Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Utilitarian Arguments Against Lay Lectors


One of the most notable characteristics of the Novus Ordo Missae is the utilization of members of the congregation in roles that were formerly filled by clerics in Minor Orders. This change was brought about due to a misguided understanding of "active participation", a phrase whose pre-Vatican II definition had meant something more akin to "full engagement of mind and heart" but which in the post-Conciliar regime came to mean "everybody moving around doing stuff." There is an excellent little exegesis on the pedigree of the phrase participatio actuosa in Dr. Peter Kwasniewski's book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright (which I will be reviewing in the near future, Lord willing). For those of you who don't have the book, I recommend this article from Dr. Kwasniewski at New Liturgical Movement.

While there are many examples of congregants being substituted for clerics in the new Mass, here I'd like to focus on the role of the lector in the Novus Ordo, specifically in utilitarian terms. That is, there are many good arguments that it is more uniquely fitting for clergy to lector; here I am going to present an argument for the same based on the fact that congregants are generally bad at doing the readings.

Before we examine this, I want to reference from the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 45, on mistakes made when doing the readings. St. Benedict wrote:

Should anyone make a mistake in a psalm, responsory, refrain or reading, he must make satisfaction there before all. If he does not use this occasion to humble himself, he will be subjected to more severe punishment for failing to correct by humility the wrong committed through negligence. Children, however, are to be whipped for such a fault.

Granted, this passage is not directly applicable. Benedict is referring specifically to monastic life, and the passage refers not to the celebration of the liturgy but to the readings done in the Oratory or during mealtime in the Refectory.  Still, even if the particulars are not directly applicable, it is still relevant on principle―the Sacred Scriptures are the very words of God, the public recitation of which demands skill, attentiveness, and excellence. To treat the public recitation of the Word of God as something common place profoundly devalues the place of the Scriptures in the economy of salvation. We are blameworthy if we do so, and hence the Rule of St. Benedict proscribes a penalty for anyone who errs when readings, whether through neglect or honest accident. The recitation of the Word of God in the liturgy deserves the highest attentiveness and formal excellence on the part of the lector.

Given this basic principle, let us consider how the readings are often done in the Novus Ordo. 

In the first place, it is evident that the lay lectors are often unfamiliar with the specific biblical text they are reading. This is evidenced in the endemic mispronuncation of biblical names. Even relatively simple names like Jezreel or Bartimaeus give many a lector pause. Some names are morphed into others, like when the text says Simeon but the lector lazily says Simon, or Mattathias becomes Matthias. The lector fumbles to say Nebuchadnezzar or Melchizedek. And if a word like Mahershalhashbaz or Zaphnathpaaneah comes up, it's game over. 

The quality of the delivery is often shoddy as well. Pitch is monotone, cadence indiscernible, and punctuation in the text is slurred over because the lector doesn't understand how all the subordinate clauses run together. There's no particular emphasis on any aspect of the text―or conversely, if there is, it is often melodramatic and cringy. In other words, it's exactly what you'd expect when people who are uaccustomed to reading publicly are asked to read publicly. It oftens seems like the first time a lector sees the text he or she is reading is when they step up to the ambo.

Furthermore, it frequently happens that a lector is chosen who honestly does not have sufficient eyesight or audio-verbal coordination to be reading publicly. I am reminded of a Mass I attended where an elderly gentleman lector consistently said "the Godfather" instead of "God the Father." Whether the problem was age, dyselxia, or some other cause, the fact was somewhere in the cognitive process the words were getting jumbled, resulting in calling the First Person of the Trinity "The Godfather", and other similar embarassing errors.  

And all of these problems are compounded when a parish decides to also let children lector, which is unfortunately common.

Finally, we must also note the problem of lay lectors approaching the ambo in clothes that are much too casual for the office they are fulfilling, especially in the case of daily Masses where the lector is likely to be wearing jeans or other street clothes. The solemn proclamation of the Word of God in casual attire creates a cognitive dissonance between what is supposed to be happening and the reality we are seeing. Although to be honest, even if the lector is impeccably dressed, he is still not vested for the specifically liturgical function he or she is ultimately performing, which is a whole other discussion.

I grant that these objections are anecdotal. One's experience with a lector is going to vary depending on the particular lector. And some Novus Ordo parishes do a good job vetting their lectors, and these lectors are attentive to reviewing and meditating on the text prior to taking the ambo. So this is not meant to disparage those of you who may be serving as lay lectors and putting a lot of attentiveness and work into the reading. Nevertheless, anecdotes are anecdotes for a reason, and the fact that some lectors do a good job in the Novus Ordo is no argument against the ubiquity of the problems I have described above.

One reason for the subpar lectoring in the Novus Ordo is that, once you admit the principle that the readings should be done by a layperson, you must now find a constant supply of laypeople to do this for every set of readings: day after day, week after week, year after year. Even assuming one lector is going to read multiple times during a month, this is still a tall order. To keep the assembly line of lay lectors flowing uninterrupted, a pastor cannot afford to be choosy with whom he admits to the ambo. Even though canonically the pastor has total discretion over who can fulfill this function, in practice any warm body who wants to lector is going to be permitted.

The problems I enunciated above are all non-issues in the Traditional Latin Mass. Granted, it is still possible that a cleric may stumble over a word like Merodachbaladan or Tigleth-pileser. But really, who is less likely to mispronounce Bible names: a cleric who studied the Scriptures for years prior to ordination, preaches on them daily, and meditates on them privately multiple times of day in the Office...or a lay person whose only interaction with the Bible may be on Sunday? Obviously a cleric is much less likely fumble just based on his training and manner of life. Even someone in Minor Orders is going to be far better equipped to deal with a reading than a lay person. Yes, lay people can study Scriptures and be very biblically literate, but like everything else in the Novus Ordo, this is entirely dependent upon the particular lector. Should the quality of our readings be held hostage to the skill of a particular individual every week?

Furthermore, a priest or deacon who preaches regularly, essentially speaking in public for a living, is going to have a better quality of delivery. Pitch, cadence, emphasis, timbre, and all of it is going to be superior to your average lay lector who probably never has to read publicly. A priest who encounters the Scriptures on a daily basis in public liturgy and private study is also a lot less likely to juxtapose phrases or commit an error like "The Godfather" example mentioned above. Someone who has studied the Scriptures for years is going to be intimately familiar with the texts in a way that gives them a certain comfort or naturalness about reading them aloud. 

And obviously a cleric is going to be properly vested for the office he is performing, which eliminates the cognitive dissonance I mentioned above when a layperson saunters up in their street clothes to proclaim the divine revelation of the Word of God. Furthermore, reserving the readings to the few clergy associated with a parish solves the problem of needing to find an unending supply of laypersons to lector.

In critique all this, I can anticipate the rebuttal that God does not care about our education level, or how eloquently we speak, or whether we stumble over a word. God only cares about the heart! After all, "When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the word of God in eloquence or human wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1), and "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). To insist on some kind of external, formal excellence in how one reads is Pharisaical. Didn't Jesus come for the poor and uneducated? 

In the first place, the verses above do not pertain to the liturgy specifically. In liturgical worship, externals do matter very much given that it is the public worship of the Church. General Christian precepts about personal prayer often do not apply to the liturgy, which has its own standards. For example, Jesus clearly says "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret" (Matt. 6:6). Yet, clearly this does not apply to the liturgy, which by definition is public worship. If we applied Jesus' dictum to pray in secret to our liturgy, we wouldn't even be able to have a Mass. It is sloppy, lazy scholarship to take biblical passages that were never meant to apply to the liturgy and derive liturgical norms from them. That's how you end up with people going barefoot at Mass because God once told Moses to take his shoes off, or parishioners dancing in the sanctuary because David danced before the ark

And even though many of us might struggle to pronounce Mahershalalhashbaz or Chushanrishathaim when we come across them in our private reading, our private reading is not the public proclamation of the Word of God in the liturgy. I might also read the Bible privately while sitting comfortably in my pajamas but it would be absurd to say that the same standard applies to the liturgy. The excessive focus on "Aw, but his heart is in the right place" and "C'mon, she's doing her best" reveals the degree to which the Novus Ordo approach to liturgy is so anthropocentric it cannot even fathom the idea of the Mass being God-directed.

But more to the point: granted that by every objectively measurable criterion a cleric is better suited to do the readings than a layperson, what counter-argument is there for preferring lay lectors despite all the defects we mentioned? What principle is weighty enough to override the avalanche of problems that come with lay lectoring? What can be so important that we accept the standard of mediocrity? The only plausible answer is that it is all worth it in order to include laypeople in the liturgy. And thus we see that, again, the true North Star of the Novus Ordo is the flawed principle of active participation. It's a kind of liturgical affirmative action: a cleric can objectively "do the job" better, but a less qualified person is chosen, not based on their ability, but solely on their identity. The fittingness of the liturgical celebration comes second; attending to lay "representation" in the ritual is first. It is a perfect example of the schizophrenia of the Novus Ordo mentality―to prefer a watered-down, banal experience that is objectively slipshod and detrimental to faith so long as people can feel like they are "doing something."

In conclusion, it seems evident that the public worship of the Church demands the highest level of excellence possible for the proclamation of the Word of God. The reliance on lay lectors in the Novus Ordo completly subverts this standard by prioritizing the physical involvement of laypersons―regardless of their capabilities―over the objective quality of the liturgy. It is the total inversion of the principle we saw enunciated in the Rule of St. Benedict and which has always been at the heart of the Church's public worship.

For another take on this same problem please see "How Typical Lector Praxis Transmits a Protestant and Pelagian Message" from New Liturgical Movement (Jan. 2018)

Friday, November 13, 2020

California Days

I recently took a trip out to Southern California and had a very edifying time visiting various churches and religious sites. Though Southern California is obviously a hotbed of progressive nonsense politically, for the devout Catholic, it's also a rich paradise of cultural, historic, and religious sites.

Last Friday in particular I devoted the entire day to pilgrimage. I began by making a drive into the hills up to Silverado in Orange County to visit the Norbertine monastery of St. Michael. The monastery grounds were gorgeous; unfortunately the building was from the 1970s and not very aesthetic. But a brother I met in the parking lot quickly told me about a new building they were soon going to be moving in to, one in the more traditional style. He invited me to attend mid-day prayers in the chapel, which was a huge grace. While I waited for the prayers to begin, the brothers quietly emerged from various doors and passages and glided into their choir stalls. I was surprised not only at their number (I counted 30), but also their relative youth. Of the 30 brothers I saw, I counted 14 that looked to me to be in their twenties. I also noticed a few novices and postulants sitting off to the side who were also all young men. 

They began their prayers, all chant, all Latin. It was lovely. I am pretty sure this was a Novus Ordo community, but how nice it was to see youthful brothers in their full traditional habits chanting the office in Latin. And to see their community was growing and would soon be in better quarters! After prayers, one of the older members of the community, a priest named Fr. Steven, spoke with me at length about the new building and asked me to take a drive out to the new location and take a look at it. I followed his advice and took a picture of the new St. Michaels. The brothers will be moving in before Christmas, Lord willing:


If you want to do more research on the Norbertines of St. Michael, their website can be found here.

After my morning with the Norbertines, I drove down to San Juan Capistrano to visit the mission there, one of the famous California missions founded by St. Junipero Serra (1713-1784). I had been to the mission before, but it had been several years. When I was last here I was in a group and had to stick with the group, so now I was looking forward to exploring it alone and at my own pace. The mission architecture and grounds are of course beautiful, as is the case with all the historic California missions. I had a great deal of peace and spiritual refreshment exploring the grounds, stopping to pray or just sit in the various little corners of beauty, and strolling the porticoes. The weather was fine, sunny but cool and breezy. 


The mission chapel is particularly noteworthy. Though much of it is reconstructed, the reconstructions were done using materials from the same period taken from other similar structures and based on historical drawings and photographs. It is a very accurate representation of what St. Junipero must have seen when he offered Mass here:



I was able to spend quite a bit of time in here in prayer. The mission was a little quieter than usual due to Covid I was told and I had the place to myself for some time. What a grace!

After this I wanted to make a trip up to the San Gabriel Mission, but I was informed by a docent that it had regrettably been destroyed over the summer in an apparent act of anti-Catholic arson

Now it was late afternoon and I drove  from San Juan Capistrano over to Costa Mesa, where several friends had recommended I visit the parish of St. John the Baptist, a Norbertine parish that was reputed to have a very beautiful sanctuary and a Perpetual Adoration chapel. I was disappointed to find when I arrived that the Adoration chapel was closed due to Covid restrictions. So I went to pray in the church instead. As I walked in, I noticed there was an old woman kneeling on the sidewalk praying the Rosary. I was like "Um...okay I guess that's what they do here" and went past her. When I got into the church, I was blessed to find there was a wedding going on. I obviously kept my distance as not wanting to intrude on their special moment, but I walked in at the very end when the Bride and Groom are kneeling and getting ready to receive the final blessing from the priest after Communion. I snapped a picture of it because I thought it was such a lovely scene:



After the Bride and Groom left, I was able to spend some time praying alone in the sanctuary, just myself and some Filipino ladies who were saying the Rosary. I also walked about the parish grounds a bit and found this charming statue of Our Lady of Lavang, which is one of my favorite non-European depictions of the Blessed Virgin:



As I saw this image, I was really struck by the Catholicity of the Church. Here I was visiting a parish in the United States, an English speaking country. The bride at the wedding and her whole family seemed to be native Spanish speakers, while the groom and his side seemed to be native English speakers. Then there's these Filipino ladies praying in the chapel and a statue of a Vietnamese depiction of Mary in the back. 

As I was leaving, I noticed the old lady was still kneeling outside praying the Rosary. Then I saw other people were kneeling in the grass, in the parking lot. It was super bizarre, so I turned to see what they were all kneeling towards. That was when I noticed the Blessed Sacrament was being displayed from the second story window of a building next door to the Church, presumably the Rectory. When Covid restrictions closed the Adoration chapel, the pastor had moved the sacrament to the rectory, which allowed people to adore from the parking lot. I immediately dropped to my knees, embarrassed that I had walked back and forth across this area multiple times without realizing what was going on. I took this picture, which I found profoundly moving:



After the day was over, I felt a great peace in my soul. This was only a few days after the election, and everything nationally seemed to be in chaos. None of that seemed to matter though. It was so refreshing to see Catholic life going on as usual in all these places: monks chanting the Divine Office as they have since the time of St. Benedict; sitting in prayer before an altar upon which Masses were said before a United States of America ever existed; quietly fellowshipping with other Catholics of diverse backgrounds in the worship of the King of Kings in the Blessed Sacrament. Basically, experiencing the cliché but very true maxim that "God is still on the throne."

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Some More Lío from the Papa


So, apparently Papa Francesco caused some lío this week with his statement on same sex civil unions from some sketchy documentary.

I don't pretend to know what was in the pope's head when he (a) chose to make such statements publicly (b) on camera so there was a permanent record of the words coming out of his own mouth (c) allowed the footage to be used and the video to go public (d) issued no clarification or context or denial (e) offered no means of reconciling his statements with the Church's official pronouncements on the subject, or even some of his own prior statements (f) chose to offer no correction to gossip that he is being "misquoted" or "mistranslated." I can't even fathom.

Predictably, the neo-Cath "He was misquoted!" crowd was out en masse within 24 hours. Perhaps he was. If so, I look forward to Francis's forthcoming formal, unambiguous clarification that he actually believes all homosexual unions of any sort are intrinsically immoral and should not be given civic recognition. That will happen, right? Probably right after he answers the dubia.

The amusing thing here is that Pope Francis probably thinks he is being very cutting edge, but civil unions are really such an outdated idea. They are soooo 2005. They were a compromise measure proposed during a transitionary period when there was increasing support for some sort of civil recognition for homosexual liaisons but there was still sufficient political will to resist making them equal with marriage. It was argued at the time that civil unions actually "protected" marriage by legally recognizing that same sex partnerships were fundamentally different than heterosexual matrimony—that they essentially draw a line in the sand by offering a clear, legal distinction between marriage and civil unions. Kind of like when an army in a chaotic skirmish makes a tactical withdrawal in order to establish a clear front line. It may seem like the army has given ground, but the withdrawal actually puts the unit in a much stronger position because the lines are clearly established and more easily defensible.

I always found this argument to be weak. The question isn't whether a line is drawn, but what is the real difference in being on one side of the line or the other? If you have the exact same legal recognitions on both sides of the line, in what sense are the two different? Civil unions make sense only if we are interested in merely protecting the name of marriage without the substance. I mean, are we Nominalists now? I can't see how this idea was ever any sort of win for Catholics. 

And yet, if you read Francis's statements about civil unions along with his commentary on homosexual marriage, you see this is exactly the line of thought he takes—civil unions somehow "protect" traditional marriage by drawing a circle around it in the sand. Obviously faithful Catholics are mortified by this outdated opinion that only ever satisfied the small sect who wanted to pay lip service to traditional marriage while tripping over themselves to show that they were open-minded.

While homosexual activists fifteen years ago might have appreciated the position as an incremental step forward,  they would surely not be thrilled with such a proposition today, given that full out gay marriage is accepted through much of the west with full legal equality. For example, one progressive Italian comedian and political commentator I saw made the following comment on his social media:

The Pope said YES to Civil Unions between homosexual people because "they are God's children and have the right to the family".

But NO to marriage, neither civil nor church. NO to adoptions (but didn't they have the right to family?). NO to any complete equation with heterosexual couples. Because for the Church, despite the pop breakthrough, there are anthropological dogmas that are perfect like this.

And he told a secular world, to read himself as a political and temporal figure. He did it with a rhetoric that, while on the one hand, opens to simple CIVILITY, on the other hand, reinforces the idea that there are ANYWAY differences between couples.

Nothing, all this just to tell you what your dear liberal progressive PAPA really said yesterday that gets you so excited.


In other words, a position that offends everyone. It's a laughable proposition to be affirming in 2020 and one Catholics should never affirm at all.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Traditional Mass, Too, Depends Upon the Priest



I want to pose this article as a thought experiment. This means I am not trying to argue a point I absolutely agree with, nor drawing any hard conclusions. I am merely following a train of thought to see where it leads and if others agree, and—if not—why.

It is often repeated that the very structure of the Novus Ordo lends itself to abuse and irreverence while the Traditional Latin Mass is impervious to such innovations. This is because the Traditional Mass has a "built in" structure of reverence, whereas the Novus Ordo is a blank slate; it has so many options and vagaries that it essentially becomes whatever the celebrant wishes it to be. Ergo, while the Novus Ordo can (by design) be endlessly improvised and created anew according to the whims of the celebrant, the Traditional Latin Mass has its own unity that comes down to us from Tradition and must simply be received.

It seems, however, that the conventional wisdom that the Traditional Latin Mass is inherently immune to novelty is incorrect. It seems that the reason the TLM is not subject to innovation is not because the structure prevents it, but because the priests who celebrate the TLM are not the sort of priests who would innovate.

Currently, priests who celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, whether diocesan or part of a fraternity, do so because they believe the traditional liturgy is a perfect act of worship. They choose the traditional Mass because they have come to treasure everything the traditional Mass is and stands for. The love the old liturgy. Therefore they (rightfully) have a deep fidelity to the liturgy and its formal structure. And hence they would never dare impose their innovations upon it. 

But this is only because they have no desire to change the Traditional Latin Mass, not because the Traditional Latin Mass itself is impervious to being changed.

Let us suppose that after Francis, we were to get a hypothetical Pope Pius XIII who mandates that the Roman rite return to the Tridentine liturgy. The Novus Ordo is suppressed. The TLM becomes the normative Mass across the entire west. Deo gratias.

If that were to happen, the Traditional Mass would then no longer be celebrated exclusively by priests who are devoted to liturgical excellence. Rather, every slip-shod parish priest who was accustomed to carelessly fumbling his way through the Novus Ordo is now saying it. Charismatic priests accustomed to incorporating drums and tongues into Mass are now saying it. Retirement age priests who just don't care and can no longer keep track of the shits they don't give are now having to say it. And most are not saying it out of deep love for that liturgical form, but merely from ecclesiastical dikat.

Furthermore, this is all being overseen by the same crop of bishops who have always exercised minimal interest in the liturgy and are likely, at best, to give the new regime a mere shrugging adherence. And it would be rolled out to the same apathetic Boomer congregations that are ubiquitous throughout the Novus Ordo world today.

What would the Traditional Latin Mass look like in these hands? What would stop it from being improvised? Is there anything inherent in the liturgy that would save it from being mutilated?

As far as I can see, the answer is no. A priest can violate the rubrics of the old Mass just as much as he can the new, the only difference being that the terms upon which he violates the New Mass are much more ambiguous. The integrity of the liturgy ultimately depends upon the integrity of the priest saying it, regardless of the specific liturgy being said.

Now, it could be argued that there was no a widespread problem with liturgical innovation prior to Vatican II, so this is good evidence that the Traditional Latin Mass would never have this problem in the future. While this is true (although I should say it is most true of the period between the Council of Trent and Vatican II), this was due primarily to the formation of the priests in those times. They were formed in such a way that respect for the integrity of the liturgy was paramount and innovation would have been unthinkable. Bishops enforced this, popes safeguarded it, and congregations expected uniformity.

So again, the integrity of the liturgy comes down to the will of the priest saying it. It has been observed that a priest following the rubrics of the TLM fades into the background. He allows the liturgy to glorify God through him, becoming, as an individual, of no importance. This is all true...if the priest follows the rubrics. But for that to happen, you need priests who are disposed to follow the rubrics to begin with. Would we have that if the TLM were suddenly mandated universally?

The point is that bringing back the Traditional Liturgy alone would be insufficient unless it was accompanied by a general spirit of metanoia throughout the entire Church. I understand that when we talk about the formation of priests to love the liturgy, that it is not so one-sided. A priest is formed to love the liturgy. And the liturgy itself forms that priest. In a certain sense, merely exposing priests to the traditional liturgy and requiring them to say it will instill in them a respect for it. But we cannot assume this effect will be universal, given the state of the Catholic priesthood. There needs to be a general turn to tradition that is bigger than the liturgy.

Thus, to some degree, the success of the Traditional Latin Mass is just as dependent upon the particular priest saying it as the Novus Ordo, the only difference being in the Traditional Latin Mass the disposition of the priest to do the liturgy correctly is simply assumed whereas in the Novus Ordo it is not. But, if we assume the good liturgical sense of a priest saying the TLM, it is only because today the TLM specifically attracts priests who are already disposed to respect the liturgy. This would not be the case if the Traditional Mass was mandated across the entire Church.

That's my thought experiment. Very interested in your observations and critique. God bless you.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Novus Ordo and Conversion


Following up on my last post about the problem of the "reverent Novus Ordo", it was brought up in the comments that perhaps the Novus Ordo as some usefulness as a "transitional" liturgy that might appeal to Protestants in the process of returning to the Church. The argument in favor of this would be that a great many Protestant converts (myself included, even though I am not technically a convert) came into the Church through exposure to the Novus Ordo. Thus, even if the Traditional Latin Mass were re-enshrined as the normative Mass of the Latin rite, perhaps the Novus Ordo could be retained as a sort of liturgical "lobby" that converts pass through on their way to the Traditional Latin Mass.

One could of course respond by citing the innumerable multitudes of Protestant converts who returned to the Church before the existence of the Novus Ordo, most of them because of the radical difference between the Traditional Latin Mass and their own worship. For anyone who wants to read some examples of this, I highly recommend Joseph Pearce's book Literary Converts, which chronicles in fascinating detail the veritable army of English converts that entered the Church between 1850 and the Second Vatican Council.

But I also want to appeal to my own experience here, because I am among those who came into the Church through exposure to the Novus Ordo. It made me question to what degree the Novus Ordo itself was an aid in my conversion. Do I have the Novus Ordo to "thank" for being Catholic today?

To examine this question, we must first take a necessary detour through some of my personal history:

I was baptized Catholic as an infant but never raised in the faith, by which I mean I was never taken to Mass, never made a First Communion, and so forth. I came to Christ when I was 19 through the evangelism of a Protestant friend of mine. My first real experience of Christianity was in the sphere of what I would call Protestant house-church Pentecostalism. I returned to the Catholic Church when I was 22 years old as a result of personal study and prayer. It would be laborious to catalog the various winding paths that led me to the Church, but I can sum them up in three points:

(1) Historical study convinced me that the early Church was Catholic, or at least nothing like the Protestant gatherings I was accustomed to

(2) I was frustrated with the subjectivism and anti-intellectualism inherent in Pentecostalism and Protestantism in general; the Catholic Church, on the other hand, possessed a rich intellectual tradition

(3) It became evident to me that no Protestant hermeneutic suited the Sacred Scriptures and that a Catholic hermeneutic seemed a much more natural and holistic way to approach the Bible.

I also had a few mystical experiences which seemed to aid my reason and push me back towards the Church, but I have no wish to write about those here. So setting aside mysticism, the primary reasons I found my way to the Church were intellectual—they had to do with facts historical or exegetical and were grounded in the assumption that faith and reason were meant to reinforce each other. Facts that I believed about the Church and had learned from my study.

As I began my journey towards the Church, I began going to Mass. My first experience of the Mass was of course the Novus Ordo, as I didn't even know the Traditional Latin Mass was a thing. But more importantly, I did not understand that the Novus Ordo was not the historical Mass.

As I was studying the history of the Church, everything I was reading about was of course in the time of the traditional liturgy. When I read about St. Philip Neri going into ecstasy at Mass, it was the traditional Latin Mass. Or the Mass that St. Isaac Jogues offered in the wilderness, suffered, and died to bring to the Iroquois. Or any of the great stories from our heritage. It was always the traditional Latin Mass.

I certainly did not know any of this. Pre-conciliar texts of course did not know there was going to be a Novus Ordo in the future, and hence they did not refer to the Mass of the ages as the "traditional Latin Mass", but simply "the Mass", as they had no conception there would ever be any other. And post-Conciliar texts—anxious to stress continuity between the pre and post-Vatican II Church—simply spoke of the Novus Ordo as if it were essentially the same Mass the Church had always celebrated. Since pre-V2 texts were unaware of future rupture and post-V2 texts were eager to downplay rupture, the result was that I studied my way into the Church without ever realizing there was a rupture. I had no understanding that the Novus Ordo was not the traditional Mass.

But, upon reflection, all of the reasons I wanted to be Catholic in the first place were due to what I read about the pre-Conciliar Church. Consider this: I knew from my historical studies that the language of the Church was Latin. I loved this. I loved the idea of the universal Church having its own sacred, universal language that could breach the gap of culture and geography and undue the division of Babel in the sacred tongue of Latin. I actually went back to college and studied two semesters of Latin because I thought I would need it to be Catholic. I smile when I think of my naivete then, assuming the entire Church still used Latin! Silly me. But that was the impression I got from my historical studies.

There's many other examples—Gregorian chant, missionaries who actually wanted to make converts, popes who stood up to the trends of the world instead of embracing them, religious orders who wore traditional habits and were still faithful to their orders' charisms, a biblical exegesis that took the Scriptures seriously, architecture that reflected the glory of God instead of the ugliness of modernity, lots of pious devotions practiced at the parish level. Yes, I know I am leaving out the biggest thing, that is, the Mass of the ages. But keep in mind, I was not yet aware that the new Mass and old Mass were different.

At any rate, the simple point is this: the Church I read myself in to was the pre-Conciliar Church

And as an aside, have you ever noticed that many classical Protestant objections to Catholicism also all presume the pre-Conciliar Church? Like, objections about Marian veneration, use of Latin to "keep people from reading the Bible", belief in the Real Presence, veneration of statues, etc. Following historical precedent, today's Protestants generally attack a Church that no longer exists. They expend so much effort attacking the veneration of statues which the vast majority of parishes removed or relegated to mere decoration. They publish long, impassioned rebuttals to belief in the Real Presence—a belief that 69% of Catholics no longer hold. It seems to be the case that, just as I read myself into a pre-Conciliar Church, so do Protestants attack a pre-Conciliar Church. Either the NuChurch does not threaten them, or perhaps, being outsiders, they are simply unaware of how much things have changed in our household. Who knows.

Now, when I actually got into the Catholic Mass and started experiencing the Novus Ordo, it did actually move me deeply. But the reason it impressed itself upon me was not anything particular to the Novus Ordo, but merely the fact that there was a liturgy at all. Coming from a Pentecostal background, the mere existence of a structured liturgy, liturgical year, fixed readings, a Eucharistic rite, etc. were deeply impressive. But upon reflection, what impressed me most was just liturgy qua liturgy, not anything special about the Novus Ordo. 

After I got into the Church, I obviously noticed the dearth of Latin immediately. And the absence of chant. And bad music. And many other things that we associate with what is loosely called "Novus Ordoism" these days. This was disappointing, but at the time I thought this state of affairs was peculiar to my parish. Eventually I found a parish that did what I called a "reverent Novus Ordo" and I thought things were fine.

As happens with many converts, it was only when I started to realize how little the current rite resembles the old rite than my mind changed. After I had been Catholic for five years, I of course had learned about the Second Vatican Council and the Novus Ordo and everything, but I assumed that the Novus Ordo was basically the same as the Traditional Latin Mass. I assumed that perhaps 90% was the same and the changes only superficial. Crazy, I know! But, in my defense, this was pre-Summorum Pontificum, and I had very little opportunity of ever actually experiencing a traditional Mass for myself. And, as I mentioned above, every piece of contemporary literature on the subject—generally from the Catholic Answers-New Springtime-EWTN quadrant of Catholic intelligentsia—stressed pre and post-V2 continuity. It was stressed to a degree that, in retrospect, I now find ridiculous at best and deceptive at worst. But the end result was that I was ignorant of the true depth and breadth of the rupture. 

Eventually I met another Catholic, just a DRE at the time but now the eminent Dr. John Joy, who gave me copies of Klaus Gamber's The Reform of the Roman Liturgy and Michael Davies' Liturgical Timebombs. These books finally opened my eyes to how much had actually been gutted from the Tradition. How the prayers were changed. The calendar. The sacraments. Literally everything. The Pauline Reform was not a cosmetic make-over. It was almost an entirely new edifice.

Around that time I also got a hold of the actual day books of the Second Vatican Council. The day books were essentially the daily logs of the day-by-day proceedings of the Council: what bishops spoke on what days, the subjects they spoke about, the exact vote tallies on the different proposals and documents, and so forth. In reading these, I was astonished by the way the liberal faction had dominated the procedures of the Council. I couldn't believe the unplugging of Cardinal Ottaviani's microphone during his speech actually happened. And many other instances of chicanery. Yet there it all was. This led me to Ralph Wiltgen's The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, which helped make sense of what I had read in Council day books and pulled the entire history of the Council together in a cohesive narrative. 

At a certain point, it dawned on me that the sad state of affairs I had lamented in some of my local parishes was not confined to to those parishes. It was, in fact, the state of the Church globally. This was an incredibly depressing realization, but it ultimately led me to the study of the Traditional Latin Mass, which at that time was still only offered under the Indult. When I was able to compare the prayers of the TLM to the Novus Ordo, the difference was night and day. "Why wouldn't anyone want to pray like this?" I thought to myself in astonishment at the obvious superiority of the old prayers. 

The curtain finally fell when I had the following realizations:

(1) The Church I had fallen in love with through study was the traditional Church, which for all intents and purposes no longer existed.

(2) Whatever it was that had replaced the traditional Church was not only different, but also inferior to it in every way. Those things I liked about the contemporary Church were precisely those facets of traditional Catholicism that had survived despite the rupture of the Conciliar era. 

(3) Finally, this displacement of tradition was not some accident of history, but was a very deliberate act of erasure—of intentional cultural warfare waged against the Church by one of her own factions. 

The Church I had read my way into simply did not exist. It's hard to explain the degree of frustration I felt. Not just frustration, but, a sense of having been robbed. Yes, robbed; for to intentionally cut off the great stream Tradition is to commit the sin of theft against future generations, who are thereby deprived unjustly of a heritage they ought to have inherited. Destroying tradition is to commit theft against future Catholics.

Was the Novus Ordo responsible for bringing me back to the Church? Only in an indirect way, in the sense that I found a few scattered remnants of tradition within the contemporary Church that nourished me enough to secure me in the faith. I do not therefore think the Novus Ordo is a good "transitionary" Mass for people who were in my situation. The fact that God used it to my advantage does not mean it would be to the Church's advantage in general. To use another example, I came into the Catholic Church through the bridge of Pentecostal Protestantism. Pentecostalism was the step God used to bring me to the Catholicism, which was a good thing. But that God used Pentecostalism for my good does not mean I view Pentecostalism as an objective good that I would recommend.

God can bring good out of anything, but it does not follow that those things are goods.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Problem of the "Reverent Novus Ordo"



For much of my life as a Catholic, I attended what most would call a "reverent Novus Ordo." For some Catholics who have never seen a NO that wasn't a clown show, the concept of a reverent Novus Ordo may come as a surprise, but I assure you they exist, though they are rare. What does a reverent Novus Ordo look like? In my experience, they may incorporate some or all of the following elements:

  • The ordinary of the Mass said or sung in Latin
  • Exclusive use of the Roman Canon ("Eucharistic Prayer 1")
  • Prevalence of women veiling
  • Chant replacing hymns
  • A Latin introit
  • An asperges rite
  • Beautiful vestments
  • Almost exclusive reception of Holy Communion on the tongue
  • Centrally located tabernacle
  • Reception of communion kneeling at altar rails
  • Solid, sacrificial looking altar (i.e., no flimsy "table altar")
  • Beautiful, traditional architecture and decorum
  • Orthodox preaching and catechesis
  • Traditionally vested male altar servers
  • Cultivation of spirituality that is Marian and Eucharistic
  • Congregation dressed appropriately and reverently
  • St. Michael Prayer after Mass

I have been consistent over the years in my opinion that the Novus Ordo is not intrinsically irreverent; that is. We know a statistical majority of Novus Ordo liturgies are cringy at best and irreverent at worst, but still the NO can theoretically be celebrated in a way that befits the dignity of the liturgy. Maybe you disagree with this, but whatever. That's not the point of this essay. And of course, the Traditional Latin Mass is superior in this regard in every way, and that is without dispute. But the point is that it is possible to celebrate the Novus Ordo in a way that is reverent and dignified, and that for many Catholics these sorts of Novus Ordo liturgies constitute a real and positive source of spiritual nourishment and offer a true, if very imperfect, connection with the Catholic tradition.

However, even if this is all true...it's an awful defense of the Novus Ordo. There is one overarching reason that looms like an elephant in the room—the fact that even the best Novus Ordo liturgy is only such because of the personal preference of the celebrant.

The rubrics of the Novus Ordo definitely allow for a reverent celebration. But the word "allow" is the crux of the problem. It allows for all the most reverent options if the celebrant so chooses to use them. And the same rubrics that allow for reverence just as easily allows for the most banal, goofy, or irreverent options if the celebrant so chooses. The Novus Ordo is liturgically libertarian. It elevates the principle of choice for the sake of choice as the determining principle of the liturgy. This ensures that the quality of one's liturgical experience is determined not by the structure of the rite itself, but by the whims of the celebrant. Even when the celebrant chooses to use the most reverent options—which might be good for that particular liturgy—overall it is a bad state of affairs because the stability of that "reverent Novus Ordo" is always in question.

To be blunt, this means that only one person stands between that reverent Novus Ordo and the complete upending of the parish's liturgical life. A few examples from my own history:

My parish had a traditional pastor for over a decade. He did what I would describe as a "reverent" Novus Ordo, and (after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum) he also celebrated the Traditional Latin Mass. All his liturgies of both forms used the neo-gothic high altar. The parish did have a table altar, but the pastor had removed this and put it in storage. Well eventually, that pastor left and we were assigned a temporary parish administrator until a permanent pastor was assigned. The interim guy immediately put the table altar back. Both clerics could cite documents in support of their decisions: the original pastor rightly noted that the text of the Missale Romanum assumes that the celebrant is facing ad orientam and hence presumes a fixed wall altar, not a table altar. The interim administrator could cite the GIRM, which specifically says that the altar "should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people" (GIRM 299). It all depended on the personality and preferences of each man, which document they chose to go by, and how they interpreted said documents. When a new pastor was finally assigned, he (again) removed the table altar. If he ever leaves, a new pastor could just as easily put it back again.

Another story: Years earlier, when I first returned to the Church, I was attending Mass at what was then the most traditional parish in my region. The pastor said a Latin Novus Ordo, where everything other than the readings and homily was chanted in Latin. I loved this. It was my first exposure to anything approximating the Catholic liturgical tradition. Well, eventually that pastor was removed and we got another one, a very low-energy "don't rock the boat" sort of guy. Prime bishop-material. Anyhow, once the new priest got in, guess what was the first thing to go? I don't think Latin has been spoken in that parish ever since.

The point is this: Even when the Novus Ordo is done reverently, it is as an exercise of the pastor's personal taste—and the elevation of the celebrant's preference above all other considerations is perhaps the original sin of Novus Ordoism. The Novus Ordo at its best is still an exemplar of what is worst about it. What bizarre irony.

How different is this from the Traditional Latin Mass, where the celebrant becomes irrelevant! The reverence of the Traditional Latin Mass is not the product of subjective preference, but is built into the structure of the rite itself. The Traditional Mass does not have a contingent "allowance" for reverence; it simply is reverent. The reverence isn't the product of getting just the right pastor in, building the right congregation over the years, and making the right choices amongst a sea of options. The reverence of the Traditional Latin Mass is not the end to be attained, but a foundation that is taken for granted and built upon. It is where we begin, not where we end. 

Reverent liturgy is not something Catholics should have to fight for, much less leave to the whims of one man's liturgical preferences. It should be our birthright as sons and daughters of the Church.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

What Madness Washed Them Away?



Kirstin was a friend of mine from long ago—a companion of the raucous days of my youth and the bygone years when I was a just a secular kid in public high school, doing the things all secular kids did in the 90s. We met in gym class. Both of us had an aversion to running, so we found each other on the track in the early morning walking leisurely with the sports-averse kids while all the jocks passed us by lap after lap. We took to each other naturally; I was a punk rock kid with a skater mohawk, and she was a hippie girl with long, scraggly hair down to the small of her back.

We hung out a lot, both one and one and socially. We shared a common friend group and lived nearby. I got to know her sister and her mother. Nothing romantic ever emerged between us, but we sincerely enjoyed each other's company. She came from an Italian family and was feisty and opinionated. I was a burgeoning intellectual who was always up for a good argument or any sort of rich conversation. We never agreed on everything, but that was okay, because we had that sort of mutual fondness that makes friendship sweet and easy. We spent many late nights with friends in 24-hour diners sipping coffee and talking about anything and everything to the haze of cigarette smoke, back when you could still smoke in restaurants. We went on that way for about four years, weaving the memories that would become the tapestry of our adolescence. It was a very sincere and wholesome friendship.

Once when we were about 18 and it was the dead of winter, Kristin and I went to a party at some house where we didn't know the people there very well; they were mainly older guys of college age or even older. Booze flowed freely and Kirstin and I were soon inebriated. As the night wore on, some of the college guys began to get aggressive towards Kirstin. They were inviting her back to their rooms for sex, harassing her, and boasting that they'd have her that evening. We were too drunk to drive, and many party-goers were just crashing wherever they could find a spot. Kirstin confessed to me that she was terrified of going to sleep there in such a vulnerable state. There was one drunken guy in particular who was being extremely predatory. We discussed various options, like sleeping in the car, trying to drive home drunk, etc. We eventually decided to sleep together on a large couch. There was a sofa that there was broad enough for two people to lay down side by side; Kirstin laid on the inside, and I laid on the outside, sort of spooned up to her, in such a manner that no one could approach her without climbing over me first. We passed the whole night that way, sleeping peacefully, chastely, and without incident.

The following morning, we awoke at dawn when everyone else was still sleeping and left in her car. I still remember driving down the road as the sun crested the trees, with that "I am hung over and slept in my clothes feeling" while she smoked with the window cracked in her car and we listened to Blind Melon and talked about what happened. She was exceptionally grateful for my presence there that night and what I had done. I don't know what would have happened otherwise, but she firmly believed that my presence alone had stopped her from being assaulted or raped. And that night became like...a special moment of vulnerability that gave our friendship a unique depth and mutual respect.

Well, after high school we fell out of contact. I entered a spiritual crisis and converted to Catholicism. She moved to Europe. We had no communication for many years. With the advent of social media we reconnected, albeit from a distance and we did not have much interaction. I mentioned she was always kind of a hippie growing up, and as an adult she had definitively embraced the Left side of the political spectrum. But that was okay. I have a great diversity of friends from all different backgrounds. I saw her when she returned stateside once or twice. And I rejoiced with her when she got married to a wealthy European businessman and became a very well-to-do lady. My heart broke with her when she was diagnosed with a degenerative nervous disorder a few years back that affected her cognitive function. I prayed for her.

In short, life went on for her and I and affected our friendship much the way the passing of time affects many friendships. We strayed, we drifted, but the bonds that we forged in youth remained, buried beneath the accumulation of time.

Two months or so ago, on a Facebook post about Black Lives Matter, she suddenly emerged on my thread spewing vitriol, accusing anyone who would not get behind BLM of being racist, and demanding anyone who would not support BLM to unfriend her. I did not argue with her, although I modestly challenged her on a few points.

A few days later I noticed I was unfriended. All that personal history just...evaporated.

And I could tell many similar stories.

What happened to my friends?

What madness has washed them away?

If you have similar stories, please share in the comments.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

In Memoriam: James Larson (1941-2020)

I apologize it took me so long to get around to this, but I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of a brother and friend in the Lord who passed away in July. I am speaking of Mr. James Larson, a friend and collaborator, who died on July 6th. He died of heart failure while doing what he loved: writing an article about the Church. He was found dead seated at his desk, his Bible open to the book of the prophet Jeremiah. The final, unfinished article he was working on when he passed has been published on his website, Rosary to the Interior. You may view his obituary here.

Mr. Larson was a prolific and insightful writer who was making valuable contributions to the conversation about the Church in crisis back when I first took up blogging well over a decade ago. I stumbled upon Larson's original website, War Against Being, when I was first delving into traditional Catholicism (War Against Being is still up, although it looks like Larson ceased work on it in 2017 to devote energy to his other website). The premise of War Against Being was that the crisis in the Church was not essentially about liturgy but rather metaphysics, specifically, a deliberate abandonment of the metaphysical principles enshrined in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The darkness within the Church was metaphysical. I felt like his writings really got to the philosophical heart of contemporary problems in a way few others did.

This itself was not a novel concept; many others had said the same, and there are other very scholarly writers doing admirable work in the same vein (for example, Dr. Francisco J. Romero Carrasquillo, Ph.D of the blog Ite Ad Thomam). But what struck me about Larson's work was not necessarily his level of erudition or the iron-clad logic of his argumentation, but the almost prophetic quality I found in his writing. Anyone who has dug through Larson's expansive corpus knows what I mean. He was a man of deep spiritual insight who always looked at things from the perspective of the supernatural, regardless of the subject matter. When reading Larson's works, I always felt like I was getting a look "behind the curtain", so to speak—a privileged view into what was "really going on" behind it all. His writings not only informed, they nourished. They took a broad view, looking at the Church today from the perspective of heaven.

I remember when I discovered War Against Being I was still working for the Church as a DRE. I poured through every article and was deeply stimulated by them. Many concepts for some of my most perennially popular articles were first put into my head by Larson. For example, the observation that the theology of Joseph Ratzinger is fundamentally Teilhardian was an insight I picked up from Larson and would develop in my subsequent essays. Or my articles identifying the real problem with evolution being a denial of the metaphysical concept of substance. The whole genesis of my ebook Laudato Si: The 40 Concerns of an Exhausted Layman came from Larson's observations about naturalism in the thought of Pope Francis. And much more. Even his more trifling ideas were insightful, like his observation that the papal "Year of" phenomenon always ends up jinxing whatever it is trying to draw attention to, which I subsequently explored in my own essay (see: "Children's Crusade and the Age of Mercy", March 2015). His contribution on my own thought are truly difficult to measure.

Sometime after I read everything on War Against Being and began work on my own humble blog, Larson and I got into contact. I do not remember how or who contacted whom, but we struck up a rich and rewarding email exchange that spanned many years. My communication with Larson was always solely about spiritual matters and our mutual hobby, writing. Literally. We never talked about anything else. He never asked about my family, my work, or anything else, nor I him. Our friendship was solely focused on our writing. I came to admire him very much as a writer and thinker. I admired his insight and lucid style; as an older gentleman, Larson admired my ability to navigate the new media publishing world successfully. Speaking of age, I have to say, until James Larson died, I never knew how old he was. I knew he was older; being in my 30s when we started talking, I assumed he was in his 50s. I did not know I was engaging with a septuagenarian (Larson was 79 when he died last month).We never bothered to ask our ages in all our years of communication. Not that it would have mattered, but I realize now in retrospect that he has a sort of timeless feel about his character and the way he spoke and wrote that made it hard to pinpoint his age from his writing alone.

After some time I asked Larson if he had ever considered self-publishing his writings in book form. Larson was initially skeptical, as for him, "self-publishing" evoked images of junky spiral bound notebooks from Staples. I tried to convince him of the contemporary advances in self-publishing and offered to help walk him through the process and publish anything he wished. To my astonishment, he produced a largely unpublished draft of a work he called War Against the Papacy. Over the next several months I worked with James to self publish War Against the Papacy, which I published through my own publishing imprint Cruachan Hill Press in April, 2015 (click here to buy the book). I remember how giddy James was when he saw how professional the book layout looked compared to how he imagined a self-published work would look.

War Against the Papacy is very characteristic of Larson's thought and why I was attracted to him to begin with. War Against the Papacy is a traditionalist defense of the papacy which nevertheless avoids all the standard traditionalist arguments and even critiques some traddy canards, like the trad obsession with Cum ex apostolatus officio, the 1559 bull of Pope Paul IV that doesn't have even one fourth of the import that many traditionalists seem to think it does.

Larson had an interesting relationship with traditionalism that very much parallels my own. Though Larson fully accepted and understood the chaos of the post-conciliar Church, he had very little in common with what I would consider the vanguards of traditionalism in the English speaking world. He was very much in the camp of "I agree with your conclusions, but not the arguments by which you came to your conclusions." He loved the traditional Mass but had little interest in liturgical arguments; he thought the contemporary hierarchy had been taken over by the forces of darkness but had no sympathy for the SSPX or Lefebvre. He thought Pope Francis acts in a spirit completely antithetical to that which is proper for the successor of St. Peter but never questioned the validity of his pontificate and considered any variant of Sedevacantism to be unthinkable for a Catholic. Like the Prophet Jeremiah, whom he died reading, James was ultimately a contrarian, beating his fists against the wind amidst a generation that had little interest in his conclusions and less patience to understand the rationale behind his arguments. But that never stopped him from continuing to patiently,  persistently beat nonetheless.

Not to say Mr. Larson was flawless in his writing or his opinion. And we certainly disagreed on a few issues, though it was never so substantial that I felt any hesitancy promoting his work. As I've often said, there is no "Trad Magisterium", and I welcome many divergent points of view on issues Catholics of good faith can disagree about. James was always an outsider whom other trads respected but did not quite know what to do with. Perhaps that's something that resonated with me as someone who has alternately been praised or ostracized by larger trad outlets depending my adherence to Trad Groupthink in a given year.

In December of 2017, Mr. Larson launched his new website, Rosary to the Interior. Rosary to the Interior was started from Mr. Larson's conviction that "
We are at a point in the history of the Church in which none of the normal apostolates which sustain the life of the Churchcatechesis, proper intellectual formation, all sorts of organizations in defense of faith and morals, apologetics, etc. seem to possess the power to resist and defeat the enemy" (source). It was a prayer crusade (organized by lay people and certain participating clerics), to pray the Rosary on specific Marian feast days for the intention of the purification of the Church. I helped promote the endeavor when it was first announced. James was ardent in his devotion to the new endeavor to the end of his life. As mentioned above, he died while writing an article for the site.

Unfortunately, I fell out of contact with Mr. Larson in his latter years. My life was changing and I no longer had the time to keep up with James' output, which became more frequent in the last two years. Nor did I devote much time to our correspondence. He still faithfully emailed me every time he wrote something, though. I miss those emails now. Usually just a simple "I just wanted to let you know I published a new article", and then a link. It was nice to know he was still out there writing, even if I couldn't give him more attention. He wasn't asking for any promotion, just wanting to let an old friend know that he'd created something new. Alas, I seldom had the time to read his newer material. I will definitely make the time now.    

If I had to choose a favorite work from James, it would be a piece from War Against Being entitled "St. Francis of Assisi: They Pretended to Love You So That They Might Leave You." This was one of his works I have come back to multiple times over the years. I think it is a good exemplification of everything I admired about Mr. Larson's writing. I hope you'll give it a look.

Requiescat in pace, Brother James. I'm sorry I fell out of contact with you in the end. I pray for the repose of your soul and ask the same of all who stumble across this post. And
—if you are now gazing on the everlasting hills from the halls of light—please remember my poor soul, which will someday, God willing, join you before too long.


+AMDG+

Thursday, August 13, 2020

When a "Good Priest" Goes Bad, and What We Can Take Away from the Case of Fr. Leatherby

Editor's Note: Maximus is a long-time collaborator of the USC blog who has recently begun contributing again. He has advanced degrees in theology and a long history of working for the Church at various levels. On this feast of St. Maximus, we are glad to welcome this guest post.




The recent account of things coming to light in the Sacramento Diocese should be disturbing to any member of the Faithful, and particularly those who would consider themselves "conservative" or "orthodox" Catholics. The story starts off as a familiar one: a conservative priest is removed from ministry allegedly for being too conservative. Those on the right defend the priest, vilify the local ordinary (who is decried as a liberal or anti-life or any other number of easy labels for political expediency), and persist in a campaign to "get their priest back". Those on the left decry the hypocrisy of the right, by manifesting the double-standard held by the defenders on the grounds that "at worst, the it's only a sin between heterosexual, consensual adults". The right shouts back and says, "but those gay priests got off without a warning!"

A mess to be sure, and what-about-ism cannot be the way forward. Inevitably, events transpire that begin to leak so-called facts, and then the cycle concludes with a trial by public opinion, an even more divided laity, a distrust in the hierarchy, and a tarnished witness of the Body of Christ to the world.

We've heard this before.

At the risk of contributing to the undue continuance of the news cycle around this issue, I'd like to comment upon a few important details that may get lost in the noise, in hopes that we can do better in the future.

1) It seems that there has been a real failure -- or at least a manifestation of the real poverty -- in our canonical systems. It may not be popular, but I believe His Excellency, Bishop Jaime Soto when he says that the process has extended out of his hands. It is also not surprising that the family and local congregation would support a priest who is by all accounts conservative, charismatic, and a sign of contradiction in our world over and against a local ordinary, who, like so many ordinaries in the Church today, is not known personally by the community but is perhaps seen as a distant administrator rather than a shepherd.

2) AND YET, to focus on the moral issue and the lagging canonical process that has not yet been resolved IS TO MISS THE POINT ENTIRELY. The primary documents that were either distributed publicly or else leaked demonstrate in abundance that the recent confirmation of excommunication by the Bishop is not at all in relation to the moral life of a priest, but rather is a far graver crime than that of morals. While inappropriate relationships in the closed forum undoubtedly cause damage to the individuals involved and consequently to the Body of Christ, the crime of schism is a direct assault on the whole of the Body itself. Moreover, the public manifestation of errant teachings brings with it the consequence of leading so many members of the faithful astray, who, through little fault of their own simply wish to follow the pastor they trust -- even if that is off a cliff.

3) The public airing of the allegations pertaining to the alleged moral indiscretions of the priest is an injustice to all. As difficult as it has surely been for the lay faithful not to have received any specific clarifications on the allegations from the Bishop, IT IS NOT THE RIGHT OF THE FAITHFUL TO KNOW THESE THINGS. The priest, even though suspended, has a right to a good name. In the modern West, we are too quick to project our alleged "right to a public trial" on to the processes of the Church. And yet, we have no such right to know. Let us imagine, for a moment, that Fr. Leatherby, who admits his guilt on the one hand but on the other strongly objects to the degree of the guilt to which he is being accused, is telling the truth. Will he be able to get a fair trial? And if so, would he be able to ever exercise ministry again? Not in any country that has access to the Internet.

4) The specific allegations revealed in the Catholic Herald bear a haunting resemblance to another story made public. This concurrence of stories about two conservative clerics who both studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome at the same time should bring up alarm bells for the reader. How did these priests come to fabricate these "rites" and plan to carry them out on the faithful? Is there a network of predator conservative priests being formed at the NAC? Or, is this simply a case of "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," who latched onto a story floating around at the time she was being questioned? Frankly, I don't know and I am trying not to be overly curious -- we shouldn't even know these details, and this is the entire purpose of a tribunal process: to discover the truth insofar as it is able to be discovered, and to pass a judgment on the thing without the scrutiny of voyeurs from the outside.

5) If the report from the Diocese, that they would support Fr. Leatherby's request for laicization, is correct, this too is an injustice. It is an injustice because the trial regarding the crimes of a moral nature need to be brought to their proper conclusion for the sake of the alleged victims. It is an injustice because the crime of schism of a priest should be given a just sentencing, not a get out of jail free card so that this priest according to the order of Melchizedek can start up his own "independent 'catholic' church" with valid but illicit sacraments. It is an injustice because it may very well be that the salvation of Fr. Leatherby is dependent upon the tough love of a Mother rather than a laissez-faire policy regarding schism, one which embodies the spirit of the age, with the instruction"you go and do you, and that's okay".

Some other, secondary, remarks:

1) If the individual crime of schism is a serious one, the "Bene-vacantism" represented here is not a serious schism, but a fashionable idea that will die off in due course. Its telos is either sedevacantism outright, or else it is merely a weak tantrum akin to a teenager who lashes out after having done something wrong. Those who follow this route will most certainly be reconciled before the final judgment -- indeed, Fr. Leatherby's letter indicates that he is open to the possibility of correction of an error of fact (i.e.: who is in fact the pope). For the student of history, it should not be a surprise that when two people style themselves as pope in their external adornments and titles, that there would be confusion in the minds of the faithful. Let us pray that this... situation... does not endure for too much longer.

2) The 350+ lay faithful who have been led astray need some serious pastoral accompaniment. It may be that the Bishop is too distant and perceived as the bad guy to directly lend a hand, but perhaps their pastor/s can be given the Bishop's confidence and support in this effort.

3) We should pray for Fr. Leatherby, for his renunciation of error, and that he will be granted the grace of humility, to seek the solitude of a monastery where he might pray and offer penance for his grievous wounds on the Body of Christ. Perhaps, following the lead of His Excellency's invocation, those who are concerned for this priest (and not merely titilated by the thrill of a good priest gone bad) would consider a novena for his repentance and conversion. Considering the time of year, I would propose holding this novena from the Vigil of the Assumption (Aug. 14th) through the feast of the Queenship of Mary (Aug. 22nd). Here's a good novena.

In conclusion, I earnestly hope that there is justice for all involved in what has now become a 3-ring circus. Schism is never a good thing, and this should not be obfuscated because of alleged improprieties that have not yet been given a final judgment. That these two would be conflated, or that schism would even be eclipsed by crimes of a more private nature, simply does not bode well about the outcome.

Oremus pro Ecclesiam!

Friday, July 31, 2020

Examining "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin"


Throughout Church history the maxim "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" has served as a general principle from which to understand the Christian's obligation to love people while detesting the sins those people may commit. Many erroneously think the quote is from the Bible; in fact, it comes from a letter of St. Augustine of Hippo in which he says "Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum", which literally means "With love for mankind and hatred of sins" (Letter 211).

Even if it is not strictly biblical, the proverb is a more or less accurate summary of biblical teaching. There are many examples we could cite where we are commanded to love sinners. By way of example, let us look at 1 John 1:9-11, which clearly teaches we are to love others:

"He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes"

And later in 1 John 4:21, it says, "And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also." So, we are to love one another if we claim to love God. We could cite many other passages that command us to love our neighbor, but I do not think this is necessary. This principle is without dispute.

However, we are also to hate sin. This, too, is indisputable. Ephesians 5:11 tells us, "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them." Sin is to be exposed; it is a corruption and contamination (Tit. 1:15; 2 Cor. 7:1). It separates us from God and grieves the Holy Spirit (Isa. 59:2, Eph. 4:30). This is why we are told to hate it; Psalm 97:10 enjoins us, "Let those who love the Lord hate evil." The Psalms also tell us that God hates the company of sinners (Ps. 26:5). A hatred of sin is a necessary precondition to a healthy reverence for God: 'The fear of the Lord is to hate evil" (Prov. 8:13).

I think, however, the biblical verse which best joins these principles together is Leviticus 19:17, which says:
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him."
Here we see the obligation to love our brother and refrain from hating him, with the corresponding obligation to "reason" with him if we see him sinning, not only because of the obvious reason that sin is destructive, but because there is a real danger that we will bear guilt for that person's sin if we make no effort to turn them from their vice (cf. Ezekiel 33).

Thus, a Christian cannot be supportive or even indifferent to the sins of another. That doesn't mean we must be judgmental or prying
but it does mean our fundamental orientation must always be towards identifying sin, working to overcome it, and helping others do the same. We do not settle with sin. We do not make truces with it. We do not manage it. We work to eliminate it through the grace of God. This is why the traditional Catholic Act of Condition says "I detest all my sins." Sin is to be the object of detestation. It separates us from God and makes true happiness impossible.

Ergo, we hate sin, but we love the sinner.


It seems simple. Perhaps not always easy to practice, but it's not a difficult concept to grasp.

Nevertheless, the principle has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. If you Google "love the sinner hate the sin", some of the top articles that come up are pieces arguing that the concept is unworkable and that Christians should retire the saying. And in my recent article on the reasons people leave the Church, the persons in question who had left the Church cited "love the sinner, hate the sin" as an unworkable proposition.

For example, this article "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin? Why Christians Should Retire Their Favorite Phrase." In this piece, the author (apparently some sort of progressive Protestant) argues that the principle "love the sinner, hate the sin" is manipulative and meant to make the "lover" feel morally superior to the sinner by allowing them to express negative judgment whilst maintaining the facade that they are "loving."

The central critique in this article is that the principle is transactional
—forgiveness is "exchanged" for amendment of life, which causes love to be viewed as something reserved for those who are "good enough." Love, the article says, must accept uncritically. "To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” 

He also argues that "love the sinner, hate the sin" can be used to justify judgmentalism "associated with bigotry and intolerance." It enables the "lover" to condemn the "sinner" while still feeling like they are a loving person because their judgmentalism is actually "love."

As we can see, at its core, there is a redefinition of values: "Love" is redefined as uncritical acceptance. And w
e can see that this concept of love is detached from any notion of the good. It does not consist in willing someone to attain their highest good, but in merely extending uncritical acceptance. It is not fundamentally transformative.

But there is also an essential confusion of terms. He says "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is unworkable and then critiques persons who refuse to extend forgiveness unless someone makes an amendment of life first. These are two radically different ideas. Christians are always enjoined to forgive, and to do so regardless of whether the sinner has repented. This is the example Christ gave us on the cross: "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do"  (Luke 23:34). A Christian who refuses to forgive someone on the premise that their penitence isn't sufficient isn't practicing "Love the sinner, hate the sin"; they are simply not exercising Christian forgiveness. "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is not about forgiveness for past sins; it is about how we exercise ongoing love towards people in our lives who are sinning in the present.

Furthermore, even if the definition of love as uncritical acceptance of a person "exactly the way he or she is, right here and now" is deficient, "uncritical acceptance" is not contrary to "Love the sinner, hate the sin." We can absolutely accept people as they are, right here and now, with full empathy while still hating their sin. Have any of you dealt with an addict close to you? Maybe a brother or sister? You always, always accept and love that person. The more you love them, the more you accept them in their brokenness. But do you love your sister's alcoholism? Do you love your brother's heroin addiction? Do you love your son's gaming addiction that keeps him locked in a basement in front of a screen 17 hours a day?

Of course not. You hate these things. What's more, you hate them to the degree that you love your sibling. Those who have had relatives or close friends suffer through addiction understand this. So ultimately, the article above is creating a straw man by saying, "You must forgive without condition and accept people where they are at" as if that proves anything. All Catholics should agree that we forgive without condition and accept people where they are at. But "Love the sinner, hate the sin" does not preclude us from doing either of those things. It does mean that we have to love the person whilst understanding that that person may struggle with certain vices or behaviors that are inimical to their authentic good. These we must not accept. In fact, to accept them would be to enable that person in their problems, to make them worse...and ultimately not love them.

We will have more to say on this, but I want to look at a second article, this one from Psychology Today entitled "Why Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin Doesn't Work by Dr. Gordon Hodson. Dr. Hodson says that the principle is
ultimately about allowing us psychological justification that "enables some people to maintain their negative attitudes without feeling like a prejudiced person." To that end, "Love the sinner, hate the sin" actually is a vehicle of promoting hate, especially towards groups Dr. Hodson defines as "sexual minorities."

This article is full of problems. It reduces the idea of "sin" to focus specifically on so-called "culture war" issues and offers no comment on how the principle applies to, say, gossip, drunkenness, pride, or other such vices. He seems to infer that Christians do not take these sins seriously anyway.

Second, in assuring us that the principle "doesn't work", we might except some definition of what constitutes "working"? How are we judging whether such a principle succeeds or fails? The article assures us that "Love the sinner, hate the sin" fails precisely because it "promotes hate" and engenders a sense of moral superiority. However, when we look at what Dr. Hodson means by "promoting hate", we see that he defines hate as having "negative attitudes" about sexual minorities. Now we can see the real nature of the argument: "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is not problematic because it doesn't help us love the sinner, but because it enjoins we should hate the sin. The only viable solution is "Love the sinner, affirm the sin." The reason it "doesn't work" isn't because it fails as a mechanism to help love people despite their flaws, but because it isn't Woke to view certain behaviors negatively.

So, to wrap this up, I want to turn this on its head. Instead of looking at critiques of "Love the sinner, hate the sin," I want to critique the critiques and demonstrate why they don't hold water:


1. The Sinner is Identified with His Sins

This is honestly the biggest problem with these critiques and is ultimately behind every criticism of "Love the sinner, hate the sin." One of the most revolutionary ideas in Christianity is the notion that a man is not the sum of his sins—a man's worth or value is not determined by the sins he commits, but by the price that was paid for his redemption by the blood of Christ. Every human being has tremendous value as someone redeemed by Christ. God wants to take our sins and throw them behind His back (Isa. 38:17). We are not our sins, we are not defined by our sins, and our sins are not our personhood.

Secular people, however, ultimately define themselves based on their sins. Identity politics has morphed into a broad identitarianism where people are totally identified by their sins—especially the things they do with their genitals. For seculars, what you do with your genitals is who you are. There is no intellectual space for anything like, "I love you even though I disagree with your behavior," because in their mind, if you loved, you would affirm the behavior as well, because the behavior is the person.

Without going down a rabbit-hole on the subject, it is sufficient to say a Christian ought to reject any sort of anthropology that tends to identify people solely by their sins. Obviously we are all sinners; obviously we struggle with specific sins. But to bind up my essential personhood with those sins is an idea is profoundly anti-Christian. Yet all of these critiques presume that the person is essentially the sum of their behaviors, whether they acknowledge them as sinful or not.

2. No Concept of the Good


These objections to "Love the sinner, hate the sin" often do by jettisoning the concept of individual good from their considerations. We never see any discussion over whether it is good that so-and-so is living a sinful lifestyle, or what constitutes the highest good for a person struggling with habitual sin. There is seldom any consideration given to "How do I actually help so-and-so overcome this sin?" These sorts of considerations are abandoned in favor of helping the sinner to feel good about about where he is currently at. Good becomes a feeling instead to be experienced here and now rather than an objective state to be strove for. Hence they can never actually deal with objective questions of morality.

3. Affirmation = Love


Speaking of love, those who object to "Love the sinner, hate the sin" generally have a hard time disentangling love from affirmation. Love, in its most general definition, is sincerely willing the good for any person. That may or may not always be affirming, however. Love often requires the telling of "hard truths" or expressing disagreement about a person's decisions. This should never be an excuse for coldness, uncharity, or a lack of empathy—and honestly, I think traditional Catholics can do better in this regard, as there is a tendency to think that so long as we are speaking the truth it doesn't matter how much of an assface we are whilst speaking it.

Even so, there is this idea that love should never be confrontational, that it should never make a person "feel bad." Bad feelings mean one is not being affirmed, and if one is not feeling affirmed then one is not feeling loved, because love is a feeling of affirmation. This idea is so inimical to the Christian faith, I am surprised so many Christians fall for it. The very beginning of conversion is a feeling of discomfort or disquietude with our current condition that reaches a critical point and causes us to cry out to God for change. Why is it always assumed that a person ought never to feel bad about themselves or their situation? Feeling bad about where one is at is the genesis of change.

We also must keep in mind, when we truly love someone, it is possible for them to still feel affirmed in as a person while confronting them about their behavior. Any teacher knows how to do this. Any good parent or boss knows how to do this. It's the technique that is at the heart of "Love the sinner, hate the sin." It's mystifying that some people can't grasp this.

4. Doesn't Deal With Actual Bible Verses


We will also notice that these people and articles who disapprove of "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" very rarely deal with the actual Bible verses in question. Sure, they might talk about Jesus's dialogue with the woman at the well—and of course "judge not" and "love your neighbor" get trotted out—but they never deal with the plethora of Scripture passages that teach hatred of sin. This is a common problem you run across with people who want to make Christianity a series of platitudes: sketching out very vague, general principles ostensibly based on the Bible while passing entirely over scores of Bible verses that contradict said platitude. It's fine and good to talk about Christians being a force for positive change in the world, but what does the Bible actually say about a Christian's relationship with the world? Or the touchy subject of shunning. "Shunning people is mean and unchristian, mkay?" Alright...but what do the Scriptures actually say about shunning?

These moralizers don't care what the Bible actually says so long as they can take the moral high ground with their obnoxious platitudes. Similarly, people who say "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" isn't a Christian response to sin have not sufficiently studied what the Scriptures say on the subject. They simply toss a Gospel story out there and interpret it via some milquetoast hermeneutic without the context of the rest of the Scriptures. As an exercise in biblical exegesis, critiques of "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" fail miserably.


As always, there's more we could say. Of course, the most important sin we have to hate is our own. We are called to love ourselves and hate our own sin first of all. Needless to say, our attempts to implement the principle when it comes to our brethren work best when we have mastered it in our own lives.

Drop a comment below if you have anything to add, either in support or critique. Even if I hate your comment, I will still love you anyway.