927—not through the Catholic Church, but through the Quakers, of all people. It does not appear tp have been adopted by Catholics until Cardinal Spellman distributed millions of copies of the prayer to soldiers during World War II under the title "Prayer of St. Francis." Since then, it has been almost universally (but incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.


In all of these cases (sans the Sr. Francis Prayer), we can see that what was pushed as being "common in the Early Church" was in reality only loosely based on mere external similarities that were completely different in substance. Whenever you hear any novelty being put forward on the grounds that it was "common in the Early Church", you can almost always assume there is some slight-of-hand going on.

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Friday, March 06, 2020

Some Hard Talk about the Knights of Columbus

I want to preface this post by saying that I am sure I will ruffle some feathers here. The Knights of Columbus are an institution that most Catholics hold dear, and that many of us men belong to. Ergo, a discussion of some of the changes coming down the pike is bound to provoke disagreements. I also understand that my own experience with the Knights is my own alone, and that other men have probably have very different stories. And I understand that things on the ground will vary tremendously from council to council. So, with that all said, take what I say with a grain of salt. If your experiences have been different than mine, please share, but don't try to invalidate my experience just because yours may have been different.

While many of us were focused on events going on at Rome in January, it was quietly announced that the Knights of Columbus were engaging in a massive overhaul of their ceremonial. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson made the announcement that the exemplifications of the first, second, and third degrees were being combined into one single ceremony. Furthermore, these ceremonies—which had always been private—are being opened up to the public, being aimed at including the candidates' wives and children to the ceremony as well.

This is the second major change for the Knights in less than a year. Back in summer of 2019, the Knights retired the traditional cape and plumed hat that were emblematic of the Fourth Degree and replaced them with a kind of faux U.S. military dress uniform and a headpiece more akin with military style beret. This change was announced back in 2017 and implemented last summer.

I don't personally have much of a stake in this; I am not a Knight, although I used to be one a decade ago. And I know that Knight councils can vary tremendously from parish to parish in terms of their energy, viability, and ability to attract and retain members. I personally preferred the old regalia, though a lot of Knights I talked to about it said they found the old Fourth Degree regalia a bit silly looking—like play-acting fake nobility or something. I personally don't see how "play acting fake nobility" would be any sillier than play acting fake U.S. military, which is definitely what the new regalia brings to mind. But whatever.

What I find most interesting is the rationale Supreme Knight Carl Anderson offered for the changes. When addressing the change to the new regalia in 2017, the Knights' official press release said that the choice to abandon the old regalia was based on the following factors:

  • the aging of our Fourth Degree membership
  • the slow growth of the Fourth Degree (fewer than 20 percent of Knights are Fourth Degree members, and only a fraction of that number even serve as honor guards)
  • consistent reports that the old regalia presented a barrier to Fourth Degree membership, especially among younger men

I do not understand the reference to the age of the Fourth Degree; are they saying, "The Fourth Degree members are getting old so we'd better give them something simpler to put on instead of this cape and sash and feathered hat?" Or are they saying, "Our Fourth Degree is aging rapidly; we'd better do something to attract more youths." Judging from the subsequent two points, in seems the latter is the tenor of their thinking—unless we change things up, the Fourth Degree is going to go extinct.

Let's put this consideration on the back burner for a moment to look at the explanation Carl Anderson gave for the more recent changes—the elimination of secrecy and combining of the first three exemplifications into a single ceremony.  Again, Anderson says that the changes are necessary because of concerns about declining membership. He stated that the traditional degree system was a "stumbling block to membership" and that secrecy of the ceremonial was "an impediment to joining."

Anderson cited a lack of manpower in local councils to perform degree ceremonies. Some candidates give up, and some never seek second and third degrees.“Last year," he said, "little more than half of the men who took their First Degree also took their Third Degree,” he said, adding that the number of third degree teams is expected to decline in the near future.

Anderson's statements and the press releases on why these sorts of changes are happening has made me think the Knights are essentially in the same crisis mode as the Church at large—and equally clueless about the real problems they need to be addressing.

First, it's okay for men to have men-only meetings that do not include their wives and children. Family life is great and wonderful, but it's definitely acceptable and praiseworthy for men to have male-only gatherings. If we really believe there is a crisis of masculinity in the world and Church (which the Knights most recent promotional video seems to affirm), then encourage occasional male only gatherings. It''s perfectly fine and laudable to have male-only degree ceremonies, etc. that family cannot attend.

Second, the notion that most Knights do not go on to their advanced degrees because their families can't attend with them is vacuous. Fact of the matter is, people make time for things they care about. If something is important to somebody, they find a way to make it work. And most councils bend over backwards to schedule events on days and times most amenable to their members. What Carl Anderson doesn't seem to get is that when a prospective or current Knights says "I would like to attend, but the meetings just aren't at convenient times" what he is usually saying is "This event is not important enough to me to justify taking time away from family, work, hobbies, etc." What he is really saying is "This organization's work and events do not provide enough value to incentivize me to sacrifice on its behalf."

Now, one could hold this thinking up as an example of the "selfishness" of the current generation I suppose—how people are unwilling to "make sacrifices" and put themselves out there for works of charity or fraternal bonds. But I think that would be too simplistic. It's not so much an issue of people being too self-oriented to want to participate; the elephant in the room that is not being addressed is that Knights of Columbus meetings often offer very little to engage their members. Much of this depends on how they are managed, of course, but they can often feel very much like a meeting of your local Planning Commission rather than a band of Catholic men heroically coming together to serve Christ. They can be marked by excessive a profusely dreary tedium. There is often a serious case of buyer's remorse: one signs up for the Knights out of noble motives and the sort of ideals encapsulated in the "Into the Breach" video, and then the reality of KofC meetings is sitting around a table with a bunch of spreadsheets listening to some Boomers quibble for 45 minutes on how to allocate the $27.68 the council netted from its last pancake breakfast. And as you sit there listening to the back and forth, you start to think if attaching yourself to this organization is really the highest and best use of your time.

I should mention, the latest KofC promotional ad is another example of of what I have called "man pandering"
—a sort of Tim Allen-esque form of marketing that is meant to appeal to men based on American masculine stereotypes. Working with power tools and sparks shooting everywhere? HELLS YEAH. First responders? HELLS YEAH. Military motifs?  FIST BUMP, BRUH! It's an approach that, while certainly better than the contemporary tendency to feminize everything, still evidences a basic ignorance of the best way to approach Catholic men. "You men like tools and stuff, right? Well here's some power tools. You like guns, don't you? Here's some soldiery stuff." It's like the masculine equivalent of just handing girls princess paraphernalia and pink clothes just because they are girls.

But I digress.

I was one of those First Degree knights who never went on to take the additional degrees. It was not because I couldn't make it to meetings; I could if I really had wanted to. It was not because I didn't want to wear the traditional Fourth Degree regalia—that is probably one of the coolest things about the Knights. It was not because I "couldn't get time" away from my family. It was merely this: I found my experience at the First Degree so unfulfilling that I didn't want to ascend to degrees that would only create more obligations to an organization whose involvement I found unsatisfying at even the lowest levels. I understand my experience is my experience alone, but I have talked to enough current and former Knights who reported similar sentiment that I am sure this is not an uncommon thing.

Essentially, the Knights are like that awkward, mildly annoying acquaintance who says, "Heyyyy want to come hang out Saturday?" And you really don't want to be around this person, but you also don't want to hurt their feelings, so you tell them, "I'm sorry I can't; I am cleaning my garage that day." Maybe you are cleaning your garage, maybe you aren't; but the point is its an excuse to get out of an engagement you really don't want to make. But your awkward and importuning friend can't pick up on your social cues, so when you say you have to clean your garage, he takes it at face value and says, "Oh! How about I come help you clean your garage, and then you will have time to hang out with me?" which of course puts you in a very awkward and uncomfortable spot.

Of course, you are still not going to want to go hang out with this person even if you didn't spend the day cleaning your garage, and more people are not going to join the Knights because the degree ceremonies become public or the regalia changes or the degrees are combined. The fundamental reason membership in the Knights is declining is because men don't see value in belonging to the organization. If they did, they would join. The Knights need a fundamental overhaul, not in how they dress or their ceremonial, but in what they are and what they offer to Catholic men. And Uncle Carl's mentality of "We need to abandon our traditional look because this new things is what the kids are in to" is only indicative of how out of touch the KofC leadership is. Anytime some Boomer is justifying some novelty because "this is what the youths want", run the other way. But, Boomers gonna boom I guess.

But really the problems in the KofC are just a microcosm of the situation in the Novus Ordo world; the new paradigm doesn't work, so we introduce more novelty, the new revolution leads to further disappointment, and then we stand on the ashes of our failure and proclaim victory with promises of an ethereal renewal that's always just around the corner. We've faced challenges in the past and been through hard times and had our hopes frustrated before, but THIS time our programs will work; THIS time we'll finally come into the long awaited spring; THIS time our charge over the top will be successful. The solution to the problems of novelty is always more novelty.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Battle Lines Have Changed

Gather around, little kiddies, and Uncle Boniface will explain to you why popular Catholic apologists can no longer continue to function as if it is still the 1990s and the golden age of Catholic Answers--and why the battle lines of inter-Christian squabbling have fundamentally changed.

In the previous generation (meaning 1980s-2000s), Catholic apologetics was largely defined by disputes about the content of various Christian creeds; i.e., "Lutherans believe this, but Catholics believe that. Let's dispute about who is right." In that sort of climate, it was easy for confessions to dispute with one another. Persons professing some sort of formulaic creed can argue with others who profess a different creed because they had the common ground of both professing some creed.  It was in this atmosphere that Catholic apologetics contra Protestantism could flourish. It was in this sort of climate that apostolates like Catholic Answers thrived and books like Catholicism and Fundamentalism were of essential importance.

You see, in this older situation, we evaluated other Christian confessions on to what degree the content of their creed approximated Catholic tradition. Christians who had more in common with the Catholic faith were considered "closer" to us, those who shared less were "further." Let's visualize it this way:

This view is certainly accurate, considered from a doctrinal standpoint. But I submit that this mental paradigm is no longer helpful—the main reason for this being that the essential divisions within Christianity are no longer confessional. It used to be that Christianity was divided up into several confessions and that the members of each confession were presumed to be faithful at least to the tenets of their own confession. A man was a Baptist because he affirmed the Baptist confession and denied those that were at odds with his. And of course a Catholic was a Catholic because he affirmed the teachings of the Catholic faith. To be sure, the Baptist or the Catholic may have been born into these communities, but did not detract from the expectation that one who belonged to a certain confession actually professed it.

But the situation has changed drastically. The contemporary division within global Christianity is not creed vs. creed, but people who profess a creed vs. people who have no creed—those whose faith has a doctrinal skeleton and those whose faith has no structure at all, but is rather a kind of gelatinous mass molded and vivified by nothing beyond the opinions of the masses. This division transcends all forms of Christianity. Across the Catholic Church, the world of the Orthodox, and the Protestant confessions there is a profound de facto schism between those who believe Christianity has an objective, definable form whose boundaries are delineated by particular doctrines and, on the other hand, those who believe Christianity to be essentially whatever its adherents wish it to be at any given time—which is inevitably going to be defined by popular opinion, fad, etc.

In this atmosphere, creed vs. creed apologetics no longer has the weight it once did when most sincere Christians of any stripe are fighting bitterly simply to affirm the existence of any creed within their respective communities.

The current battle lines are drawn more or less like this, with the current "alliance" being not so much drawn horizontally on the spectrum based on doctrine but vertically, centered on the concept of tradition:

Some Traditionalists will immediately object that it is totally errant to align a traditional Catholic with, say, a traditional Baptist or a traditional Anglican because (a) the content of these other creeds' tradition is different and defective in light of Catholic truth, and (b) the "traditions" of Lutheranism or "The Wellspring" megachurch down the road are themselves forms of liberalism that are ultimately responsible for the destruction of western civilization.

Considered doctrinally, these critiques would certainly be correct. But I want to urge such critics to stop thinking of tradition here only in terms of its content. The question here isn't whose traditions are right. Consider tradition more anthropologically—tradition as existing whenever a group is being faithful to its own customs, founding principles, and internal telos. Thus, a "traditional" Calvinist is going to be a Calvinist who is faithful to the founding principles of Calvinism. A traditional Methodist is one who is faithful to the principal tenets of historical Methodism.

And it is this which is under attack everywhere across the Christian world. It is an attack against any form of Christianity that maintains some form of definable structure based on some external authority—be it Sacred Tradition, the Scriptures, historical confessions, or whatever. The ultimate goal is to transform global Christianity from something that has objective structure into something that is entirely subjectivized, something which takes its form entirely from the mood of the contemporary rabble. Something that is purely based on the ever-shifting emotional cravings of the plebs of [CURRENT YEAR]. It is not only the particular contents of Christianity's skeleton that are under attack, but the very existence of a doctrinal skeleton at all, regardless of its content. The architects of the current zetigeist want to ensure that Christianity will henceforth forever bow its head and alter its position whenever the powers-that-be tell us we are now at war with East Asia and no longer at war with Eurasia.

Catholics should never defend error; we should not defend traditional Calvinism just because we see it is under attack just as we are. We should, however, recognize how the battle is being waged, where the lines are being drawn, and that the locus of our defense of the faith should be on the existence of an objective, definable structure to the Christian religion. This takes precedence over older style apologetical works which focus on the content of our religion. These will always have a place, to be sure, but this is no longer where the greatest attack comes from and hasn't been for a long time. The attacks on Christianity are no longer so much about the content of our creeds as much as Christians' stubborn insistence on having a creed.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Best Posts of 2019

The year of our Lord 2019 was a monumental one in the history of the Catholic Church. Most of the Church news of the year was dominated by the Amazon Synod and the Pachamama scandal, but on top of that we had ongoing revelations of sexual abuse and investigations by Attorneys General in several states, the publication of the Open Letter to Catholic bishops, the revelations of the Vatican's $200 London investment boondoggle, the extremely problematic “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together", the canonization of John Henry Newman, the fall of Fr. Rosica under accusations of plagiarism, and much more. What a time to be alive and be Catholic!

It was also a busy year for me personally and professionally. Despite all that, USC published 35 essays in 2019. Here are 13 of my personal favorites:

On the Concept of Celebration: Celebration is a very fluid thing that can be anything from solemn and dignified to boisterous and inebriated. People who say the Church's traditional liturgies aren't sufficiently celebratory are using the word in a very reductive sense.

Pius VI and the Synod of Pistoia: Review of the 1786 Synod of Pistoia, an extraordinary event whereby some ecclesiastics of the day tried to shove through a series of reforms very similar to what we later got in the post-Conciliar period.

The Church Doesn't Need More Women's Involvement
: In what sense can anybody claim that women are underrepresented in the Catholic Church? Women already dominate the Church at almost every level.

Praying Through the Mass: The Extraordinary Form of the Mass enables a kind of contemplative prayer that is built right into the structure of the liturgy.

Christ Will Give You Victory: Some excellent reflections a priest gave me on the spiritual life. The distance between yourself and God is only as great as you believe it to be. Christ can give you total victory over your sins.

Inculturation and the Missions: Video about how the idea of inculturation is undermining Catholic missions...and yes, I know I mispronounce the name of Pachamama.

"But Eastern Churches Have Married Priests": How come nobody care's about the traditions of the West but the customs of the East are sacrosanct?

Excommunication is a No-No: The biblical purpose of excommunication is not merely the repentance of the sinner but the protection of the community. In the modern Church, excommunication of lay persons is something our prelates have no stomach for.

Comments on the 'Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church': Some observations on the letter a group of theologians and academics published in 2019 asserting that Pope Francis is promulgating heresy.

The New Double Truth Theory: How theologians and prelates advance heresy while talking out of both sides of their mouth.

Theology of the Body is Not Catholic Teaching: Because of the very low level of authority at which John Paul II's Theology of the Body was delivered (papal homilies) it cannot be considered an authoritative teaching.

There's Always a Priest Shortage in Missionary Areas: Defaulting to a married priesthood in the Amazon because of an alleged priest-shortage is nonsensical; there are always priest shortages in such areas.

What People Don't Understand About Syncretism: A lot of Catholics don't understand what sycretism really is. This article will help explain.

Thank you very much for spending another year in the company of me, your ornery online Catholic friend. It's crazy thinking that after doing this for going on thirteen years, USC is one of the most consistent constants in my life. I don't know whether I should be proud of that or cry.

Some basic information on Unam Sanctam Catholicam:

This blog was launched formally on June 29, 2007. Since then we have published around 2,000 articles that have been viewed 3 million times; we average 20,000 to 30,000 page views per month. Throughout the Benedictine and Franciscan pontificates, Unam Santcam Catholicam has been one of the Internet's most reliable sources of randomly posted, annoyingly pedantic, and contrarian Catholic content. Also our RCIA notes and outlines (offered on our sister site) have been downloaded 80,000 times.

Hope everyone has a blessed 2020!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Unsalvageable Novus Ordo

In my last post ("Converting a Novus Ordo Parish to Tradition") I spoke about situations where a mainstream, diocesan Novus Ordo parish can be "converted" to a more traditional practice of the Catholic faith, culminating in the establishment of the Traditional Latin Mass on a permanent basis. I used the example of my parish and discussed the specific conditions that all came together to bend our parish back from the brink of madness to sanity in a period of five years. I offered this sort of strategy as an option for reaching out to well-meaning Novus Ordo Catholics who are open to tradition and would be amenable to the Traditional Latin Mass.

Now it is time to look at the flip-side of the coin.

Because the fact is, this is not always feasible. It's not that a parish can be "too far gone" to ever be brought back—remember, when the reform in my parish began, we were using tie-dyed vestments, puppet masses, and engaging in liturgical dancing. Only five years later we had the Traditional Latin Mass. So it's not a matter of how "far gone" a parish is. Even so, for such a transformation to occur, a lot of pieces need to come together in the right manner, some of them fortuitously. For example, in the beginning my parish was suffering financially and scheduled to be clustered or closed. Therefore our bishop didn't really care that our pastor was raising eyebrows with his traditionalism because the parish was on the chopping block anyway. Who cares if an eccentric pastor rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic? But what would have happened had my pastor tried the same thing at one of the very large, multi-million dollar urban parishes with 4000 families? Would the bishop have permitted it to go on?

So as we can see, such a transformation is not always possible, despite peoples' best efforts. Furthermore, to try to work from the inside to help a Novus Ordo parish move towards tradition presumes there is some sort of grounds for hoping this might actually occur. But sometimes, there is no rational basis for hope. Sometimes the situation is manifestly unsalvageable.

This Christmas was very complicated for me. For reasons of family, Christmas scheduling, travel, etc. I ended up having to fulfill my Christmas obligation at a parish I never go to. What a cluster-bleep. The music was just...ugh...they had a full-band with a drum kit and the whole shebang. They played traditional Christmas hymns like Joy to the World and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing but with obnoxiously upbeat tempos and power-chord guitar riffs that rattled by teeth because the acoustics of the church amplified the already obnoxiously loud sounds so much. The homily was tripe. More rock music during holy communion as an army of EMHCs swarmed down into the congregation to distribute the sacrament so no parishioner had to undergo the inconvenience of having to walk more than ten feet to receive Jesus. 

Let me ask you, what do you think of when you think of the Novus Ordo? What vision enters your head? Maybe it's crappy homilies. Perhaps it's some form of liturgical abuse, or bad music, or some other novelty. Those things would come to my mind as well. However, it was while walking back from Holy Communion at this Christmas Eve Mass that I saw something that more perfectly instantiates the spirit of the Novus Ordo than anything I'd ever witnessed. There were these two Boomers sitting there—a husband and wife, probably in their early 60s—sitting in folding chairs against the wall because there was no room in the pews. I passed by them on the way back to my seat. The wife was half-heartedly trying to follow along, mumbling the words to Joy to the World but unable to find the rhythm within the weird rock adaptation being performed. But the husband, well, the look on his face was priceless. He was hunched over, with the most blank, expressionless look of abject apathy. Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man the number of shits this guy didn't give. Total indifference. It was the quintessential "" face.

And that, my friends, is the real tragedy of the Novus Ordo. The sheer apathy it inspires, the way (at least in its common manifestations) it siphons off so much of what is truly inspiring about the Catholic faith. If I were writing a book about the Novus Ordo and had to select a single image for the cover that exemplified every objection traditionalists have to this liturgy, it would be the lethargic, drooping face of that Boomer I saw Christmas Eve.

After the Mass ended the band broke out into another Christmas rock anthem, kids were dancing around in the pews, the pastor was doing a pathetic jig in his chasuble while parishioners guffawed and took photographs. And this is one of the larger parishes in the region—one of those very affluent churches with thousands of families, the sort of place where the bishop would probably tolerate no disruption of the status quo. As I left that night, I thought to myself, "Yeah...this parish is probably unsalvageable." The process I described in my previous article would never be permitted to unfold here.

And that's what is so depressing about the Novus Ordo. What you get is entirely dependent upon the mood, disposition, and piety of the celebrant. No matter what anybody says to the contrary, it inevitably ends up being an expression of the priest's desires and liturgical vision. This can be great if the priest is traditionally minded, but even then it's a backhanded victory, as the survival of tradition depends on the priest's good graces. Even in my parish (which I hold up as an example of how a bad parish can change), were a progressive priest to get assigned there, he could undo everything that has happened since 2005. And the bishop probably wouldn't do crap about it.


Friday, December 20, 2019

Converting a Novus Ordo Parish to Tradition

There are really a lot of excellent Catholic commentators right now. I love all of the other Catholic writers out there who are promoting Catholic Tradition, especially those who don't take themselves too seriously. These are serious times and the stakes are high, but if we can't laugh at ourselves and maintain some levity, how will we enjoy even the victories we do manage to win?

Yes, I love the crop of weird, eccentric Catholic writers, even if we disagree on a few things, sometimes vehemently. One thing I am constantly lambasted for by other traditionalist writers is my assertion that if traditional Catholics are serious about actually restoring the Church, then they ought to maintain some involvement in the Novus Ordo world. I would never say a Catholic must attend the Novus Ordo Mass, of course. But what I can't support is the model of traditionalism whereby we all just hunker down in our own little traditional chapels and oratories and have no meaningful, real life interactions with Novus Ordo Catholics. I mean, if you want the Church to change, how do you think it is going to change? Do you think our blogging is going to do it? Actual Novus Ordo Catholics need to see the beauty of tradition, be educated about the faith, and fight for it in their own parishes. That's the most likely way anything will ever change. This isn't about just making sure I have "my Mass", but rather restoring tradition in the Church at large.

Now, maybe you don't think such a thing can happen. If that's your position I can respect that, and I can understand your desire to just hunker down where you are at. But if, like me, you believe the reform should come to the Church universal, then my goodness, how can you ignore the Novus Ordo world? That's where 95% of our brethren are. That's where our people are at. How can we just ignore that?

For this reason, I will never support the idea that the Novus Ordo is "not really" the Church, and I refuse to call it the Novus Ordo "sect" or infer that Novus Ordo Catholics are not actually Catholic. To be sure, even in its best moments the Novus Ordo liturgy is only an imitation of the Traditional Latin Mass, and in its abuses and worst moments it is a monstrous caricature of actual Catholic practice. But even so, despite its corruptions and deformities, the Novus Ordo Church is the Church. The Novus Ordo Church is our Mother. It is our Mother in the thralls of the a crippling mid-life crisis—our drunk mother who has ran off with a lover she met online, gotten some tattoos, went to Vegas, developed a meth addiction, and started whoring around so she can temporarily feel pretty and wanted again. But she is still our Mother. Our Mother who has temporarily gone insane due to a bad acid trip, who is beating her head against the wall and tearing her own hair out by the roots—but still our Mother. And our duty is not to write her off or try to deny that she is our Mother, but to rather seek her out wherever she is and bring her home, whatever labor that might require. Wean her off of the meth. Send her lovers away. Buy her some clean garments. Pay for the tattoo removal procedures.

I have always been in favor of the idea of working from within Novus Ordo parishes to change things. For those of you who may have only recently started reading this blog, I would recommend a series of four articles to you that I wrote back in 2011. If you think the idea of converting or transforming a Novus Ordo parish into a traditional one is ridiculous, please read the story I chronicled below. These articles talk about how we got the Traditional Latin Mass at my Novus Ordo parish and indeed reoriented the entire parish back towards Catholic tradition. In 2005 there were rainbow vestments, liturgical dancing, and puppet masses—in 2010 we were celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass and even the Novus Ordo Masses were ad orientam, Latin Mass parts, and communion at the altar rail with Gregorian chant. In five years we went from puppet masses to the Traditional Latin Mass. These articles are not short, but they chronicle in great detail how we did this. They are very worth your time if you are interested in these sorts of parish dynamics. 

Program for Parish Renewal (Part 1)

Program for Parish Renewal (Part 2)

Program for Parish Renewal (Part 3)

Program for Parish Renewal (Part 4)

I remember when all this was going on and we had just gotten the Traditional Latin Mass, a certain gentleman showed up at our parish. He was middle aged, very pleasant and intelligent. I soon saw him at the TLMs; every now and then I would see him at the Novus Ordo as well, but praying with a Latin Missal. He began showing up all over the parish. He volunteered to work at the parish fish fries. He was regularly seen helping at events when the pastor said he needed a few men to do this or that. He was always at coffee and donuts chatting with people. I had a few conversations with him. Super nice, down to earth guy. And he was very pleasant and straight forward in explaining to people why he loved the TLM. He was a model traditionalist, in my opinion. He was integrated into the parish and used his involvement in parish activities to get to know people, build meaningful relationships, and through those, evangelize for the Latin Mass in a way that was effective. If every traditional Catholic was willing to do this, we'd have a lot more tradition in our parishes.

Perhaps you may balk an disagree; I understand, and that's okay. This way I have sketched out is long and hard and depends on many factors beyond one's immediate control. And the outcome is very uncertain. It's slow, painstaking, and laborious. It's easier to just pray for change from the security of our traditional chapels and oratories while blogging about how awful the Novus Ordo world is. And it is awful out there. No doubt about it. But I think back to the example of St. Jean de Brebeuf. St.Jean's mission to the Huron did not begin with homilies to them about the true faith or baptisms; rather, it began with him sitting on a log straining to listen to the strange, guttural language of the Huron while he struggled to make out single consonant and vowel sounds, from which he could painstakingly transliterate the language so as to produce texts of the Scriptures and liturgical texts—a process which took him years. Years just to establish the framework to communicate the fundamentals of our faith. Is it too much to volunteer at a Novus Ordo parish fish fry or making some friends over coffee and donuts?

I'm not going to pontificate on how these relationships have to happen or in what context, but I will say that if we are serious about restoring tradition, we have to do the nitty-gritty, and we have to think in terms of years. And doing that sort of work is not ultimately about what's going on in the Vatican, although that is valuable information as well. It's more about working at the parish level. It's about building relationships with Catholics and spending months or years in discussion with them. It's volunteering to clean up the parish cemetery and sitting down for a break with the guy next to you and discussing traditional Catholics ideas about the dead and purgatory. It's about making friends with a Novus Ordo family and inviting them to attend a Traditional Latin Mass. It's about volunteering on parish committees and charitably working to build support for the introduction of more traditional devotions at your parish. Forget the Vatican. Forget the pope. Go be a good example for Catholic tradition in the places where you can make the most difference. And think in the long term. It took a long time for the Roman Empire to turn Christian. Think how many years it took St.Jean to sort out the Huron language. It takes a long time for trees to grow and blossom and to bear fruit. But whatsoever a man sows, that, too, shall he reap.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

What People Don't Understand About Syncretism

One of the most pertinent facts that emerged from the recent Amazon Synod is the sad truth that a vast number of Catholics don't understand what syncretism is. This is true not only of the dissimulating organizers of the shameful Pachamama rites in the Vatican, but also of the legion of papolatrous Twitterati who defended them, as well as the ignoramuses and faux intellegensia among the sloppy laity who argued "bUt iS JuST tEh VirgUn MAry!" until their faces turned blue.  

One thing all of these folks share in common is apparent unfamiliarity with the concept of syncretism, which was so perfectly exemplified in the Pachamama episodes. Religious syncretism is characterized by blending or "syncretizing" of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated—and often contradictory—beliefs or traditions.

The entire point of syncretism is that religious belief and imagery are blended together, such that they are difficult for the average worshiper to distinguish. A classic example of this is the ancient Romans, who held a fundamentally syncretist view of non-Roman religions. The Romans were masters of adaptation; when encountering a new religion among their conquered peoples, they essentially tried to identify the new deities with the existing deities in their own pantheon. Once such an identification was made, the new god would be worshiped under the rites and name of the old god. This connection having been made, both the Roman gods and the gods of the conquered peoples could be worshiped in unity by the mixed populace. 

For example, when the Romans encountered the Celtic god Lugus in Gaul, they associated him with Mercury. Lugus was referred to as Mercury by the Romans, and Romanized Celts might offer him sacrifices under either name. He was not Lugus or Mercury, but both, depending on the identity, culture, and preferences of the worshiper. He was worshiped under both names by both peoples in a single temple.

Another interesting example is the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, a popular cult of the early 3rd century AD. Centered in the Syrian city of Doliche, the Jupiter Dolichenus cult was essentially a Roman re-imagination of the older Baal-Teshub-Hadad cults of the region, which went all the way back to the Hittites and the Sumerians. Because Baal, Teshub et al. were storm gods, the Romans shrugged and said, "Oh, okay, that's sorta like Jupiter." The popular cult of Jupiter Dolichenus fused the official worship of Rome's supreme patron deity with the exotic mystery cults of the east. Again, his cultus was the assimilation of pre-Roman Canaanite paganism into the official Roman pantheon such that worshipers of Baal, Hadad, Jupiter, or whomever could worship Jupiter Dolichenus with a sense of cultural unity. The Roman merchant Marcus might worship Jupiter, and the Syrian peasant Yassib might worship Baal, two objectively distinct gods—but in the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, both might worship one divinity together while simultaneously adoring their own regional gods.

Syncretism is ultimately a manner of thinking found among spiritual people who don't care about truth, for syncretism is not about truth but rather vague, often emotional, concepts. It did not matter whether Baal and Jupiter were objectively different deities. It was not relevant that Baal was killed and spends part of the year in the underworld before being resurrected while Jupiter never underwent such an ordeal and indeed could not be killed or even wounded by anyone. It is of no consequence that Jupiter overthrew his father Saturn while Baal remained on good terms with his father Dagan. It's neither here nor there that Baal overcame and slew the god of the sea (a hideous monster) while the Roman sea god was Jupiter's own brother, Neptune. The contradictions and divergences between the various tales don't matter. All that matters is that the powers of the sky were a very mysterious thing, the forces of which inspired in the ancients a sense of terror and superstitious reverence. It did not matter to whom one was addressing when one worshiped the sky god; all that mattered was the worshiper's emotional needs to venerate this particular force were gratified.

To return to Pachamama, what we saw in the arguments of the defenders of the Pachamama rites was an essential ignorance of how syncretism worked. These folks did not seem to realize that syncretism essentially suspends or ignores the principle of non-contradiction, namely, that two contradictory things cannot be predicated of the same subject simultaneously. Steeped in the assumptions of western thought, the Pachamama defenders assumed that the image we saw in the Vatican gardens was supposed to be either Pachamama, or a representation of Gaia, or the Virgin Mary. And that settling the question was simply a matter of looking at the evidence and determining which of these three possibilities is correct.

Ah, the lingering influence of western rationality! Even when these folks are helping demolish the western tradition, they can't escape the western intellectual paradigms they have been raised with. They don't understand that in a syncretist context, the image can be the goddess Pachamama, and a personification of Gaia, and the Blessed Virgin Mary simultaneously. To try to make an argument that such an image is not Pachamama but the Virgin Mary would be as useless as standing outside the Temple of Jupiter Dolichenus and trying to insist to a befuddled Syrian crowd that the image inside was not Jupiter but Baal, or not Teshub but Hadad. The whole purpose of a syncretist approach is to create a cultural situation where such an image is Mary to the Catholic and also Pachamama to the pagans, so that everybody can worship under one big happy tent without anybody having to change or do anything difficult—Catholics don't have to evangelize, and pagans don't have to convert. Syncretism is the ultimate baptism of the boring status quo.

And the insidious thing about syncretism is how difficult it can be for the uninformed to spot or understand. For example, consider these candles:

The design and images of the saints look perfectly orthodox. There's St. George, the Virgin and Child, St. Martin, St, Lazarus, and others. The unaware might assume that the names at the bottom are merely the saint names in some other language.

However, these innocuous looking candles are in fact Santeria candles used for Voodoo ritual—the titles at the bottom are not appellations for the saints, but are in fact the names of Voodoo demons. If you don't believe me, just do some searching for Papa Legba, Ogou Feray, or Ezili Danto. Haitian Voodoo-Santeria is an excellent example of what a syncretist religious tradition looks like. No two things could be more contradictory than the purity of the Catholic faith and the dark magic of Voodoo; and yet, here we see the traditional imagery of Catholicism and Santeria blended together.

We can imagine the erstwhile defenders of Pachamama belligerently insisting that these candles are perfectly orthodox. "Look at it! It's obviously the Virgin Mary and Christ child. You are being hypocritical. The only reason you are attacking this is because they have BROWN SKIN!"

There's much more that can be said here, but I think the essential point is this: the entire rationale behind syncretism is to blend religious traditions such that people from various cultures can continue to worship their own customary deities under one big tent. It's not a matter of sorting out whether an image is Pachamama or the Virgin Mary; when something is syncretist one can make convincing arguments for either. And that is the whole point.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The New Double Truth Theory

Many years ago, during the Benedict XVI pontificate, I drew attention to a phenomenon which I dubbed Catholic "dogma ex voce" ("from the voice"). The essential observation of this post was that contemporary dissenters, embarrassed by the Church's traditional teachings, must use the subterfuge of contradicting them in lower level pronouncements in order to promote their garbage while being able to affirm the facade that the Church has "never changed" its teaching because the official pronouncements remain unchallenged. In that article from 2010, I wrote:

Obviously and thankfully, [authoritative declarations] cannot be gotten rid of. They can be ignored and wished away, but they will not go away. Definitive, infallible ex cathedra statements remain for all time and are irreformable of their very nature. No matter how much any bishop or cardinal would like to contradict or get rid of these dogmatic heirlooms, they cannot.
Yet, though these declarations will not go away, there is a way that the hierarchy has found to get around this problem. I have noticed that, in areas where the modern hierarchy takes vastly different positions than the traditional Church, novel positions are not given to the faithful by means of encyclicals or dogmatic statements, but are found throughout lower-level pronouncements, such as speeches, letters, addresses, bishops' statements etc. By repeating these novel positions again and again in very low-level pronouncements, the faithful get accustomed to hearing certain novelties "from the Church" and over time come to accept them as "Church teaching."

Though these sorts of novelties are not "official", they are spewed out with such regularity and from so many sources that the stupid Catholic faithful eventually come to associate them with "Church teaching" and accept them as "dogma" uncritically. It is essentially the old adage that a lie, repeated enough, becomes taken as the truth. This is how the propaganda machine of dogma ex voce works to slowly undermine Catholic tradition while maintaining that the Church has not essentially "changed."

This has been going on for a long time; in my original article, I cite examples of it from the pontificate of John Paul II. Benedict XVI himself did it all the time in his personal writings and statements. Really its a post-conciliar phenomenon grounded in attempts to push the Spirit of Vatican II whilst simultaneously trying to reconcile the conciliar documents with traditional teaching, the old conservative Catholic two-step dance.

But in recent years it has reached new levels of intensity such that the Church really seems to be breaking down under a kind of institutional schizophrenia. The Amazon Synod brought this to the fore more than ever. The way things are developing, this practice has virtually evolved into a kind of "Double Truth Theory." The Double Truth theorem was an hypothesis proposed by the Latin Averroists of the 13th century as a means of reconciling philosophical principles which challenged Catholic dogma. Essentially, the Averroists asserted that religion and philosophy, as separate sources of knowledge, might arrive at contradictory truths without detriment to either—that something may be true from a philosophical perspective whilst being false from a theological perspective and vice verse. It was the opening salvo in a long war to detach philosophy (and science) from theology while being able to still affirm theological truths—in other words, to be able to affirm error while still paying lip-service to the Church's official pronouncements.

The Double Truth Theory, of course, is nonsense. There is only one truth, but we apprehend it under different modes or ways of knowledge. But ultimately if something is true, it cannot contradict another truth, be that truth philosophical, theological, moral, scientific, or whatever. We cannot say contradictory statements are all true, no matter how badly we might want to. Very rightly did St. Thomas Aquinas reject the Double Truth theorem as the nonsense that it is.

But is that not the very situation we see the hierarchy attempting to foist on us at the moment? Being at least nominally Catholic, these theologians and prelates cannot openly deny the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils or solemn pronouncements of the Church, nor contradict them with new solemn pronouncements. But what they can do is contradict those teachings through the ex voce method—ignoring the official pronouncements while making a slew of contradictory statements on the "unofficial" level: speeches, interviews, magazine articles, books, homilies, letters, and so on. In a pinch they can always claim that the Magisterium has not taught anything contrary to the faith—where "taught" is understood in a very specified way as a solemn teaching. But meanwhile they go about undermining the faith at every opportunity they can in a torrent of constant heterodoxy while expecting the faithful to believe that nothing substantial has changed. And meanwhile actual heretics (like Fr. James Martin) are permitted to continue spreading their poison unhindered, further lending credence to that the novelties being vomited out all over today are in fact "Church teaching."

They know exactly what they are doing as well. When they are among themselves or in gatherings of supporters, they openly boast of how they are undoing Catholic tradition and leading the Church into a brave new world.

In the old days, Catholic teaching served as a bulwark against the introduction of error because it was known that official Catholic teaching is irreformable. The modernists have gotten around this today, not by trying to overthrow the official teaching, but by simply leading us to a place where official teaching no longer matters. "Catholic dogma" is whatever the leaders of the Church happen to be bloviating about in their press conferences and interviews.