On the Legitimacy of “Parish Tasting”

Is it okay to engage in "parish tasting?" Or should we stick with our local parish, no matter what?

In a recent article on The Screwtape Letters, I commented on the “factionalization” of theologically and liturgically conservative Catholics as something potentially harmful in the spiritual life. I also drew attention to things which are often championed by conservatives or traditionalists but which are obviously part of the universal belief of the Church and as such cannot be reduced to mere tenets or preferences of a specific movement within it. Today, I would like to look at another topic brought up in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters: to what extent it is valid to “shop around” for a parish that fits one’s liturgical tastes, and how dangerous it can be to become a “church connoisseur.”

The Screwtape Letters are a fictional collection of correspondence in which Lewis imagines one senior demon giving advice to a junior tempter on how to pervert a young man recently converted to Christianity. In Letter 16, Screwtape—the senior devil—writes, concerning the “patient”: 

You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realize that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

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We might smile and nod, “very nice point, if he can’t be cured of churchgoing at least let him bounce from place to place” and then start when we realize that that is just what many Catholics do searching for reverent liturgies and orthodox preaching (never mind good music or the Latin Mass).

Is there something wrong with looking for these things? Are we somehow becoming superficial and judgmental, aesthetic perfectionists? I think an examination of this letter reveals important truths regarding the necessity of seeking healthy communities and how Lewis’ Protestant theology of sacraments fails to give material and accidental aspects of liturgy due importance. At the same time, it is an important reminder that we can become distracted from the fundamental reasons for parish and community.

The devil Screwtape explains why “parish tasting” is so “good.” He distinguishes between the “parochial attitude” and the “congregational principle.” The first unites very different sorts of people because it is based on a shared faith and charity, and belief that the truth can be found here and nowhere else. The “congregational principle,” as I understand him to explain it, unites “believers” by their shared personal preference rather than a common transcendent and objective goal; it is the voluntary unity of a hobbyist’s club. 

The demon writes: 

In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.

In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil:

What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. (You see how groveling, how unspiritual, how irredeemably vulgar He is!) This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our whole policy) in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul. There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper. So pray bestir yourself and send this fool the round of the neighboring churches as soon as possible. Your record up to date has not given us much satisfaction.

Putting this another way—from Screwtape’s perspective—the best attitude would be one undiscerning of heresy in sermons but critical of how the priest’s personality and tastes influence his preaching. Another example might include being insensitive to what sort of music is liturgically appropriate but fussy about the fact that songs are sung which are not one’s personal preference.

What are we to make of this in the context of present-day Catholicism? Many Catholics want to find alternatives to parishes where liturgical abuses often occur; or where the music is Christian Pop or Rock; where preaching is poor, lengthy, misleading, or even heretical. 

Another concern is that of community: are there people of similar mindset with whom to form friendships? Singles wonder if there is any chance of finding a spouse in such circles; parents want to find playmates for their children from families they can trust. Should one transfer allegiance to another, better parish? What if that will alienate extended family or long-time friends? Maybe a more traditional parish won’t welcome us, maybe it will be full of weird homeschoolers…and it’s a long drive anyway. Such questions and fears multiply. What should one do in such a situation? What advice can one offer someone in that place?

Three important—if general—concepts come to mind. Obviously, particular circumstances vary incredibly; and if I have a disclaimer, it would be to recognize that circumstances outside one’s control can make it impossible (at least for a time) to act on such principles. It is also important to emphasize that this does not apply to situations of persecution; I am speaking of what can be expected in normal conditions where practicing the Faith is not being hindered by the government. 

Nonetheless, one can at least be clear why one’s desires are (or are not) legitimate, and this can help prioritize making decisions that would change such circumstances, such as moving elsewhere to take up a new job. Also, as noted above, I will be talking here about the decision to attend a parish or apostolate in the long-term, not the sort of church hunting that happens when one is traveling.

The first concept that comes to mind is the idea that every Catholic has a right to properly celebrated liturgy and orthodox preaching. The Church provides and requires certain things of us for the practice of our Faith: notably, reception of the sacraments at certain times and attendance at Sunday Mass. Christ instituted the Church to provide the sacraments as the ordinary means of salvation. The Church has made provision for how these are to be celebrated.

Part of being able to live the life of grace that the sacraments make possible, however, is receiving proper catechesis and spiritual instruction. Consequently, it has always been the task of priests to provide in public preaching and private counsel the truths of the Faith, and help the laity to apply them to their daily lives. 

Put this way, we see the Church as the institution which both provides and requires certain spiritual goods; simultaneously, we can see that it is therefore her duty to provide them to us in the way she has laid down that they be provided. So, we can see that at the bare minimum, the faithful have a right to liturgy and preaching free from error. This idea is easily extended to include a right to the traditional forms of the sacraments, although that is not my main focus here. (For a discussion of that aspect, see this article.)

Secondly, we can see that the faithful have a right to a Catholic community, albeit in a slightly different way. The body of believers on earth which make up the Church are not Catholics only for their own isolated good; united by charity, they are also there to help each other attain Heaven. The spiritual and corporal works of mercy would not make any sense if Christianity could be lived in isolation from others. 

It has always been part of the Church’s task—as it was part of Christ’s—to bring the faithful together in order that they be able to support each other spiritually and temporally. From another angle, we can also point to the fact that God created human beings as social animals and therefore wills us to live with each other. But if He also wills that all men be saved through the Catholic Faith, it follows that he wills that we be able to live with and benefit from the presence of other Catholics.

I have belabored the logic of the last two paragraphs because improper invocation of the principles of “submission” and “humble acceptance” of one’s situation in life, along with whatever the hierarchy serves up, has so muddied the waters of mainstream thought today that the idea of insisting on these things, much less asserting a right to them, has become vilified as “proud,” “ungrateful,” “unsubmissive,” or “picky.” 

Of course, the fact remains that such communities can be hard to find, which brings me to my third consideration. Since access to rightly celebrated sacraments and proper teaching of the Church is of paramount importance for the life of every Catholic, sacrifices and hard decisions should be made to secure that access. It should be especially a concern of parents whose children are going to be deeply formed by the environment in which they first learn and experience the Faith.  Since access to rightly celebrated sacraments and proper teaching of the Church is of paramount importance for the life of every Catholic, sacrifices and hard decisions should be made to secure that access. Tweet This

Where an already formed adult can ignore or mentally correct an error or lack of beauty, the child cannot. Not only that, but beauty in architecture, music, and art must not be seen as mere accidentals in this respect. Celebrating the liturgy beautifully in its every aspect is part of what “celebrating rightly” means, as is manifested by the Church’s tradition and teaching. 

A common sacrifice traditionalists make in this regard is that of driving long distances every Sunday to attend the Latin Mass. Even those not specifically looking for the Latin Mass often struggle to find a parish where liturgy and teaching is sufficiently reverent and orthodox. Where this is impossible or difficult, the question should seriously be raised as to whether relocating is possible.

But there is, nevertheless, a danger like the one Lewis points out. When one begins to search, it is easy to find fault with non-essentials. In places lucky enough to have multiple options for the Latin Mass or reverent Novus Ordos, the temptation to become “a taster or connoisseur of churches” may well arise.

“Father’s Latin is so bad…his sermons are too long…are unrealistic…the people seem unfriendly…the church is ugly…God bless them, but the choir really can’t sing Gregorian Chant.” Are these valid concerns? I think they can be, but it is important to place them in a sufficiently bigger perspective. 

If your options are to attend (for example) either a Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or an Institute of Christ the King apostolate, these considerations could be damaging to charity and spiritual stability if given too much importance. Here the questions are relatively small, so the question of change ought not to be preoccupying or hasty. Focusing on them could lead to the “congregational principle,” while patience with flaws could strengthen the “parochial attitude.” 

But if there is a question of more than this, of fidelity to major aspects of the Church’s theological and liturgical practice, then evaluating options is an exercise of the “parochial attitude,” an exercise of that good criticism which “rejects what is false or unhelpful” and so tries to approach closer to the truth and goodness of God.

This desire for unity of truth is often challenged when one actually changes parishes and starts attending a more traditional one because “it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires”—the demon’s Enemy, of course, not ours. 

Yet there is one crucial insight missing from Lewis’ analysis. The difficulty that many conservatives have with prioritizing the aspects of ritual in their choice of parish is due, in part, to a Protestantization and relativization of worship since Vatican II. Lewis’ concern is not focused on the objective nature of the sacraments as actions pleasing to God but on the aesthetic aspect of the services or their social contexts as matters of human preference, and therefore of vastly lesser importance. 

The traditional Catholic understanding of ritual is more wholistic, seeing as it does the externals as bound up not only with the validity of the sacrament when it comes to matter and form, but also with the way in which external ceremonies and artistic expressions are the setting in which sacramental grace is communicated and its recipients duly prepared for it. Not only that, we understand through our senses, and respond to God as ensouled bodies using words and physical gestures, aided by things like sacred music and art. Therefore, the entire ritual and setting surrounding the matter and form is no longer seen as inconsequential or nonessential but as necessary—not for validity, but for proper divine worship.

Before I close, I must acknowledge that, in light of the current hierarchy, many fear for the long-term stability of places like FSSP apostolates. In the case of faithful who find themselves in driving distance, this does not pose such an issue. But since I have supported the idea of moving to another location if necessary, something should be said in this regard. If there is reason to doubt the stability of a parish or apostolate, it would certainly be an exercise of prudence and patience to wait for some indication of stability. Even Novus Ordo parishes are being targeted for celebrating the new Mass “too traditionally,” including the use of Latin, celebrating ad orientem, or using Latin polyphony. 

Yet it is also true that as uncertainty with regard to the future of the Latin Mass increases, so, too, the future of all reverent liturgies will, to a large extent, be guaranteed by the communities which have sacrificed much to build themselves up. Resistance to truly unjust strictures or removals of the Mass will only be effective where there is strength in numbers. Thus, long-term members of already established communities as well as newcomers must consider what means are available for effectively preserving what they have. 

In the post-Traditionis Custodes world, recusancy as practiced in Elizabethan England seems an ever-closer reality, as do underground and hotel Masses. The possibility of gaining “squatter’s rights” on churches for the Latin Mass—as was successfully done in 1977 in the Parisian church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet—will only be possible with tightly knit communities. At the end of the day, while such measures might seem extreme, they bring us back to the principle that the faithful have a right to what is theirs. The reason churches exist is to be filled with the worshiping faithful, not emptied by bishops.

To sum up, then, we can see that while Lewis offers a good reminder that we should not become distracted by imperfections present in parishes, his Protestant background does not allow sufficient importance for ritual. At the same time, it becomes obvious that every Catholic has a right not only to proper worship and catechesis, but also to living in a community of believers.

Catholics should not hesitate to go out of their way to find that which will nourish them spiritually and socially. Recognizing that the hierarchy often fails to provide what the Church herself asks is a reminder to pray and work for a restoration of awareness of what the Faith really is, what the Church teaches, and how she worships.


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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