Sunday, March 05, 2023

The Church as a Barnacle Encrusted Ship

[Mar. 3, 2023] It has frequently been observed that the liturgical reform of the mid-twentieth century was founded upon false principles of archaeologism or antiquarianism, a fallacy whereby something is held to be better or purer the older it is. If you are not familiar with the concept of archaeologism, I humbly recommend my essay "What is Archaeologism?" on the Unam Sanctam Catholicam website.
The premise that the Catholic liturgy is better to the degree that is approximates to (perceived) patristic custom depends largely upon an analogy of accretion and restoration—like the hull of a ship, the Church is conceived as something that accumulates barnacles over the passage of time. The accretion of these barnacles is a symbol for the way the Church amasses traditions over the centuries, the way a moving glacier picks up debris as it scrapes across the landscape. If the Church is to be restored to its original (i.e., superior) form, these accretions must be removed. The reformers are thus like seamen scraping barnacles from the sides of a ship to beautify her, returning her to her original splendor by making her "like new."

As well as this idea works for physical objects like ships, it is really not an appropriate analogy when dealing with something like religion. I would go so far as to say the validity of the reformer's historical views only work if one presumes this analogy. But once the analogy is abandoned, we see how errant the reformers ideas truly are, and why this comparison should not be made about the Catholic liturgy or religious ideals in general.

St. John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine addresses this issue when Newman treats of the development of ideas. Ideas have an entirely different sort of life cycle than a physical object like a ship. Unlike a car, which begins to depreciate the moment you drive it off the lot, an idea grows stronger with age. Its maturation unfolds new facets of the idea that were always latent within it but are only drawn forth by the vicissitudes of time. In addressing those who suggest primitive Christianity is the highest form of the religion, Newman observes:

It is indeed sometimes said that a stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relation; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Ch. I, Sec. 1, § 7). 

If you have never read Newman's Essay, it is a fantastic work I highly recommend. Chapter I on the nature of how ideas develop in human society is particularly relevant to this discussion.

The Roman rite in its fully developed form—as codified by St. Pius V—is a mature expression of Catholicism, vastly richer than whatever rituals so-called experts fabricated from culling fragments of patristic parchment. [1] This is not to denigrate the role of the Fathers or the immense treasures of our patristic heritage, but it is to understand their proper place. The patristic era stands as the foundation of all that came later; the entire edifice of our faith rests upon like a house rests upon its foundations. Even so, I do not live in the basement of my house, but in the upper rooms the basement supports and makes possible. 

Similarly, we recognize that the perfection of the traditional liturgy is precisely in that it has developed over so many centuries. Where the reformers saw an accretion of barnacles, we see a grand and venerable oak, made splendorous by the passing of time. It is a much more organic view of the Church and its maturation, which is fully appropriate given St. Paul compares the Church to an organic body (cf. 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 1:23). We must cherish our Church's youth, to be sure. But there is a difference between cherishing our youth and trying to return to it. The former is a fitting sentiment for any mature adult; the latter is more akin to an embarassing midlife crisis.

For more related articles on this subject see these two pieces from New Liturgical Movement:

[1] The great irony of the reformer's archaeologism is that the product they created does not even accurately reflect patristic worship. It is not a return to ancient worship, but a modern construction based tenuously on fragments of patristic writing with the (considerable) gaps filled in by sheer innovation.

1 comment:

Pulex said...

But this precisely how Newman is used against trads. Look, Newman says: "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." The reformers were making changes to liturgy so it becomes more perfect, but those pesky trads do not want any change. The reformers would question the assertion that St. Pius V codified a fully developed form and would claim that in Novus Ordo it is even more fully developed and perfected.