Evangelization from Within Guardini’s “Threshold”

By Larry Chapp

“There are those who experience profoundly the mystery of life at the threshold. They live decisively neither here nor there. They live in a no-man’s-land.  They experience the restlessness that passes from one side to the other. Melancholy is the restlessness of the man who perceives the closeness of the infinite – – who experiences at the same time blessing and threat.  The meaning of man consists in being a living threshold, it consists in taking on this life at the threshold, and living it to the end.  In this way he is rooted in reality; he is free from the enchantments of a false intimacy with God. The attitude that is most authentically human is the one influenced by the threshold, the only adequate to reality.”

Romano Guardini. Portrait of Melancholy

Some months ago I had a blog post dealing with Michael Voris’s attack on Bishop Robert Barron. Among other things, he attacked Barron for his comments on who can be saved in an interview Barron took part in with the popular, conservative Jew Ben Shapiro.  Shapiro asked Barron if he, a Jew, could be saved given the Church’s teaching that Christ is necessary for salvation.  Barron responded, tactfully, that the Church does indeed teach that Christ is necessary for salvation but that the grace of Christ is not limited to the visible confines of the Church and that the Church teaches that those who are sincerely following their well-formed consciences can find salvation outside of the Church.  Barron’s answer was indeed perfectly orthodox insofar as he did not in any way downplay the necessity of Christ for salvation and was merely pointing out what it is that the Church teaches on the matter.  But that was not good enough for Voris who went on his usual “Vortex” tirade, literally shouting at the camera that Barron was guilty of advocating for a dangerous religious relativism, all because he did not immediately offer Shapiro an invitation to convert to the Catholic faith for the sake of his soul, or tell the viewing audience that converting to Catholicism was the only path to salvation.

This incident has been stewing in my age-addled brain for some time now because it takes me back to my years as a professor of theology where I too was often accused by my more traditionalist students of “pandering” to the non-believers in my classes. Apparently, what they wanted me to do was to cut to the chase and start quoting the catechism in order to “preach the truth” instead of my usual path of non-confrontational give and take.  I am sure my experiences in this matter are not unique among professors of theology as we have all had to confront the “catechism thumpers” and their view that evangelization is a simple matter of stringing together a daisy-chain of quotes from magisterial documents.  They, like Voris, are the Catholic equivalent of the Evangelical Protestants who can muster scores of Scripture quotes as they shoot them with Gatling gun type efficiency at their hapless targets. The presumption seems to be that since “souls are at stake” one must jump immediately from point A to point Z, without the slightest concern over whether or not the soil has been properly prepared for their targets to “receive” point Z in the first place.

Evangelization is not a monological act wherein the initiative resides purely with the evangelizer while the other person is a merely passive recipient of little factoids of truth.  Evangelization is a relational act between persons of equal dignity who are engaged in that most human of activities: a conversation. And a conversation is not the same as an argument, or a debate, wherein the evangelizer is trying to “win” in order to then thump his chest in triumph at having scored another “victory for Christ.”  How many people actually come to the faith because they lost an argument with a Michael Voris type “evangelizer”? Contrast that with the numbers of people who come to the faith because they have established an open and honest relationship, even friendship, with a serious person of faith who was willing to engage them in the full depths of their humanity acknowledging the legitimacy of their doubts, their questions, and their reservations, even as they gently, softly-softly, share with them why it is that they believe.  This is a process that can sometimes take years – – perhaps even a lifetime – – where true conversion to the faith is the fruit of the inner action of the Spirit working in and through the friendship established, and all in God’s good time.  The initiative, in other words, is God’s, not ours, and God’s time is not our time, with the Spirit of God working not just through the words and life of the believer, but also in the mysterious depths of the non-believer’s soul. 

A true evangelist, therefore, is one who watches and waits.  Someone with the depth of humanity required in order to discern, prudentially, when to speak and when to shut the hell up.  Someone who can feel, connaturally, and with a spiritual instinct that is more art than science, when the soil is ready for planting and when it is not.  Someone who is not too quick to rush in with ready-made “answers” that are trite and filled with the anodyne bromides of a spiritual ideologue who hasn’t bothered to empathetically enter into the questions of the “other”. Indeed, the triumphalistic and bombastic forms of evangelizing often seem to be solipsistic exercises wherein the so-called believer is trying to justify his own faith to himself, shouting into an echo chamber of doubts.  This accounts for why this kind of “evangelizer” is so keen on “winning” the debate, since losing is not an option as it calls into question the very faith of the evangelizer. In such a case the faith has ceased to be an interpersonal “proposal” and has morphed instead into an ideological superstructure of doctrines pressed into service as the identity marker for a rootless, bourgeois, self in search of the kind of rationalistic certitudes that the Enlightenment tells us are the only barometer of truth.  Souls are indeed at stake.  But whose soul?

By contrast, what true evangelization requires is the meeting of thresholds.  In the quote from Guardini above he identifies the essence of what it means to be human as the willingness to live in the no-man’s-land between heaven and earth, to live at the threshold of heaven even as we continue to live in the opaqueness of this life.  The true spiritual seeker is one who can live in this tension and who feels both its joys and its melancholic sadness.  To live in that threshold is to make one’s entire life a question mark in search of answers – – answers that conceal as much as they reveal since they are grounded in the deep mystery that is the Triune God.  The faith does indeed give us answers, even ultimate ones, but never in a modality that precludes darkness – – a fact that the lives of many saints attest to.  Even Saint Paul, who witnessed the risen Christ, nevertheless spoke of how in this life we peer into heavenly things as through a darkened glass.  To live in that threshold is to share deeply in the full depths of the human condition which is at one and the same time a condition marked for eternity as well as by the limitations of our finitude and our sin. 

The implications of this for our view of what constitutes evangelization are far reaching.  For starters it means that the interpersonal act of evangelizing is first and foremost an empathetic action wherein you attempt to understand how your interlocutor experiences life in the threshold Guardini describes.  This is not an easy thing to do and not just because it is impossible to fully empathize with someone else’s subjectivity.  It is also difficult because the temptation is always in the direction of understanding someone else’s experience of the threshold through the lens of your own.  This is the trap so many “preachers” fall into as they set up caricatures of “non-believers” and create straw men to attack, all of which amounts to a monumental exercise in self-assertion and projection rather than a sincere effort at authentic communication with the world of non-believers. 

Therefore, (and here is where folks might strongly disagree with me) it is necessary for the evangelist to be so deeply immersed in his or her own faith, so deeply convicted of its truth, so deeply formed by those truths, and so deeply educated in its spiritual pedagogy, that it then becomes possible to “bracket” that faith in order to doubt it all anew, and to rethink it all again in the respristinating light of all that one has learned in life.  In so doing we can begin to see deeply into the full depth of human despair and doubt and thus are able to “stretch out” into solidarity with all doubters.  Indeed, to be able to name their doubt for them better than they can name it themselves. There is tremendous power in being able to articulate the “dark night of the soul” for those who are lost in it but who are still seeking the light.   Thus is all true evangelization the path of empathy, the path of entering into the internal logic of doubt and darkness, and to suffer it through to the end.  This is a tremendously difficult thing to do and sometimes requires a lifetime of preparation, which is why “evangelization” in the full register of a robust encounter with the “other” is so very rare.  It is precisely why the saints and their lives are the best evangelizers and also why the arrogant, “us vs them,” pile-driving pugilism of a Michael Voris is so damnably silly. 

I am most certainly no saint.  But, to toot my own horn a bit, I was a really good teacher.  I am not good at many things in life, but there is one thing I was good at and it was teaching theology.  And as I reflect back on those years in the classroom I now realize what it was that made me effective and what it was that most rankled my hyper traditionalist students.  It is a skill that is also possessed by my dear friend and former colleague, Dr. Rodney Howsare.  And that skill is this:  that when a doubting, non-believing student raises an objection in the form of a question you first begin by taking it very, very seriously.  You then proceed to reformulate the question for the student and in so doing actually make their point even sharper and more cogent.  In so doing you validate the student’s doubts and help them to own that doubt even better.  Then and only then are you ready to propose an answer, and the answer will be all the more cogent since it will be an answer that has gone through the crucible of the doubt.  But this is only possible if the teacher has also doubted and doubted deeply, to its very depth and to the ends of its inner logic, all the while maintaining the faith in a kind of bracketed suspension that is possible only if one lives in Guardini’s threshold. 

This, it seems to me, is the path followed by Bishop Robert Barron which is why his videos are so effective and why he is so hated by those on the rad trad fringes of the Church.  He seeks to preach the Gospel in a manner that truly reflects its radical spiritual and human depth – – a depth that can often be occluded by the very doctrinal apparatus of the Church which, though true in itself, has become very “in-house” in its language and which, therefore, does not speak to a modern soul formed in the witch’s brew of our technocratic, digital, secularity.  I am not here to defend Bishop Barron per se – – he is a big boy and he can defend himself – – but rather to defend a method of preaching in today’s world that follows the path of empathetic solidarity with every sincere seeker who lives in the threshold.

Finally, there is a need to ground this method theologically in order to go beyond its mere pedagogical soundness as an “effective” tool.  The method I am describing is cruciform in its inner spiritual logic insofar as the attempt to enter empathetically into the dark night of doubt is an act of sacrificial “substitution” for the sake of the “other.”  The true evangelizer must be a person of deep prayer and penance who seeks to take into his or her own soul the existential fractures of the “other” that cloud the mind and lead to doubt. The empathy I speak of then is more than a mere “feeling with” but also a true “taking on” as one adopts the doubt of the world, suffers through it, and thereby contributes to its conquest, its redemption.  Evangelization therefore is more than a pedagogical act, but is also, and most profoundly, a penitential and soteriological act. 

We are told by Saint Paul that in our sufferings we make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. (Colossians 1:24) This a deeply mysterious statement because what can possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? A key can be found in Paul’s statement that his afflictions make up for what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings insofar as they are for the sake of the Church.  In other words, we need to remember that the essence of Christ’s sufferings went far beyond his physical pain and reside even more deeply in his taking on the full weight of the implications of sin.  But for the sake of our own entering into that salvation the Father also wills that we participate in its inner dynamic.  This is what Christ means when he says that we too must take up our cross.  He doesn’t just mean something trite like “you too will have bad things happen to you”.  He means something far deeper and much more challenging.  He is asking us to understand that “to whom much is given, much is expected” which means that “salvation” is not something I “possess” in an acquisitive manner, nor something I “grasp at” in order to “own”. Rather, it is a gift in the form of an offer to participate in his own redemptive act for the sake of all others.  To be a Christian, therefore, is to give a name to our threshold. And that name is “love as substitutionary sacrifice”.

We live today in a Western culture that faithless.  It is a world marked by doubt and is deeply fractured and on the brink of cultural collapse. All that remains, all that holds us together, is our wealth and our digital technocracy.  It is a challenge unique and without parallel in the history of the Church. And so we face a choice.  We can either gin-up apocalyptic tales of an emerging “soft totalitarianism” and a coming “persecution” and become modern day Essenes fleeing into our version of Qumran until the storm passes, or we can follow the path of Christ which is the path of the loving empathy that leads to the cross.  For if we truly love our neighbor and our enemies then “flight” is not an option.  It is a sin. 

Dorothy Day pray for us.


The Hermeneutic of Continuity: Part II. Pope Francis, Vatican II, and the Neo-Traditonalists

By Larry Chapp

Before I begin today’s blog a note of terminological clarification is in order.  In what follows I will often be referring to what I am calling the “neo-traditionalists”.  All Catholics ought to be some form of a traditionalist since, obviously, as Catholics the living Tradition, as interpreted by the magisterium, is important in our approach to Revelation.  However, since the Vatican Council there has arisen a counter reaction to its reforms from Catholics who object to many of its teachings, which they consider to be departures from the received Tradition.  These Catholics were relatively few in number at first but their ranks have recently grown exponentially.  Fueled by the papacy of Pope Francis and with the internet as their highway they have grown increasingly influential and comprise, in my view, a genuinely new movement within the Church.  Therefore, I am calling them “neo-traditionalists” in all that follows.  So let us begin ….

I have written a lot on this blog about the hermeneutic of continuity.  I have gotten largely positive feedback from my readers which is always encouraging.  However, the one constant refrain I keep hearing from almost everyone is something along the lines of the following:  “This is all great but how do we continue to believe in the hermeneutic of continuity in the era of Pope Francis and his many departures from tradition?”  And this question comes from both my more moderate to conservative readers as well as from the many neo-traditionalists who read this blog.  Therefore, and in light of the recent motu proprio from the Pope on women in the ministries of acolyte and lector that stirred up yet more dust, I thought it was time to deal with the elephant in the living room:  Pope Francis.

The first thing that must be pointed out is that for the neo-traditionalists Pope Francis is problematic not just in himself but stands as “exhibit A” for all that has gone wrong from the Council forward.  In other words, he is not unique in their view, but is merely the logical outcome of the many ruptures with Tradition that the modern magisterium has promoted.  Their blogs and podcasts all engage in lengthy criticisms of Vatican II and the ressourcement theology that animates it, and they all seem to buy into some version of Archbishop Vigano’s rejection of the Council as “near heretical” and his assertion that the post Vatican II Church is a corrupted “parallel Church” that exists alongside of the true Church of the orthodox holy remnant of believers.   Pope Francis is just the cherry on the cake of that false “Vatican II Church” and their criticisms of him therefore lean heavily in the direction of viewing him as an arch heretic.  Therefore, in order to contextualize my critique of Pope Francis it is first necessary to outline where I think the neo-trads go so terribly wrong and thereby end up exaggerating the “problem of Pope Francis”.

Let me first begin then with what I think is the deepest theological flaw in their approach.  A flaw that is in reality an internal contradiction.  I think they know this which is why they refuse to address the question head-on and resort instead to what amounts to various forms of deflection.  The contradiction in their approach is that they all claim to affirm the authority of the magisterium, but only when and where it suits them.  Which is to say, they don’t really affirm the authority of the magisterium at all, but are instead affirming their own magisterial authority over the magisterium, which is, ironically, decidedly Protestant in principle.  They try to get around this problem by trying to locate the exact moment in ecclesiastical history when the magisterium began to be corrupted with error (again … the Protestant idea that there is a primitive true Church that was then corrupted) and to imply, or to state explicitly, that all magisterial statements after this “rupture” are suspect. And of course for them that rupture was Vatican II, with the more radical among them claiming that the rupture began even earlier with the emergence of the nouvelle theologie.  And still others go further back viewing Vatican I as the source of the problem with its declaration of papal infallibility, which created what they call the “hyperpapalism” that opened the doors to all of the papal and conciliar shenanigans of the 20th century. But once again, it is not hard to see that this is Protestant in principle as evidenced by the fact that the neo-traditionalists themselves are broken up into various factions that line up behind their own favored narrative of rupture.

They all however have as their modus operandi the attempt to prove their narrative of rupture by cherry picking from the magisterial documents of the past that they think the modern magisterium contradicts and to use this as evidence of the putative rupture.   Thus do they claim that they are merely preserving the Tradition against modern innovations and are not truly “dissenting” from the magisterium but are, in fact, trying to preserve it.  But left unaddressed is the thorny question of why ancient magisterial teaching should have any authority whatsoever if the modern magisterium can get it so wrong?  If Vatican II can teach heresy and if modern popes can teach heresy, why should any council or any pope of any time be given any weight or credibility as authoritative? How is it not deeply contradictory to say that the ancient magisterium was authoritative but the modern one is not? How does one divide-up the magisterium in this manner unless one is really implying that the modern magisterium is really no magisterium at all?  Wouldn’t all of this instead imply that the Protestants have been right all along and that the very notion of an authoritative teaching magisterium is a post Constantinian invention?

And it is no good to hide behind the red herring that what they are rejecting is merely non-infallible teaching.  Because their narrative of rupture goes far beyond mere “dissent” and is instead accusing the modern magisterium of full-on heresy on a massive scale.  It is also a huge display of chutzpah since many of these folks are the same people who accused the liberal dissenters from Humanae Vitae back in 1968 with unfaithfulness to the ordinary magisterium of the Church, which requires our assent even when it is teaching in a non-infallible manner. After all, they said then, outside of the creeds and a few statements from Councils and Popes, most of the Church’s teaching is of the non-infallible kind and there are therefore, “levels of authority” in the teaching of the ordinary magisterium that we must pay attention to.  Indeed, there are elements of the ordinary magisterium of the Church that are also infallible, even if they haven’t been defined de fide definita, and those elements cannot be dissented from.  The authority of the Church’s teaching, therefore, cannot be neatly divided between “stuff that is infallible”and “all of that other crap that doesn’t matter”. The moral theologians Germain Grisez and John Finnis both argued cogently that Humanae Vitae, for example, is just such an example of an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium.  And no less a light than Hans Kung agreed and stated that the “infallibility” of Humanae Vitae only proved that the whole teaching on infallibility is wrong since Humanae Vitae is so clearly incorrect.  Sadly, there are now members of the neo-traditionalist movement who are reaching the same conclusions as they dissent from Vatican II and claim that the modern Church proves that the whole teaching on infallibility has to be looked at again.  

Furthermore, the neo-traditionalist narrative of rupture involves an idealization and romanticization of the ancient magisterium as this monolithic “thing” that was uniform and harmonious – – an idealization that any Church historian would find risible – – and then use this alleged uniformity of the past as a bludgeon against the modern Church. Of necessity therefore, their narrative also requires a constant exaggeration of the “chaos” of the modern Church filled with anecdotes of the horrors committed in the name of the Council, which has the net effect of painting a picture of the modern Church that is wholly negative.  That is not to say that there isn’t much to criticize in the modern Church – – I have pointed out many of these things myself – – but that is far different from the wholesale demolition that these folks engage in.  Their aim is to discredit the modern Church at its very roots and that is a dangerous game to play.  In fact, it is a schismatic game. 

They cannot have their cake and eat it too which is why my claim is that they are in de facto schism with the Church even if they are unwilling to admit it.  How else can one interpret the claim of Archbishop Vigano that Pope Francis is a heretic who presides over a “false parallel Church” which exists over and against the “true Church” of the “holy remnant” other than as a de facto schism?  And most of the neo-traditionalists who are currently popular out there in clickbait land have elevated Vigano to the level of a spiritual hero who is a prophet for our times.  They publish and discuss his various overheated letters at length (with approval) and breathlessly await the next one.  They openly favor and further his cause and speak of him as a true hero – – a Catholic Assange or Snowden – – and never a word of criticism emerges from their lips in his regard.  One can only assume, therefore, that they share, or are at least deeply sympathetic with, Vigano’s views.  And when pressed on this issue they get very testy and have no answers.  The theologian Robert Fastiggi has also written on this contradiction and called them out on it, only to have his views dismissed by them as “hyperpapalist” propaganda.  In other words, they resort to ad hominem attacks rather than address the very substantive issues that Fastiggi, and I, and others like Adam Rasmussen and Thomas Weinandy, have raised.  They have no substantive answers because there are none possible.  Insofar as they support Vigano and share his views they are supportive of his de facto schism whether they want to admit it or not.   

The charge of “hyperpapalism” is particularly indicative of the source of their problem.  They are so convinced that the modern Church is in contradiction with the past that they interpret any theological attempt to place the modern Church in continuity with the tradition as a bogus effort at obfuscation.  Their world is a black and white world, lacking nuance or historical contextualization, and they therefore read magisterial documents with a wooden and flat-footed literalness that admits of no further development should circumstances warrant it or the Church gain a deeper understanding of her own Tradition over time. They ignore the fact that there is in the deposit of faith a hierarchy of truths and that often in the Church’s history a lower truth has tended to eclipse a higher one, thus requiring a later correction.  Such is the case, for example, with the Church’s teaching on religious freedom at Vatican II which the traditionalists wrongly claim is in full-on contradiction with past teaching when in point of fact it is grounded in an appeal to a higher truth in the deposit of faith (the orientation of truth to its reception in freedom and the constitutively non coercive nature of faith) over the concept of confessional States which is rooted in the lower truth of the supremacy of the spiritual realm over civil authority.   Understanding doctrines in historical context then allows one to understand why the Church may have deemed it wise to foster a coercive approach to the faith via the State at one point in its history only to go beyond that view in the present time as it deepened its understanding of the nature of faith.  (I have written on this issue in a previous blog post).     

This is but one example among many that the traditionalists claim proves that there is a rupture, when in point of fact all that has happened is a legitimate development of doctrine.  They would also add to their list of grievances the teaching of Vatican II on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and liturgy. Space constraints prohibit me from commenting on these at length but there are numerous theologians, of a very high caliber, who have done yeoman’s work in this area.  Of course their analysis is debatable, such is the nature of theology, but at the very least they do make it possible to view these issues in the light of a hermeneutic of continuity without any “forced” hyperpapalist contortions in play.  Furthermore, the Church enjoins us to approach all of her teachings with an open submission of mind and heart, which means that the theological work that has been done in these areas is extremely valuable to anyone who wants to approach the Church’s teaching on these hot topics with a charitable reading rather than a suspicious one from the get-go.    And that should be the approach of any faithful Catholic who isn’t spoiling for a fight.        

One is justified, therefore, in thinking that there are other ideological forces at play beyond some theological disagreements over whether or not we should be talking to the Lutherans or allowing female altar servers. This suspicion grows deeper when you read their blogs and watch their YouTube channels (as I do) and see them calling theologians like Ratzinger and von Balthasar “modernists”.  Their use of that term as a descriptor for ressourcement theologians displays an astounding ignorance of what the term “modernism” meant in its historical context.  Because none of those theologians was a “modernist” in the accepted sense of that word and actively fought against it.  Therefore, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that what the traditionalists mean by “modernist” is simply everything that is “modern” tout court.  Nobody is more critical of the basic philosophical underpinnings of modernity than I am.  And I oppose the crushing nihilism, scientism, and atheism of our time.  But to just reject everything that is modern ignores the fact that the modern world has given us new insights into many things that ought to be taken into account. And that is precisely what many orthodox theologians have attempted to do, but in order to do so had to go beyond the strict confines of scholastic manualism.  To ignore the profound theology of a Henri de Lubac on the grounds that he and his allies are the reason why we have communion in the hand is just a gross – – and dare I say sinful – – distortion of the truth. In fact, quoting David Bentley Hart, such assertions scarcely rise to the level of nonsense.

But it is also ideologically suffocating.  One of the complaints from the traditionalists is that the modern Church is characterized by too much change.  One popular neo-traditionalist blogger complains that the Church has changed so much that the Catholic Church of today is actually a “different religion” from the pre Vatican II Church.  But this hyperventilating over the many changes of the past fifty years (and there have been many) is related to their refusal to engage the modern world in any meaningful way.  Because the simple fact of the matter is that the modern world itself represents the greatest change in human consciousness in history.  The rise of modern science alone, with its utter destruction of the old, enchanted, hierarchical cosmology of the ancients, presents us with a radically different view of reality than the ancient Church could have ever imagined.  The modern world thus presents to the Church the greatest spiritual and intellectual challenge she has ever had to face.  And the power of the coercive, confessional State to impose Catholicism from above is as dead as disco.  So the Church has to really fight her way out of this one, defenseless and vulnerable as was her master, with no other weapon than the truths of the Gospel.  Therefore, it should not surprise us that in response to these challenges the Church might have to put on a radically new garment – – the garment of a radical Catholicism and not just mere “orthodoxy” – – in order to repristinate the faith by returning it to her roots.  That means a simpler Church, shorn of Constantinian pretentions, shorn of its triumphalist pieties, committed to the evangelical counsels and the path of holiness, and fully aware that her credibility in the modern world, so long as she merely retreats into her medieval answers, is nil. But it also means therefore that theology had to widen its horizons in order to be on an equal intellectual footing with the Archons of our age.  Not to parrot those Archons in a vain attempt to gain “respectability” with them (we will leave that to the liberal Catholics) but in a robust retrieval of that which is most uniquely her own and it representation as something fresh.  And anyone who thinks that a return to pre Vatican II scholasticism is the answer to that challenge is just ignorant of the real theological challenge at hand.  But hey… we are indeed talking to the Lutherans and the Jews with respect so somebody must have screwed up. 

In accord with this rejection of all things modern there is also a powerful undercurrent of apocalypticism in the writings of many of the neo-traditionalists.  In the religious domain most especially, narratives are of constitutive importance, and the narrative that they have concocted in order to legitimate their dissent from the modern magisterium is that we are living in the time of the “Great Apostasy” that has been predicted to precede the return of Christ. This is what allows them to reject the modern magisterium without running off into schism because the apostasy of the Church has been foretold and they view themselves then as modern day Essenes running off to the Qumran of the Latin Mass awaiting the day of their ultimate vindication.  Marian apocalypticism looms large here as well and has been the engine that has fueled an explosion of conspiracy theories that read like a Dan Brown novel.  The Freemason challenge to the Church is, and has been, a real one, but to read books like Taylor Marshall’s “Infiltration” or any of Vigano’s letters, is to enter a world of Freemason conspiracies so detached from reality that it borders on a true paranoid delusion. But such apocalyptic narratives are necessary to the cause since only a tale of end times apostasy can justify their bilious hatred for the modern Church, which is now cast as part of the conspiracy.  Furthermore, such thinking poisons the well of honest discourse since everything you say now in defense of the modern Church is just used as further evidence of how deep the apostasy goes.  Therefore, such apocalyptic thinking creates a uniquely closed mind that is completely impervious to all arguments that come from tainted sources. Which is why the traditionalist echo chamber of discourse is so incestuously inbred.       

This penchant for apocalyptic conspiracy scenarios also helps to explain their bizarre attachment to Donald Trump. Taylor Marshall, for example, was once Trump’s campaign advisor for all things “Catholic.” Trump is viewed by many in their camp as the last great firewall of resistance to the evils of the Democrats precisely because of his manifest insanity which makes him the free-wheeling, rogue destroyer of enemies that we need.  The more insane he became and the more things he destroyed, the better. Thus, every vice that Trump exhibited simply elicited even more devotion and excitement.  At last! We have a lunatic on our side who will restore Christian America! Newsflash: America was never Christian.  But that is a blog for another day.  My only point here is that their devotion to Trump runs deep because he fulfills their apocalyptic fever dreams of a ruined modernity. Because it is only after modernity is crushed that we can leave Qumran and start to rebuild the Temple.  If this is what they  mean by “true continuity”, then I gladly return the ticket to their after party.

It is important to any discussion of the hermeneutic of continuity that we point out that continuity does not mean slavish repetition and it does not mean that there will not be some “ruptures” with the past. All great Councils of note were called because the Church was facing some crisis, some dispute, some problem, that needed to be resolved.  And in that process often times the Church has to come up with a solution that requires a change from some aspect of its teaching.  A change that is both in continuity with the central truths of the faith, but that is also a rupture from some lesser truths that had gotten distorted. 

Just think of the controversies created when Nicaea adopted the philosophical and non-scriptural term “homoousios” to describe Christ’s relation to the Father.  It was a novelty at the time and it went against the sensibilities of many Council fathers.  It also cost Athanasius dearly as the Council kicked up a post conciliar firestorm so strong that it rivals the post Vatican II maelstrom.  Several more Councils were needed just to figure out how in the heck homoousios actually related to a host of other Christological issues.  In no way, therefore, does a defense of a hermeneutic of continuity commit one to the idea that there can be no novelties introduced by a Council and no breaks with the past in order to emphasize deeper truths that had been obscured.  And that is the nature of all true reform.  The problem, therefore, with the neo-traditionalists is that they want to freeze the Church into a certain form, and keep it locked into a single era and then use that as the only barometer of true orthodoxy.  But that is not a true “traditionalism” at all, but an ecclesiological/political ideology of fairly modern provenance masquerading as such. And then weaponized against the unity of the Body of Christ in his Church.

Now, as for Pope Francis….  I will simply begin with the straightforward admission that I think he is a very average Pope.  We have had bad Popes before of course, but their deficiencies were mainly in their palace-court style corruption.  Pope Francis, on the other hand, presents us with a unique set of problems since he has taught things that are indeed a rupture with the Tradition, and not in a good way.  That just is a fact and has to be admitted up front in the interests of honesty.  Allow me to quote myself from a previous blog since what I said then is appropriate here as well:

“In the light of the current papacy has the hermeneutic of continuity failed?  The answer to that question is a maddening “yes and no” type of response.  First, there is the issue of Pope Francis himself whose words, despite his sometimes loose, off the cuff comments, speak to an endorsement of a hermeneutic of continuity.  He has said that he is a “loyal son of the Church” and there is no reason to doubt this when one looks at the long list of progressive wishes he has not granted:  the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests stands, the ordination of women to Holy Orders has not happened, he has not rolled-back or even “modified” the teaching against artificial contraception, he has not granted in an official way intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians, he has not rolled back Benedict’s permission for any priest to be able to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, and he has not changed the Church’s teaching on homosexuality or changed, as he did with the death penalty, the language of the Catechism which refers to homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.”  It would seem, therefore, that he is not on board with the agenda of the progressives even if he has gone slightly beyond John Paul on the issue of the death penalty and he has softened the Church’s pastoral response to those who are divorced and remarried.  This latter point is instructive since he could have merely changed the Eucharistic discipline of the Church in this matter but chose instead to simply “tweak” it a bit.  And you can quibble with my use of the word “tweak” if you like, but the main point I am making here is that he fell far short of what the progressive wing of the Church wanted in that matter.

However, he is a truly confusing Pope and very hard to pigeon-hole in any definitive way.  And even if he has not delivered to the progressives their full laundry list of desired changes he has re-empowered and emboldened them with his constant pitting of truth against mercy, doctrine against pastoral sensitivity, and “institutional rules” against love. Furthermore, he has appointed to high ecclesiastical office men who have just this mentality and who seem to have an animus against those Catholics who are actively and publicly engaged in what has come to be known as the “culture wars.”  He has refused to meet with the dubia Cardinals, or Cardinal Zen when he visited Rome, but had plenty of time to meet with NBA players to discuss the issue of systemic racism.  And, of course, the entire Synod on the Amazon was simply a coming out party for old, white, liberal, Germans who proceeded to cynically use the troubles of the Amazonian region, which they really don’t give a damn about, to blather on about enculturation and celibacy as if Brazil was Belgium in 1968. His post apostolic exhortation on the Synod was a tepid and empty endorsement of absolutely nothing beyond superficial bromides about economic injustice.  Conservatives cheered and sneered after the release of the exhortation since it seemed, in its silence, to be a papal slap-down to the progressives who manipulated the Synod into a group-hug for paganism, but in reality it was a vacuous document that makes one wonder what in the heck he thought would happen after he had stacked the synodal deck with a gaggle of Germanic Gnostics.  

In short, Pope Francis seems to sympathize with the progressive wing of the Church but does not have, in my view, a deep enough understanding of what their project really entails. He seems to have the mistaken view that Catholic liberals in 2020 are the same as liberals in 1958, and seems genuinely disappointed when they behave more like secular critical theory provocateurs rather than Yves Congar.  His whole thought-world seems to be that of a man who thinks the Church is still this insulated, neo-scholastic “fortress” whose walls need to be battered down, even as he stands astride their rubble.  He is fighting yesterday’s battles which underscores my point that we are most definitely not in a “third phase” of conciliar reception, but have instead been teleported by this papacy back to 1965 forcing those of us in the ressourcement camp to relitigate a case that was decided, with magisterial authority, by the previous two popes.  Perhaps this has been his end game all along.  Perhaps he is not as naïve as I think.  Perhaps he wants to reopen that case precisely because he wants it adjudicated differently but does not want to be the presiding judge, allowing “drift” to accomplish what papal fiat cannot. He is, after all, a Jesuit.”

Yes, he is a troubling Pope.  But I stand by all of which I wrote before.  He has not taught in an official way anything that can be deemed “heresy”.  Therefore, his reign as Pontiff should not cause us to lose our faith in the promises of Jesus to Peter or in the magisterium in general.  And for all of their concerns with “hyperpapalism” the neo-traditionalists are making far too much of the importance of this one Pope.  We must not exaggerate the importance of any single Pope, good or bad, as we see, for example, that the hero worship of JPII has gotten a bit chastened by the recent revelation that he did, after all, have flaws.  Pope Francis has said and done things that I think are erroneous and are harmful to the hermeneutic of continuity.  But he isn’t a heretic, and the errors he has taught (e.g. the famous footnote in Amoris, civil unions for homosexuals, his change to the catechism on the death penalty, the entire Amazon Synod) can be reversed by a future Pope.  Francis will not be pope forever and this too shall pass.  As Frank Costanza would say “serenity now!”

So has the hermeneutic of continuity failed because of Pope Francis? No it has not.  He is a set-back in that cause I admit, but not an insurmountable one. And if you will allow me a rather disrespectful descriptor, Francis is just a speed bump, and not a roadblock or a bridge that has fallen in the road ahead. As my Zoom, podcast friend Zac Crippen puts it, the hermeneutic of continuity has not failed, it just has not completely succeeded yet.  And a retreat back into a romanticized past that never really existed is a very bad idea.  (You can find Zac’s podcasts here.)

There is only one magisterium of the Church.  And that is because there is only one Church.  And that magisterium stands or falls on the integrity of the whole, and not just in some of its parts.  Therefore, the only truly Catholic path forward is to respect the entirety of the magisterium, ancient and modern, and not to weaponize one part of it against another.  It can be criticized.  It can even be heavily criticized.  But to accuse the modern Church of apostasy and heresy is a bridge too far.  Let’s not cross it, shall we?


The Universal Call to Holiness: The Eucharistic Liturgy and the Unity of Sanctity and Sacrifice

By Larry Chapp

“The profession ‘There is only one God’ is, precisely because it has itself no political aims, a program of decisive political importance: through the absoluteness that it lends the individual from his God, and through the relativization to which it relegates all political communities in comparison with the unity of the God who embraces them all, it forms the only definitive protection against the power of the collective and at the same time implies the complete abolition of any idea of exclusiveness in humanity as a whole.”

Joseph Ratzinger. “Introduction to Christianity”. (Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 113)

It often comes as a shock to many people when they find out that Dorothy Day was very traditional in her approach to Liturgy and did not care at all for the casual nonchalance with which many in her movement approached the Mass in those crazy years that followed in the wake of the Council.  There is the famous story where Mass was said in one of her Catholic Worker houses using a coffee cup from the cupboard as a chalice (without her approval).  After Mass she was seen burying that cup in the ground.  When asked why she was doing this she responded by saying that the cup was no longer suitable to be “just a coffee cup” since it had been consecrated by the blood of Christ.  So it needed to be buried lest it be mistakenly pressed into service as a coffee cup once again.  There is another famous story where a well-known activist priest showed up to say Mass at the main Worker house in Manhattan and was not going to wear vestments but who soon learned from Dorothy that he most certainly was. 

For Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin it is precisely the Christological sacredness of the Mass that is the central weapon against the bourgeois spirit of the age insofar as it is, among many other things, irreducible to capitalist commodification.  The Mass is non fungible and transcends the political domain as it re-presents in a non-bloody manner the sacrifice of Christ at the hands of a worldly Imperium, thereby and therein establishing a new Kingdom that relativizes all worldly Imperia.  Thus, the trivialization of the Eucharistic liturgy as a mere meal for fostering some kind of worldly social conviviality robs it of its eschatological power to challenge the unjust structures of the age.  In short, for Dorothy and Peter there is nothing as socially subversive of worldly power than the Eucharistic liturgy and the most “political” thing a person can do is to go to Mass and to assist in the liturgy with deep devotion.  This is precisely why the bourgeois spirit of the modern world constantly threatens to domesticate the Mass into a pliant tool for inculcating “civic virtues” that are necessary for the maintenance of the dominant social ordo.  The “real presence of Christ” is fine so long as the Christ so present is not the Christ whose death and resurrection has broken the stranglehold of the Archons of worldly power.  Mammon and Moloch both detest and resist all rival eschatologies, but they reserve a special venomous hatred for the crucified ordo of Christ which delegitimates at its roots the cult of well-being that is at the heart of the bourgeois project. 

Therefore, I find a deep consonance between ressourcement theology, Vatican II, the vision of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and a high view of the Eucharistic Liturgy in a traditionalist register.  In the struggle for social justice, and in the never-ending battle to defend the “least among us” from the perennial, predatory savageries of the rich and powerful, there is nothing more liberating than the rolled-away stone of the empty tomb which signaled the end of the eschatology of torture and the advent of the transformative Kingdom of the crucified and risen Christ.  The Eucharistic Christ is the very presence of that subversive, rival Kingdom and therefore any attempt to turn the Eucharist into a “horizonatalist” celebration of “agape fellowship” where Jesus is “only” present in our social conviviality is actually a nod in the direction of oppression insofar as it returns us to the worldly dominion of our slave masters. 

The liturgy is not, therefore, a mere adjunct to the fight for social justice, but is its very heart and soul.  It is one of the chief reasons Dorothy left the world of Marxist political agitation with its purely materialistic account of existence and opted instead for the power of the living Christ who alone can liberate us from the cult of blood and soil.  A daily Mass goer, Dorothy grounded her entire ministry in the eucharistic eschatology of broken bondage and sought to bind herself to that same Christ in the sacrament of her brothers and sisters in need.  No “worldly project”, no bureaucracy, no form of electoral politics, no technocratic tweaking of “the structure”, and certainly no ecclesiastical compromise with the tyranny of the “present moment”, can do what Christ does since they all remain within the kingdom of entropy and can never reach beyond the horizon of death. No matter our best intentions, everything bears the “smudge” (as Hopkins put it) of our grimy fingerprints.   

What this means is that for the Christian the only true “politics” is a Eucharistic politics of substitutionary suffering for the sake of the other – – especially the “other” that is our enemy – – which implies the development of a deep, spiritual empathy for the plight of my neighbor, which is in turn grounded in the theological concept of our corporate personhood in Christ.  Therefore, for Dorothy there is a deep and intrinsic link between sanctity and sacrifice – – a link made clear in the unbloody representation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in the Eucharist.  But it also means that, for our part, true participation in the liturgy entails an understanding that the Eucharist is not “magic” and its fruits within us are not automatic.  It is indeed a “gift given” but like all gifts it must be received. And reception here means our active engagement with the dynamic of spiritual transformation wherein we bring our entire lives to the altar of the Lord and offer ourselves up without reserve as a living sacrifice to be united to the sacrifice of Christ. 

All too often we do not bring our “entire lives” to the Eucharist but only our “pious lives”, i.e. the Eucharist is what we “do” when we are “doing” religion.  All too often do we treat the liturgy as a kind of shamanistic talisman wherein we approach the Mystery as a totem that “protects” us even as it requires nothing from us.  All too often do we view our mere presence at the Eucharistic table as a bet-hedging wager that “merits” us some brownie points with a Santa Claus God without ever stopping to consider that such a posture is in fact an act of sinful, or perhaps even sacrilegious, mendacity.  Dorothy was never a finger-wagging moralist and she certainly had a keen awareness of our fallen sinfulness, but by the same token “to whom much is given, much is expected” and we cannot use our human weakness as a rationale for treating the liturgy as a social party for “nice people”with communion served as an hors d’oeuvre. 

A true Eucharistic piety is a totalizing project that vomits out its mouth all of our lukewarm attempts to have our cake and eat it too as we seek to “negotiate” a thousand compromises between the binding address of the Eucharistic Christ and our life of bourgeois commitments.  The spirit of Laodicea is precisely this spirit of compartmentalization where the Eucharist becomes one more lifestyle accessory that has as little purchase on our allegiance as our choice of interior décor in our living rooms.   But such an approach to the Eucharist robs it of its inner essence as something that lays an all-encompassing claim upon us and eventually renders the entire affair drab and boring which soon culminates in our slow drift into the waiting arms of our capitalist Baphomet.  This was the constant theme of Dorothy who understood that the spiritual life has its own laws, its own logic, and that Christ was not playing around when he said you cannot serve two masters:  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I am as guilty of this as the next person. We all are.  Ours is not an age of faith and the siren song of secularity lives deeply in all of us whether we want to admit it or not.  The dogma does indeed live loudly within me, but which dogma?

This is also precisely why Vatican II sought to reform the liturgy.  The traditional Latin Mass was indeed a treasure and it was a mistake when, after the Council, it was essentially repressed. Therefore, I applaud Pope Benedict’s decision to allow its use on a wide scale once again.  More on that in a bit.  But it is also true that for many Catholics the liturgy had become a passive experience, something the priest did up on the altar, in silence, and in a language that was not the mother tongue of those gathered.  Mass had become a place of quiet contemplation, of private devotions, and not a place of communal worship in any outward way.  It was indeed a grand spectacle when done well, and we would do well to retrieve many aspects of the solemn trappings of that liturgy.  But a “spectacle”, in and of itself, is not a liturgy, and the Council sought to remedy such tendencies. 

I hasten to add, however, that I am not saying that one cannot participate in communal worship unless one is “doing something” outwardly or that one cannot enter into the liturgy interiorly, uniting ourselves to the Lord and to all those gathered.  That too is a false notion of participation and was one of the primary failures of the post Vatican II implementation of the reforms where Mass veered into the opposite direction of an “activism” that was overly horizonatalist in its understanding of true participation. Nevertheless, I am speaking here of general trends which were the major concern of the Council as it sought to reinvigorate a true spirituality of the laity and our active engagement with the liturgy as a true act of worship rather than a one hour period of contemplation.

This reinvigoration of the laity and the de-clericalization of the Mass was the goal of Sacrosanctum Concilium since the Council fathers understood, as Dorothy had understood decades before, that the challenges posed to the faith by modernity required a robust and active lay presence as a leaven in the world.  Therefore, they opened the door to Mass in the vernacular, with greater dialogical participation from the gathered worshippers.  This led to the creation of the Novus Ordo, (a flawed creation to be sure and much in need of further reform), which is now the ordinary form of the liturgy for the vast majority of Catholics and has been so now for about 50 years.  There is no need for me to rehearse once again the sad litany of liturgical abuses that followed its botched implementation – – abuses that were so widespread that they caused Paul VI to famously remark that the “smoke of Satan” had entered the Church.   Nor do I feel a need to engage the endless narratives that have arrived of late detailing all of the curial shenanigans that led to its creation.  The bottom line is that it is a valid liturgy implemented by a valid Pope and, despite its flaws, it embodies elements of reform that were much needed. And in my view, the most sorely needed reform was the allowance for Mass to be prayed in the vernacular. 

That last line will cause many of my friends to clutch their pearls and tut-tut about the “banality” of the Novus Ordo and to wax eloquent about the beauty of Latin.  Latin is indeed beautiful, and it is the historic “language” of the Church, but the notion that the liturgy should be prayed in a dead language since the meanings of its words are now “fixed” and not subject to the vagaries of interpretation is just utter nonsense.  Especially when the proponents of imposed Latin themselves do not expect everyone to learn Latin but instead point to the many fine Missals that have translations in them.  But translations do not have “fixed” meanings so the whole point about the superiority of using a dead language is a red herring.  The advantages to worshippers praying in their mother tongue far outweigh the ideologically driven campaign to impose Latin again on the entire Church.  I highly doubt, for example, that the Church would have seen the explosion of new converts to the faith in places like Africa and Asia had something like the Novus Ordo not been implemented. 

The demand that Latin be the only language of the liturgy is a Eurocentric conceit that now makes the Church look like a medieval museum piece rather than the living, worldwide, communion of the Body of Christ.  I know, I know… if the Liturgy is in a single language it adds unity to the Church and thereby creates a “universal language” that also (supposedly) reinforces the catholicity of the Church.  But one has to wonder as to what kind of “unity” a universal language creates, keeping in mind that uniformity is not the same thing as unity and that the true unity of the Church comes from Christ and his Eucharistic presence and not in this or that language of the liturgy.  The organic unity of the body of Christ (the Church) is the fruit of a pluralism of cultures and peoples that coalesce around the Mystery of the crucified and risen Lord, and this will be true even if the liturgy is in Latin. There is an ineradicable pluralism in the Church and this is a good thing, but it often seems as if the proponents of imposed Latin fear this pluralism as the harbinger of a dangerous relativism, which only underscores the fact that what seems to drive this movement is an ideologically driven fear rather than the putative superiority of a Latin liturgy for all.  There is nothing about the Latin language that is more inherently “sacred” than any other language, even if it has been sanctified by millennia of usage in the Church, and the introduction of the vernacular into the liturgy is a monumental step forward rather than the abomination its critics claim.

Furthermore, and not to put too fine a point on it, the claim that the loss of Latin is a “dilution” of the Mass flies in the face of the empirical fact that the Church has always had a multiplicity of rites, many of which have never used Latin and which have mysteriously thrived despite that fact. Indeed, rites such as the Byzantine Catholic liturgy are every bit the equal of the old Latin Mass in their solemnity and sacral dignity.  I am not arguing that the suppression of the old Latin liturgy was a good thing or that we cannot learn from it as we seek to reform the Novus Ordo.  But I am saying that the universal use of Latin is in no way a requirement for good liturgy. 

All that said, there are elements of the older liturgy that I think should have been retained in the Novus Ordo.  Such elements would include (in my view) worship ad orientem, the reintroduction of chant as the primary musical form, communion received on the tongue, from a priest, while kneeling at an altar rail, and the restoration of much of our liturgical patrimony that has been lost in the form of introits, graduals, anthems, and so on that are majestic and enormously important.  Palestrina and other forms of elevated music are also a much needed corrective to the musical drivel that has been inflicted on us over the past decades.  A more liberal use of incense should also be brought back as well in my view despite the often repeated claim of pastors that people object to it for reasons of respiratory distress.  Funny how that was never an issue before 1970.  I guess people’s lungs are weaker these days.

There are other things as well, but you get the point.  The Novus Ordo is in need of an “upgrade”, so to speak, but there is absolutely nothing in the structure of the Mass that would preclude the reintroduction of all of these elements.  All that is lacking is the will of the bishops to make it so.  And before we all cynically roll our eyes and say “fat chance” we should pay greater attention to the fact that there are people and groups out there who are currently working tirelessly to make these reforms a reality. My wife, Dr. Carmina Magnusen Chapp, is a sacramental theologian who was involved for many years in the Society for Catholic Liturgy and has been constantly reminding me of late of all of the good things that are going on in that movement.  To that end she has contributed the following remarks concerning the movement to reform the reform: 

“The Society for Catholic Liturgy is a hub for professionals involved in liturgy, bringing scholars, musicians, and architects together with priests and lay ministers – all seeking to make the celebration of the liturgy beautiful and authentic. The Liturgical Institute at Mundelein has also had a positive impact on American liturgical life. Both of these enterprises were founded by the late Cardinal Francis George. Of course, the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life and its Center for Liturgy are doing some of the finest work on liturgy and evangelization today. The New Liturgical Movement website is a great resource for keeping up on the latest liturgical buzz. 

On the ground, there are examples of beautiful church renovations and restorations (as with EverGreene Architectural Arts), and efforts by bishops to introduce quality music to parish liturgy (as in the Archdiocese of New York, whose seminary music director runs workshops on teaching children Gregorian Chant). Most recently, the USCCB sent out guidelines regarding the doctrinal soundness of texts of hymns sung in church (long overdue).” 

To this list I would also add the recently created Benedict XVI Institute whose aim is to restore beauty to the Church in all of its forms.  From where I sit these various projects to reform the Novus Ordo stand a much, much greater chance of making real positive change than all of the agitations from the Facebook Fiddleback fuss-budgets and their fantasy-camp campaign to get rid of the Novus Ordo entirely and to replace it with the old Liturgy.   Because the Novus Ordo is not going to go away and the traditional Latin Mass is not coming back as the standard and ordinary form for the liturgy.  Therefore, the constant drip-drip-drip of traditionalist criticism of the Novus Ordo is constructive to a point, but quickly gets tiring as a counter productive and fruitless exercise in restorationist fever dreaming. 

I would also point to another positive development that was also the creation of Pope Benedict XVI (ad multos annos!).  And that is the creation of the Anglican Ordinariate, of which I am a member (as well as my wife).  In my opinion the Ordinariate Liturgy comes very close to the reformed Liturgy the Council fathers had in mind.  It is a rite that uses the vernacular (but with elevated “formal” language), with prayers recited out loud, and with dialogical responses from the laity, but that also incorporates all of the liturgical elements in my wish list above.  Ordinariate parishes are few in number and widely scattered so I harbor no illusions that millions of Catholics will start to attend their liturgies.  However, as with the reintroduction of the Extraordinary form of the liturgy so too here:  the goal is the gradual reintroduction of lost elements in the hope that there will be a cross-fertilization that will help the reform of the Novus Ordo.

To return to where I started, the point to all of these liturgical musings is to underscore my conviction that the liturgy, as my friend Father John Gribowich points out, is not an end in itself but a means to an end.  And that end is our incorporation into the Body of the crucified and risen Christ.  Therefore, as Dorothy emphasized again and again, the inner link between sanctity and sacrifice must be our guide in all that we do.  Whatever liturgical reforms that transpire in our future must also, therefore, be guided by that principle and not by extra-liturgical ideological commitments to this or that ecclesiastical regime, be they of either the Right or the Left.  Immediately after the Council the liturgical reforms were degraded because the liturgy was used as a tool for pushing a broader liberal agenda that sought accommodation with secular modernity. That threat still remains, but there has also now emerged a strong restorationist ideological current from the Right, a current that has become exponentially radicalized by their strong reaction against the Francis papacy, with Archbishop Vigano as their hero, the traditional Latin Mass as their Logo, YouTube as their pulpit, and Vatican II and the Novus Ordo as their bete noire.  Oh… and they hate Bishop Robert Barron, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and think John Paul and Benedict were both closeted modernist softies. 

Seen in that light it has to be said that the reintroduction of the wider use of the Extraordinary form, which I support, has not come without a strong downside.  I want to be clear that I have no issue with true liturgical scholars who have written beautifully about the EF and who desire to see it more widely used.  However, there is no denying that there is a growing element in the traditionalist movement which has weaponized the EF and used it as a bludgeon against the Novus Ordo, Vatican II, and almost all of modern theology.  My contention is, therefore, that theirs is not a true love for the liturgy in its old form so much as it is an entire package of restorationist commitments that include a tacit rejection of many of the central themes of Vatican II which would include a rejection of the teaching of the Council on religious freedom, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and liturgical reform, among other things.  And this is more than just a “suspicion” since many of the clickbait internet grifters on the Catholic far Right state such things openly, especially when they are pushing their champion, Archbishop Vigano.  The standard line that is emerging is that Vatican II and the Novus Ordo were both products of a Freemason conspiracy that had “infiltrated” the Church.  Their various conspiracy theories along those lines lack any real substantive evidence and rest on arguments grounded in a kind of “guilt by association” logic that is so tenuous it would make Dan Brown blush. 

Furthermore, it is painful to watch some of them “theologize” since it becomes painfully obvious very quickly that they do not have the faintest idea of what they are talking about.  Their spittle-flecked rantings against theological giants like Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar (universalist demon!), and even, yes, Joseph Ratzinger (authors I am sure none of them have actually read), are so ignorant, and so lacking in charity that it truly takes your breath away. 

These are not serious people but, sadly, they must be taken seriously since their influence is growing.  They are not, it seems to me, true lovers of the liturgy but are instead advocates for a long-gone ecclesiastical regime that they have idealized and romanticized, with the EF as a kind of emblem of the whole.  And they are quite nasty about it which is, as the poker players say, a “tell” that they really want nothing to do with the Church as it is, but only the Church they imagine once was, but wasn’t.  Thus, their approach to the EF is that of an inauthentic role- playing where their self-identities are defined through a set of performative acts that have more in common with the modern bourgeois construction of the “self” than with the kenotic anthropology implied by the Eucharistic liturgy.  In short, they are the true modernists – – a fact which is confirmed by their bizarre love affair with Trumpism. 

Vatican II teaches us that the Eucharist is the source and the font of our entire spiritual life (LG 11).  Therefore, the liturgy cannot and must not be sucked into the vortex of the ideological idolatries and superstitions of either the Left or the Right. What this also means is that true liturgical reform, which is needed, can only move forward when that reform is linked to the broader reform of our spiritual lives. In that vein what is called for is a raw, bracing, and brutal honesty about who we truly are vis-à-vis Christ. I know that I do not fare well in such an unblinkered assessment and I agonize every day over my manifest hypocrisies.  And, I suspect, most of us fail in that regard since we are all the children of our septic times.  For myself, I turn to the saints for hope that the link between sanctity and sacrifice is possible for me, and for our world.

Dorothy Day, pray for us. 


Bourgeois and Beige Christianity: The Prosperity Gospel and the American Cult of Mammon

  • The American Gospel of Birthright Wealth

    by Larry Chapp
    In January of 2018, Kenneth Copeland, the octogenarian prosperity Gospel televangelist, took possession of a fifty-million-dollar Gulf Stream jet aircraft, for the purpose of helping him “spread the Gospel”.  He had come under some heavy criticism for this purchase, as some rightly wondered why a minister of the Gospel (sic) needed an airship of such magnificence when he could just fly coach like the rest of the plebeians who dutifully send him their tithes.  His response was to lament the fact that as a minister of Jesus he is a constant target of demonic attacks and that this is especially the case on commercial airplanes, which he described as “demon infested tubes”.  He is entirely correct, of course, that these days the experience of flying does indeed feel like being locked in a demon tube fresh out of Satan’s workshop (which I think is located inside of Disneyworld, probably Epcot, where everything is a manufactured counterfeit).  But such are the indignities that all ordinary people must put up with in order to travel.  Would that we all could have the skill to bilk millions of dollars out of desperate people in order to avoid the Baphomet of the skies, but as far as Copeland is concerned his anointed “specialness” justifies this, and indeed, many other such outrages.  You can see the video of his unveiling of the new plane here.

    This episode is instructive for reasons that go well beyond the peculiar perfidy of Kenneth Copeland, and we ignore the broader reality that he represents to our spiritual peril as Christians.  It is all too easy for many in our culture to dismiss Copeland as just one more snake oil salesman in a long tradition of such pious miscreants, and to laugh, with NPR levels of snotty and condescending derision, at this bumpkin from Texas and his legions of dupes from the ranks of the snaggle-toothed deplorables.  But this dismissive derision is largely a hypocritical exercise carried out by our coastal elites who fancy themselves, wrongly, to be far too sophisticated for such nonsense.  Because the reality is that Copeland, with the other prosperity Gospel preachers, is merely a particular cultural and religious iteration of a much broader American conceit.  A conceit that is embedded in every level of our culture.  Namely, that the prosperity we have enjoyed as a people for a little over a century now is something of a birthright and, therefore, that the vast economic, political, technological, and military apparatus we have built up to sustain, secure, and impose this conceit is, in our eyes, altogether justified.  Seen in this light, Copeland and the other prosperity Gospel preachers are merely the most vulgar representation of a much deeper spiritual rot.  The chattering classes would never entertain the thought, even for a second, of joining up with the “Don’t tread on me or I will kill you with my assault rifle in the name of Jesus” crowd of Bible-toting moonshiners.  But they would join the Episcopal Church, which is probably an even worse idolater of Moloch and Mammon.  And if they aren’t religious at all in an “organized” way they can always have recourse to Poperah Winfrey’s spirituality of meditation, money, and massages (oh, and free cars, please don’t forget the cars.)

    Eugene McCarraher points out in his magisterial new book “The Enchantments of Mammon” that somewhere along the line “Capitalism” became the religion of the modern world.  It is a long book, approaching 700 pages, but well worth investing the ten months it will take to read and digest it.  Of course, in a short blog post I cannot do the book justice.  I merely cite it as evidence that a very smart fellow agrees with me, which is what we academics (or in my case, former academics) do.  But all joking aside, the book really is a wonderful exposition of St. Augustine’s notion that the “worldly world” is animated by what he called the libido dominandi.  In a nutshell, that term connotes far more than the “will to dominate” and locates the essence of our sinful inclinations in our deep lust for acquisition and possession, which in turn necessitates a social structure of power relationships characterized by the strong dominating the weak, and the weak, in their turn, desiring to be strong so they too can “acquire” things and dominate others.

    But Christianity introduced a revolution of the soul that overturned this mythos of wealth and power, as the young Church warned its new converts that those two realities (wealth and power) are seldom far from each other.  Indeed, the first Christians so valorized a materially simple life that repudiated the “natural” human eros for acquisition and the pleasures associated with it, that they were labeled by their contemporaries as anti-human.  The well-off denizens of Rome viewed Christianity as the ultimate buzzkill, what with its constant finger-wagging at such wholesome pursuits as blood sport, child buggery, adultery, and infanticide.  We forget, for example, that Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel is, among other things, a celebration of social upheaval where the strong are brought low and the weak are raised up.  In fact, the entire biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, can be read as a tale of the ultimate vindication of life’s losers and the bringing to justice of the fat and the comfortable.  And do I really need to go over again the steady stream of condemnations of wealth that come from the very lips of Jesus?

    It is telling that every time I pen such words on social media about Jesus condemning wealth there is an immediate influx of harsh denunciations of what are perceived to be my unnuanced and scorched earth approaches to the topic.  Denunciations I never receive when I pen words, even crazy words, about the Trinity or the Church or Joe Biden’s creepy, gropey, hands.  No… the keyboard Grand Inquisitors of the high Church of Capitalism keep their powder dry in order to defend the legitimacy of owning lots of useless paraphernalia while half the world starves.  After all, dogmas do need defending and heaven knows somebody needs to speak for the rich.  The sad truth is, however, that the Catholic defenders of American style Capitalism view it in the abstract as coinciding, in theory, with the Catholic defense of private property and freedom of social relations, but ignore its actual concrete reality as a set of economic practices that encourage consumerism, rabid individualism, and the dissolution of human personhood in the corrosive acid of  an artificially inflamed concupiscence.  This is an economic system geared toward the imperial, therapeutic, self and its cacophony of competing desires.  It is an entire collective of concupiscence that elevates the lowest kinds of eros to the highest pedestals of honor.  And yet, there are Christians who view all of this as our God-given birthright, and that God has “blessed” America with its unparalleled wealth in order to highlight our messianic anointing as God’s chosen instrument for “the good” in the modern world.

    Returning to McCarraher we see that this Christian revolution of the soul, always a precarious proposition, was blunted by the rise of modern capitalism, and finally eclipsed by it.  But rather than merely abandoning the Christian faith, the modern world simply redefined it as a wonderful tool for fostering the kinds of moral virtues one needs in order to be “successful”.  And of course, “successful” is defined in economic categories.  The American founding domesticated Protestant Christianity by turning it into a virtue factory for the bettering of our economic prosperity and the creation of good citizens of the Republic.  The theology of the churches, as theology usually does, then dutifully created the required set of ad hoc justifications for why Christians need not listen to Jesus.  Well … except for sexual matters. We had to have “family values” in the midst of this fetishizing of work as “wealth creation” so sexual morality stood out as almost the whole point of the Christian enterprise.  Thus did the Church’s sexual morality devolve into a white-knuckled puritanism, having nothing to do with the Kingdom ethic of Jesus’ sexual teachings (teachings which were quite stringent by the way in their own right), and everything to do instead with making sure that sexual license didn’t interfere with the engine of prosperity.  No wonder then that once modern Americans figured out you could actually have wealth AND sexual license that the old-timey sexual ethic bit the dust.  You just need to make sure you can kill your unplanned and unwanted offspring so that the wealth train keeps steaming down the tracks.  And so we did that too, with the sock-puppet theologians not far behind with their dulcet tones of approval.

    It took a little longer for Catholics to follow suit, mainly because most American Catholics were poor, relatively unassimilated, immigrants.  But as soon as they mainstreamed into the well channelized path of “Jesus and Mammon” it wasn’t long before we too succumbed to the new Gospel of prosperity.  I can’t remember who said it (Hauerwaus? Wendell Berry?) but there is a cheeky aphorism in this regard that has a large nugget of truth in it.  Namely, that in America there are no Catholics, just Protestants who pray the rosary.  And nowadays, not even that, since the rosary is tedious and boring requiring a spiritual attention span that lasts longer than a commercial.  I am guilty of this.  Ask my wife.  The rosary is a chore for me, because I really do swim in the shallow end of the spiritual pool, which is warmer than the deep end – – and for reasons that go well beyond shallowness as a cause, I fear.  The point being that I am not preaching in this Jeremiad at an unknown “other” who I have conjured up in my fever dreams as the great foil of the Christian utopian project.  This entire essay is me talking to myself, since I have never been able to break free of the gravitational vortex of the Gospel of birthright wealth. All dramatic eschatologies of good vs. evil need a good bogeyman.  And when I look in the mirror all I can say is:  Ecce Homo.  Say my prayers, then pass me the bourbon please.  What does God expect of me anyway? Perfection?

    The American Gospel of birthright wealth sits very easily with the Gospel of cheap grace, with the latter becoming a kind of therapeutic, parlor room of mercy that magically turns all of my vices into merit badges that scream to the world how “human” I am precisely in and through my very darkness.  Thus do we invert the path to holiness and celebrate the “heroism” of the agonistic path of moral darkness and inner conflict.  This is also why we love to expose the salacious failings of those who do strive for the traditional concept of holiness.  We seek out the chinks in their armor of virtue – – any chink – – in order to legitimate the notion that moral chinks are more real than moral solidity.  The path to holiness is thus held up as a fraudulent posturing filled with the bile of self-righteousness, all in the service of dumbing everyone down, spiritually, to the level of a Hobbesian world of fear and social control.  “Who are you to judge?”  Who do I have to be?

    None of this is meant to imply that one cannot be both wealthy and virtuous.  I have known many virtuous wealthy people in my life who are very generous with their money and are genuinely good people.  Indeed, most of them are far better people, in terms of the natural virtues, than I am, and by a big, big stretch.  Even Jesus seems to have had some wealthy friends (Joseph of Arimathea stands out) and he did not seem to demand anything more of them beyond the support that they gave him.  But this latter point is an argument rooted in grand silences since we really do not know much about these individuals mentioned in the Gospels at all.  What we do know, is that Jesus explicitly condemned the accumulation of wealth as something contrary to the Kingdom.  But what is wealth? How much is too much? And is the fact that I live a materially comfortable life my ticket to Hell?  These are questions I cannot answer but that should not be taken as a green light to speed on ahead in the spiritual party limo.

    The key here is not to overthink the issue at hand and to blunt the force of Jesus’s words through a thousand paper cuts of caveats, distinctions, and casuistical, excuse making. What Jesus is saying is that in order to be fit for the Kingdom you have to place God in first place. You have to have a singleness of vision and purpose.  You must be without guile or subterfuge, saying “yes” when you mean “yes” and “no” when you mean “no”.  You must put your hand to the plow and not look back, wistfully, at what you are “missing out on” by focusing intently on the demands of his Kingdom.  Your heart, as Jesus points out, follows your treasure, whatever that worldly treasure might be.  And unless that treasure is the Kingdom you are guilty of an idolatry of some sort and in varying degrees of severity.  The essence of all sin is just such idolatrous counterfeiting of the good with some drab and hideous imposters, all of which promise us happiness if we will but eschew the tears of the saints in favor of the laughter of the sinners.  I mean, Billy Joel assures us of this as he flamboyantly and robustly declares that only the good die young.  That is a lie of course, but hey, it sells cars and condoms, so it is a serviceable facsimile of wisdom for our culture of birthright wealth.  Better living through chemicals.  Sign me up…

    But this is to speak in generalities, whereas Jesus was quite specific in his denunciation of wealth in particular.  Why?  My hunch is because he understood that the marriage of wealth and power is a particularly virulent opiate that infiltrates our soul with a spiritual dopamine rush that few can resist.  I know I can’t, since the only reason I am not rich is that I am not rich.  Circumstances just did not line up like that for me, but if they had, I highly doubt I would be penning these words.  I would probably be in jail for insider trading and mail fraud, having attempted to hawk fake Viagra pills via the good folks at the postal service.  And so, if someone as manifestly holy as I am could not resist the siren song of Wall Street, then, sweet Lord, who can be saved?  The fact is, the possession of large amounts of wealth binds us to the “worldly world” in a most potent and pungent way – – potent because it opens up for us every worldly enjoyment our heart desires, and thus, every other idolatry we can imagine, and pungent because wealth attracts even the distracted with its odor of false sanctity, like passing a McDonalds fully sated, but once smelling those fries you just have to have some. (Ok, I will just confess it … I love McDonalds).

    This path of the potent and the pungent dopamine rush of wealth is our path as American Christians whether we will admit it to ourselves or not.  And it is not the path of Jesus.  Yet, we have concocted a form of Christianity that has baptized this ordo of birthright wealth in very sophisticated ways.  Let me illustrate by using an example from my former employer, DeSales University. At DeSales, there is the relatively new Gambet Center (a large, rectangular, soulless, brick building) that houses, among other things, our business department and a cadaver lab.  I find that congruence most appropriate.  And if you go to the second floor of that building you will see a room with glass walls that has in it a large stock ticker on the wall.  And above that stock ticker hangs a crucifix.  And the juxtaposition of those two things has always struck me as idolatrous and borderline blasphemous.  Now, I am sure the people who thought it wise to do so had good intentions.  And kudos to DeSales for wanting to foreground its Catholic identity.  Truly, I mean that.

    However, in juxtaposing those two things the question naturally arises concerning exactly what sort of Catholic identity we are promoting here?  Because what this juxtaposition implies is that Catholicism is okay with Wall Street style, corporate-capitalism so long as it has some sort of orientation to the Gospel.  But does it?  I, as a Catholic Worker, say that it does not, and indeed represents a form of money-idolatry that is totally at odds with the Gospel. And if that is true, and it most certainly is, then the presence of the crucifix represents its cooptation and its complete inversion by an idolatrous, rival, god.   At best, the presence of the crucifix is merely adding a superficial veneer of piety on top of corporate greed, like sprinkles on ice cream – – in this case, as my friend Dr. Bill Portier calls it – – Jesus sprinkles.  (In Nebraska where I am from, we call sprinkles “Jimmies”.  But I use the term sprinkles these days because it is more gender neutral.)

    And that brings me back to McCarraher’s book.  Because one of the governing ideas of the book, if not THE governing idea, is that our culture, though in many ways post Christian, is not for all that simply secular and lacking in any mystical enchantments.  Prescinding from the standard academic histories these days that view our secular age as an era of disenchantment from what Peguy called mystiques, McCarraher gives us instead a detailed counter narrative of capitalist, pecuniary enchantment.  This is, it seems to me, deeply in tune with a more sound anthropology that understands that human beings cannot live without gods, and so, if we kill the One God of our cultural tradition, the God of Jesus Christ, then it isn’t as if now we have no gods, it just means rather that now we will have different gods – – gods that are often attenuated simulacrums of our traditional God, parasitically feeding on that God as it invents new capitalist, technocratic, consumeristic counterfeit gods.   For as Dr. McCarraher deftly demonstrates, money has now been invested with a whole range of mystifications and enchantments that is in every way a form of religion, complete with rituals, sacraments and dogmas.  And the fact that these new gods do not, at a superficial glance, appear as gods, only underscores the fact that they are poor gods. In other words, they are gods insofar as they define our reality, provide our values and orient our entire civilization around a core set of dogmas, but they do not, for all that, give us contact with that Transcendence that is our only true immanence.  In short, capitalism is an enchantment, but a very bad one.

    Finally, I would like to highlight Dr. McCarraher’s conviction that, in light of the above, that our current politics, wedded as it is to this system, this “apparatus” as Simone Weil calls it, is moribund and terminal.  We have reduced the classical notion of politics, which was a broad conception that included culture, religion, and the many intermediary institutions that were freighted with the task of preserving the cultural heritage, to the meager and paltry notion of “voting” and “parties” and legislative governing.  The latter is, at the end of the day, useless at best and a dangerous fiction at worst, and lulls us into a false and mendacious sense that all we need to do to “fix things” is to tinker with this or that legislative policy.  But insofar as we are not allowed to question the god of pecuniary interests, such an enterprise is doomed from the start.

    I, as a Catholic Worker, am deeply convinced, therefore, that the only way forward is a grassroots revolution of the soul wherein we engage in the politics of resistance through a retrieval of localist, communitarian, culture – – or, as Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement put it – – the coming together of “cult, cultivation and culture”.  This is indeed a Romanticism.  But as Jesus implied in everything he said and did … the Romantics will inherit the earth someday.