Sunday, May 06, 2012

Transplanting Tradition

So where did this liturgical custom come from? Does it mean anything to Catholics?

I have been reflecting lately on why certain customs flourish in one religious setting but those same customs utterly fail to produce fruit when transplanted to another. By custom I mean those outward expressions of religious faith common to humankind - certain types of song and musical instruments, manner of prayer, bodily gestures, architectural and artistic creations, and every other expression of culture that usually accompanies religious belief. Religious setting in the broadest sense could mean different religions, but in the context of this discussion, I mean it more with reference to different ecclesial traditions within Christianity itself (Lutheranism, Baptist, Calvinist, and of course, Catholic).

A very large assumption we find in the mindset of the post-Conciliar Church is that a custom one one religious setting can be transplanted into the Catholic Church. It was assumed that because a style of music, or vestment or dance had proved vibrant in one religious setting that it would be equally vibrant and "fruit-bearing" within the Catholic Church. An easy example is the style of hymn known as the "Negro Spiritual," a sort of song composed by enslaved African Americans in the South and associated with varieties of the Baptist tradition. Modern Catholic hymnals typically feature many of these Negro Spirituals; the Spiritual has been "transplanted" from the Baptist to the Catholic tradition.

There are several aspects of this idea of "transplanting" of custom that need to be examined:

(A) The true vitality of these customs within their original religious setting

(B) The assumption of "transplanting" the custom into another tradition

(C) Explanation for the failure of such efforts

First, it is necessary to assert the vitality of a custom within the context of its own tradition. A Negro Spiritual is extremely edifying to African Americans or anyone else raised in that tradition. The dull, austere architecture of a Mennonite gathering hall is pleasing to the sensibilities of Mennonites. Certain types of high-tempo Christian rock music are edifying to Pentecostal Christians, for whom that sort of music is an integral part of their tradition. These customs are all truly vital within their own religious setting.

Now, please note than when I speak of the vitality of these customs, I am not speaking of any supernatural ordering or any merit before God, and this is a rather important point in this discussion. I say not that bare Mennonite gathering halls are pleasing to God, only that they are pleasing to Mennonites. We could have a great discussion about whether God likes Pentecostal rock music; it is undeniable that Pentecostals like Pentecostal rock music. Every individual is edified on a natural level by those elements native to their own tradition. People like that which comes naturally.

But beyond "liking" these customs, we could go further to say that, because these customs have sprung up organically out of these religious communities, there is a certain naturalness to them from a cultural standpoint. It is natural for a black Protestant congregation in rural Mississippi to sing Negro Spirituals just as it is natural for Muslims to pray in Arabic or Catholics to genuflect. Because these customs are natural to these traditions, they form a positive link between the believer and those who have come before him; they serve to build a bond rooting that person to his tradition, edifying him within the context of that tradition. They keep the tradition alive. Thus, on a strictly natural level, we can rightly say that a custom has a true vitality within its own religious setting.

The next part of this discussion is looking at the assumption that these customs can be transplanted into another religious setting other than that of their origin. In the Catholic Church, this is where Negro Spirituals are put into liturgical hymnals, or Protestant praise and worship music is performed at Mass, or Protestant architectural principles are incorporated into parish design, or Eastern meditation is incorporated into Catholic spirituality. The assumption is that these customs will bear fruit in a Catholic setting because they have borne fruit in their natural setting; that the Catholic's experience of the Faith will be enriched by these customs that have enriched other cultures. This implies several problematic things.

For one, it implies that the Faith is somehow lacking and must be enriched by elements brought into it from the outside; I have already written about this elsewhere in the context of the Charismatic Renewal.

But more relevant to this discussion is that it is often forgotten that these customs possess vitality not by virtue of the customs themselves, but because of the context in which they occur, and that this vitality is of a natural, not supernatural, character. There is nothing meritorious before God about clapping hands during a song; it is a purely natural act that the worshiper finds edifying because it is organically part of the tradition to which he belongs. To the degree that, say, Protestant worshipers obtain some grace through their worship, it is because their hearts are more properly disposed towards God, not because there is anything better about clapping hands or singing a Negro Spiritual. If the worshiper does experience more grace through these acts, it is because participating in worship according to their own tradition is what puts them in that disposition.

This is not like the liturgy of the Mass, where the ritual comes from the Apostles and is intrinsically pleasing to God because in the Mass the Son of God is offered to the Father (this is why the Mass is still objectively pleasing to God even if the priest is sinful or the Mass is said privately without a congregation). The problem is that we assume that these other customs (Negro Spirituals) that have vitality within their own religious setting will produce the same results when transferred to Catholic worship. This ignores the fact that the inner vitality of these customs within their own tradition is due to their cultural context, not the merit of the act itself. It also presumes that the Mass, which has a supernatural origin and is ordered towards God, needs the inclusion of these foreign customs that have only a natural goodness, even within their own tradition. These are the problems with transplanting customs from one religious setting to another.

Are these transplants successful? I think anyone who objectively evaluates this question will unequivocally say that these cultural transplants have been a miserable failure. Our worst parishes are the ones where this cross-cultural pollination happens most. By the way, since these cultural transplants are such failures, those who support them can only claim they are successful by changing the definition of success. Instead of success as measured by holiness, increased participation in the sacraments, growth in knowledge, private devotions, etc., the proponent of this ideal has to make the transplant itself a kind of measure of success. Thus, the success of incorporating Negro Spirituals is the simple fact that Catholics are now singing Negro Spirituals. The cultural cross-pollination goes from being a means to an end in and of itself; a "mutual enrichment" as Cardinal Dulles used to call it.

But to anybody who cares about sanctity, love of the truth, or knowledge of the faith, these attempts to inject foreign customs into Catholicism are utter failures. Why is this? Because of the basic premise enunciated above - a custom has vitality within its tradition only because of its cultural context. Remember, the custom builds a bond between a worshiper and his own tradition. But what sort of bond can be established by Catholics singing a Negro Spiritual? How does a lay person taking classes in yoga thereby become more firmly rooted in Catholic spirituality? What does a person clapping hands to Pentecostal rock music at Mass learn about the Catholic liturgy?

A custom is vital when it builds bonds between a believer and his tradition. We could summarize the whole essence of this post in one statement: A custom that does not reflect the tradition of the believer is of no value to the believer. It's "bond building" function is effectively cancelled out. At best it can function only as a sort of novelty that holds the believer's interest briefly before becoming meaningless. The spirituality becomes crassly individualistic - if a custom cannot "plug" us into a greater tradition, its only value is in whatever "interest" it can arouse in the individual, and it cannot hold that interest for long. At that point we can only continue to maintain that such experiments have meaning by asserting that the inclusion of foreign elements in our tradition is itself a positive good.

We would not expect a Negro Spiritual to mean anything in a Catholic liturgy any more than we would expect the Salve Regina to mean anything in a black church is rural Mississippi. We understand this when we talk about other traditions or religions; anyone would acknowledge that Gregorian chant would be out of place in a Mennonite gathering hall or that a genuflection inside a Mosque would be highly improper; why are Catholics alone not able to exercise this same sort of reasoning when it comes to foreign customs transplanted into our own tradition?

Traditions cannot be transplanted. Just because a Protestant church finds great vibrancy and edification in Pentecostal rock music does not mean that a Catholic parish will likewise be edified. A salt water fish can't live in fresh water. The crops that thrive in Cuba wither in Norway because the environment is different. The only difference between these examples and what we have today in the Catholic Church is that it only takes the green-thumb farmer one trial and one error to realize that tropical crops cannot flourish in cold climates; how many decades will it take for our liturgists to learn the same simple lesson?



16 comments:

Mark of the Vineyard said...

I, for one, one like to know how even in my country many people assume the orans position during the Our Father at Mass. It baffles me, as this is a traditionally Roman Catholic country.

Steve "scotju" Dalton said...

Some months ago, Michael Voris caused Mark Shea and Dave Armstrong to have mega-hissyfits because he said Amazing Grace didn't belong in the Catholic Mass. Voris basically made the same point that you have made in this post, that AG made sense in in it's own Protestant background, but it's doctrinal content make it incompatable in a Catholic Mass. Shea and Armstrong went ballistic over Voris's simple observation. I made a comment on Armstrong's site that we Catholics have nearly 2000 years of music to pick and choose from, so why do we even need to borrow AG from the Prots? Armstrong called me a Pharisee, and a lawyer, who's name escapes me for the moment, said our store of music would be so much poorer without AG and other Protestant hymns and songs. Huh?!

Alexander said...

So... centuries upon centuries of Catholic music is "poorer" until we realized in the modern times that we can adopt hymns from sects who interject their heresy implicitly or explicitly in them.
Oh those poor Popes, saints and Doctors for the past several hundred years were just swimming in their stupidity until the great modern times when the enlightened minds of the recent churchmen in all their suprdogma personas allowed us to become richer. I morn the foolishness of past before the great modern era and all its ambiguous ecumenism..

Dave Armstrong said...

I see that Dalton is again obsessed with my work, having blasted me for the same thing on another page recently. For those who actually care about reading arguments that are being pilloried, here is the link that he deliberately refused to provide:

http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2010/11/is-amazing-grace-anti-catholic-hymn.html

The flaws in this general line of argument are clear: all truth is truth, no matter where it is found. This was the principle that St. Paul exercised on mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17), where he commended pagans for their religiosity, and cited two pagan poets / philosophers in his discourse.

Jesus commended the Roman centurion for his faith, etc. St. Thomas Aquinas uses these arguments. Paul says in Romans 2 that those who have never heard the gospel will be judged by what they know.

By this goofy, illogical reasoning, only music by perfectly saintly Catholic composers would be permitted. No Beethoven (lapsed Catholic and fornicator), or Schubert [we play his music at our Latin Masses]: he died of syphilis, thus was likely a fornicator, being single, or Bach (egads! He's Lutheran!), or Mozart (no saint, either).

Many wonderful Christmas carols written by Protestants would be excluded. It's an utterly ridiculous view of art and music, related to Catholic services.

BONIFACE said...

Well, I am not suggesting these songs are "forbidden," only that they do not have the same meaning in a Catholic context as they do in their original context, just like Gregorian chant doesn't mean as much to a Buddhist as it would to a Catholic, although a Buddhist might still appreciate it and even find some beauty in it.

Also, the issue was never here the moral life of the composers, so I'm not sure what Beethoven being a fornicator has to do with anything. The original issue was that religious customs from one tradition did not have the same meaning when brought to another.

BONIFACE said...

I did find an interesting statement from De Music Sacra et Sacra Liturgia from 1958, which says on the subject of hymns:


52. If hymns are to attain their purpose, their texts "must conform to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, plainly stating, and explaining it."

Though Protestant hymns are not mentioned here, one wonders how a Protestant hymn can conform to the doctrine of the Catholic Faith by "plainly stating' and "explaining it." Amazing Grace might not openly contradict Catholicism (depending on how it is interpreted), but does it "plainly state" and "explain" the Faith?

Pius XII in Musica Sacrae, 1955, also stated:

"63. If hymns of this sort are to bring spiritual fruit and advantage to the Christian people, they must be in full conformity with the doctrine of the Catholic faith. They must also express and explain that doctrine accurately."

Again, Protestant hymns are not forbidden, but is transplanting Protestant music - even hymns written by Luther - into the Liturgy really in keeping with the mind of the Church?

BONIFACE said...

And, by the criteria of St. Pius X, yes, Masses composed by Mozart, Bach, etc. would be forbidden, not because of their personal lives or that they were Protestants, but because of the suppression of the voice by the music and the long musical interludes:

20. It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church, and only in special cases with the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the placeprovided the composition and accompaniment be written in grave and suitable style, and conform in all respects to that proper to the organ. Tra le Sollecitudini

This would prohibit the performance of Mozart Masses, which require a whole orchestra.

16. As the singing should always have the principal place, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain and never oppress it.

17. It is not permitted to have the chant preceded by long preludes or to interrupt it with intermezzo pieces
ibid.

This would also prohibit a Mozart Mass because (at least judging from the few I attended when in Austria) they have very long musical interludes.

I am not trying to engage in an argument, but I think there is a little bit more to this than you are saying.

Here is an interesting one:

19. The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like.

I know you weren't saying anything about drums/cymbals or anything like that, but notice it includes the piano among forbidden instruments, and this is now common.

Dave Armstrong said...

I was responding specifically to Dalton. I didn't even read your piece. :-)

Again, folks insist on talking about a paper of mine without either 1) reading it, or 2) understanding it; let alone supposedly "refuting" it.

In it, I argued that there was nothing that I could find in "Amazing Grace" that was 'anti-Catholic" (as Voris claimed; not merely non-Catholic). I wrote:

"Catholics believe in Grace Alone, just as Protestants do. . . . the Church . . . condemns works-salvation, or Pelagianism, so I don't see this as a contradiction to our theology at all. Grace IS amazing! There is also such a thing as initial justification in Catholicism. There is a beginning-point in the salvation process (baptism). We can receive further grace through the sacraments, but there is an initial time, at which regeneration occurs. And it is all by grace in our theology."

Voris made a bunch of hay about the word "wretch" and I noted that St. Paul described himself: "Wretched man that I am!" (Rom 7:24). I stated:

"Also in Revelation 3:16b-17, Jesus describes the Laodiceans: who were "lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot" (3:16a) -- a prototype of a certain sort of unregenerate sinner -- as follows:
'. . . I will spew you out of my mouth. [17] For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are WRETCHED, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.' "

So where's the beef? I don't see anti-Catholicism in "Amazing Grace." I see "Grace alone" that saved a "wretch" like former slave trader John Newton (the writer), and indeed all of us who have no hope of being saved without grace.

Sure, he was a Calvinist, yet I see nothing here that is incompatible with catholic theology at all, since we teach salvation by grace of wretches just as much as any Protestant does.

The point might hold if there was distinctive Calvinist theology in the song that differed from us, such as, e.g., predestination to hell or perseverance of the saints.

Dalton stated in the combox of my paper: "Dave, Catholic songs for a Mass should reflect the theology of the Catholoc faith. No Protestant song or hymn can do that."

But this is untrue. I just sowed how "Amazing Grace" is perfectly compatible with Catholic theology.

My point stands: truth is truth: whatever the source. Not every song can be (obviously) an exhaustive catalogue of theology. This is a ludicrous requirement. Many solid Catholic songs, like, e/g/, "Silent Night" have relatively little theology in them. But "Amazing Grace" teaches grace alone, over against works salvation: a thing we completely agree with, and indeed a very important thing (see St. Augustine's long debate with the Pelagians). So why we should either not sing it, or deem it somehow "anti-Catholic" on its face, is an utter mystery to me.

It's only, well, pharisaical legalism that would take such a silly, tunnel vision view.

Dalton said on my thread, after naming things the song didn't include: "What is mentioned here is the 'born again' experiance so beloved by evangelical Protestants."

Of course that isn't exclusive to Protestants, either. I guess he has never read Augustine's "Confessions." Thomas a Kempis stresses personal relationship with Christ. So does the sacrament of confirmation, which is a re-affirmation of adult commitment to Christ, and a filling of the Holy Spirit. None of that is unCatholic at all, let alone anti-Catholic. Granted, the entire theological interpretation differs, but not the aspect of giving one's life totally to Christ as a disciple.

My friend Paul Hoffer wrote:

"I own a number of Catholic hymnals, one or two that go back to the 1860's, and Catholics even then had no problem singing something written by Bach or Handel or Haydn, so why should we?"

BONIFACE said...

Haha...didn't read the piece? Well that explains why I didn't think your comments quite fit, then!

I'll just sit out then!

Steve "scotju" Dalton said...

Mr. Armstrong, you're being paranoid. I didn't "deliberately refuse" to provide a link to your rant, but I did tell Boniface's readers that you and Mark Shea had a "hissyfit" about Voris's commentary on Amazing Grace. Since you and Shea are so well known, it wouldn't have presented a great handicap for anyone seeking out your blogs.
Boniface, thanks for educating both Mr Armstrong and myself on true Catholic music. I hope it does both of us some good in our understanding of sacred music in worship.

Dave Armstrong said...

I probably will now. LOL

I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Boniface. It is my position that protestants do not have worship because they lack Holy Orders.

We Catholics do have worship because we have Holy Orders.

The essential protestant ideology holds that all human acts are as bloody rags (menstruation rags) and as such their putative worship (singing, Biblical readings, Sermon, singing) done solely by non-ordained men and women, accrd. to protestant ideology, is an offering of bloody rags to our Triune God because is a purely an act of man.

The old prayers of The Raccolta - in more than one of the prayers, identify their lack of worship and grace; "...outside of which neither holiness nor salvation can be found..." (p.500 The Raccolta, Benziger Brothers, Loreto Pubications 2010)

I am not Spartacus said...

So where's the beef? I don't see anti-Catholicism in "Amazing Grace." I see "Grace alone" that saved a "wretch" like former slave trader John Newton (the writer), and indeed all of us who have no hope of being saved without grace.

One is saved by Grace without Baptism?

I thought that Mr. Armstrong considered Baptism rather important; I know that Jesus did.

Mr. Voris was spot-on and Messrs Shea and Armstrong come across as nit-pickers who are envious of his growing popularity

BONIFACE said...

The song does not imply that we are saved without baptism. Even if you are saved through baptism, you are still saved by grace. In the end, we are all saved sola gratia.

@Spartacus - I don't think you can say that Protestants lack all worship, or that what they do is not worship in some sense. They do not have all the elements of grace and salvation, but they have some, and they do have a certain kind of worship - not that that means it is perfect in God's sight, but it is something.

I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Boniface. I think the song implies such a notion; it implies that he had aught to do with salvation.

He was just sorta banging around at sea when God saved him with not even a hint that he had to get on the Ark of Salvation having been prompted to do so by the Holy Ghost.

As Saint Augustine said (paraphrase) God created us without our permission but he will not save us without our cooperation -whereas the song is Calvinism summarised.

I think we will have to disagree re the putative protestant worship. I do not see how we can call what they do worship unless we reference the classic levels of worship but what me and thee mean by worship does not apply to them.

I will look around to see if I saved what I once wrote about that but in the meantime, I love your blog.

Kudos

I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Boniface. I take back what I wrote. The protestants do offer worship; what I had in my mind but did not write was the qualifier "right."

http://southernvermontcrank.blogspot.com/2011/10/catholic-vs-protestant-worship.html