Sunday, March 29, 2020

Some Coronavirus Catch-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 12, 2020

"It Was Common in the Early Church"

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eucharistic Prayer 2

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

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

Communion in the Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Facing the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus: The Peace Prayer of St. Francis

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

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


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

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Friday, March 06, 2020

Some Hard Talk about the Knights of Columbus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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