Empty Liturgies: Where Sentiment Triumphs Over Transcendence

Councils of the Church do not always turn out as close participants thought, as I learned at Vatican I. So it has been sobering to an historian to observe below the fate of Vatican II.

I seem to detect a universal consensus that “the spirit of Vatican II” was destructive of the true life of the Church. Between the real Vatican II and “the spirit of Vatican II,” no doubt, there is a sharp difference. That difference was created by preferring the future to actual history. The echoes . of Vatican II had not died away in St. Peter’s basilica when “Vatican III” was already being talked about. “The church of the future” seemed to enthusiasts more real than the heavy, incarnate church of the present. The flesh of the real church was embarrassing (“A Catholic Priest Looks at His Outdated Church”), the spirit of a future church that did not yet exist was adored. People changed their lives to embrace the future church. As so often in history, the “spiritualizers” won.

The new church became the “concentric” church “of the people.” This was opposed to the “pyramidal” church of concrete, canonical (and male) authorities. Many believed that the true governing principle should be the “needs” of the people — at first, the needs of middle-class people and later, the needs of the “poor.” In this agenda, sex was extremely important. This became clear first in the assault upon the celibacy of priests and nuns; second, in the emphasis upon contraception and “sexual liberation”; and, third, in Catholic feminism. Proleptically, a significant percentage of American priests began “making advances” against the day when celibacy would be intelligently done away with. A. growing few formed liaisons with women, sometimes with women who came to them for pastoral care. A significant percentage of nuns, no longer wearing religious garb, and studying at secular universities, followed the natural instincts of sexual beings and fell in love. From Phil Donahue to Andrew Greeley (to mention cultural archetypes), a sexual revolution of immense cultural power rippled through Catholic thought, imagination, and practice.

More than 10,000 priests married, but many more engaged in experimental liaisons. Significant numbers publicly gave themselves license for homosexual liaisons. At least 30,000 nuns left the convent, most soon finding sexual mates. Seminarians and postulants were encouraged to “date” in order to “test” their vocations. Thousands of daughters of Catholic families became subjects of such “experiments.” This experimentation was not limited to daughters, or even to persons of mature age; law suits alleging homosexual advances upon young males emerged in several states, in every section of the nation. In at least three locations, visitors to seminaries noted how — I believe I catch the vivid word correctly — they had become openly swishy.

Ideologically, some priests and nuns invented a difference between “celibacy” and “chastity.” They interpreted their vows as vows of celibacy. They would not marry; but this did not entail for them abstention from sexual behavior. A few gave seductive lessons in lesbian, homosexual, and other “liberating” liaisons. As a character in a novel about this period explains: “Catholic lay people are forgiving; they no longer expect much from priests or nuns.” Some feel relief when the unbridled instincts of the few errant celibates run, at least, in heterosexual directions.

The “needs” of the people became the central authority; pop language became the language of the liturgy. Emphasis was placed upon “getting in touch with” feelings. Symbols of transcendence were stricken. The Mass was purposefully flattened out, from vertical and horizontal, the attention of worshippers now being focused upon one another. Bells were no longer rung at the dramatic point at which bread and wine become the Body and the Blood of Christ. The central dramatic focus of the Mass fixes on the handshake with surrounding congregants at “the kiss of peace.”

Lay persons shake hands with hundreds of persons a week, at every level of significance and insignificance. (Those running for office shake so many hands that they endanger their flesh and bones). Although shaking hands with strangers in church is a nice custom, it lowers the liturgy to the level of conventional culture. The gregarious American handshake is an attractive symbol. But hardly transcendent. Is it the latent purpose of these supposedly heartfelt hand-shakes to assuage the loneliness of the clergy?

No longer does the Eucharist point to the transcendence of the Judge. It does not point to the Father. “Father” has become an empty symbol. The priest in his celibacy has been stripped of the symbolic power he once had. His role has been demystified. He has been bureaucratized. He has become the “coordinator.”

The sacrament of penance has also been demystified. The priest is no longer seen as the only person given God’s power to bind and to loose. For most humans, it has always been psychologically far easier to go directly to God. The priest has now been rendered quite unnecessary.

The center of culture has always been in cult. Any change in the fundamental symbols of a community alters its way of life. The effect upon its way of thinking and its theology is also profound. The great “liturgical reforms” of Vatican II have altered the center of Catholic life and, with it, Catholic culture. Meanwhile, schools of liturgy, responsible for these reforms, have gained a strong interest in justifying what they have wrought. They are now “the establishment.” Nonetheless, ecclesia semper reformanda: The church is always in need of reform.

The reductionism of the new liturgy is abundantly in evidence.

(1)The shifting of the focus of the liturgy from God to man. The new liturgy is far less interested in adoration, reverence, awe, and thanksgiving than in “building com-munity.” In the new liturgy, God is not entirely absent, but He is immanent, not transcendent. God is less the Judge than the spirit of the community, present in their feelings of community. God is people. To find Him, the new Catholics look into their feelings. The mystery of bread and wine become God is no longer greeted by reverential silence, defined by shocking bells. Attention is drawn instead to fellowship. There is no lingering on crucifixion and brokenness, not even on the betrayal that disfigured the Last Supper. There is no Exodus, marked by devastation, plague, bloodshed, terror, and hostile pursuit. There is sentimental “peace.” The liturgy has become the arena of “feelgood.” That seems to be the point of the chief musical instrument of the new liturgy: the guitar, the perfect instrument for outdoor cafes and coffee houses.

(2)The shift from intellect to feeling. The old liturgy had mystery and intellectual content. Its focus was on being and becoming. It was surrounded by the architecture of being: verticality, complexity, every detail redolent of experienced thought. The new liturgy is horizontal, designed to stimulate warm sentiment. The community built up by the old liturgy was a community of mind: a community sub specie aeternitatis in union with the angels and all the saints in the presence of God, amid visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, embracing all the ages and all the unknown people of God upon all continents and in all times, before the Judge of all. And not only the Judge: the Creator and Self-infusing Being Who made all contingent persons to be. “Liturgy,” Romano Guardini wrote, “is all creation redeemed and at prayer.” Adoration was its primary aim. God the Father Almighty, in union with His Son and Holy Spirit, surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, by Mary Mother of Jesus, and all the saints, was its focal point. To miss that was to miss everything.

There was a metaphysics in the old liturgy. A vision of time and eternity, of narrative and all-embracing context. A vision of the dependence of every being upon the Source of all Being, the Lord of history, the Lord of the Absurd, Lover of the night, Leader into the desert, who spoke to the solitude of the human heart, and knew each of us by name, and called each “friend.” “The Love that moves the sun and all the stars.”

In the new liturgy, there is pop psychology and vulgar sociology: the community as “people of God,” not by reason of creation but by reason of its own stirred-up feelings and actions. The new people of God is self-starting, self-encouraging, and self-pleased. Its express “preferential option for the poor” is self-exalting (“Thank God we are unlike those others”) and, in practice, empty. Its practical aim is not to make the poor middle class, so that they will no longer be poor. Its practical aim is to gain a psychological advantage over those who do not feel prearranged emotions about the poor. The poor have become a means of psychological self-advancement. The new community does not free the individual for solitude, dissent, and difference. The religious interest of the new liturgy is to escape from loneliness into belonging. It coerces all in sentimental participation. Its aim is mutual acceptance, support, and reinforcement.

(3) The loss of patriarchy. At the heart of the old liturgy lay the mystery of “God the Father Almighty” and “Jesus Christ his only Son.” In that drama, human redemption unfolded in severely masculine terms. Like it or not, every human is sexed, male or female. In revealing himself, God chose male. Historically speaking, it could have been quite otherwise. Many ancient religions are matriarchal, employing (still) symbols of oceanic mothering, goddesses, and prophetesses. Like the first priests and patriarchs, Abraham, Melchizedek, and Moses, the priests of the old liturgy were — and had to be, symbolically, legally, and by conscious communal choice — male. Since patriarchy is indispensable to Judaism and Christianity, the symbols of patriarchy reverberated through the old liturgy. Jesus called God his “Father,” and when he; taught us to pray, he said “Our Father who art in heaven.” In the old liturgy, maleness had a point. This point was underlined in the maleness of the priest and in his acolytes. Everyone around the altar was male. This point was reinforced by priestly celibacy.

Not only was the priest a male; howsoever tender, he had also never been “defiled” by the carnal love of man for woman. As such, the priest was revered for his extraordinary human sacrifice. It was a great deal to ask of mere man. It seemed well-nigh impossible. It made the sacrifices to which married persons are called seem somehow (although they were not) lighter. It undergirded all Christian teachings of chastity, self-denial, and openness to the transcendent with a nature-overcoming symbol. The priest was a symbol of transcendence as well as of spiritual fatherhood. The fragility of his state properly induced awe. Led by such a man, the community could prepare itself for adoration, mystery, and thanksgiving. The effusion of reverence and love that poured forth from the community upon its priests had an intellectual, not merely sentimental, root. He was what he symbolized. The psychological loneliness of the priest had ontological point and bore immense fruit in the life of the community.

In the new liturgy, patriarchy has lost its point. If the priest is no longer a symbol of the transcendent Almighty Father, lifted out of the ranks of men who carnally know women, but merely a coordinator of the communal sentiments of the community, a woman will do as well as, even better than, a man. In this sense, the new liturgy undergirds feminism. Women, by biology and culture, are less aggressive, self-centered, and divisive than men. They are, more often, healers and reconcilers; open to more subtle feelings; more aware of the dangers of aggression; protective of the long years of peace required by their infants to reach maturation. In all this, modernist feminists are correct. Judaism and Christianity are, have been, and always will be patriarchal: crusading, aggressive, bringing to the world (like Christ) “not peace but division.”

Patriarchal does not mean perfect. It carries with it special temptations and weaknesses, as well as special values and strengths. Patriarchy is one choice among several, with all the drawbacks attendant upon any one choice in history. It is a choice long since made, by God Himself, in the way He chose to reveal Himself.

In the new liturgy, it seems absurd that priests should be only male; celibacy also seems absurd. Married priests would be better, and perhaps more realistic, preachers of community. It seems that God may have committed a cultural error in revealing Himself as Father; a more enlightened God would have revealed Himself as Mother. Or at least as Person. Since men have so often been warriors, rapists, and (gross modern word) “sexists,” a more enlightened God might also have sent as the Messiah his only Daughter. In that case, the Beatitudes would have had a firmer cultural foundation. The true revelation of human history — feminism — might have been invented much earlier. Alas.

The new liturgy allows priests mainly womanly roles. They dare not sound like warriors. Their all-purpose word is “peace.” In the new liturgy, if one closes one’s eyes, one hears men speaking in womanly tones; one thinks of mother, not father. Like pop psychology (like that classic modern type, Phil Donahue), they are non-judgmental, except concerning divisions, aggressions, and wars. They hate the deeds that men (“oppressors”) have done in history; they side with “victims.” Feminism would be for them a more fully compatible theology.

The new liturgy has already accepted the principles of feminism and abandoned the principles of patriarchy. That is why the Church seems so irrational in insisting upon a male priesthood and upon celibacy. The new liturgy has already made these not only dispensable but scandalous. That is why the altar today is surrounded by women ministers. Everything a male priest is liturgically called upon to do women can do better.

To carry the argument only a little further: The new liturgy is, in a pronounced way, more homosexual than heterosexual. It obliterates distinctions of sex, making them not only irrelevant but somehow impure. A person truly at home in the new liturgy should be “above” sex. This means that sex should be conflict-free, submersed in mutual acceptance and spiritual togetherness. The mere shape of the sex organs should make no difference to those who love one another truly, permanently, and non-sexistly, whatever their sexual preference. The new liturgy is trans-sexual, which is to say, bi-sexual.and promiscuous. Those homosexuals who argue that they are being unfairly excluded from a ministry so clearly designed for them are not in error.

(4) The loss of realism. In the wake of the new liturgy, theologians have cast aside the philosophy of being and prudential realism, in favor of “biblical studies.” For centuries, the Bible has been read as through and through a document insisting from its very opening chapter on the differences between men and women (“Man and woman He created them”) and severely patriarchal (“He created them,” man in His image, woman in man’s image). By contrast, contemporary “biblical studies” are usually put to the service of recent sensibilities. Selective readings are made. All the rough edges are planed. Sin and evil mainly disappear, and with them the single most potent sign of human dignity: guilt for sins against others, nature, and nature’s laws.

The major complaint against the “pre-Vatican II church,” dramatized in the post-Vatican II liturgy, is that the earlier church was “guilt-ridden.” The new liturgy does not approve of guilt. It rushes toward warm acceptance and universal forgiveness. But it does not forgive “conservatives.” Blithely the new people sing along in songs of happiness, joy, and cheer. There are no dark nights, desert years of despair. There is no Golgotha. The bloody tears of Gethsemane are no more. No tormented souls suffer in Hell.

Purgatory has been forgot. “We have all been accepted, we are okay, let’s clap our hands, tap our feet, strum along,” and leave the white, clean meeting place recharged. The only remaining sin is “social,” committed by faraway outsiders (males) who are “in charge.”

The Bible, throughout history, has been a literature of fear, making the learned and the foolish, the weak and the powerful to tremble, driving millions to atonement, inducing painful penances, pilgrimages, self-denials, and feats of incredible self-discipline. Not “biblical studies.” Biblical studies today are lessons in good cheer. Not the good news of certain damnation if personal changes are not made, of repentance and stark concern for the salvation of one’s soul. But, rather, happy talk.

Besides good riddance to guilt-riddenness, the other project of the new liturgy is to end the “privatizing” of religion. The new liturgy considers it infantile to be concerned for the salvation of one’s soul. It seems embarrassed by Christians of earlier ages who “misread” the Scriptures. Earlier Christians apparently misread them when they launched crusades to liberate the Holy Land from “infidels,” and to halt the evil empire of the Turks. They most misread them when they undertook to save their personal souls. The new message of Christianity, according to the new liturgy, is to build communities of peace and social justice. Peace means trust. It forbids armed resistance to evil. Social justice means a social order beyond class conflict, beyond private property, and beyond individual enterprise. “Clap your hands! Strum your guitars! Let the old institutions collapse. Let justice flow like a mighty river. Alleluia.”

The philosophy of being, by contrast, is a philosophy of order. Suspicious of sentiment, it puts its efforts into intellect. The very architecture of the old liturgy expressed such order: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, even wild Rococco (as at Ottobeuren). Sometimes contemporary architecture expresses it as well, as in the church of the Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville (except that the latter is so clean, so sterile, so rational — for Benedictines). Aimed at all the people, the biblical books are laden with immense intellectual content, couched in accessible ordinary language and addressed to the heart. Implicit in these books is a philosophy of being, the public philosophy as even an American journalist belatedly discerned it to be, the architectonic philosophy of Western civilization. Both explicit biblical texts and their implicit metaphysic, over the centuries rendered carefully explicit, nourished the old liturgy. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote several of that liturgy’s most memorable hymns. The geniuses of the ages adorned it with their offerings. It was a rich inheritance.

This ancient inheritance has been sacked. The new liturgy no longer reflects the ages. It is a mirror of its age.

Natural law is gone from the new liturgy. So is the hierarchy of being. So is order, purpose, and ancient and medieval history. The Catholic Church, in its new liturgy, is closer to modern Methodism than to its own Catholic traditions. One could never imagine from the new liturgy an achievement comparable to Solesmes, Rouen, Chartres, Cologne, St. Peter’s, or St. Mark’s in Venice. The new liturgy could inspire no such thing. Its sensibility is strictly Lion’s Club and Little League picnic. (“The five-thirty cafe is open after Mass with refreshments and a chance to enjoy one another’s company.”)

The underlying failure is a failure of intellect, of order, of being. The new liturgy is as evanescent as the feelings it engenders. The people leave it as do the happy crowds after the eight o’clock movie on a weekend evening: “Let’s go for pizza and a beer.” Sometimes the earnest young priest will join the crowd to laugh, to exude good feelings, to slap backs, and to offer a few serious words of counsel toward a pair of troubled eyes. (“Make an appointment and come to see me, hear? Let’s talk.”)

The old liturgy brought-together — in mind — a community of saints and humble persons, all unseen, down the ages, in the Presence of God in that Eternity that embraces Time. This was a community, entrance to which was at once through solitude and through the Church — all entire — assembled in a place, at a, time, not to “build community” but to adore.

Adoration is a concept hardly mentioned during the past twenty years. Its premise, also unmentioned, is an order of being: of Creator and creatures, ranked and serried in multitudes on the other side of a momentary window on

Eternity, beholding Christ’s sacrifice then and now and always eternal in the eyes of God. Being in the presence of God was to be in an unending “present,” outside of Time, as if snatched from one’s senses, suspended. Far from getting “into” the liturgy, the liturgy took one momentarily “outside” Time.

The people by their actions form the new liturgy; the old liturgy “formed” the people. The old liturgy was larger than we, greater than we, wiser than we. We tried to reach up to understand it, to let it in, to let it shape us. We did not think we could “compose” it. Its purpose was not so that it could express our thoughts and feelings. Its purpose was to teach us the classic ways to think and to feel. The old liturgy was a teacher, the new a piece of kindergarten putty.

The liturgy was more than a teacher. It was “all creation redeemed and at prayer,” infusing us with the power and the wisdom of the Creator who made us and taught us to pray. The being of it was there, so to speak, pouring through the old basilicas and convents and churches, drawing us into a higher mode of being. It offered us a chance to be attentive to a world of being we had been too busy to keep in mind. God made Himself available. The old liturgy encouraged us to allow Him entry, to be suffused by Him to the roots of our mind, hearts, will, and entire being. “The Word . . . entered into darkness, and the darkness grasped it not,” the people heard (as the “last gospel”) at every single Eucharist. We were taught to let Him in, not so much to “feel” the Light, as to let one’s mind be changed by it. Feelings, we were taught, are unreliable and subject to the manipulations of the Tempter of souls. The old liturgy at every point addressed one’s mind and senses, at whatever level of intellectual penetration one had reached: “Shallow enough for an ant to wade in, deep enough to drown an elephant.”

Rightly understood, the old liturgy made available to its participants the life and being of God Himself, to infuse and to shape the soul as fire an ingot. This was the teaching of the classic philosophy of being, dramatized in the liturgical year day by day. The history of our salvation was recapitulated every year, drawing us deeper and deeper decade by decade into mysteries of being and history never fully understood and always beckoning us to come back for deeper transformation.

The old liturgy did not work “for” us, it worked “upon” us. We opened our subjectivity to it in order to be shaped by it. We never would have had the hubris to fashion the liturgy to our measure. The point was to be stretched by it. Only to those who did not understand the inner voyages it demanded of them could the old liturgy have been thought “impersonal” and “merely objective” (to be watched as a spectator). One had to “enter into” it, not so much by oral “participation” as by internal attention. It was a school of inwardness, to be sure, but it was a public school of the entire church of all times and places. Never have we felt as much a part of a community as then, not a community of gregarious feeling but a community of interiority united at depths of eternity beyond time.

To be sure, the old liturgy was so demanding that it was subject to abuse: performance by rote, lack of feeling, disconformity between the reality being enacted and the attention endowed in it by a distracted congregation. But it had reality apart from externals. To such reality, every effort to bend attention was made. The new liturgy is, by contrast, extroverted. It does seek to capture and to harness feeling, and to lead feeling neither to mind nor to being nor to God, but solely to good cheer and good fellowship. These, as Kierkegaard saw, are the stuff not of Christianity but of paganism.

One thing the old liturgy did not do. Never of itself did it distract us from its relentless focus upon the transcendence of God and eternity, beyond the vicissitudes of time. It sent Catholics into the world of Time determined to let God’s being show itself in their daily activities, including the realistic activities of suffusing this world of sin and brokenness with social justice.

The old liturgy nourished Christians through two indescribably bitter World Wars. By its solidity, classic power, and fidelity to the world of travail implicit in the Scriptures, it could never once have been accused of shallow deceit, false promises, or facile optimism. The new liturgy has yet to meet such tests. Its springs are affluence, not brokenness. The enemy it seeks to stymie is boredom, and the method it employs is distraction from the brokenness of life. That is, finally, why it is a leaky cistern, offering so little water to the soul.

Everywhere (even in restaurants) one overhears Catholics talking about the shallowness of the new liturgy. Something has gone flagrantly wrong. As a passionate reader of obscure journals, of my time and since, I invite the readers of Crisis to recount their own experiences with and reflections on the old liturgy and the new.

The Editors received this energetic manuscript from an obviously pseudonymous author. They are allowed to say that they believe it comes from an historian in “Michiana.” They welcome the comments “Lord Acton” solicits in his final paragraph.


  • Lord Acton

    This anonymous Crisis writer is pretending to be John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902), known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Bt from 1837 to 1869 and usually referred to simply as Lord Acton, who was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer. Lord Acton is famous for his remark, often misquoted: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

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