Sunday, December 18, 2005

Unfinished ideas to tie up

I've got a lot of good starts on ideas I would like to finished up sometime. To to recap:

  • The argument for the existence of God
  • The whole business of the love of God
  • The taxonomy of conservatives
  • The liturgical hierarchy of needs
Unfortunately, I'm too far behind on my work to handle these at the moment. Yet I would like to a little investigation regarding Confession. I asked some friends whether a line of would-be penitents who did not have enough time to confess their sins would have to abstain from Communion, in spite of the fact that they had a clear intention of confessing, and could be offered Communion immediately following Mass. The general response was that they would have to abstain, except in cases of dire emergency, in which case they could be given Communion after Mass when they confessed.

This leads to two other issues, which maybe I'll consider later--first, what shape the liturgy involved in Reconciliation would take when combined with a sort of "Communion service"; and second, how to prepare Catholics via catechesis and preaching to willingly abstain from Communion at Mass in spite of psychological and cultural pressures to the contrary.

But first I want to research the question of whether it would be necessary for them to abstain in the first place. First we'll start where any good bishop would start: the Catechism. (Personal note: I'm very proud of my highly abused-looking Catechism, complete with mildly torn or detached pages, dozens undone-dogears, and coffee stains). #1385 is very clear: "Anyone conscious of grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion."

A consideration of any exceptions, of course, would have to stem from the Church's teaching on perfect contrition, to be found in #1452-1453: "When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is caled "perfect" (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible." Contrary to 'imperfect contrition', "born of a consideration of sin's ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself, however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance."

Now, I'm going to be doing some linguistic hair-splitting, but I do so with the strict disclaimer that the Catechism, and moreso the English translation, has imprecisions and ambiguities that immediately hurt the credibility of analytic legalism.

Say a person has committed mortal sin, and for reasons out of his control has not has sacramental confession (i.e., he came, stood in line at the Confessional, but time ran out and he never got in). Whether this person could receive communion would be dependent on this one thing: whether he is conscious of grave sin. Now, I think we need to grant that, at least in some cases, a Catholic may be in a state in which he can not only make a perfect act of contrition, but also be fully and clearly aware that he has done so. In such cases, I think said Catholic would be blameless in receiving communion and going to confession at his first opportunity (i.e., asking the priest for confession immediately following the Mass, before he goes anywhere!)

However, before the sacrament of penance has taken place, knowledge of whether contrition is perfect or imperfect is accessible only to God, and sometimes to the Catholic. Moreover, perfect contrition seems to be difficult and rare; clear knowledge of it would be virtually impossible, since given the gravity of the stakes, a person would have to have no doubts that his perception of perfection contrition is not contaminated by any presumption.

Nevertheless, the Code of Canon Law appears to grant this possibility. "Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible."

Now, we have the "no opportunity to confess" thing down pat. No problem there. Yet what would constitute grave reason? One obvious case of a grave reason is when it concerns the priest himself. A country priest with no easy means to confess frequently cannot deny his parish the Mass because he is conscious of his own mortal sin. One concrete example is Blessed Damien of Molochai, the leper priest, who (if we believe the film) had to confess his sins in French to the bishop across boats because nobody would come near him.

Are there any such grave reasons for parishioners? If they are in no danger and can receive communion after Mass in the context of sacramental penance, I believe not. One may cite cultural pressures--I know that sometimes family members and others who are poorly taught can contemn those who remain sitting as being sanctimonious, and, in a wierd way, 'proud of their humility'. It's the same liberal disdain against those who genuflect before receiving communion, or who prefer attending the Ecclesia Dei Mass. Undoubtedly, sometimes people who abstain from communion can be sanctimonious about it--there is a temptation to preen oneself and think, "Hmph. I'll bet most people here are ignoring their mortal sin, unlike me." That's a sinful attitude which must be named and desperately avoided.

But that possibility is no excuse for those non-abstaining folks to be sanctimonious themselves. If people are afraid to abstain because they (correctly!) believe that others would look down on them, then perhaps a degree of guilt for the unworthy reception the Eucharist would be spread among all who fostered that stigma (especially the priest, if he did so). But it would not take it away fully from the person receiving under the cloud of mortal sin.

Since this is my blog, and is the one place I get to misbehave in writing, I'm going to do something obnoxious and quote myself: "The onus here is evidently on the priest, however, whose charism it is, not only to conduct and direct the liturgy, but also to help form his congregation in the virtues necessary to make the liturgy possible and fruitful."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Liturgical "Hierarchy of Needs"

When I was in high school, I discovered Lincoln-Douglas debate, which quickly became a favorite hobby of mine because it was an outlet for all of my opinionizing and analyzing. One of the staples of L-D debate is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This little psychological nugget is, as I understand it, most often taught in the context of educational or child psychology, but as a general descriptor of basic human needs it has a ton of useful applications, especially in ethical debates.

The gist of the hierarchy is that people's most profound and distinctively human needs supervene their basic physical and psychological needs. "Supervene" is a great word; it means that the higher needs depend upon the basic ones, but are more than the basic needs, and do not necessarily follow, and therefore need specific attention. In other words, people cannot be reduced to their need for food, water, and shelter; but they cannot hope for love or fulfillment without these things. "All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them." (Luke 12:30)

Now, it seems to me that Maslow's hierarchy applies beautifully to the liturgy. Not word for word, of course, but the liturgy, like a person, has a hierarchy of needs that supervene on one another. Consider the following:

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsLiturgical Needs
6. Self-Transcendence6. Salvation
5. Self-Actualization5. Active Participation
4. Esteem4. Community Integration
3. Love & Belonging3. Beauty
2. Safety2. Stability
1. Physiological Needs1. Humble Obedience

Humble Obedience - Sorry to make liberals bristle, but this is simply true. To perform the liturgy (especially the Mass) at all is an act of solemn and religious obedience--"Do this in memory of me." More than that, however, any lacking in humble obedience on the part of the minister or the congregation will severely impact the entire liturgy. The liturgy is not the property of the priest or the congregation. The onus here is evidently on the priest, however, whose charism it is, not only to conduct and direct the liturgy, but also to help form his congregation in the virtues necessary to make the liturgy possible and fruitful. Now, humility and obedience do not themselves rank as the highest virtues, and it is not my intention to inflate them by assigning them as the prerequisites of liturgy, the "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed" (SC 10). But let us keep in mind our analogy--eating and drinking are obviously not the highest activities of the human person. Yet just as a person cannot even begin to be personally fulfilled if he does not eat and drink, so also our salvation cannot accomplished through the liturgy if it is not conducted in humility and obedience.

Now, the analogy extends still further. Humble obedience may be basic prerequisites for the liturgy--but does that mean that liturgy is impossible unless the humble obedience is at 100%? No. In fact, 100% humility and obedience is impossible even for living saints (just as perfect nutrition is impossible for even the most neurotic dieter). It is not simply a question of whether every single relevant rubric is followed to the letter (which itself, I'm sure most good conservative Catholic priests will agree, is a challenge even when the congregation is cooperative!). It's that nasty little word, "humility," that throws a wrench into the gears and makes this prerequisite crushingly difficult for even the most rigoristic clergyman.

Thus, even liturgies with slightly more obvious deficiencies in humble obedience are not thereby 'invalid' or 'worthless'. But as much as a liturgy is prideful or disobedient, that much damage is done to the fulfillment of each of the higher needs, or else it makes their fulfillment superfluous.

Stability - Stability is parallel to Maslow's stage of "safety" not only analogically but really. As William James wrote in his essay, "The Sentiment of Rationality," any good and acceptable idea will, at least in some way, "banish uncertainty from the future." Widespread uncertainty about the future is damaging to the liturgy and the life of the whole parish. Of course, there is no way to expell this uncertainty completely (to try to do so is to be an idealogue), but the pastor must be mindful not to generate needless confusion through constant or dramatic change. Catholics have a right to the comfort of knowing that next week will not be terribly different than this one.

Recall that I said that supervenience means that higher needs do not necessarily follow when basic needs are met. Thus, humble obedience does not gaurantee stability. This is true here for at least two reasons. First, the hot-shot liturgical priest, who knows all of the rubrics, reads all of the liturgical journals, and even has contacts in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, may be in danger of turning the liturgy into a fidgety perfectionistic mess. Not only does immediate lock-step cutting-edge rigorism imply frequent changes in minor aspects of the liturgy, but devotion to theoretical speculations as to the best way to fulfill the rubrics can itself cause wildly varying practice and do great harm to the congregation. The other reason is that a new pastor of a parish whose liturgy has been long lacking in 'humble obedience' could greatly endanger stability by making sweeping changes too quickly or too often in rapid succession. Going back to our analogy of the person, consider the disaster following the American liberation of starving Holocaust victims. US soldiers at times distributed Snickers candy bars to the prisoners, causing their fragile digestive organs to hemorrhage and kill several of them. So much for good intentions...

Beauty - Beauty, in a Christian sense, is an objective category. (Liberals: *bristle bristle bristle*). Now, I use the word 'objective' only in a loose sense, because the beautiful is beautiful in its being perceived by subjects; thus there is no strict subject-object split here. But the beautiful pertains to what is beautiful universally, by virtue of its identification with the Good (see reply to Objection 3) and the True. Thus, for that which is truly beautiful, for a person to perceive it as ugly, the defect would not be in the beautiful object, but in the perceiving person. Of course, in such cases, the solution is not to brow-beat the fellow with his defect of perception, but rather to invite him or her to further displays of beauty so that a connection may be seen.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that the beautiful contains two elements: harmony and clarity. Harmony is something like truth and something like justice. Harmony is like truth because it involves a correspondence, an equality, a parallelism, a resemblance. It means: there is a real connection between what I now see and deep reality. It is a union of reality, knowledge, and expression. Harmony is like justice because it inolves giving everything its due. Nobody and nothing is cheated or cheapened; rather, everything has its due being; everything is as it ought to be. Duties fulfilled, creation complete, etc., i.e., the Good.

The task of the priest, as the director of the liturgy, is to help it achieve as much beauty as possible. In other words, decisions must be made that enable the liturgy to glorify God in its aesthetic elements. The rubrics incorporate this concern somewhat, through their instructions that roles receive their due fulfillment, and the parts of the Mass their due emphasis. However, of course, a rubrically correct liturgy can still manage to be horrifically un-beautiful.

An important precept regarding the beauty of the liturgy is that it must be done as though God himself was the true and only "audience"--because he is. Even the homily, which is addressed to the congregation, has as its deepest goal the conversion of minds to the pleasing of God more and more. The Christian community never addresses itself for its own sake. No action which has a human being as its agent is ever finally addressed to the congregation or to the person of the priest; not the music, nor the prayers, nor even the Sign of Peace or the Eucharist. The Sign of Peace is a sign to God and Church of our preparedness to receive the Eucharist, and the Eucharist itself has no merely human agent. All human efforts in the liturgy have God as their origin and God as their end; all human benefit comes from God alone without human merit.

Misdirected human action is the most popular source of the "cheapening" of the liturgy. The congregation is made into the audience, so both church architecture and liturgy are twisted to serve merely the delight of a particular group of people. Thus the images, music, and manner of celebration no longer even attempts to give God his due glory, the greatest due is fulfilled the least, and ugliness ensues. It may be that a self-justifying mini-theology may crop up that says, "When we are pleased, God is glorified"--which runs so contrary to the teaching of the Bible that it is mind-boggling. "For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality. Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed." (Wisdom 3:4-5)

But it would be a mistake to suppose that beauty was somehow opposed to delight. People receive delight in different ways. St. Thomas quotes Augustine, "many things are beautiful to the eye [i.e., delightful], which it would be hardly proper to call honest [i.e., beautiful]." The really beautiful, because it is beautiful, is delightful; but the delightful is not always beautiful. Thus a liturgy that myopically focuses on delight risks ejecting beauty; but a liturgy which is beautiful is gauranteed to delight.

But this point needs to be augmented by one more fact if it is not to devolve into rigoristic naiveté: beauty in the liturgy, because it does come from human hands, after all, has a subjective quality. But this subjectivity is not a subjectivity of taste, and therefore not an individual subjectivity; but rather a subjectivity of culture and expression; a communal subjectivity. The liturgy is directed to God and has God as its origin and motivation, but it depends upon the work of human imagination, and thus will always and rightly be subject to local custom and systems of meaning. The congregation is not the audience, but it is one of the 'performers'. If the liturgy is a letter to God, it is written in a particular language and handwriting. Thus a community should never exercise a liturgy with less than its very best, holy, and important artistic and musical traditions--much less music designed for more juvenile ends--but neither should it be forced to exercise a musical/artistic style which is not its own.

A final point for this section (and this blog post). People might make much of the fact that God, because he is God, can never be given his "due" by any liturgy, thus making all liturgies inherently ugly. This is true, to an extent. However, two points must be made: (1) God is merciful, and looks upon our finitude with loving pity and condescension, and so is very much pleased even with our meager efforts at beauty which are only dirt compared with his own beauty. See: parable of the woman's gift of two coins (Mark 12:41-44). (2) One must remember that, by virtue of Christ's incarnation, an incarnate liturgy and liturgical beauty have a new power which transcends human efforts.

More later (I hope).

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Taxonomy of Conservatives

From time to time I like to do a "taxonomy." I guess there's a little streak of Aristotle or Darwin in me. Recently I was having a discussion with someone about liberal-conservative disputes within the Church, and it made me think of how much differently we would think of those terms if only we made the proper distinctions.

Mythologically, 'liberal' and 'conservative' are descriptors of two sides of a spectrum of thinking, applicable analogically to various spheres of human life where disagreement is common: politics, economics, psychology, and of course, religion. Without making value judgements, generally speaking the 'liberal' side of any subject is associated with prioritizing autonomy (of a person or a thing) over and against authority, novelty over and against tradition, and the individual/part over and against the community/whole.

Sometimes this dynamic takes unsuspected shapes. For example, the Republican Party is characteristically politically conservative (valuing traditional and visible authorities in common life, emphasizing the integrity of local communities), yet economically liberal; moreover, they tend to appropriate 'liberal' language when defending states' rights against the federal government. Economically, the Republican platform emphasizes the autonomy of markets and businesses from foreign influences of authority; hence why republicans can (and do) spend a good deal of their time harping on the 'oppressive authority' of 'big government'.

The difficulty is that, although these words are in fact descriptors of certain patterns of thought of religious people, they describe nothing religious. By the very fact that the word "conservative" involves an attitude toward human authorities, human history, and human communities, it definitively does not transcend any of these things. It is something of an insult to call John Paul II or Benedict XVI "conservative," and leave it at that. Sometimes the worst people in the Church are conservatives.

I am going to suggest that the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' be taken off of the mythological spectrum. Starting from spectrum-models is bad for ecclesiology (although we do talk about other Christians sharing theological community in matters of degrees, but this has a very specific function).

Instead, let us consider Catholic 'conservatives' and what makes them such. On the surface, we might say that one thing they have in common are the preferences mentioned above--authority, tradition, and community. But consider that two such 'conservatives' might hold those preferences for very different reasons. Thus I distinguish already between two fundamentally different conservatives: a cultural/notional conservative, and a religious/assenting conservative.

Disclaimer: I am writing here about Catholics that are particularly self-aware of their worldviews and who are likely to engage in disputes. I am not writing about Catholics who are unreflectively Catholic and for whom controversial Catholics issues are not frequently in the forefront of their consciousness. More on that later.

A cultural/notional conservative (heretofore CNC), has a faith which is coincidental with his or her pre-existing dispositions. That disposition may or may not have a religious character. For such a conservative it may be more relevant that the Church's priesthood is male or that it teaches against homosexual acts, than that the Church is the Body of Christ or that Mary intercedes for us before her Son. I was told of one super-orthodox Catholic seminarian who left the seminary AND the faith in order to become an orthodox Jew. The key feature of this kind of conservativism is that the Catholic's assent to the Magisterium is conditional, not absolute; he/she has a pre-existing opinion or philosophy which precedes, and sometimes overrides his/her faith commitment (e.g., patriotism, traditionalism, fundamentalism, sexism, free-market capitalism, etc.). In this respect, a CNC is different from the liberal only superficially--he/she merely believes different things than does the liberal, but not in a different way.

The religious/assenting conservative (RAC), I would argue, is another animal entirely. (Quick disclaimer: again, 'sometimes the worst people in the Church are conservatives', and this brand of conservativism is no exception). Simply, an RAC gives assent, on principle, to everything they understand to be the teaching of the Church. This is the sort of person for whom, in a dispute, an argument from authority works. On at least a superficial level, "because the Church says so" is a meaningul, belief-forming clause. The RAC places the Catechism, conciliar doctrine, encyclicals, and teachings from the Curia--and sometimes much more--in an epistemological category distinct from and priviledged over other sources for their beliefs. These things hold an epistemological priority, if not an overt theological one, over even personal readings of the Bible, which does not 'live' outside of the Catholic Church.

It would be a mistake to envision for oneself a stereotypical RAC; though perhaps a statistical minority within the whole span of Catholics, RACs come from an unlimited set of motivations and histories, and take as many diverse forms in their religious approach, emphases, spiritualities, and even theological opinions. But the key difference between an RAC and everyone else--unreflective Catholic, CNC or liberal--is that the RAC consciously and willfully believes Catholic doctrine and follows Catholic discipline out of a foundational and firm trust of the hierarchical Church--a veritable hyperdulia.

More later, maybe (that's a promise I often break).

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Advertising and secularism

I've ranted about the media and secular culture before. One good whine deserves another! I was discussing with a friend about Poland joining the EU and whether this would impact the strong Catholic faith found in Poland. IMO, of course it will. A country doesn't have to be overtaken by communists to dwindle into secularism--in fact, just the opposite result tends to happen, there. The liberal capitalism of the EU itself will devour Poland just like it has the rest of western Europe.

It all comes down to advertising. Three points.

  1. In an ideologically capitalistic society, the rights to free-speech and free-commerce are hijacked and become the two great cogs of a machine of mass-manipulation. The essential characteristic of this problem is that the systemic ground of the distribution of material resources in a community becomes the creative use of media to manipulate the desire and will of individuals irrespective of their dignity or freedom. Effective advertising is the art of exploiting all elements of the human psyche which are not under the conscious control of the individual's reason, i.e., of bypassing your freedom. The the person's mind, personality, and habits resulting from near perpetual advertising, apart from being encouraged to buy some product or idea, is a mere bi-product of the demand-factory. The more successful an advertising campaign is for a product, the greater the pollution caused, which in this case, rather than chemical or atmospheric waste, is psychological and cultural pollution.
  2. Most people are at least implicitly aware of this situation, and cynicism regarding advertising is widespread and trendy. People understand that virtually every ad lies to them at least partially (a redundancy--all lies are partial lies; otherwise they would not be effective). The reason why most people feel perfectly safe watching movies and television saturated with product-placement and billions of advertisments is that they believe they are innured to the effects and manipulation of marketers. People are simply used to being lied to; in fact they take for granted that those they do not personally know are not generally trustworthy because these strangers have 'always' have an ulterior motive for conversation--usually money. This becomes the great secular mythos, not only regarding authority, but in fact all instances where a person or group seeks to make any message public property. Churches, whose Gospel is personal rather than scientific and difficult rather than easy, are the first sacrificial offering to this new god.
  3. The terrible irony is that both points described in #1 and #2 above are usually true in the same person. The collapse of the credibility of the Gospel due to secular cynicism makes advertisements glow with a new flourescent light which was previously indiscernable in the prior light of the Sun. Secular society is society that lives by the light of glow-in-the-dark plastic.

Opinion concerning Ophrases like "priests are sexual beings" and "celibate intimacy"

I have a bone to pick with the language of "sexual" and "intimacy" applied to priests—that all men and priests are "sexual beings" and are ordered "not to deny their sexuality". I understand that this language was constructed to stress the humanity and completeness of life lived in celibacy—celibate life is not, as Coleman says, “sadly incomplete and unfulfilled.” Yet using the language of sex, sexual-ness, and intimacy to describe the authentic maleness and male identity of the priest, or the close friendships that the priest has with women and men, arising out of his relational human personhood, seems to me to obscure and soft-peddle something. This is the unique, strange, difficult, transcendent, testamental, counter-cultural, and sacrificial dimension of celibate life. Why water down the stark fact that this man, or this woman, has given him/herself totally to a God who is transcendently mysterious yet intimately immanent, and for this reason alone is available to give themselves to all people in a unique way?