Thursday, April 15, 2021

Propriae auctoritates apostolicae sedis


While studying use of the pallium during the reform papacy of the 11th century, I came across a fascinating document that has great relevance to the question of whether a pope can be condemned or lose his office for denying the Catholic faith. I have never seen this document referenced in any discussion on the subject, so I want to introduce it here. Others more educated than I on theological matters can debate its merits.

In 1075 the papacy of Pope St. Gregory VII promulgated a syllabus on papal power known as Dictatus Papae. Dictatus Papae was meant to be a synopsis of the pope's prerogatives drawn from previous papal letters and canonical legislation, not unlike the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX. The nineteenth thesis of Dictatus Papae says of the Roman pontiff:

19. That he himself may be judged by no one

This refers to the canonical principle prime sedes a nemine iudicatur ("the first see is judged by no one"), a maxim that dates to the pontificate of Pope Symmachus (498-514), who was put on trial for various crimes alleged by King Theodoric the Ostrogoth. The episcopal synod summoned to try Symmachus refused to even pass judgment, on the premise that "the first see is judged by no one." Pope Gregory VII wished to call this episode to mind in Dictatus Papae, as he himself was in a similar predicament with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over the matter of lay investiture. He wanted to stress that no one could pass judgment on the pope, whether ruler or episcopal synod. [1]

Dictatus Papae is a well known document, but what is not so familiar is that shortly after the promulgation of Dictatus Papae another syllabus was published. Called Propriae auctoritates apostolicae sedis ("The Powers Proper to the Holy See"),  this document was meant to elaborate on the theses of Dictatus Papae [2]. Issued sometime between 1075 and 1085, these theses should be read in conjunction with Dicatus Papae, which it is meant to support and expand upon.

Thus, we see that thesis 19 of Dictatus Papae is expanded in Propriae auctoritates apostolicae sedis, the seventh thesis of which says:

7. The pope may be judged by no one, even if he should deny the faith, as is seen from [Pope] Marcellinus

Apparently, the curia of Gregory VII did not think the 19th thesis of Dictatus Papae was explicit enough, so they desired to restate the maxim with the addition "even if he should deny the faith, as is seen by Marcellinus." The details of how this thesis came to be are unknown, but the implication is that the imperial propagandists of Henry IV had responded to Dictatus Papae by arguing that a pope could not be judged unless he had denied the faith. Gregory VII responded by appealing to the case of Pope Marcellinus, who had in fact publicly apostasized (or was at least believed to have) and yet did not lose his office. While Dictatus Papae 19 references a criminal trial (of Pope Symmachus), Propriae auctoritates apostolicae sedis 7 references a case of public loss of faith. The implication is that the Magisterium of Pope Gregory VII meant to teach that a pope could not be judged or deposed even if he had specifically denied the faith.

I am not competent to comment on the authority or theological import of the document, but future discussions about theoretically deposing a pope should most certainly factor in this document, as it was promulgated under the Pope Gregory VII specifically in part to address this very question.

NOTES

[1] Thus Gregory categorically rejected the authority of the Synod of Brixen (1080) which condemned Gregory of various crimes and that the pope "should be canonically deposed and expelled and condemned in perpetuity, if, having heard this [decree], he does not step down."

[2] The text of Propriae auctoritates apostolicae sedis was found in a German language work by Hubert Mordek, 'Proprie auctoritates apostolice sedis. Ein zweiter Dictatus papae Gregors VII.?', Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 28 (1972), pp. 105-32 Translated by T. Reuter.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

With The Joy of Christ's First Breath


A most happy, blessed Easter to all of you who may be reading this, whether you are Catholic or not. I pray for the mercy and grace of our Lord to be with you abundantly during this holy season.

This Easter marks the 19th Easter I have celebrated as a Catholic. I remember receiving the sacred unction of Confirmation all those years ago, taking the name Francis in honor of the great saint of Assisi whose witness led me to the Church. Last night, I watched a man and a woman enter the Catholic Church at my parish's Easter Vigil. Despite everything going on in the world, despite all the darkness in the Church itself, despite the chaos in the Vatican, there were still people who heard the voice of the Bridegroom and followed Him into His chambers, seeking the ark of salvation. One of the men being confirmed even took the name Francis, just as I had all those years ago.

At the time, I was  a tad envious of those people. They were likely blissfully unaware of a whole lot of things. To use a tired cliché, they had not yet been "red pilled" to the disaster in which Catholicism currently finds itself. There are times when I wish I could take the proverbial "blue pill" and forget about it all. Go back to believing John Paul II was the greatest pope ever. To believing in the New Springtime. To thinking the documents of Vatican II were profound. To blindly attending an okay Novus Ordo and thinking it represented 2,000 years of tradition. To believing most of the bishops were good men, that scandal was due just "a few bad apples." To blaming the Church's public relations problems on media bias. To being moved to tears reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As yes, as I watched that man be confirmed as Francis, a part of me wished I could take a blue pill and forget it all. Does not the Proverb say "He who increases in knowledge increases in sorrow" (Prov. 3:13)?

Nevertheless, "Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation", O' Lord (Ps. 52:12); and "rejoice in the Lord always" (Php. 4:4). Even though such thoughts tempt me from time to time, I have also reflected that my spiritual life is much better now than it was then. Back then I was restless, striving, tossed about by the wind. Now I feel much more solid, more at rest, more at peace, more grounded. And it's ironic because it doesn't seem to matter what goes on in the world and the Church; in a paradoxical sense, I found more peace the worse things got. Isn't that how trials work? They compel you to let go of your worldly understanding and cleave to the Lord. To have faith in Him. They purify your attachments, teaching you to trust in God alone. That's the way it works. Who ever said these trials would not come from or through the Church itself? 

Going back to St. Francis, what originally drew me to him all those years who was his radical sense of abandonment. Not just renunciation of worldly goods, but of worldly concerns. I'm sure Francis was well aware of papal corruption. Of clerical worldliness. Of priestly ineptitude. Of Christian hypocrisy. Of the darkness of the world and the power of evil. But he simply didn't focus on that. He focused on the cross of Christ, and therein he found perfect joy. Joy that enabled him to hug the leper on the road, or build San Damiano stone after stone, or talk to a wolf or a bird.

Where is faith lived out? I mean, really? There's only one possible space it can be lived out—right where you are. With the people who are right in front of you. In the circumstances you actually find yourself in. The chance to be a saint is right now. Will there be some sort of future restoration, some glorious triumph of Tradition? Who knows. But what I do know is that "now is the acceptable time of God's favor; today is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). "Today, if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts" (Heb. 3:15). Yes, being a Catholic is hard, especially these days; some people I know have thrown in the towel. Their walk is their own. But for me, the older I get, the further I go, the more the Lord has helped me to focus on the here and now. And this has been a tremendous gift to my inner peace. I would rather be here where I am now than anywhere else.

You, too, friend. Today is your day. Have you hardened your heart? It's not that what's going on in the Church or in Rome don't matter; that stuff does matter—souls are being lost because of it, and I believe a lot of people are going to have a very heavy judgment on the Day of the Lord on account of it. It definitely is a problem, and as a Catholic it is my problem, in a sense. But in another sense, it's not, just as the corruption in Rome was not St. Francis's concern. But the leper in front of him was his concern. The avarice of some cardinal did not perturb him; the sin he discerned in his own heart did. His spiritual focus was ever trained on his own life and actions.

The great paradox, of course, is that by focusing so intensively on his own spiritual life, he did, in fact, end up reforming the Church. That was never his aim. But God did it through Him, because that's how God is. 

Even though it's tempting to want the blue pill, I have realized the Gospel always gives me a way out. I don't have to choose between being naively ignorant or red pilled and cynical. Just like St. Francis, I can choose joy. I can choose the joy that is in front of me every single day, always evident to those who have eyes to see, who, by the grace of God, have made their hearts like children. I can live in the joy of the Resurrection, with the clarity and freshness and radiance of the first breath in Christ's lungs when He first stepped out of the tomb. Ah, what a joyful breath that must have been! 

May that be my joy—the joy of Christ's first breath. The joy that is complete, that no man can taketh. And may it be yours as well.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Attraction of Traditional Christian Architecture



In my professional life I have been spending the last week lecturing on design elements of traditional Christian architecture, specifically looking at churches from around 400-1300. I've guided my students through the identification of the design elements of the late Roman, pre-Romanesque, Romanesque/late Romanesque and Gothic styles. It's always refreshing to devote time to studying the great monuments of the Christian faith and see how the beauty our religion has inspired the hearts of people over the ages.

I approach these lectures very analytically, simply highlighting the different design elements and explaining their liturgical or architectural function. I talk about the benefits of ribbed vaulting and how it was superior to earlier transverse arches. I explain the structure of a Romanesque arcade, or a Gothic fleche, or a late patristic era fenestella, and help the students identify these elements in pictures. In other words, I don't teach the architecture from a propagandistic angle, as if the purpose of the lesson is to demonstrate the aesthetic superiority of traditional Christian architecture over other forms. I just show the architectural elements and discuss them in their own right without reference to anything else.

And yet, it amazes me how merely showing traditional Christian architecture never fails to elicit impassioned responses from students who implicitly draw comparisons between modern architecture and react with indignation. I always get comments like "Why don't they build churches like this anymore?" "Ugh, modern churches are so ugly!" "Who ever thought it was a good idea to get rid of this?" "I hate the way churches look nowadays." I don't need to make any effort to inculcate such sentiments; merely seeing their religious architectural heritage evokes feelings of frustration with modernity. The students have been robbed and they know it.

In a way, the beauty of Christian architecture is a microcosm of Catholic tradition as a whole. How many people embrace tradition upon merely seeing it, immersing themselves in it, and realizing it's innate superiority to the bland, rice-cake religion proffered by contemporary Catholicism? There are many traditional Catholics—myself among them—who only needed to read the prayers of the traditional liturgy and that was enough. As I said long ago, there is an evangelical power to Catholic Tradition (see "The Evangelical Power of the Faith", Dec., 2007).

Beauty is attractive, and that's really all there is to it.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Nimrod: A Mighty Hunter "Before the Lord"


Last week I received an inquiry from a young man of Protestant background who is contemplating the claims of the Catholic Church. He had been listening to the Fr. Mike Schmitz through the Bible, in the course of which he encountered a difficulty understanding the figures of speech used in the Scriptures. This gentleman posed a question about consistent interpretation, using an example from Genesis 10:9-10. He wrote:
Way back in the beginning there was Nimrod, who was "a mighty hunter before God". It is explained [in the podcast] that "before God" is thought to mean "in opposition to God", which is kinda counterintuitive. Maybe five podcasts later, after blessing Abraham, God says to him "go before me". I doubt He is telling Abraham to oppose Him; he's actually telling him to be faithful to God. Why is "before God" in Genesis 10 taken to mean "in opposition to God" while the same concept in Genesis 17 taken to mean "be faithful to God"? One of the problems I have with modern religion is accuracy after multiple translations. Do you see now why I have reservations?

Here we have a classic problem of two similar biblical phrases being taken to mean different things. Such situations can raise questions about the integrity of a translation in particular, or the very plausibility of written divine revelation in general. Let's dig in to this question.

The phrase "before the Lord" in Hebrew is  ḡibbōr-ṣayiḏ lip̄nê Yahweh. This literally means something like "in the face of the Lord", according to my Hebrew concordance. The phrase can mean multiple things, just like in English. For example, a man who wants to say something important to someone he cares about might wait to "say it to their face" as a sign of respect. But the same phrase can denote insult or antagonism, like when a man says "I dare you to say that to my face!" The meaning has to be determined by the context and other cues other than the exact vocabulary. 

Elsewhere in Bible we see the same variation of usage. In Galatians 2:11, St. Paul says "When Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face because he stood condemned", where the idea of acting "in the face of" denotes bold opposition. But elsewhere it can signify familiarity, as when St. Paul says "show to them the proof of your love and of our boasting about you in the face of the churches" (2 Cor. 8:24). Here, "in the face of" means "in the midst of" or "in the sight of" and is used as to communicate intimacy.

This really isn't problem with the accuracy of biblical translation; it's just how language is. Words have lots of meanings that require context to sort out. Heck, the English word "set" has 432 different meanings. The Bible, being written by men and utilizing regular human speech, requires the same sort of contextual approach to understand. The fact that various phrases mean different things in different contexts is what we would expect any time human language is being used normally.

In the verses cited, Nimrod's life "before the Lord" or "in the face of the Lord" is taken to mean he was brazenly bold in his opposition to God. The context is derived not from the text directly, but from a longstanding Jewish interpretive tradition, going back to the Midrash, Philo, Pseudo-Philo, the Book of Jubilees, Josephus, etc. who all assert Nimrod was a villain. It's not necessarily discernible from the text, but it is a reasonable interpretation of the it. The pre-Christian tradition is unanimous that Nimrod is a villain, and thus we read the phrase ḡibbōr-ṣayiḏ lip̄nê Yahweh to mean "in affront to the Lord" or "in opposition to the Lord." The Vulgate, too, followed this tradition, calling Nimrod robustus, that is, stout, bold, or haughty. The fact this young man finds such an interpretation "counterintuitive" in its English rendering is neither here nor there. Rather, it's an example of why you need tradition to help you interpret Scripture.

Context is also key in Genesis 17, the passage the interlocutor referenced about Abraham walking before the Lord. Abraham is unanimously portrayed as a faithful man and hero of faith in both Testaments and in Jewish and Christian tradition. Therefore the the phrase "before the Lord" with reference to Abraham gets a more benign reading, which makes perfect sense. The context, either textually or in terms of extra-textual of tradition, helps  establish the meaning.

Incidentally, the Vulgate preserves this contextual approach perfectly. It translates "before the Lord" as in coram Domino, which means "in the presence of the Lord." In coram is a neat little phrase that means "in the presence of", "in the midst of", or "before", as in the sense of "to stand before." As with the English phrase "in the face of" and the Hebrew ḡibbōr-ṣayiḏ lip̄nê, in coram can denote intimacy as well as opposition. In ancient Rome, a man marrying a woman in the presence of the family is said to be marrying her cum manu in coram gente, whereas a man found guilty of a crime before an assembly was said to be condemned in coram populo. In the former case in coram denoted intimacy and fidelity, whereas in the latter it signified opposition and antagonism.

Ultimately, there's really no reason to have reservations about the meaning of these texts anymore than there would be to have reservations about the way any regular human being uses language. I have previously recommended The Book of Non-Contradiction: Harmonizing the Scriptures as a handy guide to sorting out a lot of these textual questions. Anyone interesting in learning more about reconciling biblical passages with each other should check it out.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Book Preview: Church Controversies under the Normans and Angevins

Grace and peace to you all, friends. For awhile I have been working on the manuscript of a book that will be on the subject of sacral kingship in the Middle Ages—the idea that the king, by virtue of his coronation, has a kind of sacred or theocratic authority, held directly from God, which enables him to exercise a trusteeship over the Church within his realm. I am super close to finishing the text and am quite excited with how it's turning out. 

I wanted to preview a section of one of the chapters here that I am very happy with. This chapter is on the ideology of the Investiture Controversy, but this sub-section deals with the theocratic pretensions of the Norman and Angevin kings specifically and their attempts to consolidate their power through turning the Church into an apparatus of the state. 

Also, I do have the text thoroughly footnoted in the manuscript, but the formatting did not transfer well into blogger so I omitted them here. But you'll have to take my word on it that I did my research : )


The Normans & Angevins


The Investiture Controversy was not limited to Germany and Italy. Ideals of sacral kingship were particularly strong amongst the Norman lords, who worked tirelessly to centralize Church and State under their command within their realms. While constraints of space do not permit an entire chapter devoted to the lords of Normandy, we will touch on some of the more important episodes of the 11th and 12th centuries germane to our discussion.

Consider the case of Roger of Sicily. Roger and his brother had conquered Sicily from the Muslims in a long war of attrition throughout between 1063 and 1091. In 1071 he was created Duke of Sicily, effectively creating his own insular kingdom on the island. Duke Roger’s power was absolute in matters of religion and politics. He personally established multiple dioceses and selected their bishops personally. He presided in liturgical matters, imposing the Latin rite in areas traditionally given over to the Greeks. Since the Normans of Italy were a counterweight to the Germans, the papacy tolerated Roger’s theocracy to keep him as an ally against Emperor Henry IV. Pope Urban II even made him Apostolic Legate in Sicily.

Roger’s son, Roger II was the first King of Sicily (1130-1154) and created the south Italian domain known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies that would endure until the 19th century. Imitating Charlemagne, he was crowned on Christmas Day, 1130, in the Cathedral of Palermo. History does not record who performed the royal coronation, but a mosaic in Palermo’s St. Nicolò dei Greci alla Martorana reveals how Roger wanted the event to be perceived. The famous coronation mosaic of the Martorana depicts King Roger in the garb of a Byzantine monarch. Bowing his head, his arms opened in the priestly orans posture, Roger receives his crown not from any bishop but from Jesus Christ Himself. Christ, hovering off the ground to highlight His divinity, gazes at Roger, while above the king’s head and paralleling the nimbus of Christ are the words Rogerius Rex in Greek letters. The particular bishop who crowned him is irrelevant; the royal authority comes from Jesus Chris, whose hand in the mosaic is still resting upon the crown. The royal crown forms a direct link from the person of Roger to the person of Christ, the royal office being that which invests Roger with the divine auctoritas of Christ. Such were the pretensions of the lords of Normandy.

By the time of Roger, England, too, had been overrun by the Normans. The first generation of Norman lords under King William the Conqueror (1066-1087) systematically replaced England’s Anglo-Saxon episcopacy with one from Norman stock in perhaps the biggest single exercise of lay investiture in the history of Christendom. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century many English bishops had begun adopting the tenets of the Gregorian reform, bringing them into conflict with the centralizing tendencies of the Norman kings. England had its own controversy over investiture from 1102 to 1107 and centered on the opposition of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, to the policies of King William II Rufus (r. 1087-1100) and Henry I (r. 1100-1135). Both kings categorically refused to accept the principles laid out in Dictatus Papae. The former was guilty of pilfering Church properties while the latter insisted on Anselm receiving investiture at his hands. Anselm refused to be invested by a lay person, to the fury of King William Rufus. In the end, Rufus had Anselm dragged to his beside and forcibly shoved the episcopal crozier into his hand—and apt symbol of the Norman ideal!

There were other issues at stake as well, relating to William Rufus’ refusal to allow the Church to enforce certain precepts of canon law within his realm—most notably, Rufus refused to allow the English bishops to meet in independent council, asserting that issuing summons to gather in synod was prerogative of the crown. Anselm endured several exiles and journeyed to Rome in hopes of finding a compromise. A settlement was reached in 1107 in which the king gave up investiture, though the bishops were still permitted to do homage for their temporal possessions. This formula would be influential in shaping the Concordat of Worms fifteen years later.

The English Angevin dynasty (1154-1216) continued to assert the king’s supremacy over matters of the Church as a matter of divine right. The famous conflict between Archbishop Thomas à Becket and King Henry II had begun over King Henry’s claims to have juridical authority over clergy in criminal cases. The resistance of Becket led Henry to push for a general affirmation of the traditional royal prerogatives of the king over the Church in a document known as the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164). The Constitutions were a sweeping assertion of royal dominance. They maintained the king’s sole right to fill episcopal vacancies, denied the sole jurisdiction of the Church over clergy accused of crimes, forbid clergy from leaving the kingdom without royal permission, forbid the Church from inflicting canonical punishments unilaterally on any of the king’s vassals, forbid appeals to the pope without the king’s permission, transferred the standing of all disputes between laymen and clerks to the royal courts, required all bishops holding benefices from the king to attend on him in court, assigned all ecclesiastical revenues from a vacant bishopric or abbacy to the king during the time of its vacancy, mandated oaths of fealty to the king before a bishop-elect could enter into his office, and forbid the ordaining of commoners without the permission of their lord.

Becket alone refused to sign the Constitutions and went into exile. From exile in France, he proposed use of excommunication and interdict against Henry, but Pope Alexander III preferred a more diplomatic approach. The papacy negotiated a settlement with Henry to allow Becket to return in 1170, but Becket was soon at odds with King Henry again over the coronation of Henry’s son without him, a breach of Canterbury’s traditional privilege of coronation. Another round of excommunications followed, which in turn led Henry to mutter his famous words while he celebrated Christmas in the presence of his knights: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Becket was subsequently assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th, 1170 by four of Henry’s knights. Henry would do penance for the killing at Becket’s tomb, and the Church received a martyr in its struggle for liberty from lay interference.

By the reigns of Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) and John (1199-1216), the medieval papacy was reaching the apex of its power, leaving sacral monarchy in retreat everywhere. Nevertheless, both Richard and John continued to assert the traditional rights of kings, by the power of God, to control the Church in their realms. Richard’s clerks adopted the phrase plenitudo potestatis (“fullness of power”) in describing the power within his realms, and this in direct imitation of the canonist popes of the 12th century who used the same phrase to denote the authority of the pope within the Church. Richard’s justices also declared in 1194 that the excommunication of a prominent royal servant was contra regale dignitatem et excellenciam, that is, against the dignity and eminence of the crown, and Richard complained that the excommunication was issued “to the prejudice of our dignity and to the liberty of our kingdom.” The Lionheart viewed the Church’s unilateral exercise of canonical penalties as a direct affront to the dignity of the royal power.

In fact, almost all conflicts with clerics during the Angevin period make reference to royal dignitas. The late 12th and early 13th centuries saw the ascendancy of systematized canon law—a movement which threatened to replace the king as the governor of ecclesiastical affairs. The Angevins consistently pushed back against the encroachment of canon law, arguing that canonical infringements on royal prerogatives were contra dignitatem nostrum (“against our dignity”). King John’s barons argued that the pope’s attempt to settle the disputed Canterbury election of 1209 would fail to respect his dignity; similarly, John’s letters to clerics complain of “any diminution of the right and dignity which our ancestors had”; or they defend royal interference in the Church “according to right and our dignity and old and approved custom” or “our dignities which our predecessors had.”

These references to “old and approved custom” or “dignities which our predecessors had” often contained appeals to old theocratic concepts from the Anglo-Saxon era. For example, in the disputed Canterbury election of 1205, John tried to force his candidate, John de Gray, against the consent of both the cathedral chapter and Pope Innocent III. The contest dragged out for years, during which John complained about the diminution of his prerogatives. He argued that “all my predecessors conferred archbishoprics, bishoprics, and abbeys in their chamber”, citing Edward the Confessor’s appointment of St. Wulfstan—who had recently been canonized—as bishop of Worcester. This very St. Wulfstan was the subject of a colorful legend, also alluded to by King John: William the Conqueror tried to remove Wulfstan from his bishopric. Wulfstan responded by thrusting his crozier immovably into the stone over the tomb of Edward the Confessor, where it remained miraculously fixed, and saying he would only surrender it to the king who had appointed him. This tale, according to John, affirmed the right of the king to appoint bishops and ratified this authority by divine intervention.

In 1212 John drafted a letter again protesting the Church’s attempts to rob him of his right to appoint bishops, again appealing to Anglo-Saxon tradition:

[I]t is notorious that in ancient times before the coming of the Normans, the kings of England, even those now canonized, granted cathedral churches to archbishops and bishops entirely at their pleasure. Since the conquest, elections have been subject to the king’s assent and hitherto have been carried out strictly in this form.

Though the Angevins drew appealed to older theocratic models to justify their attempts to hold onto royal control over the Church, King John was unable to prevail in his dispute with Innocent III. Stephen Langton was eventually installed as Archbishop of Canterbury over John’s protests (1207). John refused to accept Langton, and his obstinacy earned him an excommunication in 1209. John feigned indifference, until war with France seemed to be looming and he needed the pope’s support. Innocent III agreed to lift the excommunication in exchange for John offering England as a fief to the pope. John did homage to Innocent III in 1213, handing over England as a papal fief. Two years later he was humiliated before his nobles at Runnymede, who forced him to sign the Magna Carta. A year after he was dead, and with him died theocratic kingship in England—at least for a few centuries.

_________________________________

If you think you might like this book and would be interested in purchasing a copy, please email me at uscatholicam@gmail.com and I will make a note of it and email you when it is complete. I am anticipating the book to be ready for sale by April. Probably going to be close to 200 pages, hardcover. Pax.

 

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Leniency and Severity

Have you ever reflected on how your judgment of whether you are harsh or lenient with a particular sin is colored by your own experience?

We tend to assume that everyone starts on a level playing field—that when it comes to virtue and vice, we are all a blank slate. Perhaps this is true in the sense that nobody is born having committed any actual sin, nor with any particular virtue. But we must not forget that we all have certain natural dispositions inherent in our personality. These dispositions not only make us more or less susceptible to certain kinds of vices and virtues, but affect our culpability or merit respectively.

For example, a certain person by nature has an extremely gregarious personality: extroverted, talkative, sociable. Because of his gregarious nature, he is susceptible to the sin of gossip and falls easily into it. But another man by nature is reserved and solemn, not given to much talk in general let alone the sin of gossip in particular. The former can scarcely go a few days without gossiping, while the latter has probably never committed the sin in his life.

Now, the silent, reserved man might look at the chatterbox and feel irritated and judgmental about the latter's proclivity to gossip. From his perspective, it is not a difficult thing to refrain from gossip and he is annoyed that the other cannot exercise the restraint that he himself exhibits. He has no problems refraining from gossip, why can't the other?

What this man does not realize is that it is not his great virtue that restrains him from gossiping—he merely has a personality that is not disposed to it. Because he is not disposed to it, there is no struggle for him in refraining from it. Because he experiences no struggle, he can't understand that other people do. Because he can't understand this, he can't empathize. Because he can't empathize, he judges the other for his sin. And his assessment of his own virtue is distorted.

But what of his own sin? He may not be disposed to gossip, but he is certainly disposed to other sins. Perhaps because he is withdrawn he is often lonely, and turns to pornography now and then in vain hopes of consoling his loneliness. This is a struggle for him. He is deeply embarrassed by it. He understands the temptation and the difficulty surrounding this sin. Because it's hard, he wants empathy—and he easily gives empathy to others struggling with pornography as well. He is much less likely to judge himself or others for this sin. He is much more likely to feel like, "Nobody's perfect. I know I've got my faults, but I'm trying." He is more lenient.

In general, we are most critical of those sins we are not naturally disposed to commit anyway, while we are most lenient towards those sins we ourselves struggle with. Our own experience tends to be the lens through which we apportion severity or leniency to a particular sin. We think we are being fair, we think we are being level-headed, but really we are just justifying ourselves.

Of course, certain sins are objectively worse than others. Murder is worse than cheating on an exam, and I would argue pornography is worse than gossiping. But how much virtue we exercise in overcoming a particular sin is very relative to our own strengths and weaknesses. A man who struggles with a porn habit and, through prayer and much effort, manages to go three weeks without relapse may have exercised more virtue in this regard than a man who is not easily disposed to temptations of the flesh and has never looked at porn in his life. The man who, through grace-filled effort, manages to restrain himself from gossiping throughout Lent has exercised more fortitude than the man who isn't disposed to gossip to begin with. 

This is because virtue is not merely doing the right thing—it is doing the right thing habitually, because you have disciplined yourself to do so. A person who who has learned to be unperturbed through discipline has acquired the virtue of patience. A person who is naturally chill and unperturbed by things has considerably less patience, considered as a virtue.

Through the gift of wisdom, may we see with God's eyes and truly focus on removing the plank from our own eye.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Book Review: Reclaiming our Roman Catholic Birthright by Peter Kwasniewski

In the 13th century, the Scholastic theologian St. Albert the Great was held in such renown that he was known as "the teacher of everything there is to know." One could say the same about Peter Kwasniewski's book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020), a book that truly teaches you everything there is to know about why Catholics should prefer the Traditional Latin Mass. 

The book is replete with useful information about the Traditional Roman Rite: prayers, liturgical structure, calendar, and even tips about introducing young children to the Mass of Ages. But the real strength of the work is not so much the information it provides—though there is a generous amount of it—but more so in the tone or "voice" Dr. Kwasniewski chose to address the reader. This book presents a forceful, cogent argument for the Traditional Latin Mass, yet without relying on the Novus Ordo as a punching bag to establish the point. The book is not about how the Novus Ordo is so badrather, it is a fulsome apologetic for the goodness, truth, and beauty found in the Traditional Latin Mass. In that sense its a very positive book, demonstrated by the beautiful prose Dr. Kwasniewski ascends into whenever he starts explaining the richness of the ancient liturgy. You can tell he is writing from a place of deep love and experience. This is the book you want to give your Novus Ordo friends who are sympathetic to tradition but aren't sure about taking the plunge into the Traditional Latin Mass. It will work wonders to clear up the fog. 

At 388 pages, it takes a bit of time to work through, but it's very much worth it. The brush strokes here are broad, yet targeted. The breadth of subjects covered is impressive in its universality, but it still finds time to dig down into specific concerns. Dr. Kwasniewski patiently addresses almost every objection to the usus antiquior with strength and clarity. Perhaps the line of thought here is so convincing because, as Dr. K himself explains, he has walked the long path from charismatic Catholic to "New Springtime" to Reform of the Reform to traditionalist. You can hear echoes of the author's own arduous developmental history as he patiently works through all the various facets of the subject, including very difficult personal issues people struggle with when contemplating going over exclusively to the TLM. 

I also enjoyed this book because it avoids what I would call the overly canonical/legalistic arguments many Trads tend to wallow around in. With this book you're not going to get egg-headed bloviating about 
Quo Primum, theological parsing of the phrase pro multis, dense elucidations on the authority of the Second Vatican Council, or any of the other standard fare of the Trad diet. Dr. Kwasniewski isn't here interested in talking about Masonic conspiracies or Vatican politics. Instead,  you find a common sense appeal to the superior quality of worship the Traditional Mass offers, what I would call a more hortatory approach—"Come to the Traditional Latin Mass because its simply better worship. Here's why." Not that problems with the Novus Ordo are downplayed or more weighty canonical issues ignored; rather, it's more that Dr. Kwasniewski continually focuses our attention on what is most important. The result is a book that not only educates but edifies.

I took a lot of time reading this book and pondering it. It's the sort of work you want to stew on and digest slowly. But that's appropriate; Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright definitely merits a slow and attentive reading. In my 13 years of blogging about traditional Catholicism, I don't think I could have done as good a job as this book does in making its case for the Traditional Latin Mass. If you are attending the Novus Ordo and contemplating switching exclusively to the TLM, this book is for you. If you have a friend who is curious about Traditional Catholicism and you want to give them a very positive, affirming introduction, this is the book you want. If you are a life-long trad and need to be reminded why you choose the Traditional Latin Mass, again, this is your book. This is going to be my go-to resource from now on that I will always be recommending to the liturgically curious. And the glossary in the back is great for people who aren't familiar with traditional liturgical nomenclature, as well as the plethora of links and references to other resources for those who want to do a deeper dive.

I highly recommend Peter Kwasniewski's Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright as a sure guide for those wanting to understand why the Traditional Latin Mass is the future of the Church. If you already have the book, I recommend leaving a positive review on Amazon. If you'd like to get it—and support my blog as wellyou can buy Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright here through my blog affiliate link. And, if you know Peter Kwasniewksi or follow him on Facebook, drop him a note thanking him for this valuable work.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Fasting from the Eucharist


Last year, I did a post called "Private Communion". The context of the article was about having to make an appointment with my local priest in order to receive Holy Communion during the suspension of public Masses. It was the first time I was able to receive Communion for weeks and took a bit of effort to arrange. The article is brief; I recommend reading it as context for this post.

Towards the end of that post, I made the following comment:
"It was certainly more of a challenge to orchestrate, but this communion meant a lot more. I was more prepared. My children were more prepared. The extra work made it more meaningful. And I started thinking there really is something to the argument that less communions can be more beneficial. Of course I've always known that it was superior to receive fewer communions better prepared than more communions less prepared, but until this present darkness I had no experiential knowledge of the fact. When this is all over, I think I may voluntarily receive Holy Communion less and spend more time in preparation. Maybe once a month or something."
Several of you took issue with this. One commenter said:
"Dear Boniface, Jesus established His Church for two reasons: Salvation, Sanctification. We are sanctified primarily through the reception of Holy Communion and so you may want to rethink your plan in the future to receive less often."
Another left a fuller critique:
"As noble as your intentions for less frequent Communion in order to make it more fervent may be, I would not recommend it. Saints have again and again stressed the necessity of frequent, even daily, Communion, both from the practical standpoint that man is in great need of the divine Food for his spiritual sustenance as also from the relational standpoint that Our Lord desires this union with us far more than we could ever desire it ourselves...The desire to be more prepared and more worthy is the right one. Communicating less frequently is definitely not. Grace builds upon nature, and strengthens and fortifies it. Nature alone is weak, and so long without Holy Communion it is bound to suffer both in the loss of virtue (that is good habit) and the development of vice. Build good habits; and the habit of frequent Communion (and confession!) is the best habit of all."

And, and even more in-depth disagreement, which called my line of thinking dangerous, emotional, and perverse:

Sacraments work ex opera operato. You might have *felt* like you got more graces this way. Your experience was different. But the Church doesn't gauge the graces received from sacraments based on the feelings it induces. Have you asked a priest or confessor whether your conclusion about infrequent Holy Communion is correct? The reason why this line of thought is dangerous is because there's a fallacy along the line somewhere. It's like saying this:

"My wife and I had to endure a separation because of a war. I was frequently out of country, serving my country. I came only one three times in ten years. My visits with her were more emotionally intense than any experience before, when we lived together. When the war is over, I think we're going to live in separate houses and get together only every few years."

It's one thing if separation with a just cause leads one to appreciate one's interaction with one's spouse more. It's entirely different to artificially reduce contact in order to "prepare" more.

The case with the Sacrament is similar. The Church encourages frequent reception. There's a cumulative effect here. Who's to say that frequent reception of the Sacraments doesn't have a net better effect, even if you don't do as intense a preparation for each reception?

It just seems that you're seeing this all through your subjective experience. It felt more special, so you're proposing "social distancing" from Our Lord in the Sacrament in order to make your less frequent Holy Communions seem more special to you. It's perverse.

I do thank you all for seeking the good of my soul and warning me against the error of my ways. However, I do think you were misguided in your comments. I hope to show by this post that there is nothing amiss about voluntarily depriving oneself of Holy Communion for a time in order to better prepare oneself for reception later. And that what I said has nothing to do with "feeling" better about Holy Communion (contra my interlocutor) and is certainly not perverse.

This winter I have been working through the excellent book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius & Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020) by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. I was reading a section where Dr. Kwasniewski is discussing how our desire for the Eucharist is intensified by other extra-liturgical forms of prayer. After mentioning suggestions for daily prayer at home, he makes a suggestion of a "Eucharistic fast", voluntarily abstaining from Holy Communion in order to make a more fervent communion later:
"...in an era like ours, which is too prone to take Communion for granted and thus reduce it to a routine that lacks a deep hunger and thirst for God, we can benefit ourselves and make reparation for others by sometimes not going to Communion and by making an act of desire instead—a spiritual communion. It is a supernatural spin on "absence makes the heart grow fonder." (Peter Kwasniewski, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright, Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020, pg. 285).
I was very happy to see this, because it gets to the heart of what I was grasping at in my original article: our tradition definitely sees a place for refraining from Communion for reasons other than mortal sin. 

The Eucharist gives us grace objectively, of course, but part of how it sanctifies us is our own preparedness. In the original article, my point was not about "feeling better" about receiving Communion, but about being better prepared, which in turn leads to a more grace-filled reception. That grace may or may not be sensibly perceptible. If it is not, I can still have faith that I was excellently disposed and rest in that. If it is sensibly perceptible, why should I be castigated for enjoying the fact?

In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas addresses asks "Whether it is lawful to receive the sacrament daily?" His answer acknowledges that the sacrament works ex opera operato, as the commenter above explained, but balances that against the grace given ex opera operantis (by the disposition of the communicant). His response is worth quoting at length:

There are two things to be considered regarding the use of this sacrament. The first is on the part of the sacrament itself, the virtue [power] of which gives health to men; and consequently, it is profitable to receive it daily so as to receive its fruits daily. Hence Ambrose says: “If, whenever Christ’s blood is shed, it is shed for the forgiveness of sins, I, who sin often, should receive it often: I need a frequent remedy.”

The second thing to be considered is on the part of the recipient, who is required to approach this sacrament with great reverence and devotion. Consequently, if anyone finds that he has these dispositions every day, he will do well to receive it daily. Hence, Augustine after saying, “Receive daily, that it may profit thee daily,” adds: “So live, as to deserve to receive it daily.”

But because many persons are lacking in this devotion, on account of the many drawbacks both spiritual and corporal from which they suffer, it is not expedient for all to approach this sacrament every day; but they should do so as often as they find themselves properly disposed. Hence it is said in De Eccles. Dogmat. 53: “I neither praise nor blame daily reception of the Eucharist.” (St. Thomas, STh, III, Q. 80 Art 10)


Commenting on this passage in an article in Crisis Magazine entitled "The Blessings—and Dangers—of Holy Communion", Dr. Kwasniewski again addresses the subject and the teaching of St. Thomas:

Thomas lays out the various aspects that we should consider and avoids a facile solution that comes down exclusively on one side or the other. He is clear that receiving Communion is vital for our spiritual life, but so is our preparation and readiness.
St. Thomas explains this in his reply to the third objection:
Reverence for this sacrament consists in fear associated with love; consequently, reverential fear of God is called filial fear, as was said above, because the desire of receiving arises from love, while the humility of reverence springs from fear. Consequently, each of these [love and fear] belongs to the reverence due to this sacrament, both as to receiving it daily, and as to refraining from it sometimes.

Hence Augustine says (Ep. 54): “If one says that the Eucharist should not be received daily, while another maintains the contrary, let each one do as according to his devotion he thinketh right; for Zaccheus and the Centurion did not contradict one another when the one received the Lord with joy, whereas the other said: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof’; since both honored our Saviour, though not in the same way.” But love and hope, whereunto the Scriptures constantly urge us, are preferable to fear. Hence, too, when Peter had said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” Jesus answered: “Fear not.”

The saints encourage frequent reception of Holy Communion, but their idea of "frequent" was different than our own, and what constituted a frequent communion varied over the centuries. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton encouraged her sisters to receive frequent communions, but in her day a sister might be allowed to receive communion only every week, despite daily mass; for a lay person, this might be months. In her biography, you can read about how before she could receive communion, St. Elizabeth had to meet with her confessor and not only profess that she was free from mortal sin, but also that she had taken adequate steps to properly dispose her soul for the sacrament, talk about how she had been preparing for communion, and explain what graces she hoped to receive thereby. Then the confessor would give her permission to receive Holy Communion. She had to do this even as a lay person.

Similarly, in the Crisis Magazine article linked above, Dr. Kwasniewksi references Mother Mechtilde of the Blessed Sacrament (1614-1698) who encouraged her sisters to receive Holy Communion "frequently." But, as he also points out, in those days it was not common for even nuns to receive the Eucharist regularly. "Frequent communion" in 1698 may have meant a few times a month, with very intense periods of preparation.

The point is this: when the Church encourages frequent communion, it means "Receive communion as  frequently as you are rightly disposed." Let us turn to the pope of Holy Communion, St. Pius X, who in his 1905 Decree on Frequent and Daily Communion, Sacra Tridentina, said that the "Holy Table" (yes, even the great Pius X refers to the altar as a "table" occasionally) said that part of being properly disposed was to ensure that we are not approaching the sacrament from routine:
A right intention consists in this: that he who approaches the Holy Table should do so, not out of routine, or vain glory, or human respect, but that he wish to please God, to be more closely united with Him by charity, and to have recourse to this divine remedy for his weakness and defects.
One would assume, then, that whatever period of preparation was sufficient for a person to avoid routine would be laudable? After all, grace received ex opere operantis is important. Following St. Thomas, St. Pius X also stresses this point:

Since, however, the Sacraments of the New Law, though they produce their effect ex opere operato, nevertheless, produce a great effect in proportion as the dispositions of the recipient are better, therefore, one should take care that Holy Communion be preceded by careful preparation, and followed by an appropriate thanksgiving, according to each one's strength, circumstances and duties. That the practice of frequent and daily Communion may be carried out with greater prudence and more fruitful merit, the confessor's advice should be asked.
How many of you ask your confessor's advice before receiving daily Communion?

If my "careful preparation" takes three weeks, who is anyone to say otherwise? As Augustine said on the matter, "l
et each one do as according to his devotion he thinketh right," for the Church does not ask that I receive Holy Communion as much as possible, but that I receive it as much as I am rightly disposed and prepared to do so. And that is a matter for my own careful discernment. If I, being educated and discerning of what our faith teaches, and not afflicted by scruples, believe that it might take me longer than one week to dispose myself rightly for Holy Communion, that's perfectly fine and very much within what our tradition envisions.

If anything, Communion that is
too routine, too commonplace, too regular is more the danger today. And it is modernists like Cardinal Reinhard Marx who are prone to argue for MOAR COMMUNIONS for every class of people: “When someone is hungry and has faith, they must have access to the Eucharist. That must be our passion, and I will not let up on this" (First Things, "What Happens in Germany," May 2018)

One last pertinent quote is passage from none other than Joseph Ratzinger, affirming the concept of periodic "spiritual fasting" from the Eucharist as a means of enkindling greater love in our hearts for our Eucharistic Lord:

“Do we not often take the reception of the Blessed Sacrament too lightly? Might not this kind of spiritual fasting be of service, or even necessary, to deepen and renew our relationship to the Body of Christ? The ancient Church had a highly expressive practice of this kind. Since apostolic times, no doubt, the fast from the Eucharist on Good Friday was a part of the Church’s spirituality of communion. This renunciation of communion on one of the most sacred days of the Church’s year was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Lord’s Passion; it was the Bride’s mourning for the lost Bridegroom (cf. Mk 2:20). Today too, I think, fasting from the Eucharist, really taken seriously and entered into, could be most meaningful on carefully considered occasions, such as days of penance—and why not reintroduce the practice on Good Friday? It would be particularly appropriate at Masses where there is a vast congregation, making it impossible to provide for a dignified distribution of the sacrament; in such cases the renunciation of the sacrament could in fact express more reverence and love than a reception which does not do justice to the immense significance of what is taking place. A fasting of this kind—and of course it would have to be open to the Church’s guidance and not arbitrary—could lead to a deepening of personal relationship with the Lord in the sacrament. It could also be an act of solidarity with all those who yearn for the sacrament but cannot receive it. It seems to me as well that the problem of the divorced and remarried, as well as that of intercommunion (e.g., in mixed marriages), would be far less acute against the background of voluntary spiritual fasting, which would visibly express the fact that we all need that ‘healing of love’ which the Lord performed in the ultimate loneliness of the Cross. Naturally, I am not suggesting a return to a kind of Jansenism: fasting presupposes normal eating, both in spiritual and biological life. But from time to time we do need a medicine to stop us from falling into mere routine which lacks all spiritual dimension. Sometimes we need hunger, physical and spiritual hunger, if we are to come fresh to the Lord’s gifts and understand the suffering of our hungering brothers. Both spiritual and physical hunger can be a vehicle of love.” ( Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 97-98.
I want to make one final point about the analogy the interlocutor made about marriage. To review, he said:
The reason why this line of thought is dangerous is because there's a fallacy along the line somewhere. It's like saying this: "My wife and I had to endure a separation because of a war. I was frequently out of country, serving my country. I came only one three times in ten years. My visits with her were more emotionally intense than any experience before, when we lived together. When the war is over, I think we're going to live in separate houses and get together only every few years." It's one thing if separation with a just cause leads one to appreciate one's interaction with one's spouse more. It's entirely different to artificially reduce contact in order to "prepare" more.

This analogy is flawed for this reason:

The structure of the analogy presupposes that Holy Communion is the only way I can encounter Jesus or receive grace from Him. If receiving Communion is likened to living with a wife, then not receiving Holy Communion is akin to physically abandoning ones wife. But I do not cut myself off from Jesus when I do not go to Holy Communion; Holy Communion is not my one and only means of encountering Jesus, nor my only access to grace. To be sure it is an exceptional means and our most intimate contact with our Lord, but it is in no sense our only encounter with Jesus. Abstaining from Holy Communion is not the same as abstaining from seeing my wife. Christ is with me always, His spirit is every around me and within me, His grace always accessible by many other means. And even within the context of the liturgy, the very idea of a spiritual communion is premised on the truth that we can have real access to the grace of Christ outside of the Eucharist, even sacramental grace itself.

What we have, then, is not about having access to God or not, but more about taking time preparing for a profoundly intimate encounter with God's love through other acts of love. Therefore a more appropriate marital analogy might be temporary abstention from sexual intercourse. A man and a woman may voluntarily abstain from intercourse, during which time they focus on showing each other love through different means. The husband has not cut himself off from the wife by any means—he is present to her continually, but he is showing her love by other ways than just intercourse. And indeed, this temporary abstention from intercourse will most likely make the sexual act more appreciated when it finally is time to be intimate in that way. I'm sure many Catholic married couples recognize this pattern.

Is not the same principle applicable here that St. Paul teaches regarding sexual intercourse among the married: 
"Deprive not one another, except, perhaps, by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer; and return together again, lest Satan tempt you..." (1 Cor. 7:5). If one devotes himself to prayer, there is no reason one cannot voluntarily deprive himself of communion "for a time", just as St. Paul teaches of marital relations, which are ultimately a mystery of Christ and the Church.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Best Posts of 2020



We have finally made it to the end of 2020. So much has happened this year, it seems difficult to process that only twelve months have gone by. Do you remember the big news around December 31, 2019? I will remind you—we were arguing about whether Pope Francis slapped a Chinese woman or not. Crazy how much the ground has shifted since then in so many ways. Twelve months later we are at a place where the faithful are fighting just to attend Mass in many places and basic liberties are under attack throughout the world in a way few of us imagined.

The year was formative for me in many ways as well. Though it was challenging socially, it was not bad for me professionally; in fact 2020 was probably my most professionally successful year ever. I also seem to have had several breakthroughs in my spiritual life that have shifted me into a richer and more rewarding Christian life. I hope you all also had some unexpected blessings in 2020. For me, I will always remember it as a challenging year, but a formative year that was good for me personally.

I was unable to blog as much as I would have liked this year, and honestly sometimes there was so much going on that by the time I had something to say I questioned whether it was still relevant. Even so, there were a few articles this year that were among my personal favorites:

Some Hard Talk about the Knights of Columbus: One of my most popular posts of the year, addressing the elephant in the room about the Knights of Columbus declining membership—young men are bored by an organization whose obligations are tedious and unfulfilling.

Our New Civic Religion: The ideology of Black Lives Matter has assumed the form of a new civic religion. 

It's not "Crucifying Your Neighbor" to Attend Mass: Responding to an essay by one of our favorite interlocutors who was arguing that it is "crucifying your neighbor" to attend Mass during the pandemic.

"Utilitarianism": The Latest Word Being Used Incorrectly: Responding to objections that anti-lockdown Catholics are taking a "utilitarian" approach to human life in the pandemic.

Some Coronavirus Catch-Up: Though probably dated now, this article from the first weeks of the lockdowns was my first attempt to respond to some of the stupidity that only became more endemic as 2020 wore on.

Balancing Truth and Humility: My most recent article, encouraging us all to balance our zeal for the truth with authentic Christian humility.

On the Ridiculous Extension of the Term "Pro-Life": Liberal Catholics have a tendency to continuously expand the definition of "Pro-Life" until it becomes equated entirely with political progressivism.

On Wokeness and Reasons People Leave the Church:
This was by far my most popular article of the year, in terms of views. Examining the reasons a well-known Catholic family gave for leaving the Church and how they were related to the phenomenon of "Wokeness."

The Problem of the "Reverent Novus Ordo": The fact that the Novus Ordo can be celebrated reverently is not an argument in its favor; in fact, it exemplifies its greatest weakness.

I look forward to another year of blogging. A special blessing to those of my friends who have stuck with me this long. What news of your own lives?





Saturday, December 26, 2020

Balancing Truth and Humility


"The truth shall set you free", our Lord promises in the Gospel (John 8:32). To stand in the truth gives one's life stability, direction, and purpose. It gives balance to our spiritual lives and prevents us from "from being tossed to and for by every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14). The desire for truth is inherent in human nature, as Aristotle observed, "all men by nature desire to know." This is a consequent of our rational nature imparted to us by God.

The subjective possession of that truth, however, can work strangely in us. Universal human experience reveals that often there are no more intransigent people than those convinced that they are right. Whether they actually are right matters little—the subjective belief that one is right is enough. Arguing with a person who is utterly certain of their rectitude can be endlessly frustrating. Such experiences demonstrate that, though truth can set us free, it can also make one arrogant. The universality of this experience should be sufficient to point to some connection between certitude and arrogance.

I would never claim that certainty makes one arrogant; that the connection exists does not mean it is necessary. There are a great many of us who live the truth faithfully while cultivating a genuine spirit of humility. Some of you, readers of this blog, whom I have been blessed to know in real life And the saints furnish innumerable examples as well. St. Bernard and St. Francis, despite their profound spiritual insights, were exceptionally humble men. St. Catherine of Siena remonstrated with popes but was docile and meek. If anyone had a right to be arrogant about his knowledge it was Moses, of whom Scripture says "the LORD would speak to Moses personally, as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex. 33:11); and yet Scripture also says "Moses was a man exceedingly meek above all men that dwelt upon earth" (Num. 12:3). Moses' unique knowledge of God did not make him arrogant; rather, it made him humble. 

Clearly a firm grasp of the truth need not necessarily make one prideful or intransigent. But it is a common enough pitfall nonetheless. I know this truth painfully, as I myself have frequently fallen into it in my life. There is a certain perverse sort of pride that can come with knowing you are right, especially in matters of faith where one is professing the very truth revealed by God Himself. A kind of ego contra mundum attitude can spring up, swelling ever greater to the degree one is opposed or contradicted. It's easy to feel like we are a noble martyr for the truth when in reality our defense is much more about being right. 

And obviously it's not an either-or proposition: sometimes we really are defending God's truth but doing so from selfish motives or with off-putting behavior. It can be hard to tease out the dividing line when we reflect on it. 

The question then, brethren, is how can we maintain a faith with such certainty that we are willing to be slain for it whilst simultaneously avoiding the vice of pride that is always liable to ensnare us? How can we be strong of faith but not obnoxiously strong-willed, arrogant, or just annoying when it comes to discussing it? How can we make sure we have removed the plank from our own eye before removing the speck from our brother's?

The only real answer is a continuous examination of our motives and focus on our own spiritual life and disposition, which is really the obligation of all Christians. However, I have found the following specific methods helpful over the years in cultivating humility about the treasure we possess:

(1) Resist the Temptation to view Faith in Sectarian Terms. It is easy to view the Faith—especially traditional Catholicism—as a sort of socio-political "movement", viewing it through a lens that is almost sectarian. Traditional Catholicism has its own media outlets, its own talking heads, its own "talking points", its own publications, its own partisans, and its own agenda. Not that it is wrong to have these things by any means, but it does mean we must always be on guard against treating the Faith the way we treat our own moribund secular politics. The Faith certain has socio-political ramifications, but it is not, at its heart, a socio-political "movement", and refusing to treat it as such helps dissipate some of the hostility that comes with sectarianism.

(2) Examen of Conscience for the Fruits of the Spirit. St. Paul teaches us that the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our souls are nine: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law." (Gal 5:22-23) When I was a younger Catholic, I was prone to skim over passages like this and focus my attention more on meaty doctrinal verses. Not that I thought this stuff was unimportant. More like, I took it for granted that I already possessed these fruits and did not need to worry about it. But a soul that cannot deal with disagreement without becoming arrogant and puffed up is not demonstrating these fruits. That is why St. Paul warns that if someone is arrogant in their talk it may be a sign that they lack the power of God in their life (1 Cor. 4:18); he also warns against Christians whose lives are characterized by "quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, [and] conceit" (2 Cor. 12:20). As I have gotten older, I have become more introspective about whether I possess these fruits, and more cognizant that a spirit that is joyful, patient, and gentle is not one that is habitually arrogant. I realize this is a little subjective, and there will always be those people who are wrongly accused of being arrogant merely because they are taking a stand for the truth. But in my experience, when a person is peaceful it is not difficult to disagree with them in a friendly manner.

(3) Remember Faith is a Gift: The awareness of faith as a gift is tremendous antidote against being puffed up with pride. Sometimes I think when we get arrogant about the truth we possess, it is because we somehow view the truth as "ours"—often, it feels like something we discovered through our own study, our own labors, our own searching; something we built with our own mental and spiritual blood, sweat, and tears. We must remember, however, that faith is a gift. It is a gift of God in a threefold sense: (a) Divine Revelation itself is a communication from God to man, given gratuitously out of love, of truths that we would have no way of knowing by reason alone (b) the faith we enjoy today is something that was passed on to us by the Church of ages past delivered "once and for all to the saints" (Jude 1:3) which we receive as an inheritance (c) the theological virtue of faith itself is a gift bestowed on each one of us by God through baptism and maintained by grace. None of us saves himself. It is very difficult to be prideful about the certitude of faith we possess when we view it wholly as a gift.

(4) A Lively Awareness of Grace: What does it mean to have "eyes to see" as the Scriptures say (Ezk. 12:2)? To see with eyes of flesh is one thing, to see with eyes of the spirit is another. Spiritual sight is awareness of the movements of grace behind the scenes that form men's souls and bring about the will of God in the affairs of men. Focusing on the working of grace helps us to decrease and Christ to increase, because we become more aware of the actions of God behind our affairs. Though of course we always understand the power of a good argument, we become less inclined to think, "It is my job to change this person's mind through my persuasive rhetoric" and more accustomed to see these things as in the hand of God. When I dispense divine truth, I am merely as one beggar trying to show another beggar where to find some food. See also: "Christ Will Give You Victory" (USC, Jan. 2019)


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Utilitarian Arguments Against Lay Lectors


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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