Friday, May 13, 2022

The Traditional Low Mass: Simplicity vs. Informality


Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. This beautifully designed neoclassical structure is situated on a forested hillside in a quiet neighborhood outside La Crosse. It was the creation of Cardinal Raymond Burke, specially dedicated by him to the patroness of the America. This structure was meant to reflect the liturgical ideals of the movement known as the "Reform of the Reform." The church itself is gorgeous; the altar is constructed in an Italianate style reminiscent of St. Peter's basilica, with a massive baldachin supported by four massive marble columns. The altar features the so-called "Benedictine arrangement" that was so touted during the last pontificate. A series of splendid paintings of various saints decorate the transepts, each situated over a reliquary altar of their respective saint. A sign in the narthex explains that all Masses at the shrine must be offered ad orientam and explaining that this is "really" how the Novus Ordo is meant to be offered according to the rubrics. It is an impressive place that elicits a sense of piety and grandeur.

I attended the 12:15 daily Mass, which of course was offered in the Novus Ordo. The contrast between the majesty the structure evoked and the realities of the liturgy being offered was stark. There was nothing amiss with the priest; he did a fine job, offering the Mass exactly according to the rubrics with worthy reverence. But the liturgy itself was so strikingly...informal. The banal dialogues, the Prayers of the Faithful with the scattered whispers of "Lord, hear of our prayer" squeaking out of the congregation, the casual language of the Eucharistic prayers. Of course this realization is nothing new, but I think the informality of the New Mass is thrown into relief when celebrated in a more solemn locale. The glory of the building shines a brighter light on the banality of the liturgy. The more splendid the church, the more unsuited the New Mass appears. 

But I wondered if I wasn't being unfair. After all, a Low Mass offered in the Extraordinary Form wouldn't be much to look at either...right? Would I not find the silent, stripped down Low Mass as unimpressive in the same circumstances?

As I pondered this, I realized something about the traditional Roman rite: even though the traditional Low Mass is simple, it is never informal. A Low Mass is a rather simple affair: the priest approaches the altar, he works his way through the prayers (with the laity participating with whatever manner of quiet devotion seems best to them), and Sacrifice is offered, Holy Communion is distributed, and Mass ends. It is extremely straightforward. It is simple. But it is elegant. It is noble. It is dignified. The much touted "noble simplicity of the Roman rite" the liturgical reformers lauded was always present in the traditional Low Mass. It is a liturgy capable of rising to the occasion when offered in a glorious basilica—but also of elevating the occasion when offered elsewhere, like on the hood of a Jeep on a World War II battlefield, or a hastily constructed wooden altar in the wilderness of Brazil. It is a kind of simplicity that has a universal appeal, admirably reflecting the omnipresence of God whose glory is present in the grandest cathedral and the vilest slum.

When it comes to the Novus Ordo, however, the reformers fundamentally confused simplicity with informality. In seeking a "simplified" Mass, they crafted one that was shockingly informal. Informality in the way it addresses God, in the commonplace language of the prayers, in the gestures, in the way it clumsily drags the congregation into the dialogue-responses. It is an informality that is capable neither of rising to the majesty of a beautiful church, nor of elevating the surroundings when offered elsewhere. 

Simplicity can still be grand. Informality is not. Simplicity can still lift us out of the workaday world and orient us towards God. Informality merely reminds us that we are still in the workaday world. The traditional liturgy never made the mistake of conflating simplicity with informality. It may have had rites that were simple, but they were never informal. Never humdrum. The Novus Ordo sought to create "noble simplicity" but instead created ho-hum informality and its progenitors were too inept to tell the difference.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin is an absolutely beautiful structure situated in beautiful surroundings. It is a place of beauty through and through. I wish it had more liturgies suited to the grandeur of the place.


Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Important Changes to Unam Sanctam Catholicam


Pax et bonum friends. For the past year, I have been hinting about some changes to the Unam Sanctam Catholicam website (see here and here). As most of you know, the USC web presence is two fold, consisting of a blog (which you are now reading), and a website, which currently can be found here. The blog hosts rants, reflections on current events, and spiritual musings; the website is for scholarly articles, featuring content that is of more perennial interest and often too long to be posted on a blog.

The Unam Sanctam blog you have all come to love is staying same as it ever was—complete with its outdated 2007 blogger theme and iconic hard-to-read white font on black background that Boomers consistently complain about, so no worries there! The major changes are coming to the website. The format is a super clunky, unsightly Joomla template from 2012. It's ugly and it sucks. And, I've barely touched it; I think I've only posted ten essays to it since 2017? It's in desperate need of an overhaul! So, over the past year, I have been migrating this content to a new, slicker looking WordPress site that is going to be infinitely easier to read. Lord willing, this new site will be ready to launch by June 29, our fifteenth year anniversary.

That being said, you can expect some changes on the new site:

(1) More Exclusive Focus on History. When I first created the Unam Sanctam sister site ten years ago, I envisioned it as a kind of clearinghouse for articles on all manner of subjects Catholics might take interest in: history, economics, moral problems, theology, liturgy, and even pop-culture. However, the way my own interests and professional life have developed since then, it's become clear that history is my strongest field by far. And honestly, whereas ten or fifteen years ago I happily prattled on about theology or canon law, time has honed the edges of my self-assurance to the point that I have recognized I am not competent to speak on many of those matters. So, on the new site, I will mostly stick to history and leave the theology to the theologians, canon law to the canonists, etc. The old classic articles on these subjects—like "Balthasar and the Faith of Christ" or "Collegiality: The Church's Pandora's Box"—will remain, but I will likely not post new content of that sort. If I do create such articles, they will probably be guest-posted on other websites more suited to these sorts of essays.

(2) The Movie Reviews are going away. One consequence of this new focus is that the movie reviews will be eliminated. I don't think anybody reads these anyway, and to be honest I have not really updated them regularly since 2017, so they are woefully out of date. And I simply no longer have time to write about them anymore (although, if you've ever met me in person, you know I still love to blather on about cinema whenever I can). But, since I will not be updating them anymore, is there anyone out there who wants the current batch of reviews? I think there are about 165 individual write ups. Is there any Catholic out there who has a film review site or is hoping to get one started and would like to adopt these 165 reviews for their project? If so, please email me at uscatholicam@gmail.com.

(3) Higher Quality of Content. The essays on the sister site were always of a more scholarly nature than on this blog, but the new site is going to up this even further in terms of scholarship. It is my intention that the new site become an encyclopedic repository of highly researched, academic articles that are suitable to be cited as sources or used for research purposes. I'm really excited about some of the new stuff I've been writing and I can't wait to share with you all. I've got some fascinating stuff on St. Hildegard, the Annals of Fulda, Pope Gregory VII's reform of the sacrament of penance, the first regional synod in the Philippines, and much more.

One thing about the migration: Though all of the existing articles will be migrated over, they will have different URLs. If you have certain articles from the site bookmarked, I suggest you make sure you copy the titles of those articles down somewhere so you can find them on the new site, as your bookmarks will no longer work in a few months. 

I want to thank all of you for your support over the years, especially those who contributed financially to help with this project. I do not make any money of this site, save for the few times a year when I hock some books or when a few people offer me a donation. Consequently, this project has moved very slowly, depending in large part on charity. Everyone who has helped, you are remembered in my prayers! And, if you'd still like to make a contribution, please email me at uscatholicam@gmail.com. 

In a recent article ("The End of Pop-Apologetics", Apr. 10, 2022), a commentor stated that "Blogging is nearly obsolete as a content delivery system. People want to have a video or audio file running in the background while they're at the gym or working from home. Few have the patience to read even something as short as this post." I don't know whether that observation is correct or not. But I do believe there will always be a need for and interest in thoughtful, well-written articles. However the Internet continues to unfold (and I can only assume it will just get stupider) I pray that Unam Sanctam Catholicam will continue to be a beacon of knowledge.

One final word: If anyone would like to be a contributor on the new site, I am always willing to collaborate. If you are like to write scholarly essays on historical subjects, I'd like to hear from you. You can help me make USC the biggest and best repository of original Catholic historical essays in the English language! Email me at uscatholicam@gmail.com if you want to help.

Blessings and grace friends!

~Boniface
Founder and Webmaster of all things USC

Sunday, April 17, 2022

"I Know That My Redeemer Lives"


On this day we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Resurrection is the greatest miracle and the principal testimony to the truth of our Lord's teaching, for, as St. Paul says, "if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17). This is a potent reminded that it is not merely the crucifixion of Christ that saves us; our salvation is incomplete without His resurrection to glory. Jesus was "put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). His rising also serves as a pledge that we, too, shall be raised to life again, adoring God forever in our glorified flesh. Christ is "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ" (1 Cor. 15:20-24).

"The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise. But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it" (Mark 9:31-32). Christ spoke plainly of the Resurrection to His disciples ahead of time, but the meaning of His words was veiled from them. The reason for this is uncertain; perhaps God deliberately obscured this truth from their minds, or perhaps they misunderstood through a defect in their own natural faculties. Whatever its cause, the Resurrection remained indiscernible to them before the fact. Thus, the death of Christ shattered their imaginings; the finality of the crucifixion must have made their squabbles about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven seem childish and naïve. We can imagine what disappointment they must have had. A hint of this disillusionment can be heard in the voice of the nameless disciples Christ encountered on the road to Emmaus after the Resurrection: telling Him about the events surrounding the Crucifixion, they say, "we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21) the pluperfect "had hoped" signifying that they had once hoped, but now hoped no longer.

The Resurrection, then, was not a foregone conclusion to the disciples. We may presume the Blessed Virgin Mary to have nurtured this hope in her Immaculate Heart, but for the rest of His followers, we can assume they were as dejected as those Christ met on the Emmaus road. The Gospel of John tells us that after the Crucifixion, Peter and the other disciples returned to Galilee and went back to their lives as fishermen (John 21:1-3); this is not the sort of behavior we'd expect from men who were anticipating an imminent Resurrection of their Lord.

How glorious and life-changing, then, must have been the realization that the Lord had risen indeed! How excited Peter must have been when, hearing Christ's voice from the shore, he leaped from his boat into the sea to swim to His Master. How stupefied the disciples must have been as they sat around the fire on the beach in stunned silence watching the Resurrected Messiah munching on roasted fish. But if these moments were astonishing, it was only the apparent finality of His death that rendered them so. For had He not truly died, His sudden reappearance would not have been as stupendous. Suppose Christ had not died, but merely been wounded and escaped; His reappearance would have been welcome, to be sure, but not astounding and certainly not life-altering.

The Lord's ultimate demonstration of His power did not prevent suffering; it came rather after the evil had been done. This is the locus of the Resurrection for us as well. There is no rising to life if there first be no death. For every Christian, this entails a "dying to sin" so we can rise to "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). This is the spiritual Resurrection that every Christian undergoes. But all of us work through many smaller "resurrections" throughout our lives. I am speaking of the "death" we all undergo whenever we suffer in any sense. The sufferings we undergo are manifold: abuse by others, destructive behavior from ourselves, or agonies of nature. God's power to "deliver us from evil" does not often free us from the experience these things; it turns them to good. The only way out is through; this is the lesson of the Resurrection. In a sense, every little victory of grace is a resurrection: when I finally divest myself the burden of resentment towards someone who has wronged me, that is a resurrection. When I overcome a bad habit, that is a resurrection. When I speak a word of comfort to a wounded spirit, or deny myself some pleasure for the good of my soul, or find God in the deepest midst of my suffering and ignorance, these are little resurrections. But, like the Resurrection of Christ, we find they do not come save in the aftermath of some chaos, some evil, some catastrophe. 

Whether we like it or not, we are all handed burdens in this life, and the challenge of our existence is to rise above them, that in doing so we may know ourselves better and conform ever more closely to the image of God. Nature establishes the parameters of our existence, but we are to transcend what nature has given us. This is the function of grace—to elevate our nature, ennoble us, transfigure us into something greater than we could have ever become on our own. This is the hope of the Resurrection, both the "little" resurrections of daily life, and the grand Resurrection, when we shall see God. But it is a "hope against hope" (Rom. 4:18), born from death, like a seed falling to the earth sprouts into new life. And when that fresh life blossoms into glory, we shall see, on that day when all that is hidden shall be manifest (cf. Matt. 10:26, Luke 8:17), how every tear and heartache and loss was but another stone into the spiritual temple we are all called to become (1 Pet. 2:5); scars gilt in gold, trials become gems, wounds turned to radiant light.  

Thus, with Job, I say, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another" (Job 19:25-27).

"Restore our fortunes O' Lord, 
like the watercourse in the Negev
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy!
He that goes forth weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy
carrying their sheaves" (Psalm 126:4-6).

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The End of Pop-Apologetics


The 1990s and early 2000s was the golden age of professional Catholic apologetics. If you wanted to get schooled about apologetics, you tuned into the Catholic Answers Live every afternoon. You read the tracts of Mark Shea, Karl Keating, and Jimmy Akin. You listened to the Al Kresta Show syndicated through Ave Maria Radio. You watched Fr. Mitch Pacwa on EWTN and owned sets of Fr. John Corapi's lectures on cassette. You probably owned several books and VHS tapes by Dr. Scott Hahn. These professional defenders of Catholic truth were the resources to turn to when you wanted to learn how to respond to objections to the faith, especially those leveled by evangelical Protestants.

If I had to bookend the period, I would say it began around 1988 with the publication of Karl Keating's perennial classic Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and went into decline around 2004-2006, the years the internet moved into "Web 2.0", the iteration of the Internet that generated masses of users participating in content creation on social networks, blogs, wikis, and media sharing sites. At the beginning of the era, Keating's book demonstrated the need for quality Catholic apologetics done professionally; on the other end, the rise of independent content creators in the wake of Web 2.0 empowered regular folks to publish their own apologetical materials and post it directly to the internet, bypassing the professional apologetics institutions like Catholic Answers. So we are talking about roughly an 18 year reign of the professional apologist.

This period and these people served us well for the time. When I was first returning to the faith after a youth of irreligion and a few years dabbling in Protestant Pentecostalism, it was the resources of Catholic Answers and its affiliated apologists that provided me with the foundations I needed to build my faith upon. And, as I have mentioned many time on this blog, I owe my return to the Church in a very immediate way to the lectures of Dr. Hahn, whom I will always consider to be one of my fathers in Christ. The role of these institutions and cadre of writers and speakers was important, especially during the 1990s when internet access was radically less than today and so many Catholics relied on print material and physical media to educate themselves. Had Catholic Answers not been there⁠—had this group of apologists not been active—the English speaking Church would have been much the poorer.

However, it is undeniable that the heyday of this kind of institutional apologetics has come and gone. Certainly there will always be a place for skilled, professional apologists—I just emceed an event this summer with Tim Staples and he was sharp as ever. These sorts of folks will always find open ears. I am talking rather about institutional, professional apologetics as a model for the delivery of apologetical content. That model has been shattered by the rise of independent content creators, just like Spotify disrupted the studio model of delivering music and Netflix destroyed the cinema model for distributing film. Today Catholics are much more likely today to seek apologetical content from independent content creators like myself or other bloggers than by turning to institutional channels. The professional apologist and their institutions are no longer the gatekeepers of apologetical content.

In order to survive in this new environment, the professional apologists began expanding their output to include other forms of content creation: blogging, podcasts, and social media. Some managed to handle this transition very well; Dr. Scott Hahn, for example, has maintained the same level of professionalism, humor, and humility he has always demonstrated. Others, well, it got...interesting. Once unleashed on social media, a fair number of these apologists—loosed from the oversight of professional editors or accountability to larger institutions—went down some rather unsavory paths. Some could not resist the temptation to wed politics to faith, devolving into obnoxious Catholic political pundits, while others became proponents of bizarre conspiracy theories; still others outed themselves as committed leftists, alienating themselves from the largely conservative fanbase that consumes apologetical content. And then there are those who revealed themselves to be completely unhinged: ranting, insulting, belittling, and attacking others on social media with a vitriol on par with the blue checkmarks on Twitter. 

Those who have gone down this path—and admittedly, it is not all, but still a fair amount—have fallen in the same pit that many have today, which is to assume one's positions are so secure, so unassailable, so self-evident, that those who disagree with you are not simply mistaken, but are morally bad. As someone who formerly admired and learned from these people, it has been extraordinarily disappointing to see them behaving like the worst of the blue checkmarks. I'm not calling anybody out by name, but we have all seen them lurking around in comboxes and Twitter feeds and Facebook threads, spitefully belittling people whose only offense has been to disagree.

Is this behavior a pathetic attempt to "stay relevant" by imitating their endlessly irritating secular counterparts, the "talking head" media class? Is it fueled by bitterness at having lost the exclusive "gatekeeper" role they once enjoyed? Is it resentment that their own ecclesial visions, which they once argued eloquently before rapt audiences and in the pages of Catholic periodicals, seems less and less persuasive? Is it simply that they were always mean people whose lack of charity was kept in check by editorial teams and publishers? It's hard to say, but it's been illuminating to watch.

Whatever it's cause, it is clear that the age of pop-apologetics is over.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

The Dark Mirror of Faith


I often come across Catholics who are "wrestling" with something. They are trying to understand how God's benevolence can be reconciled with the evils in the world. They struggle sorting out what they believe on questions pertaining to evolution and the origin of things. They want to affirm the Church's claims about itself but are put off by the vices of the clergy. Living in a modern secular world, they try to delineate exactly how the Catholic faith should be lived out in terms of dress, habits, hobbies, etc. They agonize over what liturgy they should be going to. They struggle to find adequate political and economic expression of their beliefs within the current system. They labor to find meaning in the twists, turns, and disasters of their own lives. And so long as they cannot resolve these conflicts, they do not feel peace. They often experience a sense of disquiet; part of their faith seems incomplete, or on "hold" until they can resolve these intellectual struggles. They feel profoundly that they must "settle" these matters to attain tranquility.

The life of faith will bring forth many such struggles, and this is unavoidable. But God wants us to have peace, even in the midst of struggle. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you" (John 14:27). His peace is meant to be an abiding peace; not a peace "as the world gives" that is taken away as soon as conflict emerges. We are meant to have peace, even in the midst of the "wrestling" that is inherent in faith. What kind of peace would Christ offer if we were thrown into turmoil every time we encountered something we couldn't reconcile? Clearly, our Lord means for the peace of our faith to be maintained even in the midst of uncertainty. But how can we accomplish this?

To do this, remember that you do not need to resolve your difficulties in order to maintain faith.

Let's recall a bit about the nature of faith: it is trusting, provisional, and imperfect.

Faith is a kind of knowledge, but unlike empirical knowledge (which is based on experience), faith is based on trust in someone else. So even though we can have certainty grounded in the trustworthiness of the one in whom we believe, it is not the same kind of certainty that comes with empirical experience (what the Bible calls "knowledge"). The way we "know" something through faith is thus fundamentally different than the way we "know" things through empirical experience. So first, we need to recognize that difference and be comfortable with it. The certitude of faith will never "feel" like the certitude you have about empirical knowledge, and that is okay. It's not meant to feel the same. 

Second, recall that faith is provisional. It is a temporary state that is meant to pass away. Faith, hope, and charity we abide in here and now, but in heavenly glory, faith and hope pass away; only charity remains. Faith and hope are proper to people still "on the journey", viators, those who are pilgriming here below towards "that city whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10). Faith gives us a semblance of what we are doing and where we are going, but it is inferior to the knowledge that will come. Faith is is like looking at a map to try to get yourself to a city; heaven is actually being there, standing in the midst of the heavenly Jerusalem with your feet planted firmly on its golden causeways.

Because faith is provisional, it is imperfect. Not imperfect in the sense that anything is lacking in the formulations of faith, but in the sense that faith alone does not give us the sense of finality that we all crave. It is something we are meant to wrestle with. Faith offers us a broader view than what we could otherwise have, but it is a view through the mist, partially obscured. "when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood" (1 Cor. 13:10-12). The experience of faith, even for St. Paul, was "seeing in a mirror dimly." There is always going to be a sense of imperfection, a deep yearning, a wrestling, a sense of "not yet-ness" about our faith. A wandering about in the murky dusk of existence, struggling to come into the brilliance of daylight. 

Even if we are occasionally graced with periods of clarity and resolution, there will always ultimately be a kind of tension so long as we are in the flesh. Why is it like this? Because that is the nature of faith; it is the difference between being on a journey and arriving at your destination. We cannot demand the fulfillment of the arrival when we are yet on the road. And, if by some miracle of God, we had all the knowledge and finality and certainty we could possibly desire here and now, what incentive would we have to grow ourselves? Aristotle once observed that "all men by nature desire to know." It is the curiosity of life, the unquenchable thirst to "get to the bottom of things" that propels us, drives us on towards new adventures, new conquests, and ever greater horizons. There is a cliché that "the real treasure is the friends you make along the way"; goofy as this cliché is, there is a kernel of truth in it: what matters is how we comport ourselves on the journey. It's not about how many talents you are given (cf. Matt, 25:14-30), it's not about whether you ever attain the great intellectual or moral or spiritual synthesis you are struggling to birth into existence; it's about walking, one foot after another, towards that luminous horizon with the sun on my face.

Abraham was the father of faith; he was called, and sojourned into a foreign land in search of what he knew not based on promises he never lived to see fulfilled. Likewise, all of us who live in faith must sojourn in a strange land. That is the essence of being a believer. You must grow comfortable with the sojourn, with the provisional nature of the journey.

What does this mean concretely?

It is obviously a good and praiseworthy thing to seek out knowledge, to learn, and grow in understanding. It is good to seek as much certainty as we can get. But moderation in all thing—you must also acknowledge your limits; there are some things you may never reconcile, and others that may take a long time to understand. This state of "not knowing" is okay and should be embraced. Understand that it is a normal part of faith to grapple with something. Perhaps it is part of our western rationalist bias that makes us feel like our faith will be stronger once we have sorted everything out intellectually. I challenge you to consider backing away from that premise: you don't need to take a position on everything; you don't need to understand how the pieces of something all fit together; you don't need to reconcile every contradiction; you don't need to see clearly or have all the answers. Get comfortable with not knowing. The beginning of wisdom is admitting you do not know as much as you think; learn to say, "I am still wrestling with this; I don't know what I think about it. If it please God, someday I will." That's a perfectly valid response to the conundrums that faith presents to us. To have faith is to wrestle with things; accept that.

Now, I can foresee some critiquing this concept by saying that I am suggesting we just believe blindly even though our mind can no longer assent; that I am telling people to just stuff their difficulties and proclaim CREDO! despite their faltering heart. This is not so. Faith is fundamentally an act of trust, and if that trust has been so compromised as to become unsustainable, then faith is impossible, and it would be wrong and cruel to tell someone to simply ignore it. I am, however, suggesting that those of us who have faith give up thinking that we need to cross every jot and tittle; let go of the idea that being a strong believer means working out all the answers intellectually. Learn to rest in not knowing. You will not be denied heaven because you did not have a fully worked out intellectual synthesis of some disputed issue. If you find yourself in those moments of "wrestling," acknowledge the struggle, embrace it, and offer your ignorance to God.

"All I have written is like straw," said Aquinas, after experiencing a vision of the Divine. No matter how brilliant we are, how much we think we know, or how hard we work to educate ourselves, we are all "seeing in a mirror dimly", as St. Paul says. The dimness may be frustrating at times, but it is part of faith. An essential part. We should learn to take comfort in that and embrace the tension. At least I have.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Before You Call Something "Gnostic"...


I am prompted to write this post after years of seeing Catholics misuse the word "Gnostic" in online discussion. This is not in response to any specific articles or comments, just something that has been on my mind for awhile. "Gnostic" is a very common pejorative, a term as ubiquitous in intra-Catholic debates as "racist" is in secular diatribe—and, like the word racist, it becomes increasingly meaningless the more it is wielded. Indeed, I am convinced that most Catholics, even traditional Catholics, don't really know what it means for something to be "Gnostic." 

First, how is the word commonly used? Though this is hard to pinpoint specifically, it seems most Catholics use this word to mean elitist, specifically an elitist who believes himself privy to special or inside knowledge not available to others; or sometimes to denote the belief that specified knowledge makes one a better believer, a kind of "salvation by inside knowledge." In this context, Gnostic is equated with secret knowledge, the implication being that it is Gnostic to claim to possess or act on secret knowledge.

This definition of Gnosticism is ridiculous. It takes a widely known but minor aspect of the Gnostic heresy and characterizes the entirety of Gnostic thought by it. To drive home how ridiculous this is, it would be as if I defined Calvinism as disliking dice games and wearing buckled shoes—both parts of historical Calvinist culture, to be sure, but nowhere near understanding what the Calvinist system is really about.

The definition of Gnosticism as "secret knowledge" fails for many reasons. For one, Christianity, too, involved initiation to secret knowledge, in more ways than one. During the first three centuries of Christianity, Christians practiced a discipline called arcana, literally, "secrets." Arcana consisted in obscuring Christian beliefs from outsiders, discussing them openly only to the initiated. This was due to the ever-present threat of persecution from Roman authorities and possible infiltration by informers posing as Christians. When discussing Christianity to outsiders, Christian apologists spoke glowingly of the moral precepts of Christianity and the philosophical arguments in favor of their monotheism, but they did not speak in detail about the sacraments or the liturgy, things to be kept hidden from outsiders, according to the dictum, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine" (Matt. 7:6). If they did speak about it, it was only in the most circumspect way, using "code words" to obscure their true meaning; for example, the sacrament of baptism might be called "enlightenment." Christians literally maintained "secret knowledge" that was kept back from the uninitiated.

Even once a person sincerely embraced Christianity and wished to convert, there was knowledge that was held back from them. The period of preparation for baptism was known as the catechetical period. During catechesis, the initiate was instructed on the basic tenets of the Christian faith, especially the moral precepts the Church expected them to follow. Can you live in chastity? Can you abstain from the immorality of the Roman games? Can you practice love of neighbor and charity towards the poor? The emphasis was on Christianity as a way of life; hence, the ancient text the Didache begins with the words, "There are two ways, one of life and one of death." In its explication of the way of life, it is all teachings about Christian life, taken largely from the beatitudes. The mystical teachings of the Church (specifically, the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ and baptism as a translation into divine sonship) were not taught to catechumens. A catechumen would go through the catechumenate without understanding what the sacraments were, only that they were necessary to become a Christian. It was only after baptism that initiates were taught what the sacraments actually were and what they accomplished. The period of post-baptismal instruction was called mystagogy and consisted in the catechist explaining to the neophytes what had just happened to them. Again, we see the Church utilized "secret knowledge": important teachings were withheld from catechumens until they passed the initiatory right of baptism.

This is why, in my opinion, it is ridiculous to trot out the "Gnostic" label when someone is talking about exclusive knowledge or knowledge reserved to a certain class. Christians practiced this as well.

What, then, is Gnosticism? Let us summarize the system in five points:

1. God Creates Through Emanations

Gnosticism was a complicated and multi-faceted system of thought that incorporated ideas from various traditions, making it a challenge to explain. But, at the heart of all Gnostic systems is the idea of creation as a series of emanations from God. This is the linchpin around which the various Gnostic systems turn. In Gnosticism, God creates by means of emanations; these emanations are like waves that proceed from God's being and bring other things into existence. Because these emanations are of God's very essence, there is always a pantheistic flavor to Gnostic thought. God does not create ex nihilo; He emanates, similar to how Christians envision the Holy Spirit "proceeding" from the Father and the Son. The creation itself is a kind of procession from the godhead; some of the cruder Gnostics even explained it as a "secretion" from God, as St. Irenaeus complained about in Adversus Haereses. So, the first tenet of Gnosticism is creation as an emanation.

2. The Sub-Emanation of the Aeons

The second point is a hierarchical ordering of these emanations, with each emanation producing its own successive "sub-emanation." For example, God's primal emanation gives rise to other spiritual realities; sometimes these realities are intelligences, akin to angels, while at other times they are purely rational abstractions belonging to the noumenal world (e.g., "mind", "thought", "silence", "profundity", etc.). These emanations have various names—Teleos, Bythos, Charis, Ennoea, and so on. Sometimes they are even grouped in male-female pairings called syzygies. We can get lost down a truly bizarre rabbit hole discussing the names of functions of the various emanations, but that would take us too far afield. It suffices to note that collectively the emanations are known simply as Aeons. These Aeons give birth to each other in a complex arrangement of emanations, producing intricate hierarchies. This "family" of God and His successive emanations and sub-emanations is called the Pleroma, the world of the supra-sensible. 

3. The Corruption of the Material World

The third tenet of Gnosticism is the creation of the physical world as a deviation from the purity of the Pleroma. The Gnostic myths vary depending on what source we read, but all agree that at some point one of the Aeons emanated something that did not reflect the purity found in the Pleroma. Some say it was a flaw, other a passion or sin of one of the Aeons. Whatever it was, this deviation was the creation of physicality, the material universe. There are disagreements as to what Aeons or Aeons were responsible for this; in Christian Gnosticism, this would be the work of Satan or (as in Marcionism) the God of the Old Testament, who is a lower, rebellious emanation from the One. Gnostics typically referred to this being as the Demiurge, or sometimes the Great Archon. Either way, the point is the material world represents a corruption of the spiritual purity envisioned by the One.

4. The Human Ascent to the Pleroma

Materiality being emanated, further sub-emanations created physical beings, and thus into the material world come human beings. As beings in the sequence of divine emanations, humans truly have the divine life within them; they are "part of God" in a literal sense. Yet, they find themselves materialized in the corrupt nature of corporal existence, trapped in a corporeal existence. Human salvation is understood, then, as the ascent back through the Aeons until we reach the Pleroma. Salvation is a return to a Pleromic existence that is conceived as purely spiritual. The return to the Pleroma through the Aeonic ascent is essentially a return to our home. It is a kind of Platonic conception of the world, a view of spiritual enlightenment as a repudiation of corporeality as we gradually ascend back to a purely spiritual existence in harmony with the One in the Pleroma. How, then, do we ascend back through the Aeons? Through a combination of ritual, knowledge, and asceticism that are all found within the hierarchical degrees of the Gnostic community.

5. Gradual Revelation Through Myth

Finally, we come to the fifth tenet of Gnosticism, the gradual revelation of truth through mythic language. The ascent through the Aeons back to the Pleroma is a movement from corporeal to spiritual, entailing a purification of intellect. A beginner is unable to contemplate the sublime truths the way a seasoned initiate can; their mind is too darkened by their crude materiality. Therefore, Gnostic teachers used mythic language to explain their system to newbies and the inexperienced. We have seen how the Aeons might be personified, anthropomorphized, and given names; the emanations of the Aeons would then be explained in corporeal terms (e.g., the world is formed by the tears of the Aeon Sophia, or by the semen of the Demiurge). Later, as the initiate advances through the hierarchy of the Gnostic community, the philosophical and mystical meanings of these myths are explained to him. This mythic language is why St. Augustine, when he had a chance to interview the Manichaean Gnostic teacher Faustus, was disappointed by the man, whose explanations of Gnostic doctrine were "fraught with prolix fables, of the heaven, and stars, and sun, and moon, and I now no longer thought him able satisfactorily to decide what I much desired [to know]" (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book V). Tertullian also complained about these fables, that the initiate "as soon as he finds so many names of aeons, so many marriages, so many offsprings, so many exits, so many issues, felicities and infelicities of a dispersed and mutilated deity, will that man hesitate at once to pronounce that these are ‘the fables and endless genealogies’ which the inspired apostle by anticipation condemned, while these seeds of heresy were even then shooting forth?” (Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, Chap. 3)

Conclusion

This practice of beginning with mythic language for the simple and gradually layering more complex meanings onto the fables as the initiate ascended the degrees of the Gnostic hierarchy is what gave rise to the concept of Gnosticism as consisting of "secret knowledge." But, as you can see, this was only a small part of the Gnostic system; but more importantly, it was not exclusive to Gnosticism. Pagan mystery cults, such as the cults of Isis, Eleusis, and Mithras also used this method. So did the philosophical school of the Pythagoreans. Christianity, too, utilized a gradual revelation of truth in its own initiatory rites. The idea of knowledge reserved to the initiates was simply a common theme of ancient spirituality. Even Jesus Christ Himself affirms that there is a special knowledge available only to those who have "eyes to see":
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand...But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear (Matt. 13:10-13, 16).
It is understandable that people misuse the terms "Gnosticism" and "Gnostic"; after all, the Gnostic heresy is complex and not easily summarized in a single handy term. Hopefully it will make you stop and think before you call somebody "Gnostic" online for adopting what you consider an elitist attitude towards a certain body of knowledge. Hopefully we can be a little more discerning and accurate with how we speak.


Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Church's Troubling View of the Laity


Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has frequently spoken out against "clericalism", which he views as one of the preeminent problems in the Church today. The irony is that the Franciscan pontificate evidences a profoundly clericalist mindset, especially in how the pope has dealt with the traditional Catholic movement.

For example, in the letter that accompanied Traditiones Custodes, Pope Francis directed bishops "to discontinue the erection of new personal parishes tied more to the desire and wishes of individual priests than to the real need of the 'holy People of God.'" I remember being struck by this statement when the motu proprio was first published, and it has not lost its force with time. Here we see Pope Francis thinks that the initiative for parishes dedicated to the Traditional Latin Mass comes entirely from priests. He cannot conceive that the faithful themselves would desire such a thing. The faithful are a passive, inchoate mass that are simply being strung along by whatever the priest wants. 

This would be evidence of clericalism if it were true, but in fact the opposite is the case. Part of the wisdom of Summorum Pontificum was the way it assumed the laity's ability to truly take initiative for their spiritual welfare. Recall Article 7:

In parishes where a group of the faithful attached to the previous liturgical tradition stably exists, the parish priest should willingly accede to their requests to celebrate Holy Mass according to the rite of the 1962 Roman Missal.

The laity are presumed to have their own liturgical aspirations, which are legitimate and which priests are obliged to provide for—or even bishops in the case the priest denies the laity their wishes. But by the time we get to Francis, we see the current pope does not believe the laity even have "legitimate aspirations" about the traditional liturgy. He can't even conceive of it; he assumes the initiative behind the traditional movement comes entirely from priests.

This speaks to a larger problem: the modern Church's tendency to view the laity in an entirely passive manner. Despite all the talk about the "universal call to holiness", Vatican II, far from fixing this, made it worse. It reinforced a trend (developing post-1789) that the laity should focus themselves solely with practicing Christian virtue in the world, and leave the active passing on to the faith to a small clerical caste. Rather than viewing the laity as one of the principal ways in which orthodoxy is preserved and transmitted, they are instead meant to be symbols of Christ to the world, molded by the clerics, the chief cleric and spiritual master of your soul being the pope (the latter being a novelty invented by John Paul II because all other Church institutions in the West had collapsed). The laity are conceived in a passive sense, their job merely to "witness" whatever instantiation of the faith the Vatican in current years says they should. But they are not asked or involved in anything more 

If anything, what Francis says about the traditional movement is most applicable to his own initiatives. It was not the laity who came up with the idea of Pachamama. It was not the laity who asked for the banning of the traditional Mass. These things were the perverse conceptions of a small cadre of clerics bound to a moribund ideology, which they inflict upon the rest of the Church in the arrogant presumption that its for our own good. There is clericalism in the Church, to be sure, and the most clericalist of them all is on the throne of St. Peter.


Saturday, January 08, 2022

Best Posts of 2021


I think in all my years of blogging this has been the first where I have been delinquent publishing my happy New Year post. Mea culpa! It's not just that I've been busy; I've been in kind of a funk. Lethargic. Anyway, 2021 was a pretty momentous year for traditional Catholics. Obviously Traditiones Custodes and its aftermath dominated the news cycle in the second half of the year. 

I posted around 30 articles this year, but today I have chosen to highlight my favorite eight. In reviewing these, I've noticed that most are very practical—articles about maintaining faith, happiness, and sanity in the midst of troubling times. I guess that speaks to where my heart has been this year. What about you? Where has your heart been?

Leniency and Severity: Our perceptions of what is lenient and what is severe are colored by our own spiritual struggles.

With the Joy of Christ's First Breath: You can choose joy, despite what's going on in the Church and world.

When Trads Choose Barabbas: When traditionalism becomes more about "owning the libs" than actual Catholic Tradition.

Nine Reflections on Traditionis Custodes: My immediate reaction to the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes.

Crises of Faith: Escaping our Subjectivity: The problem of religious doubt exists at the crossroads where the Church and the doubter intersect in an experience that precipitates the crisis of faith.

Crises of Faith: The Operation of Grace: Why our own assessments of whether grace is "working" are woefully deficient.

Discouragement from Habitual Sin: Some thoughts I have found helpful when I feel discouraged by habitual sin.

Pope Denethor: Reflections on the CDW Responsa: Comments on the CDW response to dubia submitted about Traditionis Custodes.

Happy New Year everybody

Monday, December 27, 2021

My First Christmas as a Christian

This December I have been remembering my first Christmas as a Christian. It was Christmas of 1999. I had only come to Christ scarcely two months earlier. What a whirlwind those early days of faith were! It reminds me of the passage about the scales falling from St. Paul's eyes. Finding Christ—or rather being found by Him—was like having my mind flooded with light, the ground of my being shaken, and seeing life anew. Sometimes I felt like I was gazing out upon creation as if I were the first man, Adam looking upon a new world fresh from the hands of its maker, the breath of God still in his lungs.

When Christmas came that year, I was profoundly aware that it would henceforth take on a new meaning for me. For twenty years I had celebrated Christmas with my family according to secular custom: vaguely aware of its commemoration of the birth of Christ but primarily as a holiday about Santa Claus, family, and gift giving. But even as a child I'd always felt something special about Christmas, especially Christmas Eve. It seemed like a charmed night, a night where the wonder and magic of the old days lived and walked again.

After I had embraced Christ, I realized that, in a certain sense, that year would be my first "real" Christmas. It would be the first time observing the birth of Christ as a brother in Christ. This realization overwhelmed me with gratitude for the holy day I had grown up with but only then begun to understand. Knowing who Jesus Christ is and what He means enriched the celebration of His birth in ways I'd never appreciated. But how would this new realization change my celebration? How would I observe Christmas differently?

This was tricky. I was still living at home and thus how the day was observed was going to very much depend on my parents, who were secular. Furthermore, I had not yet revealed my conversion to them. They knew I was acting a bit differently, but I had not yet figured out how or when to tell them. My conversion was still very new, and I did not want to "cast my pearls before swine", as our Lord said. I believed if I told them of my conversion too soon they would not take me seriously or mock my sudden piety after years of heathenism. So I didn't feel like I could make any requests of them to celebrate any differently.

In the end, the one tangible thing I did was I got my own little Christmas tree. My parents had the large family tree downstairs, but I had this small artificial tree, about two feet tall, that I had previously had in an apartment. I set the tree up upstairs on a table in my parent's sitting room and decorated it with the few ornaments I possessed of my own. When Christmas Eve came, I spent a lot of time up in that room on my knees before the little tree in prayer. I was not yet Catholic, so it had not occurred to me that going to church was fitting for the night. But I at least had enough Christian sense to know I should be praying.

It was snowy that Christmas Eve, but not snowing. It had snowed hard the day before; this night it was peaceful. The land was blanketed in about a foot. The sky was bright and clear, illumined by a moon almost full. The Michigan countryside about was silent, the pine branches, weighted down with snow, drooped. The snow was immaculate, untouched save for the occasional rabbit track. It shone white and twinkled like crystal in the moonlight.  Beams of pale moonlight streamed into the windows of the room and fell on the carpeted floor. I knelt there in the moonlight, before the little Christmas tree, with my arms spread in the ancient orans posture (though I knew neither the name of the posture nor its antiquity).

I again had that sense that this of newness...as is if this was the first night. The countryside draped in freshly fallen gave a feeling of purity, of cleansing, of freshness. The light of the moon streaming into the window seemed to me like the light of the Star of Bethlehem. I don't recall what I was praying about that Christmas Eve; but I remember vividly how I felt. I felt like that Christmas was the first Christmas. I felt like Christ was being born right then, as if I were a witness alongside the shepherds and animals of the stable. It was such a tender sentiment...I was so new in faith, and in a very real way, Christ was being born in me at the time as well. Everything I saw on the outside seemed to reflect the reality I recognized on the inside.

I've never had a Christmas quite like that one. It's been hard to recapture that. I had no worldly cares that year. I was just living at my parents, not married, no kids, no girlfriend, just a low maintenance gas station job. I was completely unencumbered. Then, gradually, year after year, life closed in on me. To some degree, there's a paradox where the busyness of preparing for a holiday can obstruct one from actually entering into the spirit of the holiday. Too many Christmases since have been marred this way. I suppose it's just part of dealing with holidays with a large family, kids, and so on.

But, ah, one day when I am old and my face is weathered and my hands are cracked with the rigors of age, and I am closer to my life's end than its beginning, I hope again to come to the feast of the birth of our Lord with nothing save my piety, kneeling in the moonlight of a midwinter's night.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Pope Denethor: Reflections on the CDW Responsa


This year marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in the legendary Lord of the Rings film trilogy. In the Lord of the Rings, you will recall the character of Denethor, the Chief Steward of Gondor. While the city of Gondor is collapsing before the onslaught of Mordor, Denethor abandons his obligations to defend his city. Instead, he prioritizes the burning of himself and his son Faramir alive in a despairing ritual murder-suicide. The hobbit Pippin, who has pledged to defend Gondor, tells Denethor that there is still hope and tries to prevent him from carrying out his mad plan. Determined to autodestruct himself and his kingdom, Denethor throws Pippin out of his chambers, telling him, "I release you from my service. Go now and die in what way seems best to you."

Like Denethor, Pope Francis, another autocrat drunk with power and intent on continuing his mad murder-suicide of the Church, now throws traditional Catholics out of ecclesial life, telling us, "Go now and die in what way seems best to you." That's right, friends, I am talking about the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments' Responsa ad dubia, issued today clarifying certain questions about the implementation of  Traditionis Custodes. There's been a lot of commentary on this today, most of it more eloquent and well-researched than anything I could slap together. But as always, I present you with my own humble reflections.

I. The logic of the Responsa is right out of bizarro world. I am used to reading nonsense from the Vatican, but what I read in the Responsa beggars belief in its inversion of cause and effect. From the explanatory note on Article 4:

All seminary formators, seeking to walk with solicitude in the direction indicated by Pope Francis, are encouraged to accompany future Deacons and Priests to an understanding and experience of the richness of the liturgical reform called for by the Second Vatican Council. This reform has enhanced every element of the Roman Rite and has fostered—as hoped for by the Council Fathers—the full, conscious and active participation of the entire People of God in the liturgy, the primary source of authentic Christian spirituality.

So, if a prospective ordinand looks at the chaos in the Church, looks at the flatlined vocations, rampant sex abuse, pathetic liturgies, doctrinal aberrations, plummeting demographics, and general malaise across the Catholic world and questions whether the Second Vatican Council might just maybe have some relation to this, he is to be lovingly told that the problems in the Church are not due to the Council, but to our failure to appreciate the "richness" the Council bequeathed upon us! The amount of ignorance, duplicity, dishonesty, brainwashing (or all of the above) it takes to assert that is stunning, even by Vatican standards. And the whole document reeks of such backwards logic. 

II. Indeed, the Responsa's condemnation of the very things the Vatican itself is causing is reminiscent of the institutional gaslighting perpetrated by Communist governments. Roche says it is sad that the liturgy has become a cause for division; who is currently guilty of fanning the flames of that division? It is certainly not traditionalists. He condemns "sterile polemics" and the exploitation of the liturgy for "ideological viewpoints", yet "sterile polemics" have been the very fuel of the Vatican's assault on the traditional liturgy—and as for liturgy in service of ideology, it is the progressives who have made the Spirit of the Council into the "super-dogma" Ratzinger once spoke of, applying it to the liturgy for the purpose of fostering the new ecclesiology. The Vatican accuses traditional Catholics of its own vices and then stomps on us in the name of mercy. It is like Orwell's Ministry of Peace, whose task is to wage relentless war. And like the antagonist of 1984, we are to believe that Big Brother crushes us because he loves us.

III. Also, isn't it funny how quickly the Vatican can respond to dubia when it wants to? Administering any large organization requires bureaucracy, but the Vatican is a bureaucracy of the worst kind: it either hides behind ambiguity and implied meaning or issues diktat after diktat as the situation requires—the "requirement" of the situation being not the cura animarum, but the centralization of power on the Peronist model. Authority, legislation, appointments, clarifications, communication, even the truth itself: these are wielded in the service of raw power, and that is their only consistency. When and if the Vatican "clarifies" anything has to do with the preservation of power. That's it.
 
IV. Also, who are the morons who even asked for this "clarification"? Everyone knows that when you get a directive that allows some wiggle room, you shut up about it. The bishops who asked for clarification are like that kid in high school who, two minutes before the bell rings, raises his hand and tells the teacher, "You forgot to assign homework!" Seriously. When a directive is issued in such a way that allows you to maintain some modicum of independence, you don't ask for clarification. You read the instruction, say, "Got it," and go do your thing.

V. "But Boniface" you say, "the bishops who asked for clarification are supporters of Traditionis Custodes! It makes sense for them to ask because they want to clamp down the Traditional Latin Mass even further!" Yes, yes, of course—but it is still moronic for such bishops to ask because Traditionis Custodes was not only an assault on the ancient liturgy, it was also an unprecedented attack on episcopal authority. Any bishop who supports Traditionis Custodes is sawing off the branch he sits upon, regardless of his view of the TLM. Traditionis Custodes claimed to be able to tell a bishop how and when he can utilize diocesan facilities. The Responsa goes even further, as it literally tells a bishop what can be advertised in parish bulletins and what times parish activities like coffee and donuts can be held. Check out the commentary on Article 3§2

...such a celebration [of the Traditional Mass] should not be included in the parish Mass schedule, since it is attended only by the faithful who are members of the said group. Finally, it should not be held at the same time as the pastoral activities of the parish community. It is to be understood that when another venue becomes available, this permission will be withdrawn.

This is why I say any bishop who supports Traditionis Custodes is stupid, simply from the point of view of preserving episcopal prerogatives. What bishop is daft enough to want to encourage such micromanaging? Any bishop who supports this is encouraging further Vatican intrusions into the minutiae of diocesan life. And to the extent you find a bishop who is even going to bother to enforce this, in the age of social media how much does such a prohibition on advertising in the Church bulletin matter? It's something only a dying 85 year old man with no concept of modern technology would write. Bishops aren't going to micromanage this, and even if they did, everyone would just go elsewhere after Mass, or congregate in the parking lot, like they do now anyways. Pathetic. An increasingly feckless and impotent Church, trying to hyper-control what is outside their grasp to convince themselves of the delusion they are in control of a situation (h/t to Kevin Tierney for this take).

IV. The explanatory note on Article 3§2 is one of the most condescending things I have ever read. On the prohibition of using a parish church for celebration of the traditional Mass, it states:

The exclusion of the parish church is intended to affirm that the celebration of the Eucharist according to the previous rite, being a concession limited to these groups, is not part of the ordinary life of the parish community.

Wow. I am not part of the ordinary life of the parish community. That is just incredibly insulting. But what's even more insulting is the statement that follows:

There is no intention in these provisions to marginalize the faithful who are rooted in the previous form of celebration: they are only meant to remind them that this is a concession to provide for their good.

Ha! No intention to marginalize! What a sterling example of the contemporary Church's obsession with fiat truth: something is so merely because we say it is. We attack, we crush, we ghettoize, we marginalize, but you are not marginalized because we say you are not. Just like the declarations that the Novus Ordo preserves the tradition of the Roman rite, or that the post-Conciliar Church and pre-Conciliar Church are in continuity (see: "Phantasm of Fiat Continuity", USC, May, 2016). Reality conforms to our desires merely because we will it to. Where have I heard this before? Oh that's right...it is the same perverse ideology that is destroying western civilization! It's the same mindset behind "My gender is whatever I will it to be." Or, "The Church's destruction is actually a New Springtime!" It's all the same rot. But fortunately reality does not yield to administrative dictate. "There is no intention in these provisions to marginalize"; here the Vatican destroys us while saying, "It's not personal." Well, in the words of Captain America, "It kinda feels personal."

VI. As an example of the weak logic in this document, let's take the issue of the Pontificale Romanum. The Pontificale Romanum contains the liturgical rites typically performed by bishops. It includes the Mass, but also things like the consecration of chrism, administration of Confirmation, etc. Now remember, Traditionis Custodes concerns itself only with the celebration of Mass according to the Missale Romanum of 1962; it is silent on these other ancillary rites. Traditionis Custodes 8 says, "Previous norms, instructions, permissions, and customs that do not conform to the provisions of the present Motu Proprio are abrogated." Since the provisions of Traditionis Custodes do not concern themselves with the sorts of rites found in the Pontificale, one may surmise that celebrating these rites does not contradict Traditionis Custodes and hence are still permitted. Since restrictive legislation needs to be interpreted strictly, the fact that TC does not specifically mention these other rituals would imply they are exempt. Essentially, Traditionis Custodes 8 does not imply the pre-conciliar Pontificale is abrogated; in fact, the opposite is inferred. In light of this possibility, a dubium was submitted specifically asking if the provisions of Traditionis Custodes allow for the use of the pre-conciliar Pontificale. The CDW's Responsa says:

...in order to make progress in the direction indicated by the Motu Proprio, [the Congregation] should not grant permission to use the Rituale Romanum and the Pontificale Romanum which predate the liturgical reform, these are liturgical books which, like all previous norms, instructions, concessions and customs, have been abrogated (cf. Traditionis Custodes, n. 8).

Notice it states that the Pontificale has been abrogated and cites Traditionis Custodes 8 as its authority for this. But not only does Traditionis Custodes 8 not say this, but there is good reason to infer the opposite. In fact, a question about Traditionis Custodes 8 was the very thing that prompted the dubium to begin with! And yet the CDW responds to the query about the meaning of TC 8 by citing TC 8. The Pontificale is simply declared abrogated with no legislative text quoted in support. TC 8 cannot be the authority for questions about the meaning of TC 8. It's like if a student in math class says to the teacher, "I do not understand how to solve the equation in problem number 8" and the teacher says "Okay. See problem number 8 for clarification." The reasoning is entirely circular.

VII. Continuing on examining the awful response to Article 3§2, we see how ignorant the Vatican is about who actually goes to the Traditional Latin Mass. It naively assumes that everyone who attends the Traditional Latin Mass is part of an officially established dedicated group. On the matter of the exclusion of the parish church as a setting for Traditional Latin Masses, it says:

The exclusion of the parish church is intended to affirm that the celebration of the Eucharist according to the previous rite, being a concession limited to these groups, is not part of the ordinary life of the parish community...Moreover, such a celebration should not be included in the parish Mass schedule, since it is attended only by the faithful who are members of the said group.

The CDW and Holy Father seem to envision a rigid distinction between Novus Ordo Catholics and Traditionalist Catholics, as if the two categories never ever overlap; there are "ordinary" Catholics who attend the Novus Ordo, and then there are "these groups" out there who are completely divorced from the parish structure and are "not part of the ordinary life of the parish community." Francis seems entirely ignorant of the fact that there are many Novus Ordo Catholics who go to the Traditional Latin Mass and that not everyone who attends the TLM does so exclusively. I wish I could remember where I read this, but some years after Summorum Pontificum, a study was published indicating that about 80% of Latin Masses in the United States were diocesan Latin Masses—that is, they were offered by diocesan priests at Novus Ordo parishes as an additional Mass in the regular weekly lineup. Some of the Mass attendees were people who went exclusively to TLMs, but a great many were Novus Ordo attendees who enjoyed going to both forms of the Mass or were learning about the TLM. For example, the parish I am registered at has a TLM once per month. The attendees at that TLM are probably 90% Novus Ordo Catholics. They are not outside the ordinary life of the parish; they are the parish. What about them? What about the tens of thousands of Catholics who are not part of "groups" but are in fact "part of the ordinary life of the parish community"? The fact that Francis has never acknowledged this overlap demonstrates the degree to which he is ignorant of who he is legislating about—and why he should absolutely not be making judgments about these matters.

VIII. Despite the darkness of the current situation, I believe it is the last gasp of a withering regime about to be consigned to the dust bin of history. Our current moment is akin to the second Iconoclast persecution, or the final years of the Diocletianic persecution. It is the final, desperate bid of a dying man to consolidate his power before he goes the way of all flesh. That's not to say there I think there is going to be some sudden restoration of tradition; I don't buy into the traddie wet dream that one day some future pope is going to anathematize and condemn all this modern garbage and formally restore tradition. When and if a restoration comes, it won't be nearly so sudden or tidy. But I do believe that Traditionis Custodes specifically will be overturned in short order. Francis is not popular outside of his circle of sycophants, and I predict TC will be gone shortly after he is.  

IX. You know, on a natural level, if you are part of any institution, there are bound to be decisions made that you disagree with. And it's infinitely easier to acquiesce to disagreeable decisions when you can still presume good faith on the part of others within the organization. I used to work in local government as an elected official, and of course there were frequent disagreements with my fellow city council members. But they were all sincerely civic minded people who were trying their best. Even when we disagreed, there was this sense of "Hey, we all want what's best for the community. We just have different opinions on how to get there." This attitude, this presumption of good faith, made compromise possible; furthermore, it made it easier in those situations when you had to say, "I might not agree with what's happening, but I've been outvoted and I have to work with what I've been given." But if that presumption of good faith is destroyed, there's nothing left except a power struggle, a state of war within the institution. I think Pope Francis destroyed what little presumption of good faith existed with Traditionis Custodes. But now good faith is not only destroyed; it's been thoroughly defecated upon. And now the liturgical wars Benedict put to bed have been renewed. And all for nothing. 

X. "What are we to do?" Why is everyone so obsessed with asking this question? I don't know. How can there be any uniform response? It all depends on the situation within your specific diocese, your own spiritual life, priorities, and centrality of the traditional liturgy within your life. Vague platitudes like "pray" or "resist" mean little outside of the particulars "on the ground" in your diocese. I will tell you one reflection I had today though: sometimes the obstacles we face become so enormous, the dishonesty of our opponents so brazen, the malice so vicious, the scope of the disaster so broad and overwhelming that the circle of tragedy comes full circle, and you find yourself just laughing at it all. During the years of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there was more a place for impassioned pleas and eloquent argumentation fueled by righteous indignation. Now, confronted with shenanigans of Francis and his ilk, all one can do is squeeze the clown nose and say, "Honk honk. Boomer's gonna boom." And that itself is a consolation. They can take the Mass away from me. They can banish all beauty from the churches, strip every vestige of tradition from the liturgy, and stuff the cathedrals of yesteryear with Pachamamas galore. They can ostracize me, tie me to the stake, and light the fire. They can take my very life. But one thing that escapes their power, the one thing they can never do, is to stop me from laughing at their dumb asses. No sir, I will still be laughing at this ridiculous debacle until the end of the world. So that is the one thing I would suggest we do: laugh scathingly at the sheer idiocy of the entire situation, not just with TC, but the entire post-Conciliar experiment. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Discouragement from Habitual Sin


Do you struggle with discouragement from habitual sin? For many Catholics this is a huge problem. There is a pattern we tend to fall into: we do well for a while, but when faced with temptation we give in and sin. The sin brings apathy, a sense of "Well, I already blew it, what's the use in trying?" So you go into a slump—your prayer life suffers, you keep committing the same sin over again (because you already messed up, so what does it matter?), and you get apathetic. Maybe a week goes by. Maybe a month. You feel like a slob, spiritually and in other respects. Eventually you are so unhappy and angry with your life that you rouse yourself; you say, "I have to get right with God." You go to confession and lay your soul bare before a confessor. He gives you some good advice, you repent tearfully, receive absolution, and go out rejoicing, resolved to do better this time. You are grateful for God's mercy and kindness at giving you another shot and things go well for you spiritually. Things continue this way for a time—maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months—until you get complacent, get tempted, and fall again. Then the cycle repeats. Year after year after year. Maybe decade after decade.

This can be frustrating in the short term, but the long term consequences are more dire. Repetition of this pattern over many years can lead us down a dark path, the steps of which include:

  • Acedia (spiritual sloth): "It's inevitable I'm going to commit serious sin sooner or later so there's no point trying to make spiritual progress."

  • Distraction: Unhealthy focus or preoccupation with just "that one sin" such that you ignore other important aspects of your spiritual life (see USC, "Distraction of That One Sin").

  • Resentment: Simmering bitterness towards God. "It is unfair of God to prohibit something I am unable to restrain myself from doing. It puts me in an impossible position."

  • Blindness: Inability to see the working of grace in ones own life.

  • Dulling of Conscience: Having accepted the inevitability of certain sins, one's conscience dulls to them; we get used to that sin or at least to the idea of living with the sin.

  • More Time Outside of Grace: The lengths of time we perceive ourselves to be in a state of mortal sin grow longer and longer; the times we are disposed to receive Communion grow shorter and fewer, until they are like small islands of grace in a vast sea of sin.

  • Loss of charity: A gradual hardening of heart takes over. We become jaded and angry, impatient with ourselves and others. The very ideas of spiritual progress, grace, etc. seem like jokes.

  • Loss of Hope: "At the rate this is going, It'll be a miracle if I make Purgatory." 

  • Despair: "How can I—or anyone—possibly avoid going to Hell? The vast majority of us are simply doomed." 

  • Loss of Faith: You no longer perceive the issue as your problem, but as a problem with the faith itself. "The Catholic religion doesn't work. It only gives me stress and anxiety. This system simply can't be the truth. I can no longer assent to this."

As we can see, discouragement at habitual sin can create a slow decline that ultimately leads to loss of faith. It is good to recall that Satan is in this for the long haul; while individual sins certainly matter, the devil aiming bigger than that; he is trying to create an overall trajectory in our life that leads us away from God. He is attacking us tactically, while we tend to get bogged down in the bushes, unable to see the forest for the trees.

Do you recognize this pattern in your life? Even if you are not to the point of despair or loss of faith, does any of this sound familiar? It very well may. I've been here for sure. And so have many Catholics, for whom the pattern above is the reality of their spiritual life. Not all will eventually lose faith, of course; people walk spiral down this vortex to varying degrees. Many of us have been (or are on) this path somewhere.

So what's the way out? The real problem is that "Try harder next time" and like advice doesn't seem to help. Most have been struggling every way we know how to free ourselves from habitual sin for years. Some eventually have victory; many don't. Is there a better way?

We ultimately need to reframe how we look at this problem, and it starts with revisiting the idea of "winning" and "losing" against temptation. When we are tempted, we are thrown into a spiritual battle, a battle we can either win or lose. But when do we win or lose—at what point is a particular spiritual conflict won, or conversely, at what point is it lost? Most of us will answer that the battle is won when we pass on without committing the sin, and that it is lost if we commit the sin we are struggling with. How many of us, after fighting with a temptation, fail to persevere and then think, "Well, I lost that battle", or something similar?

While it's true that victory of temptation is a "win", it is not always true that committing the sin is a "loss", at least in a certain sense. What I mean is this: thinking "I lost that battle" implies that the spiritual battle is over once you have committed the sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. What happens after we sin is just as important. The battle isn't just whether you will sin; it is how you will respond to the victory or failure. If you have victory, will you become complacent and idle? If you are defeated, will you become discouraged, fall into a slump, and go down the slope described above? The battle after the sin is pivotal, as it determines whether you will be solidified in a certain spiritual "trajectory."

Therefore, when you commit a habitual sin, rather than thinking, "I've lost again", or "I blew it", or "There's no point in praying or trying now that I'm already in a state of sin", instead think, "The battle is not over. I am moving into a new stage of the battle. I can still win." Even if you have sinned, your prayers still matter. God is still just as invested in helping you. You don't need to throw in the towel. You don't need to beat yourself up; focusing excessively on your own failures is itself a trap of pride. The battle has not ended; I can have victory at any time if I choose God now in this moment. The moment of grace was not at some place in the past when you were struggling between light and darkness; the moment of grace is now; it is always now. All you have to do is strike now and you win. Every time. The victories will be varied and the journey will be bumpy, but you'll get to where you want to go. Where you are heading is more important than whether the road you are on has potholes. It's not so much whether you hit potholes; it's whether the potholes eventually cause you to give up and turn around. 

Maybe this is nothing new. I am certainly not promising any breakthroughs. But I am sharing something that has been extremely helpful to me in my own spiritual life. Realizing that the battle does not end if I sin, that the moment of grace is now, and that as long as I seek God in any given moment I always win have been transformational principles. Perhaps they will be of some help to you as well.

Happy Advent brethren

Related: "Christ Will Give You Victory" (Jan. 2019, USC)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Some Updates

A few months ago I posted an appeal for donations in conjunction with the fourteenth year anniversary of this blog. The purpose of the appeal was to help defray the expenses of updating the woefully dated USC sister site, fund the professional design for some new book projects, and translate my RCIA notes and outlines into Spanish. Unfortunately I did not raise enough to cover all these projects, but enough of you stepped forward that I was able to make some progress. The new Unam Sanctam Catholicam sister site has been constructed, and I am currently migrating all the content over. There is still some design stuff I need to work out, but it feels good to be getting this underway. I especially want to thank one reader who gave an extremely generous donation that covered a big chunk of cost. Deo gratias. 

Anyhow, not much else I wanted to say except that work is going on. I hope to have the new site launched by the time we celebrate this blog's fifteenth anniversary in June of 2022. If you'd still like to contribute, you can use this Paypal link to make a one time donation or set up a recurring donation, which some of you were generous enough to do. Thank you sincerely. It is my hope that once the new site is complete I can turn my attention to working to get the RCIA outlines translated into Spanish, and then Arabic, Lord willing. But for now, one step at a time.

Blessings and grace to you and pray for me, a poor sinner

~Boniface